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 . 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.