Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 13. "The best-laid plans of mice and men …

Alas, my beautiful plans for a hard core ride in Nova Scotia have evaporated on account of my hurting knee. I spent an uneasy night, now and then with a pang of pain, and in the morning I got in the internet and read about bicycling injuries. The mechanics of pedaling are such, that if your seat is too low, by as little as half an inch, the down stroke (the power stroke) may cause an uneven pull in the muscles of the outside of the leg in contrast to the muscles inside. This puts stress on the tendons that tie to the knee cap (or patella). The patella is pulled subtly off-kilter and forces through the patello-femoral joint increase, causing diffuse pain around the knee-cap (what in the vernacular is called anterior knee pain). The cure is RICE or repose, icing, compression, and elevation.

I had been riding reasonably high, but still moved the seat up by half an inch and went for a trial run to the Chute Montmorency, a rather imposing waterfall about 20 km away. At times it seemed that I could actually pedal OK, but from time to time the stab of pain would come back, to remind me not be cocky about it. On the way back I noticed I was favoring the other leg to provide the power, which is a recipe for hurting the good leg.

I could have rested for a couple of days and see how much I could improve by then, but if I kept up stressing the knee I could pay for it in the form of serious damage that would haunt me for years to come. So, with great disappointment I have decided to cut my loses, stop the trip (I had never done so before!), and go back home to nurse my wounds.

So this is the end of this blog, since I don’t have the heart to chronicle a retreat. I just hope that prudence today will allow me to continue adventuring for many years to come. I leave you with a quote from Pablo Cohelo: “If you think that adventure is dangerous, I suggest you try routine. Routine is deadly!”


Monday, July 21, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 12. Around Québec City

I had a grand day playing tourist. To begin with I had to figure out a way of getting from Laval University to downtown without having to pedal upward all the time. It would have been a lot easier if I had a decent map, but with what little I had I cut north, to a small creek, rightly thinking that all small rivers lead to the big river. Good luck was with me, and after zig-zagging a bit I found a bicycle path that took me all the way to the wharves, and from there to the “low city”, which was the original location of the settlement founded by Samuel de Champlain in the 1608. This low part of the city is on a narrow bar formed at the foot of the cliff, and is now occupied by all sorts of quaint shops arranged around the original church and its small plaza. I decided to park my bike in this part of the town, and after wandering through the lively streets I worked my way on foot up the cliff to Vieux Québec.

Vieux Québec is a citadel atop a very steep cliff, surrounded by ramparts where cannons made it impregnable (until the British scaled the cliffs about a mile downstream and defeated the French army in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759). The old city is dominated by a castle-like resort that looks very ancient but is probably no more than 80 years old, and by the original buildings of Université Laval, which grew from the Seminar de Québec, established in 1663. The university is the oldest higher education institution in Canada. I wandered happily among the old buildings, window shopping and enjoying the very European feeling of the old city.

Another unique attraction of the old city is the Promenade des Governors, which is a broad walking path that hangs off the cliff and connects the old city with the old fort and the Plains on Abraham to the west. Besides being a favorite path of joggers and tourists, it is probably the best place to admire the St. Lawrence River as it widens downstream from the city.

Thoroughly relaxed after my promenade through the city I took to my bike, and went all around the city and up the southern shore of the river. Hundreds of people were there, happily bicycling along (a few couples and families, but also lots and lots of singles), or roller blading. At the very end of the bicycling path there is a small park with many young trees, which has been taken over by the reading society. Mostly older couples bring their folding chairs, get under the shade of one of the young trees, and read to their hearts’ content, enjoying the view of the river and the gentle breeze. I was energized to do the same thing, pulled out my Kindle, and promptly dozed off.

To get back in the afternoon I had to bike all the way back to the “low city”, and from there followed my original trek back to the university following the biking path. Truly, seeing Québec by bike is a great way to discover dozens of small parks and gardens. It is a lovely city with many attractive suburbs. The only thing is that cursed ridge. I huffed and puffed pushing my bicycle up the slope, but finally made it to the top. I was getting ready to mount on my bike, swinging my right leg over the sit as I pushed with my left leg, when a sharp pain stabbed my left knee. Rats! I am going to have to be very careful with that knee, because I still have 20 days to go! 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 11. Lévis to Quebec (40 km)

I stayed the night at Lévis, across the river from Quebec, and today in the morning I did the crossing using the ferry. Once I got to the Quebec side I stopped at the booth of a line of river cruises, and asked them if it was possible to take a boat from Quebec to Rivier-du-Loup, a ride I was planning to do next Wednesday. The girl looked at me with big eyes and told me "Mais non, monsieur, ca se tres loin d’ici." "Far away?", asked I. "How far?" And she pulled out a map and showed me that the distance from Quebec to Riviere-du-Loup is the same as the distance from Montreal to Quebec! And I was planning to cover that distance in one day. Ha!

It was time to put my thinking cap on, and figure out a way out of my silly mistake. Fortunately my wanderings took me to La Gare de Quebec, where all the long-distance buses come in. Right away I went in, asked, and was assured that on Wednesday I will be able to take a bus to Riviere-du-Loup, so I won't have to bust my knees trying to get there on time to take the train to Halifax.

I then stopped at the port, to look at the channel locks (esclusas in Spanish that allow boats to come in and out of the marina into the river, and just by chance got to visit the Marie Clarie, a 1920’s schooner (goleta in Spanish; a two mast sailboat, where the main sail goes in the back mast. The schooner has been lovingly renovated, and a lively girl in the costume of a ship’s boy gave me a great summary of its history, first as a fishing vessel, then as a cargo vessel, and finally as a pleasure cruiser. A very cool piece of history.

For the rest of the day I wandered along the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River, not wholly committed to enter the City of Quebec. The simple reason for this is that Quebec occupies the top of a long ridge, and it is hard work pushing the loaded bike up those steep slopes. Finally I did it, but only to ride away from “uptown” to the campus of Laval University, where I will make my abode for the next three nights. I have now clocked a total distance of 500 km from the time I first got on the bike in Montreal!

At Laval University I am staying in one of the dorm rooms, which is nicely appointed with TV, mini-fridge, and its own bathroom. I did the shopping thing, and I cooked my own dinner, but I had to use my own cooking camping utensils, because the kitchens do not have any common use pots and pans. Dinner was actually quite yummy (poached salmon with herb rice, accompanied with red wine), but it was too much of a hazzle and I may do the fast food thing for the next couple of days.

Tomorrow I will be a plain tourist. I am going to go down to the river with the bike, follow it north to the base of the cliff atop which is the historic center, park the bike, and proceed from there on foot. I am going to try to give my left knee a break (I have bought a knee brace as well) while enjoying this beautiful city.    

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 10. Dosquet to Lévis (70 km)

Another perfect bicycling day, which unfortunately means there is not much to say. After leaving Dosquet the bike path starts following several urban parks, where lots and lots of folks were using the opportunity for doing some Saturday morning exercise. Approaching the St. Lawrence River I had to cross the Parc des Chutes-de-la-Chaudiere, which if I remember correctly is where the first hydroelectric plant was built in the province of Quebec. Since then the Quebecois have been busy little bees building other hydroelectric projects, and today the province is the main power producer of Canada. The Chutes-de-la-Chaudiere themselves are some pretty waterfalls, which the tourist can admire from the middle of an imposing hanging bridge.

The next leg of the trip gets a little tricky, due to poor signalization of the Route Vert. However, “preguntando se llega a Roma” and by asking I soon took the right path and eventually made it to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. This is an extremely posh area, with small villas built by the shore of the river. In the distance across the river, the beautiful city of Quebec tempts the traveler to cross the river, but for today I will stay on the south shore since I am not expected in the city until tomorrow.

My left knee is definitely hurting by now. I seem to recover just fine overnight, and am good for about six hours the following day, but anything more than that is asking for trouble. I am not a fan of creams, for I don’t think they penetrate the impermeable skin, but I may make an exception tomorrow when I get to the city, even if it only for the placebo effect.

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 9. Victoriaville to Dosquet (70 km)

A glorious day and a beautiful bike path! I was not in a hurry because I am one day ahead of myself, so I biked slowly, taking in the sun, the gentle breeze, and the green all around me. The Route Vert 1 is built on what used to be the train tracks (the tracks have been pulled out and the route filled with road base, so it is flat and smooth), so the ride is uncomplicated and pleasant. Unfortunately that doesn’t give me much to talk about, so today’s entry is a very short one.

I made my way to Dosquet around 4 pm, and to my great delight I found that the town has an Auberge where I could spend the night. My host is an older gentleman, who has restored a beautiful mansion as a hostel. It has been a labor of love, and I rejoiced on the chance to spend the night in such genteel surroundings.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 8. Saint-Guillaume to Victoriaville (100 km)

As planned I woke up early, with the idea of getting an early start. I was pretty sure I was the only one in the hostel, so there was no problem going across the corridor to the shower on my skimpies, carrying in a small bundle my towel, soap, and riding shorts. No sooner had I stepped out of my room when I froze as I heard the “click” of my bedroom door. Oh no, the key was in the pocket of my shorts inside the room! Trying to remain calm I went ahead and took a shower, thinking furiously about what to do. Thank God I had my riding shorts with me, though on someone of my body shape they are nothing I would want to impose on anyone else. As soon as I was “dressed” I started looking for something I could use to jimmy the door open. What I needed was something stiff, like a credit card, but my wallet was also inside the room. I looked throughout the hostel and found a piece of cardboard and some plastic coffee stir sticks, but after a quarter hour I had to give up for they were not stiff enough.

It was 6:30 am, so it was not like I could go out into the town to look for a locksmith (besides, I was feeling vulnerable and would not want to parade myself through the town in my riding shorts, and with no shoes or shirt. What if I had to wait until 3 pm for the bar to open?! I had to put all my hopes on the cleaning lady, although I had no idea at what time she might come. For all I knew she liked to sleep in and would not show up until noon or 2 pm. So I opened the door of the hostel, hoping a neighbor would see it and would feel like investigating, and I sat on a chair by the door, intent on grabbing at any opportunity that might come my way.

Fortunately the cleaning lady was an early riser, and her car pulled in at about 8 am. She must have been quite startled when she saw a half naked portly man happily crying “Ah madame, je suis tres hereaux de vous voir! But she rallied herself and in no time grabbed the master key and let me into my room. Once I was properly clad she fixed me a cup of coffee and we had a nice chat (of which I got about half of what was being said, because she was using Quebecois French). She was one more of the very friendly Canadians I have met during this trip, and I am deeply grateful that thanks to her I was able to hit the road by 9:30.

It was a pretty ride first to Drummondville and then to Victoriaville, through the same agricultural country of the day before. It was long, though, so by the time I arrived to Victoriaville I was pretty tired. Counting both days my “little detour” took me about 180 km, but from here to Quebec City should be only 110 km, which I felt I could easily cover I two leisurely days. Wait … two days? Today is Thursday, so I would be arriving to Quebec City on Saturday. Rats! I am not scheduled to get there until Sunday, so now I have to find a way to burn one day in between. Ay, ay, ay!

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 7. Berthierville to Saint-Guillaume (80 km)

There I was, squeezing myself between the highway traffic and the grass, when I realized that riding this way was no fun. That was all that a little devil whispering in my ear needed to do his work, and without knowing how I found myself crossing the river and headed south for Route Vert 1, 100 km away. I once again went through the Iles de Berthier, took a ferry across the last channel of the river, and started a long, long way across beautiful agricultural land.

I was quite satisfied with my decision, but I had not planned for this departure from the route, and I had no maps whatsoever of the area I was crossing. All I knew is that eventually I wanted to join the Route Vert 1 in Victoriaville, but I figured that I could ask my way there. Unfortunately this is sparsely populated country, so it was not easy to find someone to ask, so I ended getting lost and making 30 km more than strictly necessary.

Finally I got to the small town of Saint-Guillaume, a quaint ag community in the middle of nowhere. I stopped in the little park in front of the church, and a friendly native asked me where I was coming from and where I was headed to. He shook his head when I told him I was going to Victoriaville, and he told me I had another 50 or 60 km to go. A little discouraged I asked if there was a camping place nearby, and he told me that the nearest was in Drumondville, 30 km away. Seeing my face of disappointment he told me I could pass the night at the municipal hostel, and could enjoy the best meal ever at Café Favori.

So I went a couple of blocks, stopped at a grand old mansion with the sign Auberge in the front, and arranged to spend the night there. The auberge also functions as the local bar, and is only open from 3 pm to midnight. I was to have the run of the hostel itself, and was asked to close the door behind me after I left, and that the lady that does the cleaning would show up sometime during the day. Cool!

Dinner at Café Favori was great. The menu of the day included soup, a main course of quiche, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes, and a big peace of cake with dates as dessert. Not much to do here, so I will go to bed early, and will try to get an early start to reach Victoriaville in time for lunch.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 6. Saint-Sulpice to Berthierville (70 km)

I woke up early, took a luxurious bath, breakfasted a big bowl of oatmeal, and off I went on the next leg of the trip. The morning was overcast but dry, and with any luck the rain would hold. It held long enough for me to make it to the next town (Lavaltrie), where I looked for the hardware store and bought a tent. It was very awkward to rig the tent onto my already overloaded bike (thank God for bungee cords), but now I was prepared for all (ah, the folly of man).

Unfortunately the Route Vert 5 in several stretches simply follows the local roads, as my friend Stephane had warned me in Montreal, so although the ride is pretty with the river on sight, it is not as peaceful as following the Route Vert 3. Oh, oh, I think I felt a drop. This time I was not going to get wet, so I pulled out my Vietnamese poncho (the best rain gear I have ever had) and continued pedaling down the road.

At exactly 40 km by the odometer, I arrived at the outskirts of the town of Berthierville, under a pretty steady rain. I stopped at a little hotel to inquire about cost of their rooms ($65 as opposed to the $90 I had paid yesterday) and about nearby camping places. The helpful innkeeper pulled out the tourist guide for the county, and confirmed that there was a camping park about 20 km away. I thanked him, stepped out unto what was by now a pouring rain, and after 5 minutes of contemplation went back to the office and booked a room. It had to be about 1 pm, and I felt like a total wimp for running this way from the rain, but the prospect of pitching a tent under a deluge had no real appeal to me.

I did my best to use the time wisely, doing some of the editorial work that I have been chipping at for the last two weeks, but after a couple of hours I was getting cabin fever. I started looking around the room and found out that the town of Berthierville has laid out a wonderful biking circuit of the Iles de Berthier, two large river islands. That did it. Taking advantage of a lull in the rain I got out and went for a fabulous 30 km ride through one of the prettiest landscapes I have seen in this civilized part of Canada. The islands and their in-between channels are mostly devoted to agriculture, but with their knack for building beautiful places the local residents have turned them into an endless garden.

On the way back I stopped by the supermarket, bought a nice tray of sushi, and reasonably tired I retired to my warm and dry little room, to write this blog and watch Fast and Furious 2 (dubbed in French, naturellment). 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 5. Montreal to Saint-Sulpice (80 km)

The trek has begun! I actually started late, at 9 am, because it took a while to pack and repack so I could get all my stuff into the saddle bags and basket. I was doing great until I figured I had to stop at the supermarket to buy food for a couple of days (a very simple menu of oatmeal for the mornings, a couple of apples for today’s lunch, two packs of pasta, and a can of tuna and a can of ham to tidy me over the next couple of days.

My plan was to ride a comparatively short distance to the bridge that could take me to the Parc national des Isles de Boucherville, which includes all of an island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. Alas, I went round and round, misled by kind but misinformed Montrealites, until finally one of them explained to me that the bridge was not a bridge but a tunnel, and bicycles were not allowed. If I wanted to get to the park I would have to go back to Montreal to cross to the other shore of the river, and from there I “might” be able to cross. The “might” did it for me, so with tears in my eyes I retook the main trail north, toward Quebec City, with the idea of doing no more than 50 km this day.

I have a series of maps I had downloaded from Velo Quebec, where presumably the campgrounds along the route are clearly identified. Right! The “campground” I was headed for ended being a hotel (friendly to cyclists, but not a campground). I was at 60 km according to my odometer, but I was told there was an actual campground 10 km down the road. By this time I was getting tired (actually, my derrier was starting to ask for me to stop), but I figured I could push for another 10 km. So I did, and I got to the campground (by now the odometer read 70 km), and a very nice lady was ready to welcome me, but then I explained that I didn’t have a tent but a hammock. “Desole!” she said with genuine regret, “but we don’t have any place where two trees are close enough together.” Silly me; a hammock might be the best option if you are cycling through the Rockies, where there is dense forest all around. Here by a large river trees are found, to be sure, but they dot the landscape here and there, surrounded by a lot of rushes. Campgrounds further challenge the tree offerings by opening ground for campers and tents. Rats! The lady suggested I could push forward another 10 km, because she thought there was another campground at the next city.

What to do? I could push forward another 10 km and try my luck, or I could go back 10 km to the hotel I had seen. Prudence is the best part of valor, so I turned around, and by the click of 80 km in the odometer I got to the hotel, to spend the night in luxury (it plays havoc on the travel budget, however, because hotels are pretty expensive in Canada).

So, on top of carrying a lot of stuff (including a useless hammock), I am going to have to buy a tent in Trois-Riviers, a 100 km from here. Since I want to ride no more than 50 km per day that still leaves one night in between when I will have to improvise. Never a dull moment when in a biking adventure J

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 4. Drizzle all day long

Today in the early morning the sky was overcast, and there was a drizzle. Today was also my last full day in Montreal, and I took advantage of the opportunity to leave the bike at home and take to the town on foot. My plan was to climb Mount Royal (or Mont Real, from which the city takes its name). My left knee has been complaining, so instead of taking the path straight up, I walked the long, gentle road to the top. By the time I got there I was drenched but in good cheer. The view from the top is probably glorious, but I got to see the city shrouded in mist.

After a cup of hot chocolate I headed straight down, past McGill University, and headed for downtown intent on finding a cinema where I could hole for a couple of hours. It was too early, however, so I took a stroll along Sainte Catherine Avenue. Sunday is a big party time for the Montrealites, and the avenue was closed to traffic so everyone could go for a stroll and listen to the street musicians. My favorite was a percussion group, about 20 strong, that happily banged on their drums while keeping pace with a very sophisticated choreography.

Eventually I made it to the movies, but at first I got into the wrong movie theater, and ended seeing the best part of both The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men. I was glad to have extracted the most out of my 13$ ticket (that is Canadian for $13).

I got home early, cooked a delicious rice with mushrooms, and am now facing the task of washing the clothes I am wearing and packing all my stuff for the trip to Quebec City. I am giving myself 7 days to cover the 300 km, so it should be an easy ride of about 40 km per day, north along the Saint Lawrence River. I will be incommunicado for that time, but if time and opportunity permit I will keep writing my daily blog, and will send several days together when I reach Quebec City. A bien tot!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 3. Week-ends du Monde

I love my new bike! It rides smooth, is really pretty (it is a red Bonellii, a good Canadian brand), and is light. Now my only concern is that someone might steal it while I am in Montreal or Quebec City (Canadians are super-honest people, but apparently bikes are fair game).

I took my bike for a spin back to Ile Sainte-Hellene, where I wanted to visit the Museum of the Environment. The museum is housed in what was the US pavilion in the 1967 World Expo, which in very American style was big, futuristic, and impressive. As museums go it was OK, without being Wow. One of the sections was devoted to photographs from the North Pole, and that was pretty cool.

In the afternoon I hung out in the island, walking through the booths of Week-ends du Monde, a festival lasting two consecutive weekends to celebrate the peoples of the world. This particular Saturday the emphasis was in Latin America, with big areas dedicated to Peru (and its cuisine, products, music and dance) and El Salvador (ditto). The main activity was eating, of course, but they had four different stages and I saw all sorts of folk dances. One particularly cool performance was in a tent for maybe 100 people, where each person was provided with a drum. The group of six performers carried most of the music, but the public was invited to participate and drum away in rhythm with the music. Great fun!

I came back early to the hostel, where I had a delicious lobster sandwich I bought in the way in, and then sat down to do editorial work on a bunch of chapters I have pending for the new book Applied Geology in California that my friend Bob Anderson and I are editing.

Tomorrow is the final of the World Cup. Go Germany!

P.S.. I had finished writing and posting my blog around 9 pm, and was ready to head for bed, when one of the guys working at the hostel asked me if I was going to accompany them to see the fireworks. Yes, of course! At 9:30 we headed out toward the river, and by 10 pm we were in place to see the most glorious display of fireworks you can imagine. The riverside was packed with people, and for at least half an hour we were all riveted to the wiggly trace of the rockets, and the rosettes they painted for us on the sky. Seeing this whole crowd flow away from the river after the fireworks were done was also something to behold.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 2. Around Montreal

Another glorious day. I had breakfast at the hostel, and then called United to find out about my suitcase. The automated service advised me that the suitcase had left the airport and was on its way to the address in record. So I sat with my computer, writing a paper review, until finally at 10:30 I gave up, annoyed to wasting my time in Montreal. So I rented a bike for $20 for the day, and off I went.

I came down the hill to the St. Lawrence River, right to the old port of Montreal. Like in San Francisco, the wharves have been converted into more gentrified uses. The one that caught my attention was the Science Museum, which was advertising a special exhibition of the cave paintings of Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of France. So I parked the bike, paid the entrance fee, and was transported into one of the most interesting museums I have seen. The first part dealt with the discovery of Lascaux in the late 1940’s, and with the development until the 1960’s, when it was discovered that the influx of tourists was damaging the paintings. First the visits were restricted, but the people kept coming in droves (and were quite unhappy when they were turned away), so the French government created a copy of the cave (with narrow passages and all), and had an army of artists reproduce the marvelous paintings. Fast forward 50 years, and now they have the technology to create computer models, and quite precise replicas of the walls of the cave, and that is precisely on display at the Science Museum. Before they let you into the “cave”, however, you get to see all sorts of cool displays and films about the techniques used by the Cromagnon artists who painted marvelous herds of reindeer, bulls in battle, horses running through the country, and a large black Aurochs cow. It is only after you are steeped in admiration for the techniques and details that you walk into a hall where the individual walls have been recreated, and where the paintings jump out of the rock at you, that you realize the magnificence of the art created 19,000 years ago. It was a fabulous experience.

After that I followed the river for a while, but I had it in my mind that I wanted to find a Target store, where I thought I could buy a cheap pre-paid cell phone, and that took me back into downtown. I did find a Target, but they didn’t have anything and sent me further into downtown to a cell phone store. At the end I found that yes, I could buy a phone for the month I was here, but the price tag was too high, and I don’t have anyone to call anyway, so I finally gave up.

I went back to the river and started going on the opposite direction, intent on crossing the bridge Jacques Cartier over the St. Lawrence River to get to the Ile Sainte.-Hellene and Ile Notre-Dame, two small islands in the middle of the river, who are one of the big recreational spaces of Montreal. Getting over the river was tough, because the bridge rises and rises to a high point before coming back down to the islands. Great views, though. Once in the island I went to visit the Stewart Museum, which occupies the old munitions depot of the British when they took over the French possessions in the 18th century. The museum had a great exhibition about the history of discovery and conquest of French Canada, from the first nations all the way to the formation of the two Canadas (French and English), and the final consolidation of the country in the mid 19th century. I was lucky enough to have a guided tour of one, and kept up with my Quebecois guide for the first half. But then other people joined us, and he started speaking so fast, and using Quebecois accent and words, that my poor brain went blank. Very nice young man, but boy could he speak fast!

I spent the rest of the afternoon touring the islands, and I plan to go back tomorrow because they are having an International Festival, with booths from all over the world. I forgot to mention that Ile Sainte-Hellene was enlarged for the World Expo of 1967, so there are all sorts of interesting buildings, left over from the Expo. A very interesting one is a geodesic dome that hosts the Museum of the Environment. It was too late to visit it, but I may give it a go tomorrow.

Back at the hostel I fell in conversation with a fellow from New Orleans, who had just arrived and was planning on spending two weeks in Montreal. We exchanged stories and he mentioned that he was planning on buying a bike for the two weeks. Well, I told him, I happen to have a friend who is in the business of selling or renting bikes, and he is coming to deliver me a bike in half hour. So he came down with me, and together we waited for Stephane (Stephane Lapointe-VELO-BIKE bikes@pistescyclables.ca  www.stephanelapointe.com)  He arrived in good time at 8:30 pm, as we had previously arranged, in his van, which is actually a fully equipped bike shop. He took his time showing me the two bikes he had brought for me, and it just so happened that the one I didn’t choose was just right for Jordan, so we both got to do business. I cannot emphasize enough that Stephane is a bicycle wiz, and very knowledgeable about routes and the best way to enjoy a bicycling vacation in Quebec. If you ever come this way, he is your man.

At the end I bought from him a great aluminum-frame bike, fully accessorized with fenders, rack, basket, trip computer, lights, and spare inner tube for $350, which was a total bargain. Now that I have my expeditionary vehicle the adventure is ready to start!

P.S. United delivered my suitcase without a hitch, but now that I look at all the stuff I brought I am beginning to wonder how am I going to carry all that stuff in a single bike!  

Montreal-Quebec-Nova Scotia Day 1. Travel to Montreal

This is the story of my bicycling adventure from Montreal to Quebec City, and later around Nova Scotia. I have come back to Montreal and Quebec City because they are places where I experienced great happiness two years ago, but since this time I am alone I have the goal of exploring new places and people in this French-speaking portion of Canada. I think Canadians are kind and generous people, and I am looking forward to a great adventure.

Faby, DJ and I left from Modesto at 3 am, and by 4:30 am we were at Sacramento airport, in plenty of time to catch my 6 am flight, frist to Denver and from there to Montreal. Unfortunately United had decided to change my reservation to a 5 am flight, first to San Francisco and from there to Montreal. End result, my suitcase made it to the San Francisco plane, but I was delayed in security control and missed the plane. No big deal, since they promptly rebooked me through Chicago and then Montreal, but the end result is that I landed with no luggage.

Otherwise Montreal welcomed me with open arms. The weather was a dream, sunny but not too hot, I had Canadian dollars in my pocket, and I knew my way around bus lines and the downtown area. The folks at Alexandrie Hostel were, as usual, super, and din’t bat an eye at changing my reservation from a double to a single (I only saved $30, but is thought that counts), and gave me acute little apartment overlooking a quiet corner that could be anywhere in Europe (or French Canada, of course).

My first walk through the city was glorious. All the cafes had tables al fresco, folks were enjoying a Friday afternoon, and Rue St. Denis (the Quartier Latin of Monteal) was at its best with an outdoor exhibition of Cirque de Soleil and tons of folks strolling around.

I did all the things you are supposed to do when you first arrive in a foreign city, including going to the bank to get even more money, sipping a coffee in one of the many terrace cafes, trying to get my cell phone to work here (unsuccessful), and buying soap, a toothbrush, and toothpaste (my bag is supposed to arrive tomorrow, so tonight I will do the time-honored tradition of washing my clothes so tomorrow I am not Pepe Le Peu.

For dinner I had a half bottle of red wine and fondue, happily remembering the same meal I had with my parents a week ago in Monclova. The night is pleasant and I think I will now stroll to the terrace of my small apartment for a night cap. A votre santé!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Vancouver 2014 – Day 8. The long way home

I honestly thought that I would end my blog with yesterday’s entry, for there is little of interest on recounting the boring way home. Ah, but that is when things work out. When they don’t then the homecoming might actually be challenging.

I learned I was in trouble when I woke up at 4 am and looked at my cell phone. There was a message there from Alaska Airlines, advising me that my 7 am flight to Portland had been cancelled (I was doing the Milk Run Bellingham to Portland to Boise to San Jose), and that instead I had been booked in the 5 pm flight to Las Vegas, followed by the 9 pm flight to Seattle, where I could expect to arrive at midnight. I can tell you, that was not going to happen!

At 5:50 am my taxi came to the hotel, and by 5:45 am I was at the airport, 10th in line waiting to be helped. “Hmmm”, I said to myself “so they didn’t cancel the flight for lack of passengers, since there are at least 10 of us here and that is just the early-riser portion of the clientele. Two attendants were working hard with two couples, but it was pretty apparent they were not having much luck fitting them in one of the three remaining flights of Bellingham that day. Finally one of the attendants lifted her face and made the announcement: “If you are planning on taking the shuttle to Seattle airport you better call know because it is going to take a while to make the arrangements.” “That does it”, I said to myself, and immediately pulled out my cell phone and dialed the shuttle company. As it turns out there was a shuttle ready to leave from the front of the airport, and if I hurried I could catch it. Run I did, and by 6:05 am I was in my seat, dozing comfortably for the 2 and a half ride to SeaTac.

When I got to SeaTac I confronted a sea of automated machines, with very little human flesh in between. That was not going to do, so I boldly stepped to the VIP counter, and asked the distinguished gentleman there to help me find a flight, any flight, that would take me to San Jose, Oakland, or San Francisco. It took him a while to bend the computer to his will, but 20 minutes later I was holding a boarding pass for the 10 am flight to Oakland.

Now, how was I going to get from Oakland to San Jose? Enter Sandi and Dave Ashby to the rescue! I texted them with the change in plans, and Dave kindly offered to go pick me up at the BART Fremont station around 1:30 pm. The air trip, and the connection to BART worked seamlessly (there is no train link from the Oakland airport to BART, but there is a bus that for all of $1 will take a Senior citizen there; I still have a few years to go to become a Senior citizen, but the gray hair gave me a reprieve).

I stepped off BART at precisely 1:30 pm and started looking for Dave. Nada! I was getting ready to wait when a text message pinged my phone. It was Dave, letting me know that he had . . . missed his way slightly … and was now in the Union City station of BART.  What is a small delay at 1:30 pm, when I was supposed to still be sitting at the Bellingham airport waiting for the 5 pm flight to Las Vegas?

All is well that ends well. By 2 pm we were at the Ashby home in Sunnyvale, where I picked up my car and equipment, and by 5 pm I was comfortably home, feeling sorry for the poor schmucks on their way to Vegas.


Vancouver 2014 – Day 7. Another perfect scootering day.

The final day of all good adventures must eventually come, but it is always nice when that particular day starts with shining sun. To begin with I had a leisurely breakfast of noodle soup (the only edible thing left in the “For share” shelf at the kitchen) and coffee in the veranda of my lonely hostel, and then packed for my last ride. I had about 125 km to go to the ferry terminal, so I figured that leaving at 8 am should get me to Nanaimo around 11 am.

The ride to the ferry terminal was an almost zen experience, with the sun rays piercing through the dancing foliage. The air temperature was quite low, so when I went through a shady portion of the road I could feel the bite of the cold air, but as soon as I came unto sunlight the air became pleasant. I ended stopping quite a few times to take photographs because the morning light was simply perfect (it may have helped that I was listening to The Education of Little Tree by Forrester Carter, which is one of my favorite books).

By the time I approached Nanaimo, at about 11 am, I saw a big electronic board announcing the departure of the ferry at 12:30, so I actually had time to stop at a supermarket and buy a sandwich for the ferry crossing. We loaded without problems, and for the next couple of hours I dozed on a front row seat (the crossing, alas, is across open water and not navigating between islands, so the landscape—albeit impressive—does not change that often.

After landing at Horseshoe Bay I still had another 25 km or so, and a bridge to cross, to get to Vancouver. Once there I scootered once around Stanley Park (for old times sake), and then followed the waterfront all the way to Main Street, and from there a few blocks to Cycle BC Rentals and the formal end of my trip. It was about 4 pm, so I had plenty of time to get to the train station, six blocks away, for my 5:45 pm train to Bellingham.

And so ends this little adventure. All things considered Lady Luck smiled on me with good weather, good people, and a beautiful country. I have no complaints, no regrets, and much to be thankful for.

Vancouver 2014 – Day 6. An (almost) perfect day for scootering.

Ah, nothing like sleeping in. I woke up at 7 am, had a couple of cups of coffee while my clothes went through the clothes drier, had a generous breakfast, and by 9 am I was ready to roll. It had rained overnight, and the sky was overcast and drizzly, so I put on my rain poncho and started on my way back down the peninsula. I made a couple of stops so I could say I had taken a look at the west coast of the island, and finally reached the end of the peninsula at the town of Ucluelet. Besides its impossible name the town is quite modest, but to me it seemed like Shangri-La because at that time the sun made its glorious appearance. All of a sudden the shingle beach looked like the best place on Earth, so I took the opportunity to get rid of the rain gear, exuding optimism as to the day ahead of me.

I started on my way across the island, along the same way I had come yesterday. Ah, but what a difference! The mountain peaks now are snow-clad, the forests shimmer in the sun, and along the canyons flow foaming streams. Now I remember why I thought that scootering in the mountains should be such a feel-good experience.

On the way I stopped at an old grove of Douglas firs, one of which is a giant more than 400 ft tall and over 800 years old. Did you know that Douglas was a field naturalist who sent hundred of plant specimens to various universities to have them cataloged? Besides the eponymous fir tree, there are 50 other plant species named after him. Pretty cool, isn’t it?

Once I reached the east coast I eschewed the highway in favor of a smaller road that took me all along the coast. It was absolutely perfect, particularly Qualicum Bay and Fanny Bay. The sun was deliciously warm, although the moment you got under the shade of the enormous pines and firs you could not avoid a shiver or two.

My ultimate destination for the day was Cumberland, which astonishingly is not along the coast but a few kilometers inland. It is an OK little town, but I was really wondering how it had managed to get an HI Hostel. It turned out to be a private hostel, loosely associated to HI Hostels, that caters to mountain bike enthusiasts. Most of them are fair-weather riders, however, so once again I had the rare privilege of being the only guest in a hostel that is clearly meant to host at least 50 people.

I welcomed the opportunity of spending my last night in Canada in comfort, so after walking around town for a half hour I started hunting for a supermarket where I could find something good to cook for dinner, and for a liquor store where I could buy a bottle of wine (wine and liquor are not sold in supermarkets in BC). Sadly the only place I could find for buying food in small amounts was an organic products store, so I had to pay gold powder for a small sausage, a side dish of vegetables, and a bag of chips. They may be protecting Mother Earth, but they sure engage in the raping of humanity!

In any case, I had a good dinner, accompanied by a good bottle of Pinot Grigio, and after I finish this blog I will indulge in a warm bath (yes, the hostel has a tub!) and then head straight to bed.

Vancouver 2014 – Day 5. Across Vancouver Island

I started early on my trip to Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I was not quite sure how far it was, so I wanted to give myself plenty of time to get there. At the end it was about 250 km, and considering that my top speed is 50 km per hour, and closer to 30 km/hour on average, it is not surprising that it took me about 9 hours to complete the trip.

The first leg, to Nanaimo, is due north from Victoria, along the east coast of the island along Highway 1. It was a busy road, but once again I did alright riding on the shoulder. The weather changed every 10 minutes from sunny to overcast, to drizzly but was overall quite pleasant. I passed many beautiful mountains, but didn’t take time to go for a little hike because I felt I had to gain miles before crossing the mountains. I had been told that the road across the mountains was very twisted and steep, so I was giving myself enough time to negotiate it.

After Nanaimo the road veers to the west, along a road full of cracks and differential settlement, so in that regard it is challenging. As far as steepness or curves it was not challenging at all. I hope these good folks never have to drive through southern Mexico or northern Vietnam, where they would have to redefine their conception of tough driving. But then again they have their mercurial weather, don’t they. As I drove up the mountains the temperature started dropping and the wind started picking up speed. It must have been 10ºC, but with the wind chill factor it felt more like 5ºC. And then it started to rain. Like in other occasions I managed to get damp between the first drops of rain and the time I donned my rain poncho, after which the rain started to fall in earnest, chilling me to the bone.

As my body temperature dropped I started to feel sleepy. Yes, it is possible to fall asleep on a scooter, and more than once I found myself perilously close to the edge of the road, or swinging wildly toward the middle of the road. I stopped once to walk a little and clear my head, just in time for a big deluge to hit. I was under the shelter of a rest area, but my poor scooter got drenched (it is a good thing that I had jerry-rigged saddle bags with two water proof river bags, so my computer and other personal belongings remained totally dry).

I started to shiver when I got back on the scooter, and the last 50 km were actually quite miserable. This is too bad because for the last 30 km I was riding on a narrow peninsula, and I had to miss several opportunities to park and walk to the beach. The west coast is very popular with surfers, so I imagine it is quite spectacular, but I was a man on a mission (namely to get out of my wet, freezing boots) and I kept going until I got to Tofino and my hostel. I got there around 5:30, and promptly got rid of my wet clothes, but it took me a good half hour to thaw and stop shivering.

Tofino is a nice touristy little town that overlooks a beautiful bay. The town caters to surfers and beach combers, and has the regular array of shops and amenities. I checked a couple of restaurants and thought they were pricey, so I stopped at the supermarket and bought what I needed to make a nice Jambalaya for dinner. I still need to take a hot shower and wash and dry clothes, but for the time being I am enjoying a cup of coffee while I write this blog. A warm bed has never beckoned in a more alluring way.    

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 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!    

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! 

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 www.CycleBC.ca . 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.

A 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 advrvietnam.com or advridevietnam@gmail.com), 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.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 18 – Back to Hai Phong

Alas, this beautiful trip is coming to an end. I enjoyed a slow trip across the Cat Ba island (20 km), the short ferry trip, then across Cat Hai island (another 20 km), and the longer ferry crossing to the mainland. Then it was dog eats dog through the port and into the city of Hai Phong. I knew I wanted a hotel along the big canal, and after snubbing a couple of more modest hotels ended in a middle class hotel by about noon.
After gladly leaving behind my parked motorcycle I took a wonderful walk along the canal, enjoying the window shopping. Eventually I came to the market and started weaving through its narrow passages. It was all you could ever dream about an Oriental market, with shops offering everything from flowers to motorcycle parts, dried fish to shining fruit (they even have durions for sale!), and New Year necessities, such as gilded globe lanterns and horse-shaped piñatas (which I presume tell us that the coming New Year, about a week from today, will be the Year of the Horse.
I have solved the mystery of people carrying trees in their scooters. It seems that for the New Year celebration people like to have a decorated tree in the house. Most of the ones that are bare branches are actually flowering trees, which just about now are starting to bloom. On top of the natural flowers they will get gilded ornaments and ribbons, just as we do with our own Christmas trees. On another variant, small potted orange trees are trimmed to have the pointed shape of a Christmas trees, and the small oranges are selectively picked so only a few remain, just like gold ornaments.
In a corner stall I stopped at a small eatery, where I enjoyed a pig’s foot (cold and dipped in a delicious sauce) and a noodle soup with deep-fried pork skins. Very yummy.
Finally, after a very long walk I came back to the hotel for a break. I have a great TV with about 100 cable channels, so I holed down planning to see a movie and enjoy a well deserved rest. In reality I used the time to prepare my first lectures for the Spring semester, which starts three days from now.
At around 7 pm I went out again, to take a look at the lights, the crowds, and the dancing fountains in the park that is immediately in front of the hotel. The crowds had diminished somehow, but there were plenty of people on the go, doing whatever it is that city folk do after sunset. I worked an appetite walking around, and started stalking the street stalls looking for a bite to eat. I settled on a torta or sub of pork gyros style (pretty good except that the lady put some sort of thin ketchup on it that was totally unnecessary), followed by a Vietnamese churro. Yeap, I could certainly get used to living in beautiful Vietnam!