Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vancouver 2014 – Day 4. Around Victoria.

I asked the guy at the front desk for a recommendation about museums, and he told me I just had to go to pride and joy of the town, the Royal BC Museum, which was the greatest museum on Earth. I have heard that before, but if the Victorianites are so proud of their museum who am I to contradict them. The museum is not very far from the hostel, but I had to move my scooter from where I had parked it for the night, because the meters start running at 9 am. I ended parking far, far away, in a residential neighborhood, hoping that there I would be safe from the parking patrol.

The museum was pretty nice, but is fairly small. The top floor is devoted to the First Nations and their first encounters with the Europeans, and has a nice collection of artifacts from the First Peoples (more ethnography than archaeology), a recreation of a small European settlement, and lots of artifacts from the colonization by Europeans. I very much enjoyed a collection of masks that was sequentially illuminated as a narrator told snippets of ancient legends such as how whale had saved the people from drowning after a great flood, how Crow brought Sun to the People, or about the time that Wolves roamed the earth. There were also dozens of totem poles in display, both in the inner rooms and in the courtyards. In the lower floor there was a nice display about plate tectonics, and some excellent ammonite specimens, which in some way led to exhibits about ecosystems, wildlife dioramas, and climate change. When all is said and done I left with the impression that a lot of effort had gone into creating quality exhibits, but with a story line that was weak and disjointed.

Since I was on museum mood I then went to the Maritime Museum (I always go to the Maritime Museum if there is one in town), where I enjoyed wandering between models of older ships, antique nautical charts, and old navigation instruments. The First Peoples were of course fairly adept at coastal navigation, and their boats were remarkably beautiful. One of these boats, about 30 ft long, was adapted for sail navigation in the early 1900’s, and completed the circumnavigation of the world in a little under two years.

The coast of British Columbia was also visited by James Cook in his third voyage, when the great explorer attempted to find a northwestern passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It was in coming back from charting the Pacific coast of North America that he lost his life in a squabble with Hawaiian islanders over the theft of a pinnace. I also learned that years later one of his lieutenants, one certain Vancouver, was promoted to captain and assigned to complete the survey of the coast of British Columbia. Ever since, Canadians have regarded themselves as a maritime nation, and have backed this claim with astonishing feats of courage and determination in the north Pacific, the north Atlantic, and the Arctic oceans.

I spent the afternoon roaming through the west part of the city, which includes the beautiful Gorge Waterway Park, and the old fishermen settlement of Esquimalt (now home to the Royal Canadian Pacific Fleet). I took the opportunity to wander around the World War II bunkers and defenses, and along some pretty coastal cliff paths. Nothing too dramatic, but relaxing and very pleasant under the sun.

Finally, on my way back to town I walked through Chinatown. No, it cannot compare with the San Francisco Chinatown, or even the Vancouver Chinatown. This one is small, as it only occupies part of a block and an intersection, but the Victorianites are very proud of it, and claim is the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Go figure.

Vancouver 2014 – Day 3. Crossing the Georgia Strait

Today was glorious. The sun was shining and there were enough clouds on the sky to make it interesting. I was glad because I had a ride of about 40 km to get to the small peninsula (Tsawwasse) where I had to take the ferry to Vancouver Island. It was highway riding, which in my little scooter is less than fun, but I finally got there around 10 am, in perfect time to catch the 11 am ferry.

The crossing of the Georgia Strait was uneventful. The ferry is enormous compared with the little Vietnamese ferries I am used to, so the deck is steady and large enough for one to run laps. The view becomes fascinating once the boat reaches on the other side of the strait and begins weaving its way through the San Juan Islands. Surprisingly there is a large number of people living on the islands, in attractive large estates. Talk about being isolated!

Once on firm land I went for less than 5 km before stopping in the little town of Sidney for lunch. It is a cute, well-kept Canadian town that I will remember for the large number of bookstores I saw in Main Street. I did stop on a couple of them, but kept repeating Annie’s mantra that I cannot buy anything because I don’t have any place to carry it.

I made it to Victoria sometime around 2:30 pm, and by the time I had arranged for a bed at the hostel it was definitively mid afternoon. Downtown is developed around an inlet, around which are the beautiful buildings of The Empress Hotel and the Parliament of British Columbia (I didn’t know that Victoria is the State Capital of BC). Following the inlet eventually took me on a scenic tour of the peninsula where Victoria is located, mostly looking at houses that were to die for, not for their opulence but by their perfect design and very manicured appearance. Annie and I noted this in our tour of Quebec: Canadians seem to enjoy living in perfect houses, and must put enormous amounts of time making sure they remain perfect.

I had the second part of my lunch sandwich and an apple sitting on a bench overlooking some coastal cliffs, so when I came back at 6:30 pm I was not very hungry. I was debating whether to look at TV for a while, when a sign at the hostel informed me that this was $5 Tuesday at the movies, so I just had to go to see another movie: Captain America. It was a great movie, and I was quite happy I had gone, but with the $3 surcharge for it being 3D, and the $6 of a tub of popcorn it ended being not much of a bargain!    

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Vancouver 2014 - Day 2. A day in the city

Today I headed north out from Vancouver, with the idea of following the coast as far as I could go. My first stop was at the Capilano Regional Park. It was not cheap to get in ($30), so I have to remember that this is Vacationland, and most attractions are going to be pretty pricey. Capilano is a deep canyon surrounded by heavy forest, and the main attractions are a 500-ft suspension bridge (worthy of Indiana Jones) over the raging river, a walkway suspended along a flank of the canyon, and a walkway that takes you up through the canopy (but only 20 ft up, so it is not like you are on top of the canopy). It was pretty cool, but not $30 cool.

Afterward I headed west to Horseshoe Bay, along Highway 1. I thought this would be a quiet ride, but it actually had some traffic. Fortunately the Vancouverites are bicycle oriented, so bicycles (and by extension scooters) are allowed in the shoulder of the highways (but the width of the shoulder varies quite a bit, and now and then one finds culverts where you could stumble if you are not carefully). After walking around Horseshoe Bay I continued north, under a drizzle that in no time whatsoever got me chilled to the bone. Finally it got heavy enough that I had to stop to put on my riding poncho (the one I bought in Vietnam) and started heading back.

By the time I was back in Vancouver the drizzle had stopped, so I could take off the poncho, and I had a nice ride through Stanley Park (the Chapultepec of Vancouver). Here I had to miss being a bicyclist, rather than a scooterist, because there are a thousand bike trails through the park, but only a simple circuit for motorized vehicles. Also, whereas a bike can stop and park virtually anywhere, motor vehicles must always pay for parking, so I had little opportunity to go wandering and taking photographs of my favorite spots.

The rest of the day I spent scootering through this beautiful city, without any fixed plans. I did remember the way to the University of British Columbia, which is perched atop a bluff overlooking Howe Sound. It is a beautiful location with great views of the ocean, made even more attractive by the fact that the sun was shining and that many trees were in bloom, which made campus a handsome array of pink and white blossoms.

By 6 pm I got back to downtown, parked the scooter for the night, and went in search of food. This time I settled for a sushi restaurant that offered a special of miso soup and three sushi rolls for only $7. I chose spicy tuna, spicy salmon, and the BC roll (some type of grilled eel), and was pleasantly surprised when I got an enormous platter of delicious, crispy rolls.

At 7 pm I decided to go to the movie theater to see the movie Divergent. It would have been best if I had not fall sleep for the first 10 minutes of the movie, because it took me a while to figure what the story was all about!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Vancouver 2014 – Day 1. What could possibly go wrong?

Can one screw up a Spring Break vacation to Vancouver Island?  No, one can’t. The city of Vancouver (in the mainland) and Vancouver Island are simply too perfect for anything to go wrong. But I can always give it a try, for example by flying to the wrong airport!

Alas, after years of arranging flights I got so excited about a great deal I found in the internet (Alaska Airlines, $250 for the round trip) that I overlooked the fact that BLI is not the signature of Vancouver International. How was I to know that Bellingham was not a Canadian hero or politician? Imagine, then, my surprise when I landed at Bellingham airport in Washington state, a good 60 miles south of my intended destination! (In retrospect I should have heeded the old advice that if a deal is too good to be true is because it isn’t).

Well, there was nothing to it but hustle and figure out a way to cover those 60 miles. Fortunately (or unfortunately as the case might be) I had taken the Milk Run flights, starting last night with the leg between San Jose, California and Boise, Idaho—which included a complimentary night spent sleeping on a bench at the Boise airport—followed by a very early flight from Boise to Seattle, Washington, and another short jump from Seattle to Bellingham, where I landed at 8:45 am. I thus had a whole day to find my way out to Vancouver, British Columbia.

I took a quick taxi ride from the airport to the downtown Greyhound station, only to find out that the first run to Vancouver was in the mid-afternoon. Ah, but that was just a teaser from Lady Luck, because 10 steps away the Amtrak station was open for business, and the train to Vancouver was due in less than 30 minutes. By 9:45 I was comfortably settled in a four-seat booth, with a table, on the west-looking side of the train. As I looked across Puget Sound, a bald eagle swung into view, floating by my side as if she were checking out the train and its passengers. The sun shines and the sound shimmers in the morning light, as locals take their dogs for walks along the pebble beaches, which is strewn with gnarly driftwood. The high tide must be in, because for long stretches it feels like the train is gliding over the water. On a day such as this I could see the appeal that the north coast of Washington has among retirees, a short ride away from beautiful Vancouver (but let’s not forget that they have to put up with dreary weather during the best part of the year!).

As we arrived in Vancouver the weather changed, which is very typical of this area, and I stepped out of the Pacific Railroad station to a light drizzle. Lucky once again, I realized the station was but short six blocks from the place where I was renting a scooter (Cycle BC Rentals at . The deal was quickly accomplished, and for $329 rental fee and $35 insurance I became the proud owner (for a week) of a bright yellow Yamaha scooter, boldly labeled “You Too Can Rent Me!” At 50 cc it is a bit underpowered, but is otherwise perfect for my traveling needs.

I quickly stopped at the hostel to arrange for my bed for the next two nights, and after parking my bike in the hostel garage I went out for lunch. I was looking for something inexpensive, but my eyes landed in a Malaysian restaurant where the dish of the day was Crab in Chili Sauce. The dish immediately brought me back to my trip around the world, and the delicious Crab in Chili Sauce I had eaten in Singapore (which, as I recall, was extremely spicy and messy to eat but absolutely delicious). So in I went, ready to spend a small fortune to feed my memories. Alas, they had not received the crab they had been promised, but would Lobster in Chili Sauce be a suitable substitute? Oh yes, it certainly would! The dish was just as delicious and messy as I remembered, and I spent a good hour licking my fingers and enjoying every bit of meat I could extract from that lobster.

I then went for a walk through downtown enjoying being back in crazy Vancouver. Just how crazy the locals can be was put sharply into focus when I sighted a throng milling around what looked like a framers market. I headed there and almost immediately my nose was assaulted by the acrid smell of Cannabis indica. I had just stepped into the largest open market of marijuana, carefully laid around the open grounds of the Supreme Court. The rally was to support the decriminalization of marijuana, and it sported two rock bands, at least a hundred dealers with big crystal jars with the best marijuana buds Canada produces, marijuana smokes for $2 a joint, marijuana cookies and brownies, and all types of paraphernalia associated to the growing, processing and consumption of pot products. I was tempted to buy some seeds (Seeds of the Best Plants on the Land) for a friend of mine, but thought better of it and simply took a picture of the catalog. And what about the police? you may ask. Oh, they were there alright, simply guarding the perimeter but otherwise respectful of the freedom of expression of the Vancouverites.

I little dizzy after inhaling massive amounts of secondary pot smoke, I headed toward the ferry terminal to walk along the waterfront and enjoy the views. It was a lovely walk, and gave me the exercise I needed to make sure I sleep like a tired traveler tonight.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 21 – A brief layover in Seoul

From now on my favorite airport is Incheon International, even though it is heckafar from Seoul. But I need to backtrack a little for you to understand why this is so.

I arrived at Incheon at 5:30 am, in a sub-freezing temperature, with the happy prospect of an 11 hour layover before catching my San Francisco flight. That is a long time to just stay in the airport, so the day before I had searched in the internet ways to get from the airport to the city (I had homed in on the one day pass to use the metro and buses). Just before the immigration check, however, I saw a sign offering free tours for in transit passengers. Hmm, promising.

Lo and behold, as I left Customs I inquired in the Service Desk and was directed to the proper counter, where a nice lady booked me for the free 5-hour trip starting at 8 am. The tour itself is free, but I had to pay a measly US$ 13 for the entrance ticket to the Gyeongbok Palace and for lunch. I had about one and a half hours to kill, so I went to McDonald’s to buy a cup of coffee for an outrageous US$ 3 (I suspect that I got the foreigner surcharge, because as close as I could tell the sign said 1,800 won for a large cup, which would have been equivalent to US$ 1.80).

The tour bus took nearly an hour and a half to bring us to Gyeongbok Palace, in downtown Seoul. This was the palace of the emperors of the third dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, which in my humble opinion were very Chinese in their aspirations and built Gyeongbok as a small replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Pretty, yes, but without the thousands of courtiers it has the feeling of an empty series of warehouses.

From there we went a very short distance to visit the Jogyesa Temple, which is the main Buddhist temple in the city. The Koreans are pretty hard core Buddhists, and there were quite a number of folks inside kneeling and praying with true fervor. The temple is dominated by three very large golden images of the sitting Buda. From what I understood from our guide the three represented different facets of Buda, with one being Buda The Healer, and the central one Buda in meditation (I forget what the third image represented).

Our last stop was Insadong Street, for lunch and shopping. Insadong has many branching allies coming into it, in which one can find art galleries, antique shops, craft shops, and restaurants. Lunch was some thinly sliced beef in a hearty broth, steamed rice, and assorted veggies to mix with the rice and beef. Pretty good, but I am afraid I wolfed it down to go out into the street and window shop.

The tour guide was a nice middle age woman, who looked over us as a gallina looks over her pollitos. She was terribly afraid that one of us would get lost or left behind, and was really pushing us because some people had a 3 pm flight to catch (curse them, for I suspect we were shortchanged on a drive along the Cheonggyechon stream that runs across the city, and along Hongdae district where all the students hang out at night.

On the way back I asked our guide who paid for this free tour for passengers on transit, and she told me “the government since July 2013”. Before that the tour would have cost US$ 50 to US$70. I suspect it is the Ministry of Tourism, who uses this way to lure passersby to get a taste of the city, knowing that a taste may result on a longer trip at a later time. Clever of them to do that. I wish other cities were as enlightened.

Admittedly this has been too short a glimpse to form an opinion of Korea. They seem to be as meticulously clean and orderly as the Japanese, but I detect a dash of Singapore in the way everything is forbidden (in Singapore, of course, they have draconian fines for things like chewing gum or jay walking). A bit to rigid for my taste. Yet, there is no doubt that they are a prosperous country. Things are expensive here (gasoline is something like US$ 7 per gallon), but you see nice looking Kia’s and Hyundai’s everywhere (but, alas, no scooters), and everyone has a Samsung cell phone.

On the way back in the bus they had a promo film showing the jolly ol’ time two girlfriends had shopping in Seoul, and a great time had by two boys doing a bicycle trek. I think the possibility of visiting Korea on a bicycle is worth considering. According to the film you can carry your bicycle in trains, and I bet they have something like the one month pass for the train. But it cannot be done in winter, because it gets really cold, or summer because it is too warm. Maybe late spring early summer would be the best time. Or perhaps fall.

The real reason Incheon is now my favorite airport is not only because of the free tour. It is because of the free showers! Once you have cleared security and immigration you come into an enormous duty-free area, with anything your heart may desire in terms of brand names. If you take the elevator one floor up, however, you come to an oasis of peace where there comfortable recliners, a free internet center, little tables where you can plug your electronics (only one cluster, however, and inconsiderate people use those chairs to doze rather than letting the connections free for people like me, who would like to plug a computer), a massage and nail parlor, and a place where you can take a shower for free. I had been walking the day before in Hanoi, had spent 5 hours in the hotel, and had done 5 hours of tourism in Seoul. I was pretty ripe, and itchy, and uncomfortable, so the prospect of a shower was most welcome. I walked into a small lobby, where a gracious hostess handed me towels, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, and then came into a very nicely appointed bathroom where I basked in luxury. I had a clean change of clothes handy, so now I feel like starting the trip all over again!

All good things must come to an end, however, and I need to get back to California. It will not be long before the next adventure, but for now


Vietnam 2014 – Day 20 – The last day in Hanoi

I am back at being a lowly pedestrian L Still, the last day also has 10 hours of daylight, so I might as well do the best I can. My first stop was the Temple of Literature, a vast complex where the first university of Vietnam was established, in 1072 AD, shortly after Vietnam became independent from the Chinese empire. Still strongly influenced by the Chinese system of scholarship and bureaucracy, the university was devoted to the study of the main works of Confucius and other cornerstone writers of his time. The intent was to have a place where scholars could prepare for the national examinations, and having passed those further prepare for examination by the king himself. Those few who passed were elevated to mandarin rank, and were the main bureaucrats of the kingdom.

The temple has several courtyards. One of the courtyards is rimmed by a hundred or so stele, through which the university kept the records of the nearly 2,000 students who successfully passed the examinations over a period of 150 years (the pass rate was definitely low at that time). The back courtyard is where the students lived and studied. Its main building is an imposing two-story building, where the first rector is now enshrined as the tutelary god of the university.

From there I wandered toward the Museum of History, which is housed by a beautiful large building of the French colonial period. The collection is impressive, and tells the story of Vietnam from the prehistory (sites dating as far back as 10,000 years ago), to the Chinese domination period, the independence of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the Diet Viet kingdom (ca. 1070 AD), the independent period under the rule of a local dynasty, and the French colonial invasion ca. 1880.

A separate building tells the History of the Revolution, which is not as impressive but gives a bird’s eye view of the unrest under the French colonial rule, the formation of the International Communist Party (ICP), the initial protests under the sponsorship of the ICP against the French (ca. 1925), the Japanese invasion during World War II and the resistance movement in Vietnam (1944 to 1945), and the attempts at “recolonization” by the French with eventual help from the US. US involvement started in 1950, with the usual appearance of military advisors, escalated in 1964 with the arrival of the first US troops, and ended with the retreat of the US in 1973.

Much credit goes to Ho Chi Minh, who after fighting the Japanese was elected president around 1945, and remained the leader of the country until the mid 60’s until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see his country at peace, but his fighting spirit is well remembered by the Vietnamese who love him deeply (he was a bit of a marketing expert, and never missed a photo op while he traveled throughout the country maintaining the revolution active.

Having exhausted myself in museums I killed a couple of hours people watching and window shopping as I ambled through the narrow streets of the old city center. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary a few years ago, so the trace of the city center is really, really old. I had but a handful of dongs in my pocket, and I was intent on using them to the last dong, so I bought myself a hat, ate some delicious street food, and will have to drink a couple of beers as I wait for my taxi to the airport.

It has been a fabulous trip, and I am a little sad that it is time to go home. But I will return because I love the country and its people. Next time I will fly to Saigon, and will once again rent a motorcycle. There is no better way to see this fabulous land!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 19 – Hanoi, my final exam

After 2,000 km in the motorcycle I figured I could call myself an advanced beginner. Little did I know that Vietnam had decided to promote me to advanced level, and that today I had to present my final exam. I had but 100 km to go from Hai Phong to Hanoi, but in that short distance I was presented with every complication the examination board had to through at me. The setting was a major highway, with thundering cargo trucks and every vehicle imaginable on the road (a sign clearly stated that carts and tractors were not allowed, but such a sign is like a red cloth waved in front of an angry bull. Let’s begin with a light drizzle, just enough to blur visibility and make the highway really slippery. Then we will throw in a few weaving bicycles, slow moving carts and tractors. Then we will introduce all sorts of vehicles doing u-turns right on front of you. Finally, let’s add the ubiquitous scooter going against the direction of traffic. Honestly, it felt like I was in a videogame, where everything that can go wrong will. But I did it! I swerved around all obstacles, cut in front of an 18-wheeler to avoid hitting a little old lady, dropped my speed to zero to avoid an oncoming car, and then accelerated to 100 km per hour in under 30 seconds to avoid the incoming rush of across-the-highway traffic.

Once I got to Hanoi proper I crossed the river using a railroad bridge, jumped a red light, wove myself through a prong of scooters that resembled angry piranhas, and even went against the flow of traffic on a major thoroughfare! By the time I got to my hotel I had left a path of scared Vietnamese on my path, who will probably will need a few million dong of therapy before they can forget crossing paths with El Diablo.

Emboldened by my success I crossed the city (again!) To go to the excellent Museum of Ethnology of the peoples of Vietnam. The country has 46 different cultural groups, who speak languages from five different groups, which makes for a pretty mix. Amazingly all of them get along just fine (though the Viet, with 86% of the total population, are clearly top dogs). The museum is pretty far from city center, but it has very fine grounds. The main museum has displays on each of the 46 ethnic groups, with fine displays on costumes, handcrafts, and living styles. A separate building host the Museum of Southeast Asia, which has beautiful art pieces from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The best part, in my humble opinion, are the grounds, which are an oasis of peace in the middle of crazy Hanoi. On them the museum has placed its collection of homes from the different cultural groups. The museum actually went and bought traditional homes, dismantled them, and then brought crews of the original builders to put them together again. They also had a water theater, where the stage is a pond, and the “actors” are puppets that are manipulated from a covered water temple. The result is at the same time funny and impressive. I need to tell my cousin Jaime, the family puppeteer, about this.

Getting back from the museum to downtown was postdoctoral level stuff, since it was around 5 pm and the whole population of Hanoi was on the move. But I did it without mishap, so from now on I will describe myself as a very experienced motorcyclist. I returned the motorbike without a hitch by 6 pm, and Hop, the friendly proprietor of the rental shop (ADV Ride or, invited me to join him and his friends on a beer. They were a delightful group of young Vietnamese, later joined by their three French friends, and all of them made me feel very, very welcome.

So welcome, indeed, that after a couple of beers they decided to go to a Bia Hoi (a brewers) restaurant and they dragged me along. What a delightful way to spend Saturday evening, and my last evening in Hanoi. The beer was good, and the dinner was a real feast, with lettuce wraps filled with cold meats and veggies (and dipped in soy sauce and wasabe), a pork shank baked in cream, breaded frog, and all sorts of side dishes. The only thing missing was slow-roasted dog, because they only serve it on Sundays. Maybe tomorrow.