On the Road Again – Part 2


We left Cow Bay (the waterfront district in Prince Rupert named after Jean Nehring, a Swiss guy, who unloaded a herd of cows here in 1908) on a foggy morning and drove east along Highway 16 known as the Yellowhead Highway. Three main arteries connect this wet part of the world to the rest of Canada: The mighty Skeena River, the CNR rail line, originally called the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and the Yellowhead Highway often referred to as the Highway of Tears. The 750km stretch of road between Prince Rupert and Prince George has been the location of many murders and disappearances of First Nations women, beginning in 1970. All three arteries run parallel and we passed by 3 km long trains double-stacked with containers.

Our destination was Hazelton and the K’san village in particular. This historic site was the home of the Gitxsan peoples for over 8000 years and is a fantastic showcase of aboriginal culture. Several authentic longhouses fronted by stately totem poles house exhibits from pre-contact to modern times. The Gitxsan – the people of the mist and river – are a very gentle folk and have avoided contact with white Europeans until the 19th century. We were the only people in the large parking lot since there were no tour busses and no tourists. Lucky for us that the site’s museum was open.

We arrived in Smithers’ late afternoon and parked our van in the municipal campground. The townsite was founded in 1913 and sits in a flat, wide valley at the foot of the Hudson Bay mountains, along the Bulkley river.  It was once home to several Swiss families, and the wooden carved Alphorn Al is at the apex of Main Street, greeting visitors. Smithers is laid out in a perfect grid and has a definite alpine vibe, with chalet type store fronts, a vibrant ski and hockey culture, including an old type outdoor rink, a weekly farmers market as well as two craft breweries.  The wide streets are probably flanked by snowbanks in the winter. Did I mention the fat, green, luscious lawns everywhere? A sure sign of the wet climate around here.

There is Covid awareness here and people do distance and wear masks indoors and although the virus is a constant topic of conversation, people talk about other things, like hikes and the weather. And winter is coming.

We passed through Prince George making a bee line for Jasper in the Northern Rockies. Unlike Smithers, masks are mandatory in public, in and outdoors. People walking, bicycling and even driving cars wear masks. It’s kind of depressing, almost like everybody is sick. The constant spritzing and wiping with bleach in every restaurant is giving me a rash and I’m not sure what it is supposed to accomplish, apart from the constant awareness, that something evil is lurking in the air.

The cold and stark beauty of the surrounding mountains is somewhat reassuring; there is another reference, a different time frame, a geological certainty.  Covid-19 may be an annoying blip in cosmic terms but these Rocky Mountains are here to stay.

The fall colours are a palette of yellows, oranges, greens and browns but the rust coloured patches of trees all along the Athabasca valley are dead pines, killed by the mountain pine beetle and ready kindling for the next lightening strike.

Highway 93 south along the Columbia Icefields is surely one of the most spectacular drives anywhere in the world. Flanked by majestic limestone mountains that rise like gigantic waves frozen in time, on both sides of the highway, that winds along the Bow river. The glaciers, are receding steadily, drawing back up the mountains, leaving behind rocks and gravel. There was little traffic and for long times we were the only car winding our way south towards Lake Louise. Even there the famous glacier at the end of the turquoise Lake is a fraction of what it was just a few decades ago. Lake Louise was a busy place, with hundreds of visitors, wearing masks or not, mingling around the spectacular lake. But no tour busses, no foreign mass tourism and yet it still felt like a nature Disneyland. I don’t do well in aimless crowds, unless it’s a football match or a concert, so we snapped a few pictures and split, glad to have been able to drive up to the lake at all.

We drove on to Banff to visit our friends who welcomed us without masks but instead with a drink in hand. Banff is surely one of the most beautiful situated towns anywhere and its mountain style architecture of natural stone and lofty wooden beams makes this outdoor mecca a very pleasant place to stroll about the Galleries, sports shops, restaurants and pubs. The municipal hall hands out packs of 16 masks to residents for free and it will be interesting to see how the merchants and eateries handle the coming winter. Skiing is going to be the sport of choice I’m sure. Where else do people already wear goggles, masks and distance themselves? On the white slopes of course. Après skiing will be another story. As we know, nothing will remain the same and only change will endure.

 

On the Road Again – Part 1


Road trips happen to be my favorite pastime. Driving along highways and byways, over passes, along rivers and lakes and through new towns is like a live movie with constant new scenes, impressions and input. Even driving through big cities can be exciting. It is certainly living in the moment. Lucky for me Clare is an excellent navigator and always checks her maps against the TomTom GPS which has been known to send people the wrong way.

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Lisbon – Portugal


The first thing that struck me about Lisbon is the immense width of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River), more like a lake, and how all the downtown buildings are attached to each other like four storied walls with windows. They are all built in a perfect grid, starting at the large Praca do Comercio, the main square at the vast river’s edge. There is no church or cathedral anywhere near the square but a heroic monument in the centre of the Marquis de Pombal, who rebuilt this city after the devastating earth quake of 1755. Pombal, a secular pragmatist, ousted the Jesuits but when Maria I came to the throne, she banned him from Lisbon’s soil, being heavily influenced by the Jesuits herself. Since the word terra means both ‘ground’ and ‘earth’, the story goes that the clever marquis packed a crate of soil from outside the city and put it down to step into it when he came back to Lisbon. (Voltaire Voltaire wrote Candide soon after the Lisbon earthquake and held up, as exhibit #1, the senseless death toll of the innocents in that catastrophe as conclusive proof of the absence of any Divine power, and certainly not any benevolent one.)

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For a better Future


            Unseasonal warm, August like temperatures, have banished old man winter for another year it seems. The skies are blue, the coastal mountains frosted with snow and Vancouver’s beaches are crowed with sun seekers.

‘Hey Camp, know what day it is today?’ I asked as soon as took my seat at our table with the view of the harbour.

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Carnival Queens


I saw her the first time at Cuddy’s rum shop on the corner of Mainstreet. She wore a red and yellow plaid dress, a Redsox ball cap and large, golden hoop earrings. Her shoulder length hair was frizzy and stiff and twisted into dreadlocks. On her feet she wore plastic sandals that had seen better days. Her hands were like roots and her face was like Sonny Liston after his fight against Cassius Clay, with amber teeth and a flat nose. Her charcoal eyes looked into the distance and her head nodded to the incessant beat of the jab-jab trucks rolling slowly up and down Mainstreet, followed by gyrating partiers dressed in colourful carnival costumes.

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The Kingdom of Redondo


We often can be found liming – that’s lounging in Caribbean speak – at Mama Joy’s beachside restaurant and bar on Paradise beach. Her establishment is a simple, open-air, planked platform with brightly coloured railings, covered by a corrugated tin roof. It features a wooden bar at one end, shuttered for the night, and a simple kitchen off to the side. It seats about 20 people on an odd collection of chairs and tables. The turquoise water laps the white beach just steps away where a couple of brightly coloured local boats are always bobbing on the gentle swell. It’s called Paradise Beach because that is what it is. We meet there to play cards, drink beer or rum punches and just hang out.

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Island Treasures


We spent some time on an island paradise where the most precious commodity is water and during the dry season – half the year – the most common fear is running out. The island has a desalination plant but when the government sponsored piping project failed within six months — because somebody tried to save some money by downsizing the pipe – the plant now sells and delivers water only by truck. The big houses have big cisterns, the small houses have small cisterns, mostly just black plastic tanks and they are the first to run dry. Of course the poorest people live in the smallest shacks and they don’t have money to buy water. Also the desalinated water still tastes salty and is no good to drink. And sometimes the water delivery guy is not available or off island or just doesn’t pick up the phone. People every year have to borrow and beg water from their neighbours or public places.

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Cuba Revisited


Havana is a ruinous city, like an old prostitute covered in too much makeup to hide the pain and suffering, but yet resilient and full of life. The crumbling facades of the  wedding cake villas and opulent palaces of the former sugar barons and casino moguls, of the corrupt regimes before the revolution, bear witness to the ravages of time, decay and lack of money. Sixty years of neglect, coupled with numerous hurricanes and the salty fecundity of the climate is not a recipe for a well functioning infrastructure.

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South Africa

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In October 2018, ten of us, cousins and spouses, ventured on a two-week trip to South Africa, organized by our youngest cousin, who grew up in South Africa.  We took an overnight flight from Zurich, and arrived 9 hours later in Johannesburg where we were whisked off to the Johannesburg Country Club, a left over cluster of old manors and lounges from the Brits, sprawled over a few acres of groomed gardens and surrounded by a ten foot high wall, topped with electric security wires. Over a scrumptious, extended lunch we were treated to a bit of history from our cousin who loved this country of his birth with a natural passion and he also knew that we were curious and keen to know where we were.

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Finland

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The LNG powered ferry from Tallinn, Estonia, to Helsinki takes two and a half hours and is a glitzy, floating restaurant, lounge, bar and garden patio with several large TV’s, a kids era, a live band and a whole floor dedicated to shopping.  You can buy a fancy watch or designer clothes while drinking a glass of champagne. Living in a ferry dependent community as we are here on the Sunshine Coast, this was a jaw dropping luxury cruise compared to the old rusty and creaky, diesel powered boats plying the waters of B.C. Mind you that crossing cost $ 50.- p/person as in compare to $ 17.- or free for seniors during the week.

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Baltic Impressions


Before we embarked on our Baltic holiday this June we watched ‘The Singing Revolution’, an Estonian documentary chronicling the subsequent occupations by Tsarists, then the USSR followed by Nazi Germany and back to the Soviets. The only weapon the Estonians brandished in their ongoing protest against the tyranny of the occupiers were their song festivals. Over a hundred thousand Estonians gathered to belt out patriotic songs led by conductors and dozens of united choirs, embraced by old and young. In August 1989, these singing protests culminated in a human chain, two million people holding hands, 630 km long, linking the three Baltic states from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia all the way to Vilnius in Lithuania. This was before Facebook or smart phones. Two years later Estonia declared formal independence during the Soviet military coup against Gorbachev, when Yelstsin, standing on a tank, dissolved the USSR.  The film culminated in the heroic feat of two policemen defending the TV tower in Tallinn, against the Russian tanks who retreated when their command structure broke down.

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Las Vegas New Year

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                                    Where the rich come to play

                                    And the poor come to pay.

As soon as you step into the arrival and departure lounge the mechanical whirring, dinging and ringing of the ubiquitous slot machines permeates the atmosphere like everywhere in Las Vegas. This soundscape of gaming lures the masses to sit in front of, and feed money into, these blinking and clanging automated gaming terminals, depicting in bright neon lit screens various cartoon like scenes of fantasy themes, television and Hollywood icons. Casinos are at the heart of Las Vegas and they are the foundation on which this city has been built on and is still supporting thousands of jobs and the 150’000 hotel rooms. In this mirage in the desert you can go from the Coliseum in Rome to the Eifel tower in Paris to the canals and palaces of Venice, the roller coaster and Greenwich Village in New York or enter the pyramid in Luxor by just crossing Las Vegas Boulevard on one of the many elevated and escalator equipped crosswalks.

Seventy years ago Las Vegas was just a dusty old western village where today Freemont Street is covered by the ‘world’s largest’ video screen. This section features zip-lines under the video canopy with hourly visual effect shows to 80ies rock music like The Who or Heart. Its’ gaudily lit casinos and restaurants are older and a bit seedier then the glitzy new palaces on the strip, with lots of freaky performers at street level entertaining the crowds for spare change. Restaurants like ‘The Heart Attack Grill’ where 350lbs eat for free can be found here.

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Costa Rica


 

As soon as we walked off the plane into the airport in San Jose I felt comfortable because the floor tiles were shiny and polished, the air conditioning worked and the walls were not peeling paint but were displaying scenes of the country we were about to visit. Everybody smiled, from the customs officer to the taxi driver who delivered us to our hotel for less than we expected to pay without any haggling or confusion. “Welcome to Costa Rica,” everybody said, because it was obvious that we were newbies with our pale northern tans, our tagged luggage and lack of common currency. No matter, US dollars were pretty well equal modes of payment like the local Colones and accepted everywhere. We were not used to think in terms of tens of thousands for a meal and it took a mental adjustment to figure in the local currency, which basically was 500 Colones to every US dollar, mas or menos.

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Amongst the Volcanos (Patzcuaro)


As in most points of view there are several, depending of where the viewer stands. It can be a wide panoramic view or a revealing close up, the bird’s eye or the dark underbelly view. Also there are usually two sides to an issue, two sides of the same coin. In order to do my Mexico impressions justice I need to break them up, into at least two categories: the touristy one, which is for the most part a surface experience, visual and sensual, maybe spiritual, set apart from the culture I drop into, like looking into a house through a window. The second part is more visceral, like being in the house, invited into the peoples lives, listening, watching, participating and seeing their culture through their eyes rather than mine. It’s a more immersed point of view, which has to take into account some unpleasant realities like politics, poverty, inequalities and other limitations.

Parzcuaro is the popular Pueblo Magico, nestled along the shallow lake by the same name amidst the volcanoes in the heart of Michoacan, located on the Tierra Alta Plateau at 2300m in central Mexico. The present town dates back to the 16th century and features the second largest colonial plaza in Mexico. It’s long been a favourite destination of mine, ever since 1984, when I first drove into the town. (in a 1962 Ford Galaxy 2-door hardtop, pulling a tent trailer with both kids (4+5) on a piece of plywood with some blankets and toys in the back seat). Patzcuaro has changed little in the past few centuries, let alone in the past 30 years. More taxis, collectivos (mini vans) and cars clog the cobble stoned streets, and today cappuccinos, pizzas and Internet are available everywhere.

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Mexico Revisited (Puerto Penasco, Guadalajara, Mexico City, Zihuatenejo)


                    Puerto Penasco, or as it is better known, Rocky Point is just a two hour drive south of Ajo, Arizona or can also be reached by a new road from Yuma. It is also referred to as Phoenix’s beach since it is only 4 hours from that 4 million plus city. Puerto Penasco is in the Sonora desert at the northern apex of one of the most fertile bodies of water anywhere: the Sea of Cortez also known as the Gulf of California.

We first drove through Rocky Point some 20 years ago and only remember a feast of local shrimp and lobster in a noisy bar perched atop a rocky outcropping and a crowded RV park across the road. Not much else. This time around we were guests of our friends who rented a luxury apartment for a discount price at a sprawling upscale development called Sandy Beach west of the original town and harbour. Up to sixteen stories high, several of those condo developments clustered along the shallow beach, guarded on all sides by security check points with guard shacks and guards armed with walky-talkies and clad in snazzy khaki uniforms. Hundreds of these high end condos built in the past 20 years sprawl along the sandy beach, all equipped with gourmet kitchens, rain showers and flat screen TV’s with several heated pools (replete with pool bars) and hundreds of lounge chairs spread throughout the manicured compounds, surrounded by golf course and dune buggy tracks. Very deluxe and very much affluent Americana and nothing to do with Mexico apart from the soil they are built on. Some of the buildings were abandoned in the 2008 crash waiting patiently for a developer from up north to finish them. I spent most of my week reclining on a lounge chair under an umbrella behind a rope separating the haves from the have-nots, watching the endless parade of local peddlers go by trying to sell anything from a song to a massage, from mangos to jewellery, from hammocks to hats.

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Carnival (Carriacou)


We were ready and primed for the much anticipated and promoted Carriacou Carnival, famous all over the windward Islands for it’s authenticity and fervour. This is not Rio, New Orleans or Cologne, it’s only a small island at the bottom of the Caribbean. Carnival officially takes place on the two days before Ash Wednesday, but starts weeks ahead with several village ‘roadshows’, meaning all night street parties with massive boom-boxes and beer and rum fuelled revellers. On the days leading up to the epic weekend hundreds of ‘foreigners’ (people from the ‘mainland’, Grenada, and other nearby Islands including Trinidad, as opposed to us tourists who are welcome here) as well as ex-pats from England, the US and Canada, come to this tranquil Island for the festivities, turning it into a party mayhem haven. The daily ferry from Grenada was overloaded with standing room only, and many of the beer swilling passengers hanging over the railings in the rough seas.

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Chiapas Incident


It’s been over a year ago since all this happened. It seems longer somehow, far away from the present. Those were intense days, which we came through unscathed and intact but somehow, something subtle has changed. We are not as adventurous and ambivalent about travel in uncharted places as we were. It reminds me of a bad fall while skiing, what they call a ragdoll descent. I didn’t break anything but my spirit and even though I still ski, I am not the fearless skier I once was.

We would wake up in the middle of the night and stare into space, reliving those moments when our normal lives were suddenly turned upside down, hanging in the balance between living and dying. It took several months and many retellings, mixed in with a good portion of denial and bravado to normalize our equilibrium.

We are more wary now when we encounter strange cultures, maybe more careful when we meet strangers, more reserved even. We chose not to drive our van to Mexico, as we had planned and took a flight instead. We are somewhat damaged goods when it comes to adventure travel. I insisted that this incident is separate, unique and cannot rule our lives forward. It has to stand alone and be compartmentalized and yet, something lingers on at the back of our minds.  

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Carriacou (Grenada)


            Carriacou  is not the biggest but the most precious little pearl in the Caribbean necklace.

           The small Caribbean Island nation of Greneda is made up of three islands: Greneda, the largest one, Carriacou, a two hour ferry ride from St. Georges (capital of Grenada) and Petit Martinique, a further two hours by a smaller ferry from Carriaccou. Grenada declared it’s independence  from the British Empire in 1974, and the elected Prime minister was usurped by a Cuban supported armed revolution in 1979 lead by Maurice Bishop who was himself toppled and then executed by his former co-revolutionary in 1983.  A subsequent military coup resulted in ‘Operation Urgent Fury’, a US led invasion under Reagon to stop ‘the domino of commies’. The invaders bombed a mental hospital, mistaking it for a military fortress, killing 18 patients, one of which was Ricky’s mother. Ricky was our tour guide, who had a cynical view of the American conquest of his Island. These events were later immortalized in the  1986 movie ‘Heartbreak Hill’, by Clint Eastwood. Ever since the  ‘liberation’ Grenada  has struggled to attain some kind of modern status in this competitive world, relying on the World Bank and some generous donor nations.  Mother nature interfered In 2004 when Hurricane Ivan destroyed 85% of Grenada’s structures and the entire Nutmeg Crop, followed  in 2005 by Hurricane Emily which ravaged the island’s  north end.

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Morocco


 

Our Morocco trip was intense because my cousin Bettina who lives on the outskirts of Marrakech had put together a very ambitious program for the 6 of us which led us through a myriad of old casbahs (ancient, fortified clay burgs) off the main roads and to a different town almost every day. For the first 3 days we roomed in a luxurious riad (hotel) within the old town center of Marrakesh. It featured an enclosed court yard, a small swimming pool, spacious rooms decorated with local carpets and weavings and a lofty rooftop terrace overlooking the tiled, cluttered roofs of the old city. Naturally there was a minaret close by equipped with large speakers which blared forth 5 times a day, calling Adhan in zealous live broadcasts by a caller who desperately needed voice lessons.

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Italy


We’ve been In Volterra a week, just chilling out in our small, vaulted apartment within the 3000 year old fortified Etruscan hill town. We wander the narrow cobbled streets between old palaces, castles and towers, soaking up the medieval atmosphere while sipping the house wine in our favorite wine bar just up the alley. Our apartment is about 50 feet inside one of the original city gates.

Italians are social animals and there isn’t a wine bar or coffee shop which isn’t buzzing with loudly patrons. It’ fun and lively and the history on every corner is stimulating and brutal in it’s excesses of subsequent sackings, sieges and carnage at the hands of the Romans, Florentines, Lorenzo de Medici or the black death which wiped out an unprecedented 50% to 80% of the population around here.

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