Author Archive

Twentieth Anniversary Trip to Mexico!

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Here’s the first real “travel” post in quite some time…

We popped down to Mexico for a very brief week on a shitload of points to celebrate our twentieth anniversary. Here’s a couple of pics from our snorkeling mask cameras on our first afternoon after flying all night across the continent:

amba0006.JPG

amba0007.JPG

img00065.JPG

img00093.JPG

img00094.JPG

img00096.JPG

Updates

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

While I had done some extensive catching up a few weeks ago (finally), I seem to have gotten quite behind again. The one main contribution I made in the last two weeks was a brief main page blurb about the very original inspiration for this trip in my mind. You can see that “Inspiration” link on the left near the top, or click to it from this link below:


http://weblog.jamesworld.ca/trip-inspiration/

Officially today we have rounded off our trip of eleven months around the world with our return to Edmonton. While we had left home on July 31, 2007 driving South, our first flight segment departed Edmonton on August 9. It’s been completely amazing and I will continue with finishing up a few posts (backdated of course) describing our experiences and visits throughout Western Canada. While we all breathed a little sigh of relief and satisfaction on returning to Oilberta, it is also not with just a little sadness that we conclude our Grand Adventure. Now it’s time to pay off some debts and start saving and planning for our next one.

WAHOO!

Northern British Columbia

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

While we were all a wee bit weary of road travel, we soldiered on. It was still very enjoyable to meet and reconnect with various friends along the way. From Vancouver Island we headed straight North to Kamloops. Originally we had planned on meeting up with my brother Jeff’s family camping at Barkerville in Northern B.C., but a more thorough look at the map quickly derailed those plans. Similar to getting to Cairns (or even our loftier goal of Bill & Linda’s in Darwin) in Australia, this thought proved to be just too many kilometers in too short a time period. I looked up a friend I had worked with at Diavik who lived in Kamloops. When I was first talking about the trip a few years ago, he extended the invite to stay a night or two. And so Rob and his family welcomed us all with huge open arms for supper and a swim at their neighbor’s pool. That was particularly refreshing and wonderful considering the extreme heat. We hadn’t encountered such conditions at all except for Egypt on pretty much the rest of the trip. Luckily we had planned to hit most other hot countries during their colder (+25ish) seasons.

The other terrible thing about the Kamloops area was the massive devastation of the pine beatle. Well over three quarters of the area forests were the stark burgundy of dead needles. Worse though, is that with global warming, these pests are moving steadily North and wiping out everything in their path. If that alone isn’t terrible enough, the extreme danger of forest fires sweeping through these heavily populated valleys is an even larger concern by all. I’d have nightmare’s if I lived there for sure! It was also about this time that we finally watched Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Even more ammunition for those afore-mentioned nightmares. It really does seem overwhelming! Until the politicians get out of the back pocket of utility companies and car manufacturers, there seems little hope of genuine development of reasonable alternatives. Sadly we just all need to choke it back, and take a hit to the economy before any sort of reasonable progress can be made. Time will tell…

After a great night in Kamloops we headed back South to Kelowna. We were staying at Jeff & Jo’s house while they were away, but managed to spend the afternoon and supper with my youngest Aunt, Reola. She had a great condo with a pool that the kids thoroughly enjoyed, and even better was the fact that her son was visiting. I hadn’t seen him since before we had moved North, so we all had a great visit catching up. I also finished showing her and Josh how to manage their domain registration and hosting accounts. She had designed most of her own web page for a commercial project and was getting supremely hosed by a local company who were maintaining it to the tune of about $1,200! That was the equivalent of about $90/year that I set her up with, and two hours (absolute tops) of work they had done setting up and transferring files. Crazy what people will stoop to get away with if the poor customer doesn’t know any better.

That night we went the Artiss’ home and marveled at the incredible garage they have. All the toys a guy could ever want, and then some. Wow! They showed up in the gas guzzling behemoth that is their cozy but older motorhome the next afternoon and we had a wonderful night visiting together. We even shared another bottle of the Strawberry chocolate wine in our cross Canada efforts of exposing everyone possible to Rush Creek Wines in Southern Ontario. This proved very “fruitful” (pun intended of course) for rush Creek as Jeff & Jo and another couple of friends later ordered a few dozen bottles. That’s pretty amazing, I figured, coming from residents of the Okanagan Valley.

The next day we headed back to Kamloops for another few nights, but this time with Uncle Steve and Aunt Helena, (my dad’s youngest brother). We had stayed with them our last time through the area several years previously and it was also great to catch up. They were empty nesters now, with a big house high in the hills and a very “sportly” equipped garage. We did even more relaxing and visiting while Auntie Helena cooked a great lasagna. It was naturally fabulous but Luke was particularly thrilled as he hadn’t had any in quite a while. Friends of ours from Smith, the Gauthiers, had planned on staying the same two nights in Kelowna on their way South to Vanc. Island for their family vacation. With a huge landslide on one highway, they were extensively delayed, but still showed up for some re-heated lasagna before heading to their hotel. I had booked a mine tour for the eight of us the next day at Highland Valley Copper pretty early so we crashed shortly after.

The hour drive out showed valley after valley of more dead coniferous forests. Still an incredibly sad sight. Speaking of raping and pillaging the earth, the mine was one of the largest open pit operations in Canada. Very incredible to see. There were a few good photo-ops and the eight of us were the only ones on the tour. After a great day wandering around Kelowna we headed East to Cowtown (and, sadly, even closer to home) the next morning.

Southern British Columbia

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

After a refreshing but quick visit with Grandpa James & Grandma Dianne in Lethbridge for the night, we continued West into BC. Pete was a very welcome addition to our traveling party, and found some “spots” to lay claim to in the car. He rotated every so often among them, but didn’t seem to quite get the same captivated attention from watching Hogan’s Hero’s that the kids and I did. We were following the GPS through Trail and up the hill a little ways to Rossland. Mike & Michelle Tanguay had lived in Fort Smith for several years before we arrived, but moved South a few years back. Mike had long worked at the neighboring mine to Diavik, but now worked locally to Rossland while Michelle flew up to the Arctic for three week on, three week off shifts. Sadly, Michelle would be gone working during our single night stay there. We had a spectacular visit with Mike, Logan and Lilly though. With a few steaks cooking we all got caught up on things and shared computer ideas while the kids ran around outside and explored the neighborhood a bit.

While we had the option to stay two nights in Rossland, we decided to continue on to Vancouver Island and try and spend the night with parents of some other neighbors of ours from Fort Smith. The (only slightly) senior Keizers come up to Smith once a year it seems and we have come to know them fairly well. They have a spectacularly large house (for empty nester’s that is) just outside of Victoria in Esquimalt. Deer and all sorts of other wildlife frequent their backyard forest which backs on to the Canadian navy base. The next morning after wolfing down some huge homemade waffles, we hit the road for the couple hour trip to Ladysmith, just outside of Nanaimo.

While there were several possible tourist stops along the way, we were only up for one viewing point balcony overlooking the inside coast. It was higher up and gave a rather nice view of the coastline and all the stunningly green islands. We quickly concluded that the pine beetle can’t swim in salt water… There were fruit stands galore on the side of the highway, and we made it to Ladysmith in quick time without too many stops. We settled in for lunch with Dad & Janet after some hugs all around. It was nice to spend a few days relaxing, visiting and just generally catching up. We arranged an evening picnic in a Nanaimo park to visit with any James relatives on the Island who could join us. That was a blast, and after even more hugs all around we sat and ate, and even tossed the frisbee around a bit. It was wonderful seeing so many James relatives that we hadn’t talked to in several years (since the last time we came out to the island, now that I think about it; Hmmmm…) and swapping stories (all true!) about Grandpa James. We had originally planned on touring the island a bit and hoped to go to the West Coast of the Island and up North a ways past Campbell River a bit. Due to time these extra options went the way of the dodo, a visit to crazy Horse and a “leisurely trip across the country”. Perhaps next time, in a few years, once these bills are paid WAY down.

We departed after less than a week on Vancouver Island, heading North towards Kamloops & Kelowna. We didn’t even bother stopping in Vancouver at all, and just trucked on through. Vancouver traffic is CRAZY! But still not as bad as Montreal or Toronto I sadly have to admit, (Or Hanoi, Vietnam for that matter). Still, I have no idea how people can possibly live in such concrete jungle conditions…

Prairie Provinces

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

The drive across the prairies was nice. Well, it was OK; they’re pretty cool to see once, but a half an hour later… Ugh! We drove from the Cook’s in Thunder Bay and traveled to the other side of Winterpeg to get a hotel room on the side of the road in order to get a quick start the next morning. A little ways past Regina we stopped for the night at Dale & Brian’s home in Morse. Dale had lived in Taloyoak (a small Inuit community on the Arctic Ocean) during the same time we had before we left in 1998. Dale had run the craft co-op there and it was really great to see her again and catch up, as well as finally getting to meet her husband. We had purchased a few groceries to carry from one friend’s house to another. Mainly, we had a few boxes of cereal but I had also grabbed a large package (of several boxes) of microwavable KD. Luke brought this entire thing into their house to cook a couple of the small boxes up to go with the burgers for supper. They were good, but the next evening in Lethbridge I received an e-mail asking me to pass on a message to Luke from Brian. It was quite brief and simple, yet my poor son screamed in abject horror when I read it aloud to everyone, “Tell Luke that Brian says thanks for the rest of the Kraft Dinner he left behind”.

The next day (a Saturday, for those keeping track…) we continued on to Lethbridge for a surprise meeting with my Dad and his wife Dianne. They had scooped Pete (our pet Jack Russle Terrier) that morning from my Mom’s house and were going to stay the night before heading back home then next day while we continued Westward to Trail BC. It was unfortunate we weren’t able to meet up with them anywhere else in our year of travels, but it was still great finally meeting up with them now. We met in a park where unfortunately the kids recognized Grandpa’s well labeled “Truckers Toybox ” van before even seeing them. Pete was still a pretty good surprise though and their was much joy. After we caught up and enjoyed a good nights rest, it was time to ramble on.

Northwestern Ontario

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

We finally arrived in Sault St. Marie and after crossing the border (with almost thirty bottles of wine and a one gallon jug of hooch) we arrived to the Waters’ home just in time for supper. They put on a great meal (man, we were really getting lucky that way with the generosity of friends along the way!) and we visited late while catching up on each others lives. Time and Emily went on a school field trip down into the States the next morning. With the school year almost finished Laura had no qualms about keeping Maggie home for the morning while we packed up and the three kids ran around and played outside. I was great to see the Water’s family again, and we visited and shared lotsa stories, many that only Northerners could understand.

To get to our next stop was an interesting drive all along the Lake Superior shore. Thunder Bay has always had a very Northern “feel” to it. Even though I’ve never been there before, just the way everyone talks about it gives that strong impression. The blackflys in the area also probably help out a bit too with such an allusion. I enjoy confirming these loose assumptions about Thunder Bay with people we meet. Most tend to agree that that is indeed their opinion of Thunder Bay. The interesting part is that Thunder Bay is below the forty-ninth parallel. This means that it is at a lesser latitude (or “height” up the globe from the equator) than all of Western Canada. That’s a pretty wild thought for most people.

The Canadian family we had met up with in Thailand recently moved here, and so we stayed with the Cook’s. We had rented an apartment next to them on Phuket Island with the shared swimming pool. It was pretty cool to to see Phil & Joy again, and our kids immediately set out to the trampoline to join Kyla & Josh working off some energy. Phil had a magnificent roast on the BBQ and we sat around and caught up for the rest of the evening. It turns out that as much as they enjoyed living and working in Thailand, the company there had proved unreliable and so they returned to Canada. The next morning, the kids stayed home from school to fool around with Alex and Luke for a couple of hours while we leisurely packed up. After a huge breakfast we said our goodbyes and departed on to Winterpeg.

Last Time Through the States

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

The border crossing from Sarnia into the U.S was pretty uneventful. Well, except for Claudette being oblivious to the stop signs in the lineup. The guy gave her a pretty harsh-toned lecture on paying much better attention in the future. He also explained that all of the posts sticking out of the ground on the sides were a battery of sensors which could detect explosives and/or nuclear devices.

The road north through the U.S. was pretty decent and twinned most of the way. With a speed limit of seventy miles per hour, we made pretty good time. The two huge bridges across the Great Lakes Ship transportation routes offered a far reaching view of the vast surrounding area. It is funny to see many odd signs around the world. Twenty miles out of Flint was another good one. It said: PRISON AREA: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. Actually, there were no less than four of these signs along that three and a half hour stretch North to the Canadiann border. That sounds like a whole lot of prisons!

Our GPS has been nothing short of reliable. Same with the three previous models we had rented or used in Australia and throughout Europe. We started having problems with it half way up the State of Michigan though. The distance to go was quite a bit out on the GPS compared to the road signs… After scratching our heads for a couple hours and gave up. Then it hit Claudette when she saw a speed limit sign of 70 that everything here (including the distance signs) were labeled in imperial measurements. It turns out that we had forgotten that imperial distances on signs would be smaller numbers than the metric settings in our GPS.

This was our last time going into or through the States for this entire trip. This means that even though Claudette had assured me we could go to Crazy Horse, she never really wanted to. It would have been an extra couple of days, and we were having to cut stays and visits in many other areas so it was only fair for me to have to give this desire up, (along with a stay at my Aunt & Uncles on Vancouver Island and Claudette’s long awaited visit to Euclulet). I was also enormously tempted to try and go through Detroit so we could go to the Motown museum for a few hours. I didn’t even try and bring this up with Claudette, since we were so short on time to get across the country and she has only a passing interest in music. The profound impact of Motown and the many talented singers and bands it represented on modern music is something I would LOVE to have explored. Perhaps another time… Instead we stayed a little North of Windsor and crossed the border their on our way to Flint (Michael Moore’s hometown) and then North.

Southwestern Ontario

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

We stayed at a friends parents house in the sweet little town of Aylmer. Actually it was a little in the Countryside near Aylmer. And it was a VERY nice, picturesque spot indeed. A little river ran adjacent to their property and Wayne had every conceivable “device” I would ever have expected to see on an acreage. Not only was there a nice floating dock and a few boats, but there was a large multi-story treehouse, various kids playground toys and most impressive of all there were several large wind down bird condo’s. These were on tall poles but had a hand winch at the base so that the condo complex could be brought down to open up the houses and see inside. Very impressive! Still not as impressive as the back room. There was an electrical and other “stuff” contraption that was very elaborate, but unfortunately must remain nameless.

Just a few hours to the Southwest was Point Pelee National Park. This is a long narrow marsh and sand point stretching out into Lake Erie. It is not only a beautiful spot, but is the most Southern Point in Canada. It is well below the latitude of the North border of the State of California. The most interesting part (to me) is that there used to be over 300 lots with cottages all down the point forty years ago, but Parks Canada bought and moved them all out. We were hoping to wade out on the point a little further South than friends from Smith had two years previously, but the Gods were not with us today. It was a pretty windy day, and the entire point of sand was blown under water, up to where large rocks were placed. It was still a pretty cool experience though and we went swimming a little ways North where the currents weren’t so dangerous.

In the area of Aylmer were tonnes and tonnes of crops. This was previously the area of Canada where about 75% of the tobacco crops were grown before all operations were moved to Mexico a decade ago. Being so far South, it is some of the best growing land available in Canada. Even pretty good for grapes and other fruits. Rush Creek Winery is just a kilometer away from Wayne an Jackie’s place. We had wanted to take a tour, but missed the closing time on our first two nights in the area. Instead we only had the chance to swing by at 9:00 AM on the day we were heading North to Sault St. Marie to continue our journey across Canada. The lady was a little surprised that we couldn’t go through the whole relaxing wine tasting routine, but just wanted to buy some and get going. Tim & Jo had shared a bottle of DECADENCE (an incredible Strawberry Chocolate concoction) with us at the very start of our trip in August when we met up. So we bought a case of that and then twelve assorted bottles of most of their other other types. We’ll slowly throughout the next several months open them and experiment with our taste buds. If any of you are ever within a couple hours drive of London, Ontario, then a visit to the winery is highly recommended. Check it out at: http://www.rushcreekwines.com

Ottawa

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Back a few months ago we had arranged to meet with our MP in Ottawa and get a personal tour of the Parliament before getting to watch him in action during a question period. Unfortunately due to our car arrival screw-ups, Dennis had to leave Ottawa a couple of days before we were able to arrive. Luckily he arranged with his assistant Joy (also a former Smith resident) to sign us in and give us a quick tour. This included going up to Peace Tower, all alone up the elevator and then all by ourselves up top checking out the views in every direction. It was a great tour until we attended question period of course. The intensity and degree of heckling was questionable at best, and downright astounding and unacceptable at worst. Still, it was pretty interesting to see. The library was certainly the most beautiful and opulent room we saw in the House of Commons. The public are only allowed to enter and stay behind a roped off area to stare in awe at the splendor…

The McBride family wonderfully set us up here with a great place to stay with some friends of theirs for our three nights in Ottawa. The Mills family had a nice home near Carleton University and were awesome hosts. We spent our first full day in town at Parliament and then wandering around downtown a bit. We headed North that evening to visit some old friends from Smith who had moved to the bedroom community New Gower. Claude & Esther had a great property here with a swimming pool and a couple acres of grass for the boys to run around on. We had a great BBQ and caught up on each others lives. Before departing we agreed to meet up at the laser tag place in Ottawa the next day. None of us James’ had ever played laser tag before so we were looking forward to it. Only three quarters of us played with the three Doucette boys, but we all had a blast! At eight bucks per person for a twenty minute game, I thought that it was somewhat reasonable but not too often of course. When you hit a target that any other player is wearing, your information is transmitted so their pack registers who gets credit for the hit. Once you are hit, your weapon and pack powers down for five seconds. At the end of the game, everyone is scored and ranked according to how many hits they got and received. It was a pretty fun time!

Our next laser tag booking wasn’t for a couple of hours so we headed to the National Science and Technology Museum. This a HUGE building, with all sorts of incredible displays and some very impressive, (and large) historically significant machines for the viewing and touching fascination of the public. They even had four original steam trains and a couple of regular cars set up within the building! There was far too much to see before we were due back for our second laser tag games, but luckily our tickets would allow us back in to the museum after another round of laser tag. The Mills dropped off their daughter, Nicole, to join us for the afternoon of shooting as well. After the second game we resumed touring the Science museum until almost closing time, before heading back to the Mills for a scrumptious Turkey Dinner. After a last evening of visiting with the Mills, it was time to turn in and prepare for our drive the next day.

Situational Elitism

Friday, June 13th, 2008

I discovered here in Quebec City that the Act Of Quebec signed in 1774 seems to be the route of our slightly messed up country. This wonderful little piece of legislation gave the entire area (now “Province”) to France for their own settlers. This was after the French had been generally tossed out of governing or generally “owning” any portions of the country. Such a huge and valuable area was given up only because the English were afraid of an invasion (and rightly so it turned out) from the Americans to the South. Now, 135 years later we are still paying dearly for some bureaucrat’s generous decision to give up an enormous chunk of very valuable land and all of the “distinctness” that came with that.

If only that negotiating team could see today what they have done; transfer payments that are the most lopsided of any province, seperate “federal” laws from the rest of Canada, and a constant whining for formal recognition from every other citizen in Canada of their Society being “distinct” within our extensive and very diverse magnificent country. This smacks of such elitism when every other area of Canada is so uniquely distinct from almost every other region or area. Comparing a Cape Breton Fisherman to a Saskatchewan Farmer. Neither would compare to a Quebec provincial bureaucrat who is ingrained with the “gimme, gimme, screw everyone else who needs it more than me” philosophy of life.

I really can’t fathom how any single citizen or group of citizens is/are any more distinct than any other individual or group. We met many residents who were wonderful and friendly, but until the CANADIAN citizens of Quebec start thinking this way of themselves (and electing some party other than Bloq) the rest of us should remain uneasy and rather offended.

=========================================

As a parting thought (and in all fairness) I should also add this little point about the three Northern Territories. While Quebec’s transfer payments are unbalanced and the whining rate excessive, the second largest federal budget is DIAND. Granted, we don’t whine “too” much, but if Southern Canadians really knew how their hard earned tax dollars were spent on “Indian & Northern Affairs” there would be mass riots in the streets. That would constitute a whole other post, (and probably not on this blog).

Quebec City

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

When looking at hotels here Claudette didn’t even bother looking outside of the “Old City”. Since we were going to pay for a hotel anyways, we figured why not pay the extra $20/night (roughly) premium to stay within walking distance of everything we wanted to see and do. The only problem with this was that parking was about three blocks away in an underground parcade. We had transferred all of our clothes and “daily need” things into just one suitcase which made it handy in that we could just leave the other three bags in the car. The whole experience here quickly immersed us back into Europe where the roads are small, hotel rooms dingy and sidewalk restaurants plentiful.

On our free day we started with a citael guided tour and made plans for a City walking tour at 2:00 that afternoon. The citadel is a working Canadian Military base and home of the Van-Doos. It was a pretty interesting tour and the fort had a broad, commanding view of the St. Lawrence Seaway. After a bite to eat we lined up for our scheduled walking tour. This was officially put on by Canada Heritage, so we used our season pass yet again for a discount. We were together with a mid fifties Kiwi couple, and an older couple from Toronto. We were supposed to take around ninety minutes all total but after the first fifteen minutes it started raining. It looked like it would be a hard rain, but probably not too long. As the downpour started, we were asked by the guide if anyone wanted to continue in the rain. The older couple were incredulous that such a option would even be presente. Both of the New Zealanders said sure, and the James’ proclaimed a resounding “Yes!”. For those who weren’t sure, I announced that I’d heard that skin was waterproof. The Kiwi lady quickly changed her mind and dropped out. While the older couple were waiting for the guide to dig their ticket stubs out of his pocket, I had to ask nonchalantly “So where are you from again? Toronto is it?” in a quizzical yet innocent voice. They readily confirmed and I broke out in a broad grin before proclaiming, “Oh yeah, the place where the military gets called in with a little bit of adverse weather.” They sheepishly acknowledged that “yes, the rest of Canada will probably never let us live that down…”

The tour itself was very informative and interesting, if not more than a little damp. I kept the camera bag tucked under one arm as the five of us followed along with occasional questions or clarifications. The guide was a jolly young man who was very personable and knowledgeable. He also had a new staff member along who was observing and learning how to do the tour. We ended up at the local park office which was part of the old wall, and right beside one of two original powder storage bunkers. They had excellent displays including a large 3D relief model, with movable pieces showing the stages of development over different eras.

The one other notable thing about old Quebec City was the fact that it was jam packed with grade school field trips. Every age and both “official” heritage designations (Francophone & Anglophone) were well represented. The rain didn’t seem to bother the school kids as much as the “other” tourists either. Every doorstep and stoop was packed full of people who ”were” just wandering the roads a few minutes previously, but now were scrunched in tiny dry spaces like sardines to avoid the rain. Just too funny to watch… Still thoughm not as funny as the fact that the English had built most of Quebec city originally.

Plans

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

We are currently formalizing our plans for travel across North America. We toyed with many different stops and routes and think we have finally come up with something that’s going to work best for us. As Claudette briefly mentioned previously, we’re looking to visit friends and family to visit along the way where possible. We’re also looking for living room floors or foldout couches when appropriate to allow us to stay up late and share a bottle of wine too. We’ve had several commented and e-mailed offers already, to which I heartily thank you all. Here’s roughly what we plan. I should emphasize that the dates are EXTREMELY flexible, and absolutely not set. Plus I’m unsure of the accuracy of my travel times in between locations. This current routing is also flexible and we are easily open to many deviations along the route. Just send us an e-mail! 🙂
We were quite delayed in getting our car shipped from Montreal, but are now on the road and seeing the rest of Canada!

======================================

DATE LOCATION FAMILY / NOTES
——- ————- ——————–
2008-06-12 Ottawa Mills / Davis
2008-06-15 Alymer Cahil’s
2008-06-17 Saullt St. Marie Water’s
2008-06-18 Thunder Bay Phil & Joy’s
2008-06-19 Winnipeg hotel?
2008-06-20 Morse Potter’s
2008-06-21 Lethbrige secret visitor (hotel?)
2008-06-22 Trail Tanguay’s
2008-06-24 Ladysmith Edmundson’s, James’, Keizers?
2008-06-27 Vancouver hotel? (leave Isle early for long drive)
2008-06-28 Barkerville Artiss’
2008-07-01 Kelowna Artiss’
2008-07-02 Kamloops James’ & Gauthiers
2008-07-04 Airdrie Perpar’s & meet with McBride’s
2008-07-07 Edmonton Everyone Else!

So, that’s how things are “roughly” shaping up. Now, I just need to contact everyone written above that we’re presuming on staying with and confirm those dates are OK. 🙂

Looks like the nicely aligned columns of my typed in table are gonzo once I publish this. Bummer…

New Brunswick

Monday, June 9th, 2008

We booked a little B&B in a town called Alma, just outside of the Bay Of Fundy National Park. We had one night to spend in between Halifax and halfway up New Brunswick. While there are many parks in between those two towns, the Bay of Fundy really captures the imagination of us “Prairie People”. The largest tides in the world is really something worthwhile seeing. We had previously done the jet boat tour at the reversing falls (HIGHLY recommended!) in St. John, NB, but the kids didn’t really remember much about it. We stopped at the Park Office & Interpretive center. Sadly, the displays were about the most basic and pitiful that we’d seen in any park. This could normally be written off to budget cuts, or an apathetic staff & lack of guidance and interest from the Superintendent. Here though was different. Pitiful displays and explanations were coupled with the most thoroughly stocked and amazing gift store we had yet to encounter in a National Park Office. Complete with a uniformed staff member, we were left with little doubt of where the emphasis of staff resources were directed. The visitor services lady we spoke with as at least helpful and friendly in describing different areas on a map that we might be interested in visiting.

We picked a spot a little ways away that had a long inlet and would be pretty cool at low tide. After a brief walk through the trees from the parking lot, we were blown with a pretty strong and steady breeze coming up the inlet. There wasn’t any sand here, but we wandered around hunting interesting rocks and building rock bridges in the small stream of water running down towards the ocean still. It was pretty wild to look at the high water mark that covered everywhere we were walking. With tides of 10m at a 382 minute (6H22min) interval, the Bay of Fundy has the largest tide difference in the world. After a while of fooling around, we followed the small stream down to the open water. We were about 90 minutes past low tide, but still had to walk a ways down. When we finally got there things were changing fast; quietly lapping water was quickly climbing up the gently sloping beach to creep closer and closer to the high tide mark. We stood on a nice long gravel bar that was higher than the mud flats around it. As we watched the water creep up stealthily on both sides, Claudette and I were hypothesizing on how many minutes it would take to cut off a “dry” escape route for us. I guessed that within about fifteen minutes we’d have to retreat. Claudette studied the creep up the mud flats for an extra few seconds and guessed that it would be within ten minutes, or maybe even a little less. I stuck a 14cm tall stick in at the water line and watched it get quickly but quietly envelope within barely ninety seconds. After watching that, both Claudette and I revised our estimates to barely another three minutes! This proved to be accurate, and certainly much better than our initial, uninformed estimates. The kids and I then messed around by standing on a couple of big rocks while Claudette filmed the water surrounding us, and then she capture our last minute leaping to dry safety. Well, I should say “dry” for Alex and I only. Dryness seemed to just somehow elude Luke, as it does with most 10-12 year old boys (including me at that age I wholeheartedly admit) I’m sure. We had a pretty good time there retreating up the valley with the encroaching water several times for the camera before finding some awesome skipping rocks and throwing them on the way back to the car.

Five Summers ago we had flown out to New Brunswick for Claudette’s sisters wedding, (Monique & Greg). With a rented car we had a great opportunity to explore around the province as well as Prince Edward Island. Greg’s parents live in an incredible little spot near Blackville in the Mirimichi area. Our only purpose this this trip was to visit with Frank & Sylvia again for a couple of nights before continuing on West to Quebec City. They have a great place on a couple acres a little ways from the town of Blackville. Most importantly there is a little river (or large creek) running adjacent to their beautiful property

Bartholomew River can get up to 1-2 meters deep, but with little rain lately it was just covering our ankles and up to mid shin in some other spots. Perfect for a nice relaxing float on air mattresses downstream. Unfortunately we only had one (which Luke accidentally put a rip in that morning playing with it). So the kids and I drove off to Blackville to buy a couple of new ones to float down on. The fishing store, a boating store, the drugstore toy department, the grocery store an the hardware store staff all gave us a blank look when I inquired. The best answer I got was that the Home Hardware store at Mirimichi or Doakville would “probably” have them. The trouble with that was the fact that those two towns were almost thirty minutes in either direction from Blackville. That would be quite the waste of gas especially considering that I’d wasted some already traveling the ten minutes from the house to Blackville.

Instead, we drove back to the house and scrounged a couple of life jackets and a small (ten liter) jerry can to float down on. Claudette drove us up the river a little ways to a spot I’d found previously while hunting around on the gravel roads. It was a bit of a treacherous hillside in the dense bush from the road to the river’s edge, (especially for Luke’s bare feet!) but we managed. More intense, distracting, and indeed, OVERPOWERING were the bugs! After being away fromn the North for a year, I quickly came to the conclusion that we were absolute bug wimps! Missing was the nice toxin buildup in our systems that prevented the huge welts and scary looking reactions. As gorgeous as this little river valley was, the density of mosquitoes was rather alarming. Still we plunged in to the 20 cm deep water and waved Claudette a cheery wave goodbye before madly trying to get downriver a bit and away from the infestation of nasty, flying, blood sucking little things with unmarried parents. After getting underway, it was wonderful, exciting and relaxing all at the same time. We had about a half an hour float down the river until we came upon the big white rock inn the middle of the river indicating that we were at the Burns homestead.

After cleaning off and drying up, we settled in for our last evening here while Claudette took off with Sylvia to “take in” a Parish Council Meeting. Luke played for a few hours with Nick who had just finished a four day canoe trip with his Dad at the Burns’ house. His Dad had gone back to town to get their van, while the kids played outside in the bestest (and free) mosquito restaurant in town. We’d been good so far in Canada with NOT leaving things behind, especially after Luke’s precedent’s with clothing articles and mine with chargers. Unfortunately, Claudette and Alex BOTH left their PSP’s behind in the Mirimichi, and we had to ask Sylvia to mail them ahead to us.

CAPE BRETONN AND HALIFAX, (Part Two) Actually Doing Stuff.

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

We drove a bit of the Cabot highway heading North to Sydney for the ferry last week, so on our way South we went through Louisebourg. This was a historic French fort and city which protected the entrance to the St. Laurence Seaway and thus the main Fort at Quebec City. There was also the governor’s residence for the New World in Quebec City that needed protecting. Louisebourg was a very impressive fort, but even more impressive was that it fell inn battle to the English. TWICE. After the first time, the English moved in themselves, but a couple years later the French and English signed a treaty which gave this fort back to the French as well as guaranteeing everlasting peace. Just a few short years later they were at war again, and the Brits launched another massive armada of ground troops and ships from Halifax. This time when the took the un-takeable fort, (again) the English blast every last stone building and wall to the ground. They wanted to ensure that the French would never control this strategic point again.

We enjoyed wandering around the fort and city. It is difficult to understand how the English could have taken the place with the extensive fortifications and armament. The land was swampy, crappy and muskegy; simply the worst possible stuff for battle. We were visiting there on June first, which was their first day of opening. This historic site also did things up real well with all kinds of staff in all types of period costumes and “living” the parts of characters from a few hundred years ago. When visitors talk to them, the period staff reply and act completely in character. In some places where there were no other visitors I would have an extended conversation and ask how long they’d been working there. Only one guy we encountered was five years (or “seasons” really). All of the rest were at least ten to twenty years, with several upwards of thirty and one at thirty-eight years! This is their life long careers for the most part. Some work other odd jobs for the remaining eight months of the year, but most just seem to go on pogie.

The remainder of our drive to Dartmouth was pretty uneventful. We had stopped at New Glasgow on both the way up and the way back for lunch. It was only after we got back to Halifax that I tracked down a number for a friend I had surveyed with at Diavik. When we finally got to chat on the phone it turned out he didn’t live just outside of Halifax as I had thought. Instead he lived in New Glasgow! That was quite the bummer, since we didn’t have the time available to go back there for a visit. Another great guy I worked with at Daivik who was in Dartmouth was difficult to meet up with due to his travel schedule and ours taking off to the Rock. He was in between shifts in Saskatchewan somewhere and going off to Montreal to buy a three year old Mercedes SUV. I can’t remember the price he was paying, but it wasn’t much more than the $25,000 we payed for the year old Ford Freestyle AWD. For an early twenties guy there’s probably no quicker way than that to get a girl who wants a ring and to settle down. I guess only time will tell on that one.

During our last few days in Halifax we managed to get around quite a bit. Id’ always wanted to go to the Maritime Museum of Atlantic Canada just to go through their famous displays on the Titanic and the Halifax Explosion. When we came around the last turn before the exit there was a HUGE bonus display as well. A large part of the cityscape set from Theodore Tugboat along with all of the boat characters were set up on display! This was also a long time wish of mine to see. I’d given up on the possibility though several years ago when the show was canceled. The ships we got to tour there were really interesting to crawl around on as well, especially for us land lubbers with no real experience in such matters of sea faring ships. The Acadia was a government survey ship for the duration of it’s almost fifty year working life. The interesting thing about this ship was the sumptuous cabin and office of the lead surveyor, who was officially inn charge of the ship. The captain could overrule him anytime he felt the surveyors directions would endanger the ship or crew, but for the most part the surveyor ran the show. The assistant surveyors cabins were also pretty nice by ship standards,a nd they had their own nicely appointed common room, where they made day plans and drafted as well as where their meals were served by waiters. This ship had completed extensive bathymetric surveying (measuring the sea floor) all up and down the East coast of Canada as well as large portions of the Arctic. This included not just the shipping lanes, but bays, inlets and off of all coastline just for any future reference.

Just a couple days before our Nova Scotian departure, we took an day trip up to Lunenberg. On the way there we passed though Mahone Bay which would seem to me to be the most picturesque little community we’d seen. Set in an incredibly beautiful and very well protected bay are large and colorful Victorian style houses and a quaintness that Westerners dream of. Lunneberg itself was enormously tourist-centric with correspondingly high prices. Still we had a great meal and then wandered down to the Fisheries Museum there. The displays and demonstrations were excellent, and it was obvious that they were used to many, many more tourists at this time of year. The high Canadian dollar is obviously discouraging a considerable amount of their American travelers. Still though, we enjoyed ourselves. They had a retired “long line” fishing ship and it was open for visitors to climb around on and try to envision what life was like for these guys.

Before leaving town I was hoping to get back to another used clothing store to get some more stuff, but never really got the opportunity. Nor did I get the chance to go and visit Ralph’s; a friendly looking little neighborhood bar a block from Marc & Wendy’s house. In the meantime Marc had finished the new Settlers board holders while we were away and I packed one up inn protective cardboard to take back to Wendy’s brother, Tim, in Fort Smith. We were all loaded up with a new SIM card for the cell phone and electronics to fill every last bit of space in our bags. While in the Rogers store I had also grabbed a portable high speed 3G data modem. This allowed us to hook up the computer to internet whenever we were in range of a Rogers 3G cell tower. Good for traveling where local phone companies offer WIFI in a sparse fashion and for way too much money. This rogers modem only costs $50/month for unlimited high speed bandwidth, a pretty decent deal I figured. The speed is ample, and easily handles big downloads and skype phone calls with ease. The other electronic purchase I had sorta “splurged” on was two more VERY cheap PSP’s at a pawn shop. They were the thick models and therefore easily hackable with the new Pandora’s Battery I had set up via instructions from the Net. Changing the operating system allows for greater consumer control on how to operate the device and what they can do with it. With a bit of further effort I could hack any slim PSP model as well, but so far have just kept it to the programming for the phat models.

The night before we left we went to Riverdance in Halifax thanks to Sylvia Burns (Claudette’s sister’s Mother-In-Law) who was taking a bus tour from New Brunswick to see the show. It was awesome to see and a very fitting end to our departure from the Maritimes. This was also the troupes farewell performing city after a five year (I think?) run throughout North America. It was a spectacular show though, and zooming inn on the face of the flamenco dancer gave us a startling revelation. While all the other dancers were between about eighteen and thirty years old, this VERY talented Latino was early to mid fifties. She had a smile, moves and a body (and especially a passion inn her dancing) that undoubtedly made all t6he younger girls very jealous. She was a pleasure to watch.

Newfoundland

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

The Ferryride was certainly longer than I expected. Obviously I hadn’t ever payed close attention to a regional map of the Maritimes. The foundation of my Ferry experiences were based on going from Vancouver to Naniamo to visit the James family with my Dad a few times when I was a kid.

There are two main routes for taking a ferry from cape Breton to Newfoundland. The shorter one leaves from Sydney almost directly North to Port Au bask, the closest town, and is about a 6-8 hour ride (depending upon the seas and darkness). The second route also leaves from Sydney, but heads Northeasterly across the ocean towards St. Johns. I’m unsure how long that route is, since it will not even begin running until mid-June when the traffic gets heavier. This thought was laughable since there was quite the huge line up of vehicles waiting to board, AND we had to pre-book our passage no less. The one cool space saving (but hugely time-wasting) thing they did was to load tractor trailers all along the sides of the lanes, then detach and drive back off of the ship. This allowed the trailers to be butted up to one another with nary a half meter to spare. Our scheduled arrival time was pretty late on the other side, so we had pre-booked a B&B just on the other side. We were delayed leaving a couple hours and when we arrived extra late on the other side, the B&B lady didn’t even bat an eyelash since altered schedules were absolutely the norm and not the exception.

The next morning we headed off North to Gross Mourne National Park, about half the height of the province to the North. All we’d heard about this park was absolutely true. It was glorious, and beautiful and really extraordinary. We visited the main park office and after a quick orientation on their offerings we quized them as per the instructions of our sacred quest. A good friend back home is the visitor services manager for our own national Park. He believes, and very sincerely I have to say, that all (or as many as possible) Parks staff should at least be vaguely familiar with some of the other National Parks across the country. As such, we have been tasked with broadening such knowledge of all Park staff that we encounter. The quickest (and friendliest) way we tend to accomplish this is by asking individuals or groups what the name of and where the largest National Park in Canada is. These guys did OK, and one of them came out with WBNP as a third guess (totally grasping at straws) after Banff and Elk Island. When I went to further explain that we have seasonal forest fires which are the same area as a third of their park, everyone’s eyes widened inn suitable astonishment and wonder.

Due to all of the salesman’s screw-ups with our car delivery, we were sadly short of time on the “Rock”. This meant that we just couldn’t even consider heading East much at all. I also wanted to make the long (four hours extra each way) drive to the North to see the Viking settlement which represented the first settlement of Europeans (or Caucasians) in North America. It was a long boring drive when we were short of time, but we were (well, I was anyways!) willing to invest the time for something so historically significant. Luckily for Claudette we discovered that the Viking historical site wasn’t open until June First! That was still a few days away, and we needed to be back on Nova Scotian soil by then. We had also prebooked our return passage on the ferry for the night of May 31.

After toying with a few different possible excursions, we decided on a few and headed to a town at the South end of the Park. There was more outstanding “things” to see and do inn this smaller section of the Park. Most famous of all were the “Tablelands”. These are flat topped mountains (large hills really) that were thrust up from the very depths of the earth’s crust. They contain keys to our planets makeup and Geologists consider the area an orgy of learning onn display. They were indeed VERY cool, and after a night at a little B&B in Woody Point, we all enjoyed walking along the paths and studying the rocks too. We also picked a nice little hilly path that led to the shoreline of the Ocean. It was only about 5km in, but there was a nice little campground at the top of the cliffs for those who might be so inclined. There were sea caves about 300-400 meters down one way that people can walk to at low tide. We had intended on checking them out but arrived about an hour too late to make it back to the stairs up before the incoming tide would cover the route. We still played around on the beach for awhile and enjoyed ourselves quite a bit before hitting the trail for the mostly all uphill trek back to the parking lot.

We ate our fill of seafood at a few different restaurants on the island, and checked out a few other small towns along the way South back to Port Au Basque. We had gotten word from one restaurant that one of the two ferry’s was down, and the remaining one was massively behind schedule. We checked on our booking and were told to show up anyways, which we did a couple of hours early. With an overcast drizzle and three hours to kill before our scheduled departure, we set in to watch a couple movies and some cheers episodes on the car’s DVD screen. Worse still though, our departure was delayed another two and a half hours. Since we were taking the overnight cruise to return to Cape Breton, we had pre-booked a cabin this time as well. That proved to be incredibly worthwhile. Once parked on the ship, we went directly to the cabin (with an ensuite head) and all immediately crashed. Everyone slept quite soundly and it was a loud and very rambunctious child in the cabin that finally woke us up a little after nine inn the morning. Not bad under normal circumstances, but we had only just gotten to our cabin at about three in the morning. Nonetheless, we splashed some water on our faces and waited for docking before returning to the car and driving off.

Halifax

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

In my previous post I said we completely relaxed in our first week inn Halifax. That’s obviously not entirely true. While there was certainly some relaxing taking place Claudette and I were busy with many little administrative “tasks” as well. Arranging our new vehicle sticker, laundry, buying some new clothes at the Sally-Ann and another used clothes place, along with catching up on publishing my mostly written European posts were among our long lists of things to do. Granted, there was also some hot ‘n heavy scrabble games between the girls that took place in there as well. During our absence from North America there was a new phenomena sweeping our friends kitchen tables across Halifax, Edmonton & Fort Smith. It is called SETTLERS. Settlers is a dynamic game for 2-6 players that easily changes game play from one game to the next. This is due to small hexagonal board sections that can be moved around after each game to provide a unique board each time. Some of my (and Marc’s) spare time was taken up during our two weeks in Halifax with designing a board holder. Settlers comes with a cardboard outline which holds the loose pieces together, but he had scrolled some thin wooden pieces out to make for better containment. Unfortunately his thin wood pieces had warped and the puzzle style rounded links on the ends no longer locked together. After many discussions and a few prototypes we came up with a design that seemed to work quite well. Since we had a nice big piece of maple veneer we made three sets of game boards at the same time. One extra for a friend back home in Smith, and the third for a friend of Marc & Wendy’s in Halifax. I also made a few trips to the “Dollar” store, and made a complete game for us based on various colored pieces of foam stuck to flexible magnets and then all on a cookie sheet. The playing cards I designed on the computer and printed off to glue on to a cheap pack of regular playing cards. The retain game for $40 plus we needed an expansion pack for another $25+. Inn the end I think I spent under $20 for the equivalent.

We got tired of waiting around for our car to arrive one day and took a taxi to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. This is a Federal Government set of research labs and coordinating offices for many experiments and projects. Even though it is a scientific research facility, they have the foresight to employ two four month Summer students each year and provide tours for advance bookings only. We arranged one an got in as just the four of us for almost two hours. She initially started us off with a description of the many types of things that they do and coordinate there. Next we visited the live tanks with running experiments of all varieties. Here we saw some huge and mutant lobsters. Some were blue or albino, and obviously represented some of the oddest specimens. We wrapped up the tour with a visit to a cool touch tank. The kids (and even Claudette!) had fun here while I was shooting pictures like crazy!

We did also manage to take in a few other sights before getting the car and heading off to newfoundland. Mainly the very impressive Citadel had a commanding view of the harbor and city, while showing off a nice little collection of 200 year old weapons and period costumes. Mostly, we “relaxed” and caught our break from the previous ten month mad rush (or so it sometimes seemed) around the world.

Arrival in Canada!

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Landing on Canadian soil again was indeed refreshing. Especially after such a cramped coach ride on our super discount cheap tickets. Marc (a friend formerly from Fort Smith) met us at the airport with a big smile. After hugs all around we crammed our luggage into his car and proceeded to his house where Wendy had several huge homemade pizza’s waiting. Luckily, Marc works at the airport and merely went to the arrivals area with a good book after work to wait for us.

Before getting out of the secured customs area we went through the usual rigamarole (but for the last time EVER on this trip!) The agent we lined up at was an older guy who seemed friendly enough but was obviously tired after a long day. He clearly didn’t understand the significance of our four broad smiles and our barely containable excitement at being “home” again and getting our passports stamped in Canada! We politely and briefly explained the significance of our arrival and he gave us a tired yet very sincere “Welcome Home!”. The vacation charter airline we rode on was Condor Airlines. It had a handful of Canadians on board but most were German tourists landing in Halifax with plans to tour around the Maritimes a bit. Whatever they were doing, it seemed an impressive amount of Germans to be visiting the East coast.

After meeting up with Marc we trundled along quite a ways with our bags in tow to get to the public parking lot. The Halifax International Airport was under fairly extensive renovations, outside and inside. The most disappointing part was the severe lack of transportation options to get into the city. Not only was there no subway or train station out here (understandable considering that the city doesn’t even HAVE a subway or public train system) but there weren’t even public busses that ran out on any sort of schedule. There is only one lone guy that operates an extended van but his fees would be more than a $60 taxi ride for the four of us! With these pitiful options available, Marc was gracious enough to wait around for us after work instead. There was a little concern about fitting all our bags and bodies inside his little Suzuki AVERO (????), but with several months of experience under our belts we managed that too. Wendy greeted us all with huge hugs and lots of home made pizza, a great recept6ion on both counts. Marc’s mom was visiting from Fort Smith as well and filled us in on all the latest news from home.

After getting cozy and sorting out dirty laundry ect, we had the most wonderful time relaxing for the next week. We had bought a car through a broker in Montreal who got us exactly what we were looking for, (a Ford Freestyle) and for an excellent price. While we had tried to pre-arrange everything from Europe to have it waiting in Halifax for us, the brokers cronies messed everything up and we received the car about two weeks later than expected. We arranged with my Mom to mail our old car license plate, and had the motor vehicles in Yellowknife send us a new sticker. Shortly after buying the car we arranged from Europe to get full insurance and e-mail us the pink slip. All we needed was the actual vehicle… When we did finally get it we were all pretty happy (finally) but still made a list of deficiencies that needed warranty repairs. The Ford dealership down the street from Marc & Wendy’s house was swamped so we made an appointment to bring it in after spending a few days popping up to Newfoundland and back.

London

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

The Chunnel ride, while very cool in concept, was remarkably uneventful. Almost disappointingly so i would say. The super fast Eurostar Train went through a few tunnels first , which gave us a false start of thinking we were under the Atlantic. While it was fairly obvious when we actually did go under, there were certainly no announcements or notifications. I’m guessing that they just didn’t want panicky people to freak right out at the thought of being under ba-zillions of Gigaliters of body-crushing, breath drowning, saltier than thou, SEAWATER. We had pre-searched subway info on the net and knew where to head once disembarking from the chunnel train. We gave George & Monica a call to verify our arrival. I was somewhat surprised to hear George answer Monica’s cell phone since I had expected both of them to be at work. It turned out to be a Saturday with both of them lounging around their apartment waiting for us. We had completely lost track of the days of the week, yet again. Absolutely not the first time in the last several months and very likely not the last. From the subway exit, it was only a short few blocks walk to their apartment. Awesomely located is a huge understatement. just a couple blocks from Picadilly circus, there was easy subway access for anywhere we wanted to visit that was not within walking distance. Their generosity of hosting us was made even more profound by the quaint, cute, smallness of their studio apartment. We threw the kids on the kitchen floor every night, while Claudette & I took the hide-a-bed in the barely hide-a-bed sized living room. Separated by a small shelf of DVD’s was their bedroom stuffed in every nook and cranny with assorted “stuff” required for day to day living. This was awesome for us considering the alternatives were a one hour each way train ride to a cheaper hotel outside the city, or well over $500/night for two scrunched & gungy double bed rooms inn central London. Yikes!

After a few days, we had covered most of the London sights that are standard fare. There were many highlights, but the Londonn eye, (a Gynormous Ferris wheel) could pretty much look over all of ’em! We didn’t plan any trips outside the city, since we were just so short on time. We were thinking of trying visit Claudette’s Aunt inn the North, but she just happened to be in Canada while we were there in the UK. We had some great eats, and found a very reasonable pub (reasonable for London that is…) that would typically cost us around $65 for dinner. We had purchased 3 day passes for the tube as well as the same all day “Total London Experience” that we had sent Grandma Vi on. When we added up all of the attraction entry costs the expensive day tour worked out to be really worthwhile. Especially since they included bus transportation around to all the different places. The only downside was the heavy canvasing for tips from the bus driver at the end of the day. Having already paid $500 plus, we certainly weren’t in any sort of mood for the gouging of tips. We had a pretty tainted view of tipping by now, and figured that the bus driver needed to find a new job if he couldn’t make a go of it on his current wages.

There were all kinds of shows playing in London, and all kinds of “super, ultra discount” ticket booths hawking seats. As badly as I wanted to see a few different ones, Claudette kept our bank balance in check by planning for only one. We really wanted to see Stomp!,n but the last night we had available they were not showing. We then had to suffice with “Spamalot”. It was really great, and the kids were relatively well versed many of their skits as well as having watched the “Holey Grail” on the portable media player since I recorded it at Jim’s place in China. The theater was old and wonderful and oozing character from every old piece of shined wood. The only disappointment was the stuffy crowd. Either they hadn’t seen the movie EVER, (or they hadn’t seen it in thirty years and had forgotten everything) or else they all had had their mouths sewn shut. Ok, perhaps not that bad. Their were many points of muffled and restrained laughter, but not as much as the kids and I. Naturally, cameras and videotaping were strictly forbidden, but I turned it on anyways and took some still pics (with the night vision switch on for the darkened room) of Alex and Luke laughing their butts off.

We had a fabulous time in London checking out all the sights over those four days. It was not with a little excitement that we boarded our (last ever of the trip) flight from London, through Germany to Halifax. Off we went trucking along the streets from the apartment, with our suitcases in tow to the subway station. There were lots of odd looks as we walked by the early morning commuters. But we were carefree and laughing and looking forward to our long and presumably cramped economy, discount flight to home soil. YIPEE!!!!!

Paris

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

Stunning, Amazing, Phenomenal; these words still can’t even come close to describing Paris. Culture and art oozing from every pore and orifice starts to get close, but it was still more, dare I say, “magical” just being there and breathing inn the lush majesty of this remarkable city.

While we had quite enjoyed driving around Europe, we all looked forward to Paris, and exchanging the car for subway rides everywhere. Claudette had booked a nice little hotel directly across the street from the Eurostar station (the chunnel train). It was old, and quaint; and thankfully had an elevator to get our bags up to the fifth floor. There was no restaurant in the place, but they served breakfast inn a little sitting area in the lobby. A croissant bun, a bit of cream cheese and some jams with juice, coffee or tea for $12!!! Dropping off the car was a synch, and they didn’t even balk at the smashed up bumper with mangled side panels and backup sensors. We submerged into an adjacent subway station, bought three day passes and then found our way across the city pretty easily.

We had a wonderful three full days wandering around Paris. We also managed to meet up with Greg & Monique (Claudette’s sister) again and toured a few places with them. The Louvre was particularly interesting. Not just because of the shear vastness of it’s amazing galleries and their world renown contents; nor only the stunning beauty of the buildings and architecture. Almost just as amazing as these aspects, was the accessibility of everything! Well, everything but the Mona Lisa (cordoned off and behind bullet proof glass) and the Venus De Milo (viewable only from behind a setback roped cordon). All other paintings, carvings and tapestries one could actually walk right up to for an extreme close-up view, (or even touch, if one was a “bad” person). We also managed to meet up with Claudette’s Aunt, Uncle & cousin again in Paris. Walking around downtown between our hotels and seeing the sights and all kinds of neat things in the nooks and crannies was great fun. There were numerous street performers out with all kinds of acts that we stopped to enjoy as well. The weather for pretty much all of our time in France was mostly sunny and very little rain. Paris did not disappoint either as we had all sunshine for our three and two half days there.

I believe that some senior French government tourism bureaucrat must have watched “French Kiss” several years ago and then set about a complete reformation of the services industry attitudes. The aloofness and extravagant arrogance in dealing with English speaking tourists that I’d so often heard of seemed non-existent to me. We had fairly enjoyable dealings with everyone and the infamous reputed superior attitudes must be a thing of the past. The only hint of conflict that I encountered was actually from the English customs/immigration agent at the chunnel train station as we departed. He was making fun of the ridiculous overbearing guards near their desk and the unnecessary hassle they were giving passengers. He then went on to elaborate with some other discouraging comments about the French people in general. And while the comments were pretty accurate, they were still pretty unnecessary.

Reflections After Nine Months.

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

We’re tired…. I’ve briefly mentioned this before, but thought I would try and explain better now. Partially at fault is the fact that Egypt (and a little bit India) really kicked the snot out of us, but mainly our brains are on information overload. We’ve met many other long term travelers on our route, and this seems to be incredibly common for any people NOT traveling alone. Singles seem to make a more relaxing experience for themselves, and seem to spend much of their time making friends and connections while seeing some of the sights. Couples, families or groups however seem to be more focussed on the sights since they’re not typically “lonely” and seeking excessive interaction with others. This is not to say that we didn’t strike up conversations with other strangers easily and often, because we absolutely did. In fact we made some exceptionally wonderful friends throughout the trip that way. It is simply that our primary goal is a little different than singles, and we wear ourselves (our brains really) out at a much faster rate.

Most people we’d spoken with who traveled long term in pairs or more had a breaking point of about nine to ten months. I was always surprised to hear this, and expressed time and time again that such a phenomena wouldn’t occur with my family. We were having the time of our lives! And there was no way we would consider cutting it short, or be “tired” of traveling after only three quarters of the way through such an amazing opportunity. In Egypt we met a great Aussie couple that we spent lots of time with at our eight and a half month mark. They had previously taken a year off to travel the world and had cut it short and went home at the nine month mark. He easily accepted my incredulous testimony that “that “ wouldn’t happen to us, with a knowing smile and the patience of Job. The fact is that the exact same thing has happened to us. We are enjoying ourselves, and are certainly prepared to finish up our last bit of planned itinerary, but we are museumed, churched and general monumented out. If the option to go home for a while (a month or a year, or whatever) and then finish the last three months later somehow presented itself, we would all jump at it.

Our itinerary was lucky to make this phenomena less of an impact. Our last foreign area is Europe, with the last month and a bit spent in our home country, reconnecting with friends, family and indeed, our own heritage and identities. This is the difference between winding up with good overall feelings or remembering our last portion (and thus a stronger impression embeded in our minds of the entire trip) as being not fun and a general pain in the backside. Anyone (families, pairs or groups that is) considering a similar trip would be wise to plan a route in a similar manner intentionally for the the emotional well being of yourselves. The weaning back to a “normal”, civil society (via Europe for us) might sound inflammatory, but is is a very useful step in rounding out the trip. I couldn’t possibly imagine going to South America now (near the end) and being able to give it a fair shake, and be as open minded and embracing of all it has to offer as I was when we traveled there much earlier in our trip.

Changes

We’ve been asked often about what we would do differently or what changes we would have made if we knew before what we knew now. I try to live life without regrets, and therefore tend to ignore most of those kinds of fruitless backtracking in my mind. The one and only thing I would change would be to have purchased an organized tour (GAP or Intrepid) for Egypt. That would have insulated us from much of the hassles and the less than desirable experiences we did have. There were many other little “bad” things that we could have done differently to our benefit, but I generally consider those to be part of the overall life (and learning) experience. Egypt was the only thing I would do differently. Oh, and as I was analyzing and reconciling these feelings, I gave the Aussie friend a call and joyfully proclaimed, “Yes Ron, I understand EXACTLY how you felt, and readily agree now too.” He was very gracious about my previous teasing behavior and we simply had a wonderful moment of shared enlightenment.

Just THE Two Cities, then Halifax!

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

I’d uploaded the incorrect file previously thus missing out on descriptions of a couple things. The South of France posted is repaired to it’s full glory now at:
http://weblog.jamesworld.ca/2008/04/29/south-france-again-bye-to-vi/

___________________________________________________________

We previously posted the inscribed text description from the Orchard Dump Cemetery, near Vimy in France. It was very poignant to tie in such a traditionally distant concept (World War One OR World War Two) with a family member. My Dad’s oldest Uncle on his own Fathers side was an 18 year old Private in the Canadian Infantry, (Manitoba Regiment) and was killed in battle just two weeks before his nineteenth birthday.

It was a lovely day in France. We first drove to the Vimy Canadian War Memorial where they give tours of the original tunnels and trenches used at that location in WWI. The tour was excellent and the monument was as amazing as any other beautifully carved edifice we’d seen on the trip. It took a little time to track down the J’s on the wall, but we soon found my Great Uncle William James listed. While the visit to Dieppe showed the large gun bunkers, everything we saw or read here emphasized the brutal soldier to soldier combat that was prevalent on the WW1 battlefield, (or trenches as it was). Canadian Cemetery Number Two was in between the monument and the Canada Heritage Interpretive Center (Don’t call them Parks Canada!!, Geesh…) and we stopped there to look at the graves and read the story. After that we headed to the Orchard Dump Cemetery, about 15km away. It was along a stretch of two lane road with steady traffic. This one was fairly large as well, and it took some footwork finding Private William’s grave. My Uncle Steve had done a great deal of research and footwork about his uncle. He sent us his name and summary, directions to the cemetery and right down to the grave map coordinates. What a huge help that was! We finally figured out the sections and then went down the row to find Great Uncle’s grave. We sat in the grass for a bit and read the register and reflected on “things”. After a while Claudette and I went to transcribe the plaque description before we took some pictures and video and departed back to our hotel.

Tomorrow morning we are going to try (for the THIRD time!) to go and see Monet’s house and extraordinary gardens in Giverny in the morning before heading to Paris. The first time we passed through on our way North to Dieppe was near the end of the day, and it was only open for another hour, but had a 45 minute-ish long lineup just to get in! The second time we had planned to go back to it a half hour South from the hotel the morning we were going to visit Dieppe. That morning we slept in and changed our mind, and decided to see it the next morning (Monday) before heading about 150 minutes away to the Vimy region. As we pulled up, the main parking lot was almost dead empty. Rather than being excited, Claudette and I knew immediately that this was a bad sign. Sure enough it was closed on Mondays. Thus we agreed to try again in a few days on our way back to Paris from Vimy. This was a heck of a detour, but we inherently knew it would be worthwhile. We will drop the car off in Paris and then spend three days taking the subway around to the sights before taking the Chunnel to London. Luckily Claudette booked our Paris hotel across the street from the Eurostar train station where we catch the Chunnel train. After three days in London we are booked to fly out to Halifax. While we’ve all really enjoyed the trip so far, we are all REALLY looking forward to hitting home soil!

The War on the Western Front, 1914-1918

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Taken from a plaque inscription at the Orchard Dump Cemetery, Near Vimy, France.

=======================================

In the First World War the Western Front – a battle line extending from the Channel coast to Switzerland along which, four years, millions of men fought and died – was the principal and vital theater. Against the German army were arrayed the armies of the British Commonwealth, France, Belgium and, latterly, the United States. The first two months, a war of movement, saw the containment and partial repulse of the initial German thrust. There then followed three and half years of static trench fighting – war of attrition – during which defensive power was paramount. Neither side could effect a breakthrough and great battles were fought for small territorial gains. The last seven months were again a war of movement culminating in the Allied offensive, starting in August, which finally achieved the breakthrough leading to the armistice of November 11, 1918.

the six divisions of the British Expeditiary force which went to France at the outset in 1914 were deployed amongst the French Armies and played their full part from August 23 in the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Aisne. The next three weeks, during which the battle line moved every day, were a highly critical period in which the German plan for ending the war at a stroke was foiled and the issue deferred.

In the first two weeks of October the BEF was moved from the central sector of the front to Flanders. this move shortened it’s lines of communication, which ran through Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne, and enabled it to protect these ports which were vital both to its own supply and reinforcement and to the Royal Navy’s command of the Channel. Over the next four years, during which its strength rose to fifty British and twelve overseas Commonwealth divisions – Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Indian and troops from Newfoundland, the British West Indies and other Territories – the BEF progressively took over more of the Northern sector of the allied line and fought a series of battles of attrition of which the greatest was the First Battle of the Somme in 1916.

After the German offensives of late March to mid July 1918 had been contained the advance to victory began on August 8 with the battle of Amiens, continued on a broadening front with the Second Battle of the Somme and of Arras and, in September, extended to the Ypres Salient. The advance swiftly gathered momentum and by the day of the armistice the front line ran fifty miles or more Eastward of the starting points. Nearly 750,000 Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen died on the Western front – 200,000 in Belgium and over 500,00 in France. They are commemorated upon headstones marking graves in over 1000 war cemeteries and 2000 civil cemeteries, or on one of the six memorials in Belgium and twenty in France which carry the names of more than 300,000 who have no known grave.

Orchard Dump Cemetery

The cemetery was started in April 1917 during the First Battle of Arras and was used until the following November. It was reopened after the armistice for reburials from the battlefields. It contains the graves of 2694 British, 326 Canadian and 1 South African soldiers and sailors.

The Dieppe Raid

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

TAKEN FROM A PLAQUE AT THE CANADIAN CEMETERY IN DIEPPE.
======================================

The Dieppe Raid on 19th of August 1942 was the only large-scale assault on the coast of German occupied France prior to the allied landings in Normandy in June 1944. Entrusted largely to Canadian troops, it’s objective, to be accomplished within one day was not to hold a bridgehead, but to test the feasibility of seizing a harbor intact, then considered a prerequisite to the landing of the vast allied force needed to liberate Europe.

Of the six thousand soldiers who embarked from the English South coast 5000 were Canadian and the remainder, British Commando troops with 50 American rangers and 20 free French. Eight destroyers (7 British, 1 Polish) escorted them.

Although complete surprise was not achieved on the Eastern flank owing to an encounter between the landing craft and a German convoy, the initial stages of the raid saw some success. Assault groups landed, mostly unopposed, on the Western flank to disarm as many as possible of the German batteries and machine guns posted on the cliffs in advance of the main landing on the beaches and seaway. From orange beaches I and II 250 men from No. 4 commando surrounded, stormed and blew up the six 6 inch guns at Varengeville. Because of the earlier encounter with German shipping, only seven out of the twenty-three landing craft carrying No. 3 commando touched down, but 20 men on yellow II beach scaled the cliff and for more than 2.5 hours prevented any effective fore from the seven gun battery at Berneval. There 120 comrades on Yellow Beach I, where the Germans were by now alerted, were overwhelmed. The landing of 550 Canadians on Blue Beach was delayed and the Germans were able to pin down the whole of this force except for 20 men who reached the cliff top. A larger Canadian force of over 1000 men which landed on Green beach, part of it also delayed and part on the wrong side of the River Scie, nevertheless had considerable success, some units penetrating as far as Petit-Appeville.

By 05:20 hours, when the main Canadian force, with supporting bombardment from both sea and air, had started to land on Red and White beaches below the sea wall and on the espanade of the main sea front of Dieppe town, the firing on the flanks had brought the German defenses in the central sector to full readiness. From batteries and machine gun and mortar posts concealed in and protected by the cliffs a concentrated fire was directed upon the landing craft and troops on the beaches below. Little could be done to support the infantry or stop the German fire. Twenty-seven tanks provided some covering fire from behind the seawall; but the destroyers’ 4 inch guns could not suppress the batteries which the flank attacks had failed to reach. Bombing and cannon fire in frequent air sorties, at heavy loss, gave only temporary relief and the infantry, apart from a few groups which got some way into the town, could make no headway despite the commitment at 06:40 hours of reserves which included part of the Royal Marine Commando.

At 09:00 hours the force commander ordered withdrawal. After some delay landing craft went in under air cover; but many were sunk. Few of the men awaiting evacuation could get to those crafts which reached the beaches and many were taken prisoner. Shortly before 14:00 hours the raid was over.

The royal air force and the Royal Canadian Air Force had been heavily engaged throughout in bombing and cannon fire attacks and on reconnaissance, all under constant attack by German aircraft; United states, New Zealand, Polish, Norwegian, Czech, French and Belgian squadrans also took part. 106 allied aircraft were lost and 167 air crew, including 67 pilots were killed. The Royal Navy had 550 casualties, many from the crews of landing craft of which 33 were lost. The destroyer HMS Berkly was sunk. the commandos had 247 casualties of whom 43 were killed, while the Canadians suffered over 900 dead and lost nearly 1900 prisoners. Nevertheless the lessons learned at Dieppe were of inestimable value when the time came in June 1944 for the successful allied landings in Normandy which were to lead to final victory within a year.

Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery.

The 955 burials in this cemetery comprise:
Canada 707
United Kingdom 232
New Zealand 4
Australia 2
India 1
Other Nationalities 6
Entirely unidentified 3

Of these 783 were killed in the Dieppe raid, the remaining 172 being casualties of other operations. Some of the dead from the raid are buried in Brookwood military cemetery in England; others who have no known grave are commemorated on the Brookwood memorial.

Daytrip to Dieppe

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

While in Dieppe today we followed the well posted signs to The Canadian Cemetery. It’s so difficult to tie in the significance past wars, and particularly the two world wars, to our family, especially since it was over even before my mother was born. The cemetery was quite lovely, and adjacent to some sleepy houses on the edge of town on one side, and rolling pastures on the other three sides. While we reverently walked up and down all of the rows reading the headstones, I was especially pleased with two things. First was how well maintained the area was. All the grass recently cut and all of the headstones were rooted to long rows of weed free dirt with all sorts of flowers and perennials planted in it. Secondly were the other visitors. During our two plus hours there, about six other “groups” or families came by for a total of about 14 other people. Granted it was a Sunday afternoon, but it was still pleasing to see so many local French people come out and walk around for whatever their reasons were. We also found a full register and guest book which made for interesting reading. There were many visitors from Alberta in the past month which was pretty cool. After leaving we drove to the cliff tops for an ocean view. There the old German gun bunkers are bricked up, but it was a stark contrast to the stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean. Their thick, gray concrete impassiveness helped really sink home to Alex & Luke (indeed, all of us realistically) how formidable a task the soldiers had in taking back Europe.

We are heading in two days to Vimy where my Great Uncle is buried in a WWI cemetery. My Uncle Steve had done a good bit of research digging up his information and readily sent it to us. So we look forward to making that somewhat distant yet vastly important family connection there. At this cemetery today on a plaque was the story of the Dieppe attack, and the final chapter of the lives of over 900 men buried there. We grabbed the laptop and retyped that story to post here. Every November 11 we think or say to ourselves “LEST WE FORGET” and yet I know I do. Posting this brief story on our blog is our meager contribution for our own remembering, and hopefully that of our friends and family reading as well…

More Relatives Than We Could Shake A Stick At

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

After dropping off Grandma Vi in Toulon (near Nice), we headed North to Orange to meet up with Claudette’s Aunt, Uncle & cousin as well as her sister and hubby. It was really great to see more family again. Plus the town had a couple of pretty unique monuments. We visited and drank wine in the best French tradition at Chris’ sisters place and got caught up on all sorts of news every which way. The following day we then went to a winery for a tour. Those who were bilingual translated as best they could here and there for those of us who had blank faces at all the wrong places during the commentary. After the process description was the samplng. Extensive sampling I should say… They wasted a pretty penny in taste testing, but between the four “families who bought some bottles in the end, the family run winery pulled in about 400 euro’s. Not too bad for a 90 minute and 1.5 liter of sampling I should think. Some of us had more samples than others of us. Pictures will be posted in the next week or so once that camera disc is finalized… We had a great day and a bit all together and then everyone went off in different directions. We also made plans to meet up again in Paris since we are all there at the same time again.

We stuck around and found a hotel in Orange right across from the ancient Roman Amphitheater wall. The previous day we had met Chris & Viv and Mik at the arch in the center of town. This was pretty cool as arches go, but we didn’t really know any history to go with it. This was the only hotel we had booked thus far that didn’t have parking available. We were simply thrown to the wolves. We miraculously found one only a couple blocks away (easy rolling distance for the suitcases) and paid for as much as we could to suffice the next two nights. Very fortunately there was a holiday in the middle, and the ticket issuing computers take this into account (cool!) and so we would not have to come out and “plug the meter” every two hours for the duration of our stay.

With a little trepidation we embarked the next day on the amphitheater tour. This is one of only three remaining ancient Roman Aphm’s that have their backdrop wall intact. This monument was operated by a private company, and the entrance price was very reasonable. Even better was that fact that EVERYONE automatically got an audioguide. (see end of this post for a description). We were all pleasantly surprised and considered it a very worthwhile visit.If in the area, this is another very worthwhile site to visit. They even have performances there on a regular basis, which would be amazing to see and hear. The acoustics were beautiful, and while the stone seating was not great, the ambiance more than made up for it!

====================================

An AUDIOGUIDE is a simple little telephone handset shaped device which gives specific commentary. It has a handle section with a keypad in the middle and a speaker at one end. There are noted stations along the area of this programed guided tour. At station 1 the user need only enter “1” on the keypad and press play. An extensive narrative about that specific point on the tour plays while the user listens. While going along a tour, there are also tertiary explanations, such as a more vivid description of what society in general was like at the time, or a reading of an excerpt of a play. The best thing is that the tour will be self paced for the user. Also, many languages can be easily programmed into different handsets thus vastly increasing the audience potential. We had never before used them, because we often had a guide, and everywhere else we’d seen them, the audioguides were extra money to rent.

South France (again) & Bye to Vi

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

We spent a few hours on the net in Tossa coordinating the remainder of ours and Grandma Vi’s individual European stays. With a flight booked from the South of France to London, we somehow convinced her to leave us a couple of days early and experience London & Paris on her own. We certainly suffered some flak for this (Auntie Florence & Cousin Bev!) but in the end we all (even Grandma Vi if asked independently) felt it was pretty worthwhile. Check out her post from the link below.

http://friends.jamesworld.ca/2008/04/27/a-day-in-paris/

We leisurely toured around a bit waiting to meet up with some of Claudette’s family in a couple of days. We stayed one night in Montpellier, and the toilette in our room was the highest one up I’d ever sat on. It reminded me of the outhouse at Watch Lake where my short little Dad had to place some 2×6’s at the base on the floor for his feet to rest on. His brothers and friends all teased him about his poor wittle legs, but I was secretly appreciative of having something for the legs of my mere 5’10” frame to rest on. It just helps in allowing one to clench the “other” muscles just the right way… Nonetheless I was lamenting the lack of any handy 2×6’s here in the hotel washroom.

Having all missed lunch but waiting for another few hours for restaurants to open I was feeling rather peckish and went for a walk. I stopped and asked the desk clerk about ordering some bread or cheese or something. Looking down his long nose not a little disdainfully, I was casually informed that the dining room would not be serving (anything!) until 8:00 PM. We were in the center of a collection of big box stores and I expected to find some sort of little snack bar nearby. When I finally found someone who spoke a bit of English and asked, I was politely informed that the only place within 15 minutes walking distance was a Rotten Ronnie’s. Bummer… I trudged back to our hotel, but stopped in to another more basic and decidedly shabbier motel next to ours. They didn’t even have a restaurant here, but they had vending machine! Even better, they had mini, microwavable meals inside one machine and I found myself the proud new owner of a bag of Uncle Ben’s rice. After cooking it there I walked back to our hotel and the sophisticated sneer of the desk clerk as he knew exactly where I had gone for that cooked bag of rice. The funny thing about this generally scrumptious bag of rice was that it had beef looking kind of bits in it. When I finally gathered enough courage to tryu a few I was taken back over 25 years to a time of camping BEFORE dried meats were acceptable in the budget at St. John’s. Yes, for those “older” SJSA friends reading, it was beef Prognets! (I’m sure of it!) The other funny thing about SJSA training is that I have no qualms about taking packaged or wrapped cheese and keeping it for a few hours (or hell! even a day or two) to eat later when it’s warm and all mushy. Actually, I almost prefer it that way! (certainly cheddar at least).

I should also mention here that upon arrival at a new hotel the kids (mostly Luke of course) get a bunch of brochures from the reception area for all the local attractions. They’ve slowly learned no not to bother with some types, especially ones similar to something we had done previously in another country. The best example of this that I can think of is Aquariums. We had made sure to go to the Sydney Aquarium back in September when we passed through Australia. No there’s many an aquarium in all sizes of cities that we’ve seen since then, but surely none could possibly compare to Sydney’s and so we don’t even consider it. Zoo’s are another one that Luke still brings up sometimes. While we all like the animals, we’re hardly going to pay to see a couple of lazy zebras or giraffes in a tiny pen after gliding beside them across the vast Serengetti!

Luke did find a semi-exception though near Tulon. It was a climbing / zipline / ropework place. The price was right and since Claudette and Luke had missed out previously in Costa Rica, we decided to try it out. The appeal to assuage any fears Claudette’s fears was that they readily advertised a variety of courses for all skill levels. The fee was remarkably reasonable as well; only 23 euro’s for three hours of “play”. We were all gung-ho and excited; and promptly booked a reservation for tomorrow late morning. Even though it was a Saturday, it was still early enough in the season that they could fit us in. After equipping us all with harnesses & helmets off we went to the intro lecture and brief training course. Fortunately they had English instruction books with big, well labeled pictures for the kids and I while Claudette listened to the demonstration En Francais.

The training course consisted of a quick sideways shuffle walk around an outcropping about one meter off the ground with three seperate lateral safety long bars that we had to attach and detach our two safety caribiners to and from. Then, (while staying connected to the safety cables) we hooked up to our first zip line and let ‘er go! I chose to take the camera with me which was cool… UNTIL I hit the end of the zipline and forgot to grab on to the end ropes quick enough. Instead of climbing up the receiving netting a little ways and unhooking myself, I gently rolled backwards to the middle of the cable. Stranded like an imbecile, I had to ride out the waves of laughter from my family (mostly the kids!) and wait for the guide to grab my feet and push me back up to the netting for a second try. SCORE! Luckily, (since I was paying VERY attention at this point) I managed to snake my hand around the grab line this time.

We continued on after that to the beginner course (one step above novice where the others in our training session went) for another three quarters of an hour. Luke was right into it this time and was severely kicking himself for skipping out on the ziplines way back in Costa Rica. This was still a little more exciting since it combined ziplines with climbing and obstacle rope bridges. After that we were ready to tackle the next stage. An upper intermediate (violet color signs) typically takes about two hours and so we embarked on that. This was certainly a little more challenging and gave our fingers and arms much more of a workout while still tied in to all the appropriate safety lines. I slowed us down taking a bunch of video and numerous still pictures all through the route as well. Those precarious pics are posted in the 2008 gallery now. Once done that one our official three hours of time was 20 minutes overdue, and no one wanted to destroy their hands (and arm and leg muscles) any more so we had an ice cream and called it a day. The location was up in some foothills about forty minutes from most of the larger cities in a few different directions. I absolutely recommend that anyone coming to France anywhere South of Paris make an effort to try one of these places out. It is fantastic fun, nicely challenging and great exercise in the outdoors for a few hours. The one we went to was called Eden Adventure. Check out their website at:
http://www.eden-aventure.com/

Lastly before leaving the coastal area we popped across the bay to visit the Chateau De If. This old fort and later a prison gained international fame only because it was the location used in the fictional story, The Count Of Monte Christo. It was well restored and the visit gave a good realistic peak into the former French penal system. While it was an incredible tour, we all felt that the Museum seemed to emphasize their tie-in with Alexandre Dumas’ book. There was one cool feature where they spliced together 5 different versions of the movie (there are over 100 movies inspired by the book) to run continuously as a full movie. The cells were also dark & dingy, or with a fireplace and windows; depending upon how much money your family had, and your “station” in life. Once we climbed to the top it was easy to recognize the huge strategic advantage of this little island fort for protecting Marseilles, (apparently Frances second largest city). Viv suggested we check the place out, and it was well worth the visit. (But I certainly wouldn’t want to live there!)

Barcelona

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Only for a half day though cause we (and especially me) had a nice late sleep-in. We had about an eighty minute drive from the little sea-side resort town we were staying at. Once again the inadequate database of the GPS in Spain severely let us down, but we found our way via a paper map and reasonably abundant road signs, (and some good old fashioned surveyor know-how). Driving in the non-freeway streets here didn’t seem quite as bad as in Madrid, but was still much worse than we’d ever experienced in North America. Parkin, Whew! THAT’S really a whole nuther post! The parking problems in Europe are epidemically stupid, WAY beyond the unreason that comes after reason. We have typically looked for a massively expensive underground parkade just because it’s always the easiest option.

Sure enough we found one only a block away from Gaudi’s House of the Holy Family. Sureal doesn’t describe this puppy. It’s been under construction for over fifty years and is officially only 50% completed. It will likely be completed much sooner than Crazy Horse however due to the massive tourist crowds it draws. A few euro’s at the gate, and a few more to go up the elevator in one of the towers pays for some staff but mostly goes towards the construction budget. If you are withing 300km of Barcelona at any time a visit to this epic building is an absolute must. For those of you unfamiliar with this future “church” or Gaudi’s work, the pictures in our on-line gallery speak volumes.

Leaving the car there we snuck into the subway a few stops away to take in the Picasso Museum. This was also phenomenally worthwhile. Most of the works inside were lesser know due to having been in his private collection, or donated from family and friends. It was very well organized with some multilingual descriptions. I always knew he was quite the philanderer, but his erotic section was also impressive. Certainly not a promoted side of Picasso that I had ever seen or heard of before. There was one book of photographs of him and various friends by one of his girlfriend/muses. It had a shot of him and some friends who were a married couple that he was rumored to had seduced the woman of. When confronted by someone other than the husband on his shenanigans with his friend’s wife, his infamous reply went along the lines of; “I didn’t want to insult him by not seducing his wife”. It was a different time then… And that was only just recently in our history! (Just since Claudette had been born).

Tossa De Mar

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

Tossa is a little Mediterranean beach front resort town on the East coast of Spain. It is right down a valley, but has a beautiful section of sandy beach. It is only about 75 minutes North of Barcelona, and owes it’s prominence to being a Summer playground for the middle classes of that larger city. Indeed, the entire coast up from Barcelowna to pretty much the French border seemed to be seasonal resort towns for inlanders. We found a decent enough place for three nights for just the five of us now that Grandpa ray had returned home. It was 110 euros for both rooms combined (a triple and a double). It was still low season though and I would have hated to see the prices in high season. She told us that they were just about double of what we were paying when high season started in another month or so.

Even with what we were paying it was still cheaper to stay here and drive to Barcelona in day trips. The hotel rates in the big city were ridiculously high, and I wouldn’t even want to consider parking! Many hotels (a little more than half) were closed and actually boarded up for the off season. This was a bit of an odd sight to see. There were lots of restaurants open though. With lotsa high prices to go with the resort ambiance. A typical meal for the five of us was about $100, geesh! Even worse was there were only two internet places in town and no WIFI. There were usually lots around, but most all internet closed. There was actually lotsa private WIFI, but all were locked. The one exception was TELIFONICA that uses pre-pay cards. Instead we opted for a little British style pub with a big ugly cockney woman bartender that had two coin operated internet computers, since it was only a block from our hotel. When we needed something printed we had to go several blocks away to a larger net cafe though. This little town was ideally situated between Barcelona to the South and Gerona and Figueres to the North. There are supposed to be many more architectural works of art from Gaudí in both those towns not to mention the Salvador Dali museum in Figueres.

Montserrat, Spain

Monday, April 21st, 2008

We did a relaxed day trip from Madrid to this historic “community” in the weirdly shaped, rounded topped mountains. The entire place is a park, and no one lives there anymore (I think) except for a few resident priests. The peaks and scenery were pretty amazing. We arrived in a thick shroud of fog. This was probably really good since we later saw the amazing yet very precarious cliffs we’d been driving along (rarely with guardrails!) to get there. It certainly made difficult figuring out where we were and where the parking was. After lucking out and finding a stall for parking, we walked through the clouds up the hill a little ways, where others seemed to be walking. None us really knew what we were looking for, but Claudette had read us the short paragraph description from a guide book and it had sounded worthwhile. While it seemed moist in the air, the clouds that we were immersed in never really rained on us until a few hours later when they had lifted. While walking we saw a building (barely) off to the left side of the road we were walking on. Then, just before the building a parking lot with a few dozen tour buses all lined up. We went briefly inside the building to see what was what. It turned out to be a three story food services building, built into the side of the hill a bit. It was also perched at the top of a deep ravine with a (presumably) spectacular view through the huge floor to ceiling windows. We had just eaten a roadside “picnic snack” that resembled lunch (lotsa great cheese, but no meat) and so resolved to eat supper here after checking the rest of the place out. We still had no idea what we were going to see other than the fact that there was supposed to be a nice church up here somewhere to see. The many large tour coaches and this huge three level restaurant reassured us that there must certainly be something very significant to see though.

Grandma Vi later commented how absolutely cool and memorable this experience was for her being unable to see a dozen meters in front of us. Apparently she had never been “in” the clouds before, and this was a very novel experience. In retrospect, I suppose that my first time walking in the clouds on a hike was pretty special as well. Grandpa Ray or Claudette didn’t comment and so we walked on, ever upwards. The uphill side of the road (and sidewalk) had become a looming retaining wall without my noticing. Suddenly there was another large restaurant opening onto the sidewalk, but this time built into the uphill side, instead of overlooking the lush green valley below. This place was merely utilitarian since it didn’t offer three teirs of seating adjacent to large panel windows. Based on this, I was presuming the that the prices would be slightly less as well. Shortly after we walked past that cafeteria, there were stairs going up into the retaining wall, up into the hill. The mist was also starting to clear, and looking up we could catch glimpses of the mountain walls and rounded spires (is that a semi-oxymoron?) a short distance away. At the top of the 6m vertical stairs, there was a courtyard, and by the time we reached it the mists were really starting to clear up to about 30m elevation from us. Suddenly sprang out a beautiful shear cliff face all along one plane running parallel to the road below that was cut into the hillside. The church entrance was off to one side while the opposite had a road heading down to a gated wall entrance before a switchback u-turn to meet up with the road we had taken the stairs from. All the stonework was old and beautiful.

We headed off to the church courtyard entrance. This was through a large multi-arched building, which we later saw was a “C” shape facing the other way, and surrounding the church entrance courtyard. As the mist “lifted”, the rain naturally started. It was still a really nice site. Unfortunately, someone here had chosen a logo for the church with four rounded towers, one longer than the other three. This is unfortunate because it looks exactly like someone giving “the finger”! Of course Grandma Vi readily posed beside the sign with hers extended as well. I’m surprised she hasn’t heard all sorts of exclamations of shock and horror from her co-workers. Perhaps they hadn’t seen that shot yet, but they’ll be scrambling to look for it now!

The Church itself was quite nice and tall and majestic. Inside was really beautiful though with the ceiling covered in stunning paintings from masters of the brush. This church set in amongst the oddly shaped mini mountains was a pretty cool sight overall. We couldn’t see the museum there since it was mid afternoon and we were running out of time to go up the mountain. There had once been several dozen monks all throughout the hills here that lived in solitude. Apparently they only came down from their huts once a year or so. They didn’t even visit each other (supposedly?) at only one or two km apart from each other. Their was also a smaller stone chapel at the top of one of these hills a few km away. There were two trams that take tourists up and down from the main park area. There is also a gondola from the base of the valley below which brings people up from the town to the park. We took the “up” tram to the top of a hill. It was similar to the Hong Kong tram, but was still a new experience for Grandpa Ray & Grandma Vi. Sadly, half way up the cloud cover encased everything again and we didn’t get much of a view down. we knew this before buying the tickets though, and just enjoyed the displays up there and a bit of a walk around. By the time we got down the museum was closed, and the restaurants only had unappetizing scraps left. So we piled in to the Citroen mini van and headed back West to our room for the night.

Madrid

Monday, April 21st, 2008

We didn’t really know where we were going to be in mid April when Ray needed to fly home (to look after (Greg & Monique’s poor, sweet, abandoned children). We figured maybe Southern Spain or Portugal, so we told him to book himself back from Madrid. It turns out that we barely made it West to Madrid just on time for him to catch his plane back early this morning. The city was pretty interesting Our hotel was called “Hi-Tek Castel Nova” and included free wireless throughout as well as a huge screen laptop in every room along with huge LCD TV’s and VOIP phones. Very cool indeed!

We only drove around in a seemingly fairly new area in the NE area of Madrid, closer (15 minutes) to the airport. It was still weird though, because no matter where we drove in about a four kilometer radius, there were no single family dwelling subdivisions. There were only apartments. Block after block after block of apartments with small basic little parks or “green areas” thrown in. To make things even weirder (to us North Americano’s at least) was that none of these apartments were more than seven or eight stories tall. Even the commercial buildings were seemingly restricted to this height. The roads here were wide with multiple lanes, with elaborate traffic control. The malls we saw were HUGE and plentiful. Just no houses…

The subway system here was fantastic. The stairways and walking tunnels were wide and well looked after. There were even three or four escalators at most stations we saw. We were riding around on the weekend and didn’t experience the workday crushing throngs of people. There were still one or two rides with people bumping each other and at one point a dark cloud fell over our happy family group. Ray realized that his wallet from the buttoned back pocket went missing on one ride. Luckily we had a smok’in net connection and he was able to use skype to cancel everything. It was still a huge disappointment to lose the $150 or so cash he had in there though, never mind the damper the experience put on our moods.

We didn’t do a whole lot of sight seeing in Madrid. In the two nights we stayed there was only time for a few spots including the Royal Palace. It was incredible, and opulent, and stunk so badly of excess that I quickly became sickened with the obnoxious display everywhere we looked. It was emphasized that the king had three meals a day in each of three seperate rooms. Each was more incredible and painted and furnished more extravagantly than the previous. There were marble floor and wall etchings done with craftsmanship just barely less grand than that of the Taj Mahal. One room housed several Stratovarious instruments of various sizes, and I didn’t even realize that he made anything but violins. The armory at the Palace was very cool. All kinds of different swords and fighting implements. There were a couple dozen suites of armor, all shined up nicely, and another several with armored dummy men on armored dummy horses. Ultra cool! All this came along with a few dozen security people also watching to ensure that no one attempted to take any pictures. Anyone raising a cell phone up received an immediate stern focus, never mind actually trying to whip out a camera from one’s pocket.

We had difficulty finding a place for supper on the 20th to celebrate Alex’s 14th birthday. The hotel restaurant where we were at was closed that night but there were a whole bunch of other options within a ten minute drive of the neighborhood. Or so we initially thought… It turned out that places were either a bar (packed full of smokers) or a basic hokey little bistro, (not worthy of a birthday celebration), or that they didn’t open until 9:00 PM! In the end we drove around for a couple of hours looking and came back to an awesome Asian place that opened at nine. The food and Spanish speaking Asian staff were worth the wait though, and we all enjoyed a scrumptious meal. Plus at the end, they brought Alex her cheesecake with a candle in it and we all boisterously sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to her.

Sadly the next morning Ray had to head off early to the airport. We all gave him big hugs goodbye, but not before loading the heck out of his huge (and half empty) and most importantly light suitcase. He still hasn’t told us if he had to pay any extra charges at the counter, but we temporarily divested ourselves of all sorts of heavy books, neat small rocks and ancient Roman pottery pieces from around Petra.

Carcasonne with Richard the Lionheart

Thursday, April 17th, 2008

The first midievil town/castle we visited (St Paul-Vence) had nothing on this place. While the “streets” (walkways actually) were narrower in Vence, this place had a much stronger “old” feel to it. There were far more artist shops and galleries here as well. This town was also a little bit larger and included a range of restaurants and pricey accommodation inside the walls. The actual castle was extensively restored as well. Before we paid to see it though, we made a couple of pit stops.

One was at a torture devices “museum” with some original pieces and some replicas from the Spanish Inquisition and that general era. Only the two kids and I went in as Claudette and the two grandparents were not interested in that expenditure to be grossed out with ingenious methods of causing extreme discomfort, pain and death to humans. I was not even sure if Luke would be ready for it with his sweet young innocent mind. Oh well! There were all kinds of ugly, nasty devices and very elaborate descriptions in six languages. Surprisingly Luke didn’t wake up creaming from nightmares that night, even though I expected all three of us to. Pictures were not allowed, but I was compelled to sneak a few in anyways. The most notable to me was an actual woman’s chastity belt. I’d never seen one before and the short but sharp spikes sticking away from the hole would easily have been able to ward of any man without blood in his brain, no matter how crazed he thought he was. OUCH!! The genuine iron maiden was a close second. The story posted with it detailing the gruesome 80 hour death of the last person to have been sandwiched in between the spikes was horrific in detail. I’m pretty sure that all the old blood and guts had been cleaned out though…

At the second stop, Luke was the only one who wanted to go, so Grandpa joined him. Being a very scream-worthy haunted house, the rest of us were a little worried about Grandpa’s ticker. Luckily Luke & Ray came out unscathed a half hour later. I managed to time it and videotape their exit amid the wails of surprise from the teenaged girls right behind our boys. They thoroughly enjoyed it, but Luke was unable to convince anyone else to fork out the $14 so he could go again.

The castle fees were minimal at only about $8 each. We read that the restoration for tourism purposes had actually begun in the 1870’s, just a few years after Canada became a country! Once again it was incredibly well done with thorough explanations in six different languages. It also detailed the history of the location, and showed models of the buildings as they were slowly built up to protect a wealthy (but not well thought of) family in town. Eventually the place was sieged and then handed over to the French Royal Family to become beefed up even more. It was an excellent tour and gave me a better understanding of Age Of Empires. (What?! You don’t think that the purpose of traveling and gaining new experiences is only to help one better understand video games? Geesh, what were ya thinking?!?)

In my last Blog posts comments my friend Darin left a hilarious message detailing the inquisitive nature of his wonderful mother and her experience in Carcasonne. Very worthwhile to read. Check out the comments here:

http://weblog.jamesworld.ca/2008/04/15/nice-along-the-beach/

Nice Along The Beach…

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

After a bite and wandering around the sidewalked old town a bit, we headed to the beach. We later learned that this was the first major day of Sun after a pretty cool Spring. The wind was a bit cool and whipping around everyone, but it was still nicely warm in the sun. There were some people with parkas and heavy jackets on the beach, right beside others (male and female alike) who were stripped down to the skimpiest bathing suit. The beach itself was mostly all small rocks. there were a couple infrequent patches of sand here and there. The water’s edge was a fairly steep section, but we were unsure of how much the tide changed in this area of the Mediterranean. Every wave made a loud but cool sounding rumble of all the little rocks smacking against each other. The kids took off their socks and shoes to wade i the crashing waves, amid much squeals and running away from the high ones. Thus also began a rock hunt by everyone as we walked along the beach for interesting or peculiar specimens. Warren’s Geology background once again proved very useful for explanations and insights to everyone’s finds.

We had already been walking for five or ten minutes when Claudette pointed out a topless woman sunbathing to me. I then looked behind us and further in front and they were EVERYWHERE! (and they were all middle aged or more too…). It was quite a shock to see so many bared breasts on such a cool day, but I suppose that the cabin fever of a colder Spring does that to people. Heck, we were all (well, the James’ anyways) in shorts and t-shirts anyways, but many locals that were out for walks were very bundled up heavy sweaters and such. We ended up wandering back to the McBride’s rented apartment and visited a few more hours with some excellent cheese and stories. The kids ran around and played outside, enjoying the last bit of time together until the McBride’s come up to visit the NWT in the Summer of 2009. I think we had gotten a commitment on that one at least…

We had to wait around in Nice until Monday when I could pick up the rental van. It was really a lease buy-back Citroen mini-van that we had arranged a few weeks before while in Egypt. We had wanted to pick it up in Rome but they required three to four weeks of lead time to prepare the vehicle and get it to where we wanted it. That was a big bummer in our lack of planning since we had to rent the other van while in Tuscany. The longer we had the Citroen lease buy back for, the cheaper per day it became. There was a base price and then a little added on after that for each day you kept it, starting with a minimum of three weeks. Overall the lease buy back program offers a great deal over renting (for more than three weeks that is). You get a brand new vehicle, with no hassles, unlimited mileage, any immediate family member can drive, and they have a huge range of pick-up and drop off spots throughout Europe.

We spent our last full day in Nice driving up into the hills to the North to visit some quaint villages and the old midevel historic town of St. Paul Vence. It was fun and interesting, but we never made it to see Monaco a half hour away due to a vote. It would have been cool to at least see the Kingdom (other than from the train previously when we passed through) even though we were told that a lousy coffee would cost several to ten euro’s, never mind trying to eat lunch there! Tomorrow we were headed to Carcasonne, further West and a little North after hearing from the McBride’s on what an awesome place it was to visit.

Nice Was Ok; If One Likes Bared Breasts…

Monday, April 14th, 2008

I boarded a train in Florence with barely seconds to spare (well, OK it was about 400 seconds…) before it rolled out of the Firenza (Florence) station. I had difficulty with all kinds of one-ways and all kinds of road construction in the area while trying to return the rental car about four blocks away. Worse yet, after waiting around for the garage guy to inspect the car before giving me permission to leave. Even extra worse, someone had packed all kinds of very heavy junk in my backpack that I had to run with back to make our train. The other four (Alex, Luke, Grandpa Ray & Grandma Vi) were all snuggled in to their seats while Claudette was outside at the entrance to the station to lead me to the correct car. As I rounded the corner, running as fast as my forty year old knees would carry me and the eight hundred pound gorilla that must have been in my backpack, there was Claudette on the steps frantically pulling her arms in a repeated sweeping motion towards herself, all the time yelling at me to hurry up. At that point, with my legs burning and my lungs out of breath, I was thinking that perhaps we needed to arrange an eye appointment for my dear sweet wife. For, even though she saw me, and was looking directly at me, she surely must not have seen me running since she was screaming at me to hurry… I then stopped at the last intersection separating me from the train station. As cars were whizzing by precariously close to the curb, I still saw Claudette looking directly at me and still frantically (with seemingly even more desperation in each broad sweep now) waving at me to hurry the hell up. I pondered maybe jumping over these fast little sports cars in order to fulfill my wife’s orders in a more expedient fashion, but then I saw a bus. Not just a piddly little school bus of course, No… This was a brand new, sate of the art double decker, extra tall, extra wide bus with bullet proof windows that I was gonna against if I came anywhere close to it. Have no fear though, as soon as that bus went by I burned across the intersection against the pedestrian signs but during a small (oh, and I REALLY mean tiny here…) break in the traffic. The next lane was a breeze since the light was about to change and most cars were stopped already. That meant I had to navigate through the throngs of typically rude Europeans all in a hurry to cross. Having upset a few people there I whipped around the corner and panted up the steps to my ‘patiently’ waiting wife. She greeted me with a extra loud “HURRY UP!!! The train is almost ready to leave!” as though I was out for a leisurely Sunday stroll and this was completely new information to me. I wonder how much an optometrist appointment will cost in Europe???

Our ride into France took us to Genova where we had to switch trains. We were trying to arrange to meet up with the McBride’s again in Nice for a day or two. As some might have already guessed by the atrociously obvious lead-in, we accidentally met the McBride’s at the Geonva train station! While we had a two hour layover on the platform, Claudette met Warren at the bathrooms. Thus we were able to introduce this new Family of great friends to our Mom & Dad a few days earlier than planned.

Our place in Nice was described in a couple of guidebooks as being “The Bestest, Nicest hostel in the World!” And luckily the cheap but delicious food, staff, free computers, free WIFI, plus all sorts of diverse and interesting activities. The rooms had incredibly thin walls, but that seems to be standard in hostels everywhere it seems. The restaurant / internet room / bar was just a hopping all evening and night on Friday. Bottles of wine were a crazily cheap 4, euro’s each, while all highballs, glasses of wine and beer was 1 euro each! Part Hardy indeed. Some of us did, and some of us limited ourselves… (Nuff said.) Any single 17-25 year old guys reading; this is absolutely THE place to go to “meet” new friends, WOW! Let me tell you…. tonnes and tonnes… All sweet and innocent, and mostly North Americans traveling for the first time ever.

We (five sixths of us anyways) got up for a late leisurely breakfast about 9:30. This place has a great reputation for a wide variety of cereal available, and sure enough there were twelve shiny dispensers with all kinds of non-egg breakfast just waitig to be gobbeled up by road weary travelers. They also served a really nice grain bread and some excellent jams. We had made plans to meet with the McBride’s for lunch, and took the tram down the hill (fom our excellent viewpoint of the Mediterranean) to meet up in an old section of town. The semi-fast food at a sidewalk cafe’ was pretty good, and then a few of us had delicious ice cream (choosing from about three dozen flavors) and I had a Grand Marnier crepe. Nummy big time!

I’m out of time today and will have to continue with our walk down the beach tomorrow… Cheers!

LEANING RICK IN PISA

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

The GPS in the van led us close to the Miracle Square, but we still couldn’t see the tower. We knew it wasn’t very tall, but as we neared the destination without any sightings we were a little worried. Then we rounded one corner of the main road, and there was an old wall with a gate entrance and a large grassy area on the other side. This I only caught in a glimpse as we went by. The real proof that we were at the right spot were the vendors. All of a sudden after rounding that corner we had gone from bland city road to row upon row, upon row of crowded, tented vendor stalls. “Yes!” Claudette and I almost exclaimed aloud. With a bunch a shysters selling all kinds of crap, this must indeed be the right place. We drove another half block before finding a parking stall and headed back to the entrance.

Never mind the varied, semi-sorted past of the Bell Tower, it was beautiful! The Cathedral, the Cemetery, the tower, and a museum were all finished in gorgeous marble with intricate styles and carvings. It was VERY impressive, even though I was well prepared to be impressed. We’re not quite talking about the seamless craftsmanship of the Taj Mahal mind you, but it was still fairly incredible. Claudette and I philosophically debated on who had originated the art of delicately etching precious and semi-precious stonework into marble. Both India and Italy had similar styles and reputations for doing this type of work. Obviously one had traded with the other some of these works, and the second one had picked up the concept and began doing it themselves. We had heard stories of Italian stores buying finished marble etched tables, shipping them North, and then selling them as Italian made works of art. The price was naturally tripled to account for realistic Italian craftsman prices. Wow, the Indians sure do work for cheap, on account of their economy being at a much lesser scale than Western countries. If only they had much better infrastructure throughout the country, they really would completely take over manufacturing and service from North America.

Back to the tower though… The lean was pretty dramatic, especially when walking sideways into the lean. It reminded me of the slanted, very narrow staircase of the Dome Walk for St. Peter’s Basilica. The steps were really worn on the edges in the center, just like the Basilica as well. Both sets of stairs were worn down about 0.7cm to almost 3cm deep in a bunch of areas. Granted there’s quite a huge number of daily visitors here all day long, throughout the year. They only sell tickets in pre-arranged time blocks, and after that forty minutes or so, everyone is booted down. This is to let the next group finish climbing from a staging area three-quarters of the way up.

We took some pictures, but NOT the traditional holding up the tower ones. Before our scheduled time we had gone through the Cathedral which was pretty spectacular. It had all sorts of amazing paintings, mosaics and carvings, but we were hard to impress after seeing the majestic grand scale of art at St. Peter’s in Rome. After climbing the tower we toured the cemetery which was pretty interesting and very unique. It was in a long term state of restoration, but the graves were laid out in a large outer rectangle with an inner, “undead” courtyard of grass, small trees and benches for worshipers to relax in. On the way out we took our time going through the hawkers booths amidst some light rain falling.

Venice For A Few Hours

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

We had heard and read about the extremely ridiculous rates for hotels (even compared to regular Europe) in Venice. Thus we planned to stay somewhere else and drive up just for the day. The vehicle was quite efficient on fuel and even the $20 in toll roads and $20 parking for five hours didn’t come close to the premium they were charging there. We popped in to a couple and got their rate sheets. Most likely dumply little double rooms were going for anywhere from 300 euro’s to 800 euro’s per night. The 800/night one had a really nice marble lobby mind you. The McBride’s had chanced upon a very nice apartment for a three night rental we found out afterwards. They got a much more reasonable rate of about 200 euro’s for several beds, (not just a double room like hotels offer).

On the 130KPH three lane toll road, it only took us about three hours to go a little over 400km at about 140-150 almost the entire way. The Ford Galaxy (mini-van with four regular doors) was pretty nice and handled remarkably well. It was a little larger than the newly introduced Ford freestyle back home. We rented a GPS unit (which after Australia, we now consider to be an absolute necessity when traveling anywhere we haven’t lived) which easily directed us right to a huge parking garage.

We walked a short distance and over a few bridges to get to the bus station. Adjacent was the main launching point into the canal city for that West side which was connected to the mainland by a long low combined bridge/causeway. Being just after noon, we had our minds on some fine Venician cuisine. The first place we encountered offered a variety of pasta or pizza dishes, all for the bargain price of 19.95 euros! That’s over $32 Canadian!!! This was heat-lamp slop probably made way back in the wee hours of that morning… Yeach! Needless to say, we continued on wandering the wonderful sidewalks further in to town.

For some crazy reason I had always thought that Venice was partially canals with roads in between most of the waterways. This is a now ridiculous possibility as I wander around and see that there is no opportunity for roads anywhere in the city. This was really hit home to me just on the other side of the bus station where the canals “started”. There was a standard “cargo” boat loading up suitcases. This included using a conveyor belt that was lowered and raised on hydraulics so that there was minimal hefting of bags around. This meant that there was no possible way for those bags to get to the hotel rooms by a hand cart as we had seen in Augas Calientes, Peru or in Phi Phi Don, Thailand. Sure enough, when we later took a boat ride there were many little hotel entrances (some very nice looking!) that opened directly to the water and had no sidewalk access. As much as I’d ever read read and seen about Venice, it was still incredibly magical to be walking alongside the canals. This place has character oozing out from between each cobblestone in the walkways and out of every crack in the slowly sinking buildings.

We had a very enjoyable time wandering the sidewalks, all the time heading towards San Marco Square. Alex was enthralled with the beautilly crafted masks in so many of the shops. Luke was just thrilled to run through so many large groups of pigeons when we got to the square. There were some bistros and small restaurants that offered slightly more reasonable prices than the originally gouging we’d seen at the first restaurant by the bus station. Around four in the afternoon we started working our way back to the car parkade on the opposite edge of town. This included the requisite gondola ride, which was stupidly expensive but also quite magical. “C’mon!” I kept accusing myself. “It’s just a simple boat ride with a guy at the back performing a constant and strenuous modified “J” stroke at the back using an elongated oar”. Still I had had a huge grin, and my head was bopping back and forth and every which way in between checking out all of the cool sights and taking in the ambiance from a perspective on the water. With another few hour drive home we ate some sandwiches on the way and then mostly just crashed when the headlights turned in to our adoptive driveway for the week.
.

FLORENCE, But Not my Auntie

Friday, April 11th, 2008

With an easy and on schedule train ride we arrived to Florence in Tuscany. Claudette and I walked around the neighborhood with the train station a bit looking for transportation options. This was one time where we had failed to adequately plan ahead, and we got bitten badly in the pocketbook for it. All eight of the car rental places we came across had closed a few hours before our arrival at 1:00 PM on this Sunny Sunday afternoon. The bus station was an additional two hour wait and then a two km walk after that. Hmmm… That left us with only the option of getting two taxis which cost 76 euros each… OUCH! We had heard so many stories of how easy it was to get around anywhere (well, ALMOST anywhere we now knew) in Italy really easily by train. The truth is that there are so many pocket towns and villages, that if you are not specifically staying on a train route, then the options quickly fly out the window. The literature we looked at during the online booking regarding “getting there” was sparse. It only offered vague driving references, but made no mention of bus or train connectivity. Unfortunately the price (of $800/week) was so cheap compared to everything we had looked at that I urged Claudette to jump at booking it before we had fully digested the possible transportation problems. We didn’t even consider that we were arriving on a Sunday and that the car rental places would be long closed. The landlords described the extreme lack of transportation options to us on the phone, but only on the morning of arrival. Big “Oooops” on that costly little oversight of planning. In the end we took a taxi through the gorgeous countryside to the apartment. The roads are narrow, twisty, and with steep ups and downs to accompany the windy, twisty narrow little roads. All drivers we “met” drove in the center of the road until they saw an oncoming vehicle and then they veered sharply to their edge only just before a spectacular crash! This continued on a constant basis after we got the rental van as well.

After another taxi ride of 70 euros just to get groceries we decided to get a rental car right away and off I went back to Florence via a 30 euro taxi ride to some other close by town and then a half hour train ride. Luckily I already knew where to the car rental places were and I was back home with a shiny new Ford mini van in barely a couple of hours. It is a “Galaxy” model and is really nice. Enough so that we’d Love to buy one in Canada if they were only available. It is similar to the new Ford Freestyle, but is a little roomier and handles way better.

I mentioned in a previous post about the good and bad of being in the surrounding beautiful country side of Tuscany just outside of Florence. It was good because a hotel room in or near Venice was cost prohibited beyond belief! Also, booking the same place for a week straight gave us a much better price. The bad part was that we were about a 30 minute drive to the Florence train station, and there was no local commuter train close to our “town” of Montelbano. (You will never find it on a map, so don’t bother to look. The surrounding area of gentle rolling hills with all sorts of house, small apartments and other buildings dotting the landscape really makes this province as beautiful and picturesque as we’d often heard. The roads were well thought out and pretty fast though, even with the switchback turns and narrowness. Those little local roads only last for about the last 10km of a journey though, with very decent two way or even six lane blacktop for all other major connections.

In all of the little towns and villages we passed through or saw in Tuscany there was a bit of a small (10-30 units) apartment building boom. Small scale construction was everywhere, and we couldn’t figure out why, or what type of economy supported all these small towns. After asking around, it seems as though these all all bedroom communities of Florence whose majority of the populace commutes to work in the big city every day. The place we had booked was a three story apartment built into the side of the hill with a swimming pool, (not open until May sadly). This place had two three bedroom suites on each of the top two floors and five single room suites on the bottom walkout floor. One of the top suites was rented by a German family whose husband worked in Florence. We were paying $900/week for our suite, but I’m not sure what kind of long term rate they had negotiated for theirs. In the middle of nowhere with well water and no phone lines (and sketchy cell service) and a 20 min bus ride to school for the kids I wouldn’t be paying much, (no matter how spectacular the view!). I chatted with the couple a bit one day though, and they repeatedly said that they considered themselves VERY fortunate to have found that place to live in. They were also trying to convince the landlord to sell them that suite. Their offer was 300,000 euro!!! ($500,000 !) and they considered that well worth it. Sheesh!

We did lots of relaxing and didn’t get back to Florence to see all of their churches and museums. Besides our two day trips to Venice and Pisa, we traveled around the back roads a bit just enjoying the countryside. We did go to a town about 20 minutes away with lightening fast internet. We checked mail and uploaded a bunch of old pics and some blog posts from the kids. The interesting thing was that he had two rooms full of about twenty computers each. The place was run by two Chinese guys and was almost three quarters full of Chinese people playing games or chatting. That was more Orientals than I’d seen anywhere outside of China since China. Not a single Italian though, and only one other Caucasian tourist came in as we were leaving. Very odd we thought for a town of around 10,00 or so.

Away from this thriving metropolis of around 10,000 and closer to our collection of barely two dozen buildings, (50 people at best I’d imagine) were some peculiar road signs. It was funny to see so many road signs before steeper hills indicating that tire chains were required in snowy or rain conditions. When we asked around, we were told that there hadn’t been snow here in many, many years. While this winter (and indeed, still the Spring) had been the coldest one in many years, my queries of any snow were apparently, quite laughable.

Rick in Rome

Friday, April 11th, 2008

We were told in advance (by Grandma Vi) that the offer of a 40 euro Mercedes pre-booked ride from the airport to our B&B apartment was entirely reasonable. It was noticeably cooler from Jordan, but still shorts weather by our reckoning. Luke was a little choked that we made him wear long pants and then it turned out to be +12. Luckily the surprise of seeing Grandma Vi and Grandpa Ray took his mind off of it. Don’t believe anything the kids said about not being surprised. There was no way Luke recognized Grandma’s voice, since even I didn’t know it was her behind the speaker. Alex had known about the original plans and might have been suspicious. I think we had her mostly convinced that they were only going to join us in Halifax, so she was still pleasantly surprised to see them hiding in the apartment. Unfortunately Alex was just not shocked and screaming like Luke was.

We took it fairly easy that first day, walking around the neighborhood quite a bit looking for a reasonable restaurant for a sit down meal that was open before 7:00 PM. The streets were littered with little pizzerias which looked OK, but only served take-out. There were a few of these that had seating outside, but after sundown that was an option that two thirds of us were not the slightest bit interested in. We found a small grocer and bought some cereal and sandwich lunch fixings. The B&B woman was almost psychotically insistent that we were NOT allowed to eat ANY food in her apartment other than breakfast. A few days later when we (mostly me) had clearly broken this rule a few times, I had a friendly chat with her about it. Apparently the real issue was one of licensing, so that while we officially weren’t allowed to bring cooked pizza back and eat it, we conceivably really could. This was only permissible in her mind I think because we had done a really good job so far of cleaning up any of our messes right away. Also the kids and I doted on her little Jack Russel Terrier, smothering it with attention, hugs and playtime whenever we were both at home together.

We were in downtown Rome, and only a couple of blocks from the Vatican. This was pretty convenient for us to walk around, but using the subway system was pretty easy too. Our apartment was halfway between two stations, but from there we could easily get to any other sights we needed to see. We also went to the train station to buy our future tickets to Florence and then on to Nice. Claudette and I booked an apartment “near” Florence for a week and figured on taking the train on short trips to see Venice, Florence and Pisa. This proved to be both a good and bad idea. I’ll list a full description on why in my Florence post.

The Vatican was very impressive. We spent our second day just waling around the neighborhood and getting a feel for the main drag. Down from the St. Peter’s Square a little ways was a municipal tourist office next to St. Angelo’s Castle on the river. We bought a “Roma Pass” which gave us free admission to any two and decent discounts at the remainder of almost two dozen museums in the city. Sadly the Vatican Museum did not apply. We also spent a couple of hours that second day exploring St. Peter’s Basilica. This being the largest church in the world was simply beyond amazing in size, stature and artistic expression. We were freely allowed to take pictures, but I couldn’t even begin to pictorially document all of the amazing carvings, paintings and exquisite mosaics. I’ve never really been much of a fan of bronze, but there were a few pieces inside that still impressed me enough for my jaw to gape a little. We left Claudette and Ray behind to attend mass while Vi, the kids and I went bookstore hunting. A few days later we returned explicitly to climb the dome of the basilica. Being the highest building in Rome, the Dome climb offers the best view in town! I hadn’t thought about this until it was pointed out, but Rome has no tall apartment buildings or skyscrapers. A city bylaw actually dictates that nothing can be taller than the basilica. The dome walk itself was long but pretty cool. It was via indoor stairs almost the entire way. First we rode an elevator to the roof of the main building. At this level we could go up a ramp and a few stairs to get inside the church again to an upper level of the dome and see down, which was another amazing perspective of all the stunning works of art and a view of the little ant people way below. From this point the staircase up was just inside the outer wall of the dome, but there was in inner wall beside us as well. The other side of this inner wall was where more of the incredible paintings were. Being sandwiched in between these two walls not only made the staircase (barely one meter wide, and only 0.5m wide at some points!) spiral up, but we had to walk at a slant for most of the top portion where the dome really starts to curve in. This is pretty neat to reflect on now, but rather troublesome at the time of walking…

The day before, when looking for travel agencies to buy train tickets we had gone to the Spanish Steps. They were nice and all, but none of knew the relevance. There was a huge amount of tourists mulling around though, and a Rotten Ronnie’s where we all went to use the toilette’s. Funny enough though, a book that Luke was reading a few days later made reference to the Spanish Stairs. It talked about some kids going in a time machine back to see the killings at the Spanish stairs. Oddly enough it was a British book too, so the reference was uncanny in it’s timing. Luke was only too happy to enlighten us somewhat of course.

Our second last day was spent at the coliseum. This also phenomenally cool. It certainly seemed much smaller than I always envisioned it to be in order to hold 70,000 to 90,000 (depending in which “authority” one pays attention to). If the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton can just squeeze in a little over 60,000 then ancient Romans were either an incredibly tiny people, or else they sat on top of each other with no elbow room. The sides were quite steep up as well. Much more so that I’m certainly used to seeing in modern day stadiums at least.

The Last of Jordan.

Monday, April 7th, 2008

There seemed to be many worthwhile sights in Jordan, but we just didn’t have the time to see much else. We had to arrange our own chartered van from Wadi Mousa (the modern day town adjacent to Petra) to Aman via the Dead Sea. Public buses only went direct to Aman, and didn’t make the detour West to the Dead Sea. On our way we drove through some harrowing canyons and along very precarious cliff edges before connecting up with the main highway. We had to pay almost $10 each at a picnic site that included a small park area, swimming pools (currently empty) and change rooms with freshwater showers. That was critical to rinse our bodies after floating in the mineral intensive “lake” waters separating that portion of Jordan and Israel. We only spent a half hour or so floating around in the Dead Sea. It was pretty cool and a little difficult maneuvering around without rolling accidentally and getting our faces wet, or trying to make sure not to splash the extra salty water into our eyes or mouth. Even our driver went in for a quick dip, before we dressed to leave. There was an expensive buffet on site so I loaded up a huge “to go” close-able three tray styro-carton for all of us to eat from. The rice, beef and salads were OK, but the roasted lamb were REALLY good. Even Claudette was smacking her lips and she traditionally doesn’t like mutton at all.

The remainder of our drive to Aman was uneventful. We were flying to Rome mid morning the next day and so just wanted to wander around a bit and relax. There were a few decent looking places to eat and even a movie theater. I stayed up late uploading pictures from McBride’s Egypt and our Petra shots to the gallery. The place was decent enough, but difficult to find and had lots of stairs. We look forward to Rome and Italy, and hopefully meeting up with the McBride Family again in France. We also REALLY look forward to our hotel rooms not being so close to Mosque’s and the requisite prayer call at 5:00 AM every morning, (not to mention again at 6:00 AM just in case you got back to sleep and several other times throughout the day). It’s a shame in this case that they have readily adopted the technology of using HUGE loudspeakers at the tops of the towers instead of a guy climbing up and shouting/singing which would have much less volume than the thousands of watts they crank out of the powered public address systems…

Rick’s Petra

Monday, April 7th, 2008

We barely knew what to expect going to Petra. We’d all only really seen pictures of the “Treasury”, an extraordinary building cut into a tall face of sandstone rock. We’d heard from others that the “city” and general site was far more expansive and even more impressive than just that one iconic representation. No words could prepare us for the vast amount of work that had obviously gone into creating such a “wonder” as Petra. After two days of walking around, constantly open jawed in abject shock and appreciation, I really believe that Petra should be reconsidered as the Eighth wonder of the ANCIENT world. It is every bit as remarkable an achievement as the original seven.

We booked a guided tour for our first half day, which was invaluable. Not only did he describe what everything was and how the society had lived, but he took us to some outstanding out of the way places. He not only showed us some great places off the main paths, but positioned us for many great pictures and unique photo frames of parts of the city and/or ourselves. His insights and little “side” stories were very worth the extra $75 for us four to join the 10 person tour.

After our tour we wandered around by ourselves for the latter half of the day. It was nice and relaxed, but still our feet all hurt by the end of the day. I know it’s a good day when our feet hurt… The entire city “site” is very extensive and clambers up and down and around a few valleys in the area. There are a huge amount of caves all over the place. The entrance of the city is called the “Siq” and is a long (1.5ish KM) twisty, narrow rift or canyon. The sandstone colors and swirls are absolutely spectacular, not to mention the carving of a water trough all the way down to supply the city. The Siq comes to a “T” intersection at another canyon right at the treasury. The Treasury “building” is most widely associated with Petra and was the final scenec of the third Indiana Jones movie. It’s use is still hotly debated today. Only two floors show, but the canyon floor is said to have about 7m of silt & sediment washed down the canyon by a breach in the dam at the start of the siq that was left unrepaired for about 100 years. Our guide from the morning had been a senior archiologist several years previously and detailed the lower excavations of a couple of tombs in front of but below the existing floor of the Treasury. This is one of the few large buildings that was carved into the cliff face with a large countersunk distance into the face to protect the facade from water runoff during the rainy season. It was shocking to see recent (in the last several years) photographs and videos showing huge rivers of flash flood water running down the wider canyon in front of the treasury. That wasn’t half as surprising as seeing pictures of snow in the city! This included in front of the Treasury and even all throughout the city.

The central area of the city is just a little past the exit point of the main canyon that houses the Treasury and several other equally tall and majestically carved buildings. From this sort of central point we could see cave holes littering all of the mountainsides in every direction. There seemed to be no end of them if we zoomed in with the camera or used the binoculars. Many more large carved buildings into cliff faces could be seen all up and down this valley, as well as into two adjacent valley’s. There was only one “built” building still standing due to centuries of earthquakes in the area. This was only because it had horizontal wood beam “buffers” built in to the walls every 4m or so up the stone block face. Most all of the caves and large rooms carved into the mountains were still in remarkably good condition though.

The Bedouin people were all moved out of the caves in the mid 80’s by the government. A whole new town was built for them only a few kilometers away to live in. Many still make the daily trek into ancient Petra to sell animal rides, or all sorts of trinkets, or to just beg.

We spent a few hours off the regular beaten track hiking around a small mountain and exploring the incredible sights. We used one 1.4GB disk in the camera each of the two days we were there. That fact alone speaks to the spectacularness of this ancient city, never mind the fact that I was really restraining myself. Many vendors and four ridiculously expensive restaurants lined the wider valley. Some locals were offering donkey and camel rides for outrageous prices as well. A two minute ride in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza near Cairo was only $2. In Petra a two minute ride was $15!!! I knocked them down to $7 each for the two kids, but still felt badly for missing out on the (shockingly) much more reasonable prices in Egypt. Additionally many local Bedouin kids were found along various trails with an interesting collection of rocks picked up around the area that they were only too happy to sell to any passing tourist. We also passed by a few Bedouins living there who offered us to sit down and have tea. This would probably necessitate a tip afterwards, but the offers were very friendly and genuine unlike in Egypt. One vendor was selling a book about his mother who was a New Zealand tourist in the 70’s who married a local Bedouin guy. She settled down into cave life, cooking all meals over an open fire and they had two children together over the years. He supported them by selling trinkets and souvineers to tourists. Claudette bought the book and is quite captivated by it so far. Alex will read it next and then we’ll send it home.

Quick update

Monday, April 7th, 2008

Yes, we are again behind a few posts… We met up with Claudette’s Dad & Rick’s Mom in Rome on April 2 as a surprise for the kids. We spent a few days seeing the local sights, (and uploading many Petra and some remaining Egypt photos). On Sunday April 6 we took a train to Tuscany, near Florence where we rented an apartment for a week to relax and see Venice & Piza from. As incredibly beautiful as the are is, it unfortunately, it has terrible public transportation and I came back to Florence today to rent a mini-van for the duration of our stay. We have all written some posts which we’ll upload in the next week when we get net access for a everyone for a few hours. The town we are in now barely has sketchy cell phone access, never mind internet. We are all well, and still don’t have a clue on how we’re gonna end the trip! (Either driving across Canada in two weeks or spending more time in Nova Scotia, The Rock, and BC and flying across the country…)

Last of Egypt

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

The drive to Dakla was long and boring the next morning. First we drove with the partially deflated tires through the rest of the white desert for over an hour to get to a highway on the other side. It was a pretty cool experience to see. Then we traveled on pavement a few kilometers before hitting a town to repair a flat and fill the running tires. We went through so many police checkpoints in the middle of nowhere in that desert that it made my head spin. How these guys posted there survive in such abject isolation and loneliness is incomprehensible to me. Some posts were nicely made up with tiny little (but well maintained) gardens out front of the building. Most all had solar panel / battery systems for power generation, and a couple were so remote that they even had SBX radio antennas for communication. We did see a few cell phone towers in the middle of nowhere with solar power systems as well. These had microwave dishes to rebroadcast the transmissions.

An hour or two before Dakla was a huge modern ghost town that looked very much like very small single family condos. Row upon row of them in orderly loneliness stood there without any vehicles visible, curtains over windows or clothes hanging outside to dry. Barely one kilometer away was another modern ghost town of ten to fifteen story apartment buildings. This was a little further from the highway, but still appeared to be rather empty. The guide books described these places as modern built towns where people just didn’t want to come to. There was also a rail line and a phosphorous mine close by, so we suspected it might have been planned employee housing. Either way it just looked weird! My personal theory is that it was some sort of military installation. Possibly an existing secret research base of some sort.
Or, more likely, a large permanent barracks base in case war breaks out with Lybia. The roads in all this Western area of Egypt were in spectacular shape as well. That I also would attribute to war readiness to help ensure the quick deployment and mobility of the defense forces should the need ever arise.

We had plans to take the public bus from Dakla to Luxor, and then on to Hurgatta where we planned to catch a Ferry to Sharm in the Sinai area. I had been calling the ferry to make arrangements several times over the last few days and as we arrived in Dakla someone finally answered. He told me that the Ferry was down for two weeks of service, and the only way across was private Faluka or small motorboat charters. The Red Sea has a reputation for being quite volatile regularly and typically only has fifty “calm” days per year. Some days the huge fast Ferry won’t even go across due to rough seas. These facts made us less than enthusiastic about attempting the journey in a much smaller boat. We then agreed to phone Egypt Airlines and made arrangements to fly from Luxor to Sharm. This was for only about double the money than a bus and ferry ride combined, but we would have needed to stay in other hotels along the way more which wouldn’t have been near as nice as staying at the rsortish towns along the Red Sea. We arranged a van to pick us up at the airport and went directly to Dahab, thus skipping out on Sharm. Ron & Jenine had told us that they were basically the same in terms of snorkeling, but that Sharm was more packed and with smaller sections of “Beach”. The term beach here at the Red Sea really only refers to water access though, since there is minimal amounts of sand in the classic sense that the word is typically used.

I had strongly made up my mind that I would never willingly return to Egypt again before coming to Dahab. The hassle from all vendors, a frustrating and unnecessarily long negotiation for every little thing, and the dual pricing system ((Aran people pay 1% to 10% of the prices considered acceptable for tourists) on almost everything was driving me to the brink of insanity. Dahab was a pocket of tranquility and genuineness in a country seemingly hell bent on screwing the tourist out of every little drop of money possible. The hotel we managed to select from one of the tourist books was fairly nice and entirely reasonable at about $32/night per double room. It had a nice couple of swimming pools with a waterslide and was raised a little over one meter from the waterfront promenade sidewalk to give a tiny bit more privacy from everyone walking by. On the other side of the main waterfront sidewalk from all of the hotels were the restaurant sitting areas. These varied from having ceilings glassed in protection from the wind with nice tables and slate floors, to cushions on blankets, on the sand around a short legged table. The latter inspired many hippies (and occasionally me) to order a beer and just lie around enjoying the sun and gentle sounds of the smaller surf lapping at the shore. some of these shore front lounging places even had free WIFI internet access for patrons.

Everyone I spoke to spoke of the wonderful reefs accessible to shore and of the lovely fish they encountered. I never seemed to get around to snorkeling myself though. The two days in the middle of our stay when I really felt like it, the water was pretty rough. In the end I reassure myself that as beautiful and accessible as it might be, it surely couldn’t compare to The Great Barrier Reef or snorkeling around the Galapagos Islands. I priced out intro and advanced scuba lessons again though. It was still about $550 to to both in about five to six days. This was pretty much the price as Phuket in Thailand, and only a tiny bit less than in Australia. The Aussie ones were larger classes though, and only on specific days when they had enough people. Here they would take one person and run you through it. Plus they all seemed quite reputable though in offering top notch gear and advertising enhanced air mix ect. I had heard of some hokey places in Indonesia that just used standard atmosphere air which included germs fed straight to ones lungs. Never good. All of the dive shops here and in Thailand seemed to be run or owned by Westerners though. Be it North Americans, Europeans or Aussies, they all had a caucasian face when it came time to crunch the numbers.

We continued to enjoy the company of the McBride Family in Dahab. After a week we would be parting ways, and so we made the most of relaxing and doing not much together. Every day we would try different restaurants along the waterfront to eat at. Swimming, lounging, chatting and many a game of cribbage all filled our time there. We seemed to all go through a day or so of queasy stomach syndrome in the last two weeks as well. I found a cool souvenir t-shirt that struck me, and bought it almost without negotiations. We also grabbed a nice sunset beach sand scene in a bottle with “Dahab” on one side and “James’” on the other. Luke and I watched the make it and he was incredibly quick as well as very talented. Camels and horses were banned from the area our hotel was at so walking amidst mounds of poop wasn’t an issue as it was in other sections in the area that we had heard about. After a week or two of early mornings, extensive tours and a brain completely full of Egyptian history this week of visiting and relaxing was just what all of us needed. We all got along really great, and it was very nice having a bit of a break from just the four of us. Luke even met and played with some other boys his age while Alex and Alana conspired together and Connor burned through a few books poolside. As a very meager parting gift of thanks for their company, I felt compelled to introduce the McBride’s to a new deck of cards in the hopes that their old grungy worn pack would find it’s way quickly and unceremoniously to the trash! Hopefully the front desk guy passed it on to them since we left at 6:00 AM and they stayed sleeping to await the arrival of Janice’s brother and wife to spend a few more days there. We’re hoping to possibly meet up again in Nice, France since our visits there coincide by a few days. We also pick up our rental car in Nice, (since I was too slow in booking to get it in Italy.

While lounging around at the New Sphinx hotel in Dahab we also met up and chatted with a young engaged couple. She was from Mexico and he was British, and they lived in London. They were both VERY well traveled for being barely a quarter century old and were a hoot to swap stories with. George & Monica crazily invited us to stay in their tiny flat in London when we were talking about how expensive England and especially London are reputed to be. I let that comment sit for a day and then approached them with the option to take back offering a family of four with occasionally scrapping adolescent kids to intrude on their serenity and occupy their living room day and night for our last few days in Europe. In between chuckles at my mock serious warning, they once again extended the offer to sleep on their living room floor for a few days. Bonus! Never mind the fact that we very much enjoyed visiting with them, Monica also works at the most exclusivest, awesomest chocolaterie & retail store in all of Europe! George says that there’s an abundance of free samples that normally cost a few Euros ($3-$4!!!) per truffle! Gadzooks, we can’t wait! We have bought our trans-Atlantic flight tickets already too. We’re flying to Marc & Wendy’s on May 14! It’s all coming to an end so fast…

Less-Touristy Egypt

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

While Cairo and the main Southern tourist routes were interesting and informative; Exhausting is also a prominent word that jumps to mind. Not just the whirlwind schedules that generally “happen”, but the incessant barrage of tout’s and hassled by vendors at every turn of our head. We had met up with the McBride family a couple days ago, and have been sharing many stories and enjoying new experiences together. Part of the story swapping naturally involved good and bad aspects of Egypt so far. They had selected Egypt as a country to do an external (Intrepid) organized tour in and obviously had a much better experience for it. I have immediately pinpointed Egypt as the one country (so far) that I never wish to return to again. The sights and treasures are completely amazing and worthwhile. The general attitude of most all people that come in contact with tourists (in any way at all) is disheartening at best, and deplorable at worst. Luckily none of the McBride’s share in my opinion.

We did agree on the many missed opportunities related to tourism in Egypt though. For anyone to stand out and garner all sorts of extra tourist business would be incredibly simple. An quick example would be breakfasts. Most all hotel rooms include a basic breakfast. These have typically been slightly more substantial than the sparse continental breakfast offered in North America. These breakfasts include omelets or eggs as a minimum extra. Even after barely a week of these standard breakfasts one gets pretty tiring, (never mind a whole year!!!). In India there are many other choices you can order separately; French Breakfast, German, Dutch, English, American. All of these have different combinations of breads, eggs, sausages, bacon and fruits as suits each country’s typical eating habits. In Egypt though, there is no choice at all. All options are the same, sadly. Similarly, any store that actually had prices written on tags for items would be inundated with business just for the lack of having to negotiate.

Two things that Warren, Janice, Claudette and I all agree on is: India is by far the filthiest country we have visited so far; and the Delhi International (& Domestic) airports is by far the worst airport any of us have been to yet. They (unfortunately) had to spend considerably more time there than we did though. We only arrived at the international terminal and departed from the domestic terminal. They weren’t even allowed in to the international terminal until just a few hours before their flight departure. Instead, they had to go across the road to the “waiting” terminal. Even better, they had to pay by the hour to sit in terrible and inadequate seating over there.

We arranged to initially meet up with the McBride family at the “new” Cairo bus station early one morning. The station itself was still under construction and was only just recently partially operable. This place will be very spectacular and a fine showcase for Egypt when it fully opens in the next few months. A pretty nice piece of infrastructure, especially compared to the distinct lack of any other notably adequate buildings.

We took the public bus down to Bawahti over a four hour trip. It was less time of actual travel, but we made a few stops for bathroom breaks and for even more vendors to try and sell us crap. Upon arrival we were harranged pretty badly by tout’s wanting to take us to their “partner” hotels or wanting to “help” us book a desert tour. The town was pretty small but nice though. Janice, Connor and I trekked off to find the hotel we had booked from the Lonely Planet, and left the other five on the side of the main road with the bags. Usually the Lonely Planet maps are pretty good, but this time we had a little difficulty following along the narrow, twisty streets. Instead we headed off in the general direction that the map showed, and stumbled upon it (by dumb luck I’m sure!) about 15 minutes later. The OLD OASIS HOTEL was reasonable and decent looking. He had really nice rooms for $58 and crappy old air conditioned ones for half that. Needless we took the old crappy ones, but spent most of our spare time relaxing in the nice grassy garden area playing crib, reading and swapping stories. There was a swimming pool (so to speak) available but it was a hot spring fed, mineral laden murky pool and the kids chose to run around and play tag or hide ‘n seek instead.

After a “down day” of relaxing we headed out into the dessert for some interesting stops and a night sleeping out under the stars. The sights along the way were pretty amazing. We stopped at the black desert, which was an archipelago of volcano’s with broken black rock everywhere lazily interspersed with sand. We climbed one particularly large one which gave us a spectacular view for quite a distance with all the little black “bumps” (former volcanoes) spread in the foreground and all across the horizon. Next on the road was the “Crystal Mountain”. It was a large outcropping of calcite crystals. They were all over the sand as we approached from 20-30m away. Warren was formerly a geologist and was a phenomenal asset (and a friendly one too of course!) to have along. He described many things for us along the day, (indeed, along the trip so far) which was great to have that technical and historical perspective. The last stop was the white desert, which turned out to be a vast expanse of chalk. There were many 3-8m odd shaped formations as well as flat areas not covered by sand. The formations were wind carved into all sorts of wonderful and amazing shapes. It struck me as something right out of a Dr. Seus book. Perhaps his regular illustrator had previously visited the area and had been inspired…

After walking around the area just off the main highway and taking all sorts of incredible pictures, we ventured into the white desert. The two Toyota Land Cruiser drivers first deflated the tires a bit before driving through the dessert like maniacle teenagers without a care for the passengers they forgot were with them. About five or ten kilometers of swerves into it we stopped at a brilliant place to set up camp. The two guys weren’t very communicative (no tour guides or organizers seem to be in Egypt; getting information is worse than pulling teeth!) about what we were doing or when the entire day. Setting up camp was certainly no different. We just explored around a bit and took all sorts of more photos while waiting for the open campfire cooked meal. While the food was good, the chicken was served with the guys fingers. Yeach! And seconds on the potato stew mix was served with the guys spoon that he was eating with from his own plate. Even bigger Yeach!

One of the most interesting things we all noticed was the snowdrifts. The white chalk rock is spread across the plains with the very cool upshooting white rock formations and sand spread around the white. This makes it look like white snowdrifts and infrequent patches of light brown “ground” (the sand). This was really a reverse montage, and if one tried driving at a high speed through a foot high white drift, it would launch the vehicle and likely rip out the undercarriage. The white chalk rock is not as soft as it sounds either. It was certainly not granite, but was considerably harder than the chalk that Paul used to whip at me in Grade nine science.

That night, it turned out to be an almost full moon night and the scenes all around us were completely spectacular over the next several hours. Warren even managed to wakeup in the middle of the night and catch some shots of the moon setting. We woke up the next morning to a fairly sparse breakfast and then five hours of long, boring travel and a bazillion checkpoints to get to Dahkla Oasis.

Forty-One is OLD!!!

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

We woke up this morning (early! ) on a sleeper train from Luxor to Cairo. Lo and behold, I looked below me (she made me take the top bunk, ) and there was this REALLY old, (but still good look’in) woman there. Unbelievable how quickly Claudette’s “WAY Over The Hill” birthday snuck up on us while traveling.

I managed to get our tour manager in Luxor to buy a cake and bring it with us to the train. I tipped him lots and asked for it to be a secret. I suggested he could give it directly to our train car waiter who could surprise serve it up for breakfast. Unfortunately, the word “Secret” didn’t come across properly to him and he handed over a big bakery box to me when he picked us up to take us to the boat. Claudette seems to hate surprises anyways, but it still would have been nice and the kids & I would have certainly enjoyed springing a quick early morning celebration on her. Oh well…

The cake was fantastic, and since the standard train breakfast was well below desirable, we all had chocolate cake for Breakfast! (Just like the Bill Cosby story from the “Himself” album.) We had an arranged ride to our hotel, but they switched reservations on us and we ended up being waaayyyyyy out by the Giza Pyramids. We are only a few km away and can see them really well from our hotel. It’s a long (and expensive!) taxi ride to downtown where we are taking the bus to the Bawati Oasis tomorrow morning.

If anyone wants, they can send a quick birthday greetings as a comment to this message or by sending Claudette an e-mail. She probably won’t read this post for a few days or a week or so and will be pleasantly surprised… 😀

The Ship that Didn’t Move.

Friday, March 14th, 2008

It seemed rather a nice idea, at first. Then we had word it was “delayed” somehow. The next day we drove about 90 minutes upriver to meet the ship on the “other” side of a major lock on the Nile River. It was an alright looking ship, but certainly not FIVE STAR as we consider it. I suspect that the upper deck cabins are reserved for self booking (read: much higher paying) tourists. Of the four floors, ours was the bottom one whose cabin’s window were around 20cm above the river water line from the outside. Bummer… I suspect that the tour agencies provide “filler” bodies to the cruise lines for the ships at a much lower cost than the walk-ons. Our entire six day South Egypt adventure, (including van rides, guides, accommodation and four days of ship meals) worked out to be only $55/day/person. When we looked into booking ourselves on a ship, the charge for just that (not including the guide to accompany us) was $125 to $175 per person per day! Huge difference…

That first night on the ship we still didn’t move. The ship’s crew gave the guides all kinds of excuses and reasoning. First they had a “slight” engine problem, then we had to wait our turn among the twenty odd ships waiting to head upriver. The next day when we were the only ones docked the reasoning down the pipeline came to us as “waiting for the government authorization that it was our turn to leave”. This was the first semi-truth told I think. Late that second day the five independent tour guides began collaborating and looking for the Captain, (called the ship’s Manager). He had been missing for a few hours and the the pressured crew eventually admitted that the ship couldn’t leave and the captain had ran away, heading North to escape the embarrassment. The five Egyptian tour guides made a quick trip to the local police station, and ‘poof!’ a few hours later there was the crying Ship’s Manager at the police station. The authorities had set up road blocks, tracked him down, and driven him back to face the music.

The only wonderful part of that was meeting and befriending the only other English speaking passengers on the ship. We actually rode in the van with them from Luxor to Edfu to join our stranded ship. Little did e know that the six of us would be the only English speaker’s on a boat full of Romanians, Bulgarians and Russians. They were a wonderful couple from a rural area near Sydney, and we all got along famously. Even after we both departed to seperate ships for the remainder of our Nile cruise, we managed to meet up again for a lovely afternoon of relaxing in Aswan. Now Alex and I have two fantastic family friend’s to visit in Brisbane and near Sydney when we return to Australia in a few years.

Ron and Jenine also had their own personal guide traveling with them (like we were supposed to). He was also a recent university graduate with an Egyptian Tourism degree and he was young, quite knowledgeable and very friendly. He actually helped us quite a bit since our guide was stuck waiting for us at the next monument up the river a little ways. As young and advanced in thinking as he was though, he still had some HUGE problems wrapping his head around the freedoms his fiance’ was pushing for in her own life. They had been scrapping for a few days by telephone while he was away.

I should interrupt here with a quick story of one of our previous guides in Cairo, for the museum. She was nice and relatively knowledgeable and had been a guide for a few years. She grew up further South but lived in Cairo with her sister and older brother. She was about late twenties and was expressedly forbidden from taking any guiding jobs that would leave Cairo, or where she would have to spend a night away. Her brother strongly enforced these draconian wishes of her father to guard against any indiscretions she might partake in I suppose. The traveling guides are all given rooms to themselves, or occasionally bunked with another guide of the same sex. When she told us this Claudette had to pinch me (and HARD!) in order to keep me from vehemently protesting such horrible and unnessesary controlling measures.

Now back to Ron & Jenine’s guide. His fiance was also a guide and was permitted to go with tour groups that travel. He was disturbed by the tight clothes that she wore along with the make-up that adorned her face. These were large parts of what initially attracted him to her, but now he desperately needed her to change to help control his jealous fears. This was a pretty good kid all in all, up to this point. He was having an incredibly difficult time dealing with the fact that she resisted his control. Now that they were engaged, it was only a tiny step away from marriage where his every word and manly whim would rule the day and her life. He came out with these little gems one afternoon while he was sitting with Ron, Jenine, Claudette and I. Three of us were instantly incensed by such callous old style disregard for the rights of another human being. Claudette saw the horrified angry expression on my face and almost ran from the room as the other three of us began a possibly feeble attempt at educating this fine young Muslim man about the ways of the modern world. He agreed that women were in fact their own persons. Then he easily acknowledged that of course women shouldn’t be “controlled” by their husbands or fathers, or men in their lives in general. When the discussion came around to her respecting and conforming to his wishes though, all the previous logic was blown away like crumbling foundation dust in the winds of thousands of years of indoctrination. After running a circular conversation for awhile he admitted that maybe his thinking might be a little incorrect. I offered to type out a semi-conciliatory message on his phone that he could alter and send to her. It basically (and pointedly) described his inner turmoil and how he cared for her and didn’t like fighting. It went on to semi acknowledge his realization of being unreasonable and suggested that he would work on overcoming these controlling feelings. Ron and Jenine proofread and then we made him understand that he would have to read it several times over and truly believe EVERY word written before he could send it. In the end he reluctantly agreed with the conclusions written and said it to her, knowing that he was embarking on a pretty difficult path. I’m sure his Muslim “brothers” will be very disturbed by his acceptance of a woman as a genuine person, but he seemed to recognize the inevitability of such a concept.

Sadly though, this was the same guy whom the day before had come up with a few other way out there political statements. During what seemed to be a very intelligent and reasonable conversation with the five of us a waiter came and brought Ron a coke. Ron offered one to their guide, which was rapidly declined. He went on to say that he couldn’t possibly support the American while the oppression of his brother’s continued on. We were all stunned and silently tried to digest this until one of us asked for further clarification. He said that Coke was an American company. He then suggested that it is a well known fact that Israel is practically just the 53rd state of the United States, (we all pretty much agreed to this point). Now since Israel is doing all sorts of bad things to his Muslim Brother’s in Palestine (very true as well) this made Israel pretty much his enemy. This doesn’t even consider the military attacks by Israel on Egypt a few decades ago. While we were all astonished at such extreme thoughts by a (mostly) otherwise seemingly reasonable man, we also had to explain how corporate America (and Canada) works. Even though the US contributes finacially to Isreal on a massive scale, (we left out the hundreds of millions they give to Egypt as well) NONE of that money actually comes from the Coca-Cola company. We went on to further explain that private companies in North America want nothing more than to keep every red cent they make all for themselves and their investors. Corporations would hardly pour money down the drain to another country’s government in the hopes of promoting their own ideals in that region. The next day he ordered a coke, but we didn’t rib him too much.

Once we left our broken ship, we took a van from Edfu to Aswan stopping at three temples and the Aswan dam on the way. We then took a very early morning three hour (only one way!) trip to Abu Simble. It was fairly impressive, but we are all split on whether it was worth the six hour return craped van ride for about 55 minutes of incredibly crowded viewing. We had to travel in a security convoy with about 45 large tour buses and around 30 fifteen seater vans. That makes for a whole huge whack of tourists that arrive there at the same time and that only have the 105 minute window to see everything. Trying to funnel everyone through the small entrance all at one time and then further huge lines to get inside one of the two temples was exasperating to say the least. Most of the Europeans we were alongside with had no concept of “personal space” and had clearly missed out on all the lessons of common decency in grade school that we clearly take for granted. The extreme lack of common decency among fellow tourists has been a common theme throughout our trip so far. The large crowds in Egypt have certainly amplified this huge problem though. (I plan to write and hypothesize on this much more in a future post.)

After one night at the Isis hotel in Aswan and our whirlwind tour to Abu Simbo, we were taken to our new ship in the early afternoon. It was actually on a week long cruise from Luxor to Aswan and back for one week. We just jumped on into a couple of spare cabins in Aswan for the last three days. Not only was this boat a fair bit nicer, it had much better food as well, (not to mention how pleasing to us it was that this new ship actually MOVED! ). The food on the previous one was OK, (when you weren’t getting elbowed or budded in front of by the Eastern Block tourists) but this ship cooking staff made wonderful concoctions from scratch that are to almost be expected froma cruise. The only disappointment on any food in general that I’d have so far in Egypt is with the soups. It seems irrelevant if we are at a dumpy restaurant or ship; or in a super deluxe trendy cafe or five star cruise ship; all of the soups we’ve had here so far are entirely bland and boring. This is surprising really in a country where so many other delightfully spicy and flavored dishes are well noted.

We have just arrived back to Luxor and will spend one more night on the ship before taking the night train back to Cairo tomorrow (Saturday, March 15) evening. This means that Claudette will wake up as a forty-one year old on a train in a couple days… After spending another night in Cairo we plan on heading a little ways North to Bahiwi (sp?) Oasis to meet up with the McBride family again. Once there, we’ll take it slow and relaxing and work our way to Siani (Eastern Egypt) within about 10 days. There the McBride family will meet up with some visiting relatives and we will head further East into Jordan for a week or so before heading to Rome.

Luxor

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

The tour we booked included two connecting cabins on an overnight train. Sadly, overnight actually only translated into a 4:30 AM wakeup for a basic breakfast and waiting for our 5:30AM arrival at Luxor. We were due at 5:00, but ended up being behind schedule somehow. At least we finally rode in our own cabins on an overnight train. We were supposed to have the remainder of that day to rest before touring Luxor’s monuments the next day. Unfortunately our guide decided that he wanted to go through a few of them that day and work two half days in Luxor instead of one long day. This would have been OK if we had been well rested, but we were all pretty bushed still. Nonetheless we headed out with smiling, tired faces.

I won’t relate all the stories here, but our guide (Hysam, but called “Sam”) turned out to be a highly knowledgeable yet absolutely intolerable and an arrogant pain in the butt! It started with us all swatting house flys (there were about 30!) that were incessantly bugging us during Sam’s explanations. He actually stopped, grabbed Luke’s arm and gave my poor son heck for not paying attention! At the end of the first day of touring Claudette and I were pondering if we wanted to be with him for the next five days! We wrote it off to our tiredness and figured things would be better tomorrow. The next day though was more of the same. Ooozing arrogance at every step. The breaking point for Claudette came when he waved his hand in front of us while repeatedly snapping his fingers, yet again demanding our attention. Apparently, snapping of fingers makes my wife see blood red, (as I have woefully found out a few times in the past when I was only joking around….(Honest!)).

This guide was also forcefully suggesting crazy high tips for everyone we encountered. He even went so far as to call a van driver on the cell phone and tell him to come back in front of me to get a higher tip. After driving us to three monuments over a five hour period, Sam explained to me, “I TOLD you to give him $24 but your wife only gave him $5!!!” I quickly became incensed and related that my wife and I agreed that a $5 tip was even excessive for what the driver actually accomplished during his few hours of driving us around while getting paid a salary to do so by the tour company. He rebutted that I would have to give more since the van driver was returning. I couldn’t believe this little PICK (with an “R”). He then said, “OK, OK… just give him another $12 and that will be good for today”. Before walking into the hotel I insisted that the only way the driver was gonna get ANY more money was if Sam paid it himself. We contacted the tour company and related that Sam was no longer welcome as our guide, and could they please try and find another one on short notice for the remaining three days going up the Nile River. All guides are freelance, and luckily the tour company was very receptive to our concerns and fired the guide. A new guide would join us at our first monument they told us. Whew!

In the meantime I should relate a bit about the visits we did accomplish in and around Luxor. There were two large temples in the town (Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple) plus a short (half hour) drive to the Valley of the Kings, Hat Chep Sou (sp???) Temple and the Valley of the Queens. The two temples in town were both pretty cool and distinctive for their own reasons. One was very intact while the other had the painted colors more visible and a more colored history. The Luxor Temple had one portion half buried in sand, and the Muslims built a mosque on top of one section several hundred years ago. Then came those nasty Christians who defaced all the faces and bodies of the hieroglyphics and story walls the Egyptians had made. Hearing about how the horrible Christians of old came and defaced their ancestors majestic works with abject disdain in the guide’s voice became a very common theme over our tours in Egypt. I gritted my teeth and neglected to point out to any of them that there is practically NO ancient Egyptian blood left, and most of the current residents are from Muslim conquerors who also razed and defaced many of these prized showcases. I think I shall write a letter to the Tourism departments of the Universities and ask that they educate their tour graduates with some of their own ancestory facts along with extensive Egyptology and how to manage tours.

At Karnak Temple were two standing obleisks which were pretty impressive. Most temples are added on my successions of Kings (Pharos) but this one had a large portion done by Hat Chea Sou, and when her step-son took over power from her he destroyed most of her works because of his deep hatred for taking his throne for so long when women were not really entitled to rule. This included raizing some buildings and scraping clean many walls of stories at that temple. He left the obelisks though since they were firstly a pretty impressive feat and secondly because he was afraid of offending the Sun God Ra whom they were erected for. At night there was a “Sound and Light” show at the Karnak Temple. This is one of three where guests walk through in stages and different portions of the temple are lit up dramatically while up to four voice actors relate specific stories through strategically placed loudspeakers. It was pretty cool to see, but VERY expensive. While daytime admission to the temple was only about $10, the evening Sound and light show was $18.

The Valley of the Kings was pretty amazing, but we were sadly rushed by our guide (Sam) who seemed to want to be finished for the day by 1:00 PM? The Kings built many pyramids over the years, but they eventually realized that it might be easier to just sink a shaft into a mountain and make a tomb in their to protect their afterlife riches from thieves. The valley was easily guarded, and so many tombs were built there over a large span of years. As soon as a king gained power he would initiate building his pyramid or a tomb shaft and rooms in the Valley of the Kings. These would typically take 20-50 years to construct, but as soon as the King died the new King would start his own rather than spending time and money finishing off his predecessor’s. At the entrance visitor’s center there was a clear acetate sheet showing the relief of the area’s hills along with mapped out 3D clear acetate shafts where all of the Kings tombs were. It was VERY cool, and I explained to our guide that this was the type of thing I did as a job back home.

The Valley of the King’s was where Tut’s tomb was found. The entrance had been covered by the excavated ruble from newer tombs close by. Tut’s tomb was actually very small and with a very short shaft because he died so young and didn’t get to finish much of it. His was most famous simply because robbers had never discovered it and the possessions and treasures in it were all intact. That gave archaeologists a thorough glimpse into what was burried in the tombs without having to rely solely on the wall scripts describing the process.

Hat Chep Sou temple was built by a woman who took control of the throne from her step-son. She had many impressive acheivments to her name, and this grand stair-ridden throne to worship the gods was large with many incredible statutes and architectual work. It was built a few km away from the valley of the King’s & Valley of the Queen’s, and was built into the side of a mountain. Our guide said that locals and tourists can walk through the hills in between these ancient places, but anyone seen in the hills after dark is shot. I figured that they’d send a reconnaissance troop out first, but he insisted that no, anyone up there in the dark is assumed to be a robber and will be automatically shot. I’m still unsure of how absolute that truth is, but it’s worrisome even to consider.

The Valley of the Queens was obviously far less impressive than the Men’s valley of course. I say this with such an assumption because of the still strongly apparent extreme lack of respect for women in this area of the world. In the VOTQ there was a tomb for some Prince that died quite young. His passage and rooms at the end were entirely average compared to the others except for the colors. While all of the tombs origianally had an abundance of strong and beautiful colors painted throughout, very little has remained. This princes tomb’s wall and ceiling scene’s were still very colorful and extraordinary to see. Every where we went, every turn of our bodies, or glance in any direction the Egyptian tomb “guards” tried extorting money from us in the form of tips. I have grown VERY weary of this behavior and respond in kind to them now. Similarly for the shopkeepers and tout’s that attack people walking down the street. Luke even took up my tactics the other day to combat being hassled. The shocked horror on these guys faces at being told to buy a battery or a small stick for “best price!” in an incessant barrage of decreasing (yet very outrageous) prices with barely taking a breath. It was sweet justice, and in the end most of them have gotten a good laugh knowing how much of a pain in the butt they are when they do that to us.

Cairo, Memphis, Saqarra & GIZA!

Monday, March 10th, 2008

Luckily, it wasn’t too warm in Cairo for our few days there. We started at a decent hotel on the island with a two day booking. It was a bit too expensive for us, but it was the district where Claudette wanted to be. To say that Cairo is huge is of course an understatement. Picking a neighborhood to find a hotel in is difficult enough, never mind deciding on a specific hotel. We wandered around the neighborhood and enjoyed a relaxing few days and some fantastic restaurant food.

We booked a guided tour in a private van out to see Giza. This turned out to be the last stop on our tour that day though. First we stopped at Memphis, which was the first capital city of Egypt. There were a bunch of smaller yet impressive statues and stone coffins on display. There was also two huge one’s of Ramsee’s. One was claimed to be the largest statute in the world (of Ramses) but was missing it’s legs. The government had built a protective building around it, and the “half” statute was laying down on it’s back. There was also a large sphinx carving made from alabaster stone which was pretty impressive.

The highlight of the day was our second stop, at Saqarra. This was the original pyramid, and the only fully intact burial “complex” so far discovered in Egypt. VERY much worth a visit, but only with a guide so they can describe to you the full scope of what you are seeing and how it originated.

Giza was similarly quite impressive, with much larger crowds spread over a much larger area. The main Giza sphinx in my mind was a bit overrated (shhhh, don’t tell Luke!) and I liked the smaller, but better carved alabaster one at Memphis. That one was still about 9m long and maybe 4m high though.

We head South on the train to take in the many ancient sights there.

Kenya; Ever So Brief…

Friday, March 7th, 2008

The bus ride up from Arusha in Tanzania to Nairobi was fairly uneventful. At the border crossing there was naturally a large carving (and general souvenir) market. There was a tall hardwood giraffe there similar to the one we’d seen in Thailand. This one was a little bit bigger, a nicer wood, but had huge, out of proportion ears. The price was also a little crazy at $1,500 versus about $125 for the Thailand one!

Kenya was pretty OK, especially considering the recent country-wide strife. The day before we arrived a massive strike was planned by the opposition. Many journalists insisted that this would quickly become a civil war because the corrupt president just wouldn’t give in. In the end, they came to an agreement just the day before the planned strikes and protests.

The country side was obviously similar to Tanzania, but with one HUGE difference. Fences… There were organized livestock fences almost everywhere along the highway and roads. In Tanzania (not to mention India, and all of SE Asia!) all domesticated animals were free range. The kids played with about a 12 year old girl in the main terminal for five hours. There were only a dozen seats in the main area, and they were all terribly uncomfortable. Off to Cairo we then went, for a morning of rest before touring the ancient Egyptian Civilizations remarkable sites.

Nairobi seemed like almost any regular Western city, except for the car names. It was sorta clean, had sidewalks etc, but many people still drove a bit like maniacs. The bus arrived just a little after lunch and the hotel it stopped at was just barely OK. Rooms were only $25/night, but they wanted a whole extra $25 for a 6:00 PM check-out the next day instead of the standard 60%. I figured I could do better and left the other three in a restaurant for a bite while I walked around. Up the street a block was another place that Lonely Planet suggested. It was a slightly nicer room, but a suite for four of us with breakfast was $114/night. After a few more I hit up a high class place thinking that they’d be empty and would have a smok’in price. Oooops! “Not a chance” that rooms would be discounted I was told in so many words. Can’t blame a guy for trying I thought. My last stop was the NAIROBI SAFARI CLUB which looked like a typical elegant Four Seasons kind of joint. They gave me a rate of 7000 shillings which I promptly transformed into only $100!!! These were normally $3565/night rooms that included breakfast and pool use. SCORE!

Late the next day we went to the airport to wait for our 4:00 AM flight, . It was OK except they wouldn’t let us check-in and get through security until 100 minutes before the flight.

Around The World In Eighty Days

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

About a month or two ago we had bought a three disc set of this BBC documentary. It stars one of the former Monty Python guys, Michael Palin, re-creating Phileas Fogg’s fictional Journey in modern times and with modern transportation modes & routes. This of course means no airplanes. While this may seem to be an enormously easy venture, it turned out incredibly difficult. While many ships certainly travel faster than the great steamship liners of a hundred years ago, there are very few options in passenger liners anymore. I REALLY suggest that anyone even slightly interested in a very unique perspective on other places in the world try and watch this documentary series. That recommendation goes TRIPLE for any other people or especially families in the middle of, or planning to travel the world.

Similar to Fogg’s rollicking adventure, Michael finds himself with very little time to enjoy the places he visits, but with altogether almost too much time for relaxation and reflection on long train or ship journey’s. The addition of a camera/sound crew also makes many aspects more complicated. There were many scenes which we had only just recently enjoyed ourselves, around various ports and parts of the world. The most haunting scene was of Michael in a taxi in India. A little girl comes begging for food to his window. He obviously feels terrible for her, but still refuses to offer her money for fear of perpetuating such begging in the streets. His very real reaction is that of us as well, and most other travelers we’ve met. One would be overwhelmingly inundated if you allowed yourself even just one offering to these sweet yet filthy faces. Michael’s journey was in 1988 (he walked across Tienanmen Square just BEFORE the student riots). The begging and his embarrassed yet appropriate reaction to it have not changed at all in the last twenty years. Sadly, only the faces change…

Picture Updates.

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

We’ve made some new uploads of pictures from Alex’s camera. The connections I’ve tried with pictures in Tanzania and Kenya so far are remarkably slow though. All I’ve gotten done so far are some extras from India and the ones from Dubai, (along with some new section divider images that are small). We leave for Cairo at about 4:00 AM late tonight, after arriving at the airport at about 10:00 PM since we can’t arrange a taxi in Nairobi much after that. I guess that means we’ll be sleeping in the airport chairs… Ugh!

Anyways, I’ll be looking for a fast internet connection somewhere in Cairo in the next few days to upload the remaining 115 images like crazy!

Tours, Tipping and Our Lack of Wealth

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

I was discussing begging and money a while ago with another Canadian we met up with. He proposed that no matter how modest our actual means were, most people in other countries view us as walking banks. This is naturally shocking to think about, but is also sadly, very true. While most travelers are certainly NOT overly wealthy in their own countries, beggars, touts and vendors see us only that way. It doesn’t matter how many years of special coffee’s someone did without, or how many brown bag lunches they ate instead of joining their friends at restaurants. Even those such sacrifices that enable us to travel are unfathomable to these people. We are therefore, “Walking Banks”, and it is fair game to try and extract as much money from us as they can. As frustrating to us as this is, they really can’t be blamed for their perception’s I suppose…

After multi-day tours the client is expected to tip whatever staff were involved with your “wonderful experience!”. After paying typically very extensive amounts of money in the first place, this is starting to annoy the heck out of me. I can see that it probably started thirty or forty years ago as an occasional way of expressing even more gratitude to guides or drivers who are extra helpful or frequently go above and beyond the call of duty. Once workers observed or experienced this cycle they would likely do even more little special things for the client, to get even larger tips. At some point company owners realized the large amounts of extra money their workers were getting as tips and felt left out. Naturally they then conspired to slowly degrade the wages of their workers more than the pitiful amount they were already paid. The end result is that after a while the workers NEED those tips to barely sustain their families. This of course made tips expected rather than earned (typically, but probably not “always”). As a result, all of those little “extras” that clients previously enjoyed slowly degraded to a “base” service level yet again. Meanwhile the base fees never really decreased too account for the now necessary tips. The client certainly enjoys their trip, but ends up paying considerably more than the original advertised price.

Roughly expected tips for a driver or guide are about $10-$15/day/person. This basic little formula naturally quadruples everything for us! A cook, or ships crew typically garners 60-75% of the main persons tip. So, for our five day Galapagos tour the main guide was expecting a minimum of about $200 (or up to $300!). The crew were expecting another $150 for doing their jobs and helping us on and off of the boat, and being courteous to us. In India we only had a driver for a week with only a few daily guides. Still the driver “needs” a $350 tip from us… Geesh! Lastly now is the example from our African Safari. At $3,400 for our family (of only four! and not eight) for five days and four nights we are needed to give a huge tip to the driver (the four of us were the ONLY passengers in his Land Cruiser) and also give a significant sum to our cook. The cook was actually shared among two touring vehicles from the same company, so he gets double the bang for his buck. Worse even, was that this guy stopped a few times to buy little trinkets and a necklace for the kids and Claudette. When I expressed thanks but that he REALLY shouldn’t, he replied that he can get it as a Tanzanian for MUCH less money than us tourists could ever negotiate it down to. While this is a sad but very true fact, it doesn’t negate the fact that we wouldn’t really be buying this crap for ourselves in the first place. Really he was just “investing” in these things to make sure we fondly remembered him later at “Tip Time”. Emotional blackmail is what this really amounts to.

For our African safari we came up with slightly more unique solutions. We gave the cook a little tip (about a third of the standard minimum) and a gift. He had expressed great fondness for Canada and knew several of the major cities. My now slightly cynical nature strongly suspects that this is also just another ploy to garner a large tip at the end. He probably knows some basic geography for the US, Australia and Germany along with most other European countries that breed many many travelers. We hadn’t encountered any other “helpers” or guides yet that wore hats, and I had brought one along. It said “Northwest Territories, Canada” and had an outline of a polar bear on it. I made a big deal out of describing how rich we really weren’t, and that I had carried this single hat along on our whole trip so far waiting for the perfect recipient to give it to. I made a slightly bigger production out of it than that, but everything I said was true. I did neglet to tell him that I woke up with bad stomach cramps on our last morning and that I spent a half hour on the toilette that morning expelling my entire insides out, (and that I felt him to be entirely at fault for said gastronomical disruption).

Our driver Thomas on the other hand was a little different case. While he was equally helpful and very adept at his job, Thomas is a very genuine guy. As a freelance driver/guide, he gets paid a little more per trip and can work for any number of companies. Typically a freelance person in any industry would get less frequent work than cheaper salaried employees. Thomas’ top notch skills and extensive experience however ensure that he works very regularly and often. He spoke of some of his previous clients and how they wistfully talked about corporate partnerships with him and setting up web pages etcetera. I quickly picked up on this and threw together a quick basic web page for him while we were driving late on our forth day. I first asked him to stop and pose for a couple of pictures with the vast Serengeti plains in the background. Then I made up a bit of text for the page lightly describing his services and capabilities. Lastly I put down his cell phone number and e-mail address.

I finished just as we got back to the campsite. I spoke to him about how much we sincerely appreciated his skills, helpfulness and friendliness. I explained that we believed that he genuinely deserved a big tip, but that we were not very wealthy like many of his clients and couldn’t really afford to give what we thought he deserved. I then showed him the web page and suggested that if he liked it, I could have it up and running at his own domain within two days. He was excited at the web page and then even more thrilled at the possibility of actually having it up and running, (for real this time) and within only 48 hours. He made a couple wording changes from what I had, and then we drove 15 minutes to a local (expensive!) lodge with a generator fed satellite internet connection. There I made the domain registration request (usually a twelve hour wait) and e-mailed my brother the web page and pictures to FTP upload for me once the domain was ready, (THANKS JEFF!). It was ready and working when we arrived back at Arusha the next evening. During the drive he talked and drove describing to me what information he wanted and I redesigned the site to upload in a few weeks. The next day he came by our hotel to get a picture of Thomas in front of his 4×4 mini bus that some other clients had helped finance for him to run his own tours with.

Then ‘poof!’ He’s thrilled and very happy, while we feel we have shown our appreciation in an appropriately quantitative manner. I explained to him that the domain name registration was about $10/year and that his share of the hosting package would be about $20/year. On top of that I emphasized that he should feel free to e-mail me new pictures, updates or textual changes periodically as he sees fit. I think that he’s just ecstatic to have even a basic presence on the web since that’s what many of his customers (that don’t already know his extensive experience and professionalism) look for to establish the genuineness or seriousness of a freelance guide.