Category Archives: Travel

Crashin’ Planes with Mason Baveux

Our esteemed pinch-hitter Mason Baveux has managed to sober up long enough to have some coherent thoughts regarding the spate of aircraft crashes.  Believe it or not he used to hold an A&P (airframe and powerplant) ticket, so he might even speak with a modicum of authority, which scares the crap out of us.

Thanks for the bloggery keys again Davey as I got something to say.  First off, a happy new year’s to you and the rest of the readers what read your blog on a semi regular basis of readin. 

And a Merry Christmas too.  Not Happy Friggin Holidays, but Merry Friggin Christmas, goddammit.  If’n you don’t celebrate Christmas, then a Happy Chanuka, or Eid, or Diwalli or Saturnalia, or Solstice, or what ever effin holiday you call yours.  We’ll all get along fine, as we all take our turns.  Right now, it’s our turn, so Merry Christmas.

Airplanes crashin is what I need to talk about for a piece.  A lot of airlines out of Malaysia and Singapore has been havin a shit run of luck of late, either bein shot down like in the Ukerainia or disappearing off the scopes, like last year, or just a couple of days ago over the Java Sea. 

What’s got my arse in a knot is those moron commentators on the cable news who are talkin nonsense about aircraft, about hows the pilot gone off his meds and crashed her on purpose to piss off his ex wife, or how come they ain’t got a way to find a downed aircraft in fourteen minutes flat.  We’re gonna set that to right, right about now. 

First off to keep in mind is that the pilot is always the first one on the scene of the accident, as he’s up at the pointy end, so’s its in his interest to land the airplane proper and make sure it’s all workin fine.  He (or these days, it could be a she, but I’ll use he as that’s what I’m used to sayin) is the lad what makes sure you get to where you’re goin, as he’s been told to get you there. 

Pax who die on the trip tend not to buy another ticket, so it’s in the interests of the airline to get you there and bring you back.  There’s a whole whack of other folks that have your interests too.  Co-pilot, stews (I mean flight attendants) gas jockeys, caterin’, bag monkeys, ramp rats, de-icers, wrenches, ATC, tower pukes and all them has your best interests at heart.  They all got the right and the obligation to speak up if they see something wrong.  They want you to get there safe and come home safe.  Might not be the best trip and your luggage might wind up at DME but at least you got there and back in one piece. 

Where it can get complicated is with all the movin parts.  Airplanes are simple things don’t you know.  If you got enough airspeed you can glide one damn near anywheres, as long as you got room to dive enough to keep up airspeed.  Where it goes to hell, is if you ain’t got room between your airplane and the ground to dive enough to have enough airspeed to fly.  Yes, a 747-100 will glide and if you’re at FL32 you got room to dive and keep flyin long enough to find somewheres reasonably flat to land it, as long as you got wings, ailerons, elevators and a rudder.  Keep up 240 IAS and the ratio is more or less 15 feet forward for every foot down. 

That Gimli Glider (Charlie Golf Alpha Uniform November) was nothin but a 767-200 out of gas in the hands of a good pilot who had enough room betwixt himself and the ground to keep it flyin.  Same with Captain Sully Sullenberger with that USScare flight on the Hudson River.  He didn’t have but a dozen seconds after a double bird strike to figure it out and glide it in for a river ditchin.  Gliding ain’t the problem as long as you got all the parts on the aircraft.  

This becomes a problem when you’re out over the ocean 120 minutes from frig all to land on.  Used to be the lads called ETOPS, Engines Turning Or Passengers Swimming but that was a while ago, after my time.  Water ditchin means you’re hittin something at 170 or so knots.  Even if you hit the inside of Ivor Wynne Stadium and she’s full of Kraft marshmallows, you’ll bust up the airframe. with a bit o simple math: 

170 knots (got flaps, got gear, got the centerline) is 195 miles per hour give or take.  Now think about some puke what’s lost it on the 401 at 85 mph?  Is there much left of the car, or him?  Nope.  He gets buried in a #10 window envelope so’s they can have a viewing before the burial, so’s going more than twice that in a Scarebus with 150 souls, then you got a mess of aluminum scrap.

What also galls my galluses is the tv turds what are beefin about not having a GPS on modern airplanes.  The problem ain’t havin a GPS, as all the new ones got’em, but havin someone listening to the report coming back from the aircraft and keepin tabs on the flight the whole way.  That takes a human keepin an eye on’er all the time that costs the airlines money for monitoring 100,000 flights where frig all happens except the plane gets there and comes back and maybe they’re out of Crown Royal, so’s you got to have a gin and tonic instead of a rye and ginger.  I’m not sayin you cain’t do it, but she’ll cost a ton to monitor something that happens one time in a million. 

What I see from my Barcalounger is cable news tryin to fill time with bullshit like they got all confused on metric versus imperial or the pilot lost his marbles and was screamin in arabic as he threw it all away and the airline did their maintenance with sheet metal screws and 200 mph tape on a route they weren’t licensed to fly.  I call bullshit.  Aircraft don’t work like that as long as the crew has their head screwed on right and all the parts of the airframe are there, she’ll fly.  

I’ll be bettin a picture of Sir Wilfrid Laurier that he ran into a a microburst that he couldn’t get around or over, and lost something important like the rudder or a half a wing and then it became a brick.  Bricks don’t fly too well and those inside the brick are in real trouble.

Now I’m sorry all them people died and it makes for great tv to see wailin relatives, but wailin relatives is got nothin to do with air safety.  Them tears are the result of sometimes just some bad luck.  Was there other contributing factors, of course there was and we’ll find that out soon enough. 

Just we don’t need some uninformed hairsprayed jagoff who couldn’t parallel park a Smart car, tell us how everything is all buggered up when they don’t know much more than left from right or can’t tell a JT9D from a CF6.  Bunch of arseholes.


Thanks Mason for your insight.   






Boat Trip 2014

We’re fortunate in that two very good friends are boaters. Rob and Juudy own a 34 foot 1980-something Sun Ray cruiser and invited us to share a trip on their boat, the Dissipate III.  For those who know the Rideau Canal, you can skip the next bit.

The Rideau Canal (pronounced Ree-dough if you’re not from here) was built after we won the War of 1812 to keep a navigable waterway the hell away from Americans so people in Montreal could get to Kingston and back, via Ottawa and the Ottawa River. Col. John By and a few thousand friends started digging it in 1826 and wrapped it up in 1832.  It was important as a commercial waterway, but then came trains, roads and peace with the Americans, so it became more of a recreational waterway.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It takes somewhere from three to five days to do the Rideau,from Kingston to Ottawa, depending on how fast you want to go and how much punishment your wallet can take paying for fuel.  Our jaunt was two nights, from Westport to Merrickville, where the Dissipate III is docked. Rob and Juudy were returning from their longer trip from Merrickville to Kingston and back to Merrickville.

For those who own pleasure craft of a certain size, you know that boating is an exercise in compact living.  For example, the head (or the toilet for the non-boaty) is small.  As a male you decide if your requirement is for seating or standing and enter with the appropriate side facing where you want to put it. 

With the boat underway, you sit, regardless of what yoDissipate III at Rideau Ferryu intend to do, or take the time to mop everything down when you’re done, having sprayed all available surfaces including the ceiling with your products.  That’s only funny once and not fun for the others on the boat, so it is avoided.

Rob has owned several pleasure craft all around the same size and has boated on the Rideau since shortly after it was built, so his captaincy is certain, safe and assured, which is reassuring.  I grew up on Big Rideau, deep into German Bay, which was the family cottage for many years and in Smith’s Falls, which is about smack-dab in the middle of the Rideau Canal.  Yes, I have been thrown out of Tony’s in Portland for being too drunk to sing properly.  We used to stay regularly at Gallagher House in Portland before it burned down.

Westport was where we started, driving down from Ottawa, with our supplies and sleeping kit.  Dissipate III can, on paper, sleep eight people, if they are all under 100 pounds and are less than three feet tall.  Pragmatically, as grownups, we do not sleep well stacked like firewood.  The solution is for two in the cabin and two on the deck, under the boat canvas, on an air mattress with sleeping bags. 

This might seem primitive, but let me assure you, there is no better night’s sleep than View from the boat at Westportthat, including various hotels’ luxury bedding.  You go to sleep to the sound of crickets, wind in the trees and a coolish breeze across your face and wake when the sun comes up, to the sound of birds warming up their singing voices for the day ahead.  There is nothing better for the soul, including all the natural healing products you can name, organized religion, or mythical crystals hung from your earlobes, than a night’s sleep on the back of a boat. Especially after putting a huge dent in a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal rum mixed with Harvey and Vern’s Ginger Beer.

Getting underway involves careful packing and stowage as those who have owned campers or RVs can attest.  You put stuff away when you’re done with it, in the right place, enforcing a sense of purpose with your actions, a deliberateness that we rarely perform in our normal life.  Deflate the bed and roll it up, roll up the sleeping bags and pillows, stowing them away.  Move the deck chairs back into place, replace the sofa/futon, a small table for coffee and open up some of the canvas.  Dishes done in the galley, stowed and secured, then a quick trip ashore to look after some biological imperatives, as the boat rule is liquids only to keep the use of the holding tank to a minimum.

Dissipate III has two monstrous carbureted 454 cubic inch engines under the floor, so it can, if so flogged, run like a civet cat with a flaming kerosene enema, up on plane.  This is not our style of transport, as time is not of the essence.  Our pace on the Dissipate III is leisurely, the motors purring along, loud enough to hear, but not so loud as to obliterate all possible conversation.  The water splashing on the hull and the wind make more noise.  You go fast enough to get there but slow enough to say, ‘look at that coming up’, instead of ‘you should have seen that!’

The trip out of Westport navigates you by some impressive summer homes.  Cottages can be different things to different people.  Some like a rustic feel, a few conveniences but mostly it is the view out the windows and endless games of rummy DSC_5404or cribbage with family and friends.  Others insist that their Malaysian Toast Chef has their own guest house near the helipad.  Westport has all of these and so does Big Rideau Lake.  There are joints that haven’t been painted since Dief was the Chief and maintenance consists of replacing the screens every spring where the raccoons ate their way into the cottage last winter.  Others insist their personal funicular railway to the water’s edge is only waxed with 100% Brazilian carnauba by the fourth-generation freelance funicular waxer named Pietro, on retainer from Milan. 

There is an island for sale in the middle of the lake, just under $700,000 with three cottages on it already, one of which looks like it was used to cook meth, while the other two look like they have seen better days.  We considered pooling our resources, but as I only had $11.00 in my pockets and Rob was carrying a cue ball and a coaster from a restaurant in Gananoque, we passed on putting our names forward. 

We had considered buying the island just the same, then buying the upper half of a big while military surplus radome from the Army, and erecting it on the middle of the island just above the treetops.  We figured we could start really bad black-helicopter rumours that could go on for years. 

Locking through is one of the Arts of the Boat.  Locks are a way to raise or lower boats from one area to another and theDSC_5495 essential workings of a lock haven’t changed much since ancient Egypt.  Gates to hold back the water and sluices that let water up high flood the lower locks.  As the water goes up, the boats go up, open the doors at the other end and the boats can sail out, but into the higher water.  Do this enough times and you can raise or lower boats several dozen feet.  Smith’s Falls has a 26 foot rise at the main lock under Beckwith Street.  DSC_5194

Where the Art comes in, is in navigating the boat into the lock.  Imagine parking your car in the front hall closet without punching a hole into the bathroom, or moving so much as one wispy summer throw scarf in one shot, and you have an appreciation of the skill level needed.  Rob is a master in the locks, juggling velocity, wind, inertia, angles, throttles, and props with the delicacy of a surgeon.  It was always beautiful to watch Dissipate III glide into the lock under Rob’s skillful hands.

We stopped for the night at Poonamalie, lock 32.  Poonamalie is pronounced two ways correctly, depending on wheDSC_5502re you are from.  The official Parks Canada pronunciation is Poon-a-mahlee.  If you’re from Smith’s Falls (which is pronounced Smiffallz by the locals) you might pronounce it Poon-mallee.  If you pronounce it Poony-a-mally on the Reedux  you ain’t from around here. 

Regardless, Poon is 22 kilometers from anywhere.  At night it is darker than Sylvia Plath on downers, but we weDSC_5493re on shore power and enjoyed lasagna, Kracken Rum with more of Harvey and Vern’s Ginger Beer and too much wine. The bed was inflated and heads asleep before 10 pm in the pitch black silence of Poonamalie dockside.

Our final day navigated us through Smith’s Falls, Old Sly’s, Edmond’s, with its two foot lift, then Kilmarnock and finally through Merrickville, gliding into Aylings Marina late in the afternoon.  A quick drive back to Westport to pick up our car, then unload our kit from the boat and back home to our own bed.

Which taught us what, exactly?  It taught us not to sear a jerk-spiced pork tenderloin inside the boat, as the fumes from the Scotch bonnet peppers in jerk seasoning react to heat by giving off something near to tear gas for a few minutes. 

It taught us that friends are more important than we sometime remember. 

It taught us that uncontrollable laughing at Jim Jeffries the comedian is truly the best medicine. 

It taught us that travelling gracefully, while at peace with the nature around you, is good for the soul.  It reminds you of the important things and lets you forget the parenthetical and tangential issues of someone else’s monkey in someone else’s circus.   

It also teaches you that 2.5 ounces of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum with 4 ounces of Harvey and Vern’s Ginger Beer and one ice cube in a plastic sippy cup for grownups is, if not perfect, at least close enough to perfect to let you see Perfect through the trees.

For this, we are grateful.  Thank you, Rob and Juudy.

Doing A Canadian Dream IV

We finish up the trip. And yes, we have posted a selection of photos from the trip, they’re here.

Toronto has a love-hate-loath affair with the rest of Canada.  It’s our biggest city and the seat of All Things Great in Canada, if you ask someone from Toronto.  The 416 is the Center of the Universe and the 905 is only marginally tolerated.  Beyond that is wasteland where no one of importance ever travels.  The city is big and to quote the old trope, for those not from Toronto, it’s the size of Atlanta, GA, but run by the Swiss.  We had a four-hour layover at Union Station until our train to Ottawa departed. 

St. Lawrence Market is two blocks from Union Station and is so grand they even have two Wikipedia entries, one for the North and one for the South.  Even National Geographic calls it really damn impressive.  We went for three reasons, first, to see if the Pyrogy lady was there and she wasn’t, dammit.  Secondly, to see what was available and there was plenty.  Third and perhaps more importantly after there being no Pyrogy lady, was a Canadian icon meal.  Back Bacon On A Bun.

In the day only a few years ago, there were several places at St. Lawrence Market to get Back Bacon On A Bun, but now there are only two.  We chose the older one, as we had their wares many times before.  For the uninitiated, what many call “Canadian Bacon” has nothing to do with Canada, or for that matter, bacon.  What we call bacon is the same smoked pork belly that is also known as rasher or sliced bacon that you would have a couple of fifteen slices with your eggs and toast on Saturday morning. 

Back Bacon, or Peameal Bacon is something else entirely.  Take the whole tenderloin from the pig, brine it for a couple of days, then roll it in cornmeal.  There is barely a fat cap on the primal cut, so brining is essential and the cornmeal is a holdover from the old days.  Sliced thick, (like pinkie finger thick) to medium doneness on a flat top.  Three to five slices are placed on a soft Kaiser roll.  Wrapped in foil and given to you in exchange for modest amounts of money, it is simply delightful.  There are those who insist that one must add mayo, or lettuce or tomato to a Back Bacon on a Bun.  These people are to be shunned as they are not worthy of your contempt.  This is the Law, the rest is commentary.    

Walking around St. Lawrence Market we both remarked on our respective gaits.  After four nights and five days on the train we both had a case of Train Legs.  We both felt we were wobbling around like we were about five rounds into a 30-round tequila bender, feeling the sidewalks buck uncontrollably, which meant the occasional stop to rest and reorient the inner ear was required.

We headed back to Union Station and boarded our ride back to Ottawa, this time a regular Via Rail run up to Ottawa.  This section of Via is higher-speed, hitting 160 kilometers per hour in stretches and you could feel the engineer getting on the throttle where it was possible to let things fly.  It being Via One, you do get served a meal and the bar is gratis.  We dozed for a bit then pulled into Ottawa Station, our nice niece Lindsay there to pick us up and return us to our home.

Here’s where we do the deep, intellectual wrap-up of Doing A Canadian Dream.

There are several Canadian Dreams.  One is to own a brothel over top of a Tim Horton’s, next to a bar that has $5 a jug Tuesdays, adjacent to the snowmobile trails.  The second is to see the Toronto Maple Leafs win another Stanley Cup before this generation of fans die off from old age. 

The third one, a little more approachable, is to see a lot of Canada, up close, from the train, to take in the expanse of our country in a civilized way.  It’s a big country Canada.  There’s a lot to see and a lot of room left over to observe, think, enjoy, reflect and ponder. 

Getting to share all of that and those moments with your partner means you have thousands more mental snapshot memories between you, in that emotional photo album called life.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Doing A Canadian Dream III

We continue our journey across Canada on The Canadian for our twenty-fifth anniversary.

The train rolled into Edmonton late, scheduled for 2300 (11 pm) we slowed on our passage through the foothills because of a derailment up ahead.  A freight had gone off past Edmonton near Wainwright and by slowing down we would hopefully not be caught in a traffic jam of trains at the derailment, held in place for hours.  We had finished dinner and gifted-amateur-grade Black Russianing after dinner.  After an hour of disconnecting some cars, adding two deadhead cars and the usual scheduling follies we were back on the rails at O-Ghastly o’clock.  The night passed without incident, me choosing to sleep on the top bunk, instead of on the precipice of the edge of the lower bunk. 

By the time breakfast was called, around 0630, we were on the Prairies proper heading to Biggar, Saskatchewan.  Their motto and I kid you not:  New York City is big, but this is Biggar

For those who have never seen The Great Plains, the standard joke is you can watch your dog run away for three days.  This isn’t accurate, of course, but makes for a great story.  We watched the last of the canola and wheat come off, combines gathering it up.  As the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, it would illuminate long swaths of golden hay off into the distance.  Small villages, clustered along one street in front of the grain elevator would swish by, grain cars waiting to load on a siding to take the crops to one side of the country or the other.

There is a rhythm to the Prairies that is hard to explain until you experience it.  Stand at a cross-roads for more than five minutes between two small Canadian Prairie towns and you get it, seeping up into the soles of your feet.  You’re connected to the land, the seasons and the people all at once. Every crossing you would see someone wave to the train and you naturally wave back, complete strangers passing a greeting of shared experience.  Even if you are some high-strung Uber-Type A from the 416, five minutes is about all it takes to get it.  It’s the quiet confidence that dare I say, is very typically Canadian.

In need of a stretch we decided to ‘walk the train”  As The Canadian rolled across the Prairies we walked from our car, Draper, all the way back to the Park Car at the tail end.  The Park Cars were built at the same time as the other cars, but rather than being cut off for another car to couple up, the Park cars are bullet-shaped at the end to signify the last of the train.  Seats line the walls, with large windows to let you look all around.  Of course, there is a bar and a dome too, but the Park Cars are the special ones that only exist on The Canadian any more.  With the seats all taken by other passengers, we slid into the empty bar areas.  Our server asked us if we would like a special coffee and, of course, we did.  Coffee, Bailey’s, whipped cream and shaved chocolate magically appeared in cups.  We exchanged pleasantries with the server, based out of Vancouver, going to the far end of her trip, in Winnipeg.  It would seem that not many people walk the train, most of the passengers being content to limit their perambulations to one or two cars. 

After finishing up our drinks, we walked all the way back past our room, up to the front of the coach class.  The Canadian does give you choices of accommodation.  Coach means you have a seat that reclines a bit more than that on a bus and bring your own blankets.  It’s inexpensive, but we were convinced that for four nights, there was no way in all of creation that we would inflict that kind of indignity upon ourselves.  Most of the passengers in coach were only on for a night or two, getting off a various stops along the way. 

Dipping into the valley that is Saskatoon, then up the other side towards Melville is one stunning panorama after another.  Frost was just barely hitting, the leaves turning on the foliage.  Not the peak yet, but enough hints of the colours to come that you feel you want to turn around and come back in about two weeks time.  We’re still behind schedule and roll through Portage La Prairie and wave at family members over there in the dark, hints of porch lights off in the distance.  We know where their house is in relation to the railway. 

After dinner and adjourning to the bar for more drinks and stories with another Aussie couple, a single woman, somewhat unsteady on her feet, staggers to our sever, asking for a drink.  She is politely refused, as over-serving is a problem and the bar has to close a hour before the end of their shift, which in our case was Winnipeg, She is not happy and tries to engage us in conversation, which tells us it is time to go to our room. 

As I’m passing behind her, I get grinded upon by her modestly lumpy arse, in a very deliberate manner.  Any, our server notices and gives me the “Oh crap, she is a mess isn’t she?” eyebrow.  Marylou, bless her, recognizes that the woman is, to be generous, shitfaced and only turns a few shades of red.  Luckily there were no large bottles or heavy items like a fire extinguisher readily to hand, as Marylou is not above using blunt objects with a combination of zeal and skill to settle discussions in her favour.  Grinder-Girl was very fortunate. 

We know that Winnipeg, Marylou’s home town is our next stop so we stay up, rolling in to the station about four hours late, recognizing streets from the train.  We have an hour to get off the train, see a little bit of the Forks and stretch our legs.  Most of the other passengers do too, but it being late, The Forks are closed for the night.   We take the night air, exchanging pleasantries with a younger woman who had apparently been sharing a glass with the Grinder-Girl.  She didn’t know her but had commented that Grinder-Girl had several drinks in rapid succession and was travelling alone, but with her tiny bait-sized dog in the baggage compartment.  We had seen Grinder-Girl on previous days, striding intently to the front of the train, with that just-a-little-too-glittery look in her eye that lead us to comment that Lithium is a powerful chemical and must be kept in proper balance by trained, skilled medical professionals.

After a quick walk across the Forks to the new pedestrian bridge, we head back to the train station.  We see Grinder-Girl seated on the curb, her hands behind her back and her hoodie over her wrists.  One of Winnipeg’s Finest is speaking with her, one foot on her hoodie to keep Grinder-Girl seated.  A second squad glides up, two more officers engaging in discussions of a persuasive nature for Grinder-Girl to get in the back of the squad.  Her trip on The Canadian was at an end for the time being. 

As the new crew boards and the cars are replenished, we overhear some radio chatter.  They’re getting the dog off the baggage car, our unspoken concern that her dog would go on to Toronto, without food, water or companionship, while his keeper got to spend a night in the crowbar hotel.  We sit up in bed at watch Winnipeg trundle by the window, the lights fading over to the deep quiet dark of a Manitoba night.

When they were laying out the railroad in 1850 or so, the survey crew reached the Lake of the Woods and noticed the ground was fairly even with very few trees.  One surveyor stood at the Ontario border and the other surveyor walked for 450 miles to Winnipeg.  They snapped a chalk line and told the railway construction foreman, follow that line until you hit a big building in Winnipeg, then stop.  The Trans-Canada highway and the railway are the result.  Dead straight on a half-moon night, we go to sleep to the sound of the rails running true following that one warm line from long ago.

The northern part of Ontario from Rice Lake to Sioux Lookout is a result of glaciers millennia ago, scouring the soil from the surface.  The soil wound up in the Twin Cities and further down the Mississippi.  The Canadian Shield left exposed could support some trees and bugs.  It isn’t farming country, the rails roaming around the edges of hundreds of glacial lakes, the trees starting to show off the fall colours a little more flamboyantly.  The towns along the way sound like an old Warner Brothers cartoon, Malachi, Ottermere, Minaki, Redditt, Farlane, Canyon, Red Lake Road, Richan, Sioux Lookout, then followed by a long ‘and Cucamonga” in that peculiar Mel Blanc voice from the Bugs Bunny days.  Still running late we breakfast, as picture perfect, icy cold lakes peek out from between the trees, living advertisements for “Sport Fishing In Canada”.  Except they are real, not a set, or a Photoshop collage dreamed up by advertising mooks in a boardroom on the 35th floor of a skyscraper in Toronto. 

We watch the trees and lakes for hours eventually winding up in Hornepayne around time for the third sitting of dinner.  The towns that rolled by, like Mud River, Auden or Carmat are not much more than wide spots on either side of the rails.  A collection of dwellings, haphazardly dropped among the trees with a weather-beaten pickup out front, two or three ATV’s and a smattering of snowmobiles visible in the yard, smoke curling from the chimney of the houses as The Canadian waddles along.  In the depths of summer, black flies and mosquitoes will carry you off.  In winter, a moose in your yard means it is Tuesday and no more remarkable than that.

After adjourning for a post-dinner cocktail with some more Aussies, we call it a night.  Through the dark we roll past more bugs, trees and rocks, stopping a O-Gawd o’clock in Capreol, north of Sudbury.  By the time we get up for breakfast, we’re starting to see signs of habitation.  Still in the country, now running down the shores of Georgian Bay, looking cool and blue through the amber and red trees.  There are fewer pines with more houses and roads.

Eventually we reach Toronto.  We had to get there eventually, as that’s where they put the rails and The Canadian is not very good at off-road adventuring.  We peer into the back yards of the houses, a pool there, a garden with a canoe up on sawhorses there, then suburban office buildings, then condo high rises and the skyscrapers that make up downtown Toronto.  The Canadian eased to a stop at Union Station  Union Station is the nexus of the Toronto Subway, the GOtrain commuter trains and busses that bring 200,000 commuters into downtown Toronto every day.  Union Station opened in 1927 and has been restored to something near the original glory.  It is the kind of edifice that still speaks of the glory days of travel, when men wore hats, women wore gloves and one dressed up to travel.   We had a four-hour layover before our final leg home to Ottawa.  After putting our luggage into temporary storage, we headed out to the hustle and construction of Front Street.

More in our final instalment shortly.








Doing A Canadian Dream II

We continue with our transcontinental voyage for our twenty-fifth anniversary sitting at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver.

We did arrive a about an hour before our scheduled departure, checking our luggage and doing the last minute emails and text messages.  We had been warned that WiFi service on The Canadian was at best, spotty.  The only reliable access to WiFi would be in stations during stops.  WiFi was not really important to us, The Canadian is one of the more historic rail journeys in the world.  Others include the Orient Express and the Trans-Siberian Railway but these are foreign affairs, not of our country and not of our land, like The Canadian.  The true adventure would be looking out the window, not swapping memes and lolcats with coworkers and others of our social network. 

As we noted in the previous post, the sleeper cars were last overhauled in the 1970’s for purely mechanical reasons.  There are no seat-back entertainment systems with 300 channels of music, video and games.  The seats do not recline in seventeen discreet axes with shiatsu massage and an onboard spa.  There is no moist towellette before dining.  There is no sommelier on board.  There are three iconic dome cars, the bullet shaped Park car at the end of the train, three white tablecloth dining cars and, it being Canadian, three well-equipped bars in addition to 14 other sleepers, two coach cars, two baggage cars and in our case, a pair of F40PH-2 engines with a third F40PH-2 deadheading back to Toronto, then Montreal to the shops.  No we didn’t take note of all the car numbers as we’re not railfans.  Sorry. 

There is, of course, a crew driving the train and the service staff.  Each car has an attendant who manipulates your beds and seats in your room, as well as providing what comforts they can to passengers.  With one exception, they were all nice, pleasant and helpful people, based out of Winnipeg, Vancouver or Toronto, their duty day running from ghastly early to very late o’clock, each with their own single-bed sleeper on the train.  (Note to self, never take a single sleeper: They’re no bigger than a washroom cubicle and look about as comfortable)

Surveying the waiting room with a demographic eye, we noticed something.  The media age of the passengers.  Many of the fellow travellers didn’t so much celebrate birthdays, as had an annual appointment to be carbon-14 dated, the median age being approximately 146 years old.  We were by a significant margin, younger than anyone else on the train, except the service staff.  There were, as we had predicted, a grumpy German couple who kept to themselves, a few dozen Aussies, several Kiwis, many ex-pat Brits, a bunch of Yanks and just enough Asians to make sure we had a demographic Yatzee, or the beginnings of very bad, inappropriate jokes that you would never retell, but will memorize later.

As our fellow passengers sat waiting for the call, we could see the Vancouver crew loading the groceries, liquor and other consumables on the train.  The Canadian provides full meal service with your ticket, but alas, not wine or other drinks, save the welcome event with “sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres”  Your booze consumption is on your own dime, but with a room, you can bring your own for consumption in your room, which we did. 

Eventually the other passengers were hoisted aboard and the train was closed up.  There was no hearty “All Aboard” just a gentle bump as the train moved off through the Rocky Mountain dusk of Vancouver’s suburbs, trundling slowly. 

After surveying the Lilliputian dimensions of our room and exploring all that it had to offer, which took all of 45 seconds, we adjourned to the dome and bar car two cars ahead of Draper, which was to be our home for the next four nights.  I had travelled on The Canadian, millennia ago when it came through Pembroke, Ontario, to Ottawa and on to Montreal.  I knew what the dome and bar cars were like, but Marylou had never set foot on one.  They are fascinating, as the dome is in the middle of the car, with seats for about 30 people, a half-storey up by stairs.  Underneath the dome is a galley with a full kitchen and bar service area and then two bar areas on either end of the car.  In the glory days that was where you smoked, played cards and drank with strangers from across the land, while the cooks sweated in a galley below you not much bigger than your bathroom.

Walking forward on the train one car got us to the bar.  Now when one walks on a sidewalk or in an apartment building, there is plenty of room between you and the walls.  On a train, not so much.  The hallways in a sleeper are almost precisely the width of your shoulders, assuming you’re a 6 foot tall male.  This means that in order for two people to pass in the hall, you are either belly to belly or butt to butt intimate.  This is usually unacceptable to most North Americans.  The acceptable tactic to to wait at a corner where there is a few more inches room to preclude the inadvertent frottage that the halls dictate.  Since the train is also rocking and rolling in several axes at once, you tend to walk like you’re very much not in control of your legs, or you’ve shit your pants.  Those who have sailed or been on smaller ships know the gait, legs too wide apart, shuffling and using your shoulders and hands as support as the walls lurch into your path and you carom about like an uncoordinated crokinole.  

In the bar we met up with a couple of ex-pat Brits-now Aussies doing a three-month, three-quarters of the planet tour.  The Canadian was on their bucket list and we enjoyed the first of many, many drinks with them.  We also had to explain a drink to our server, one which then became very popular.  The Black Russian.  Equal parts Kahlua and Vodka, over ice, in a glass.  Serve.  The only issue was that the bar cars are not stocked with standard 26 oz. bottles. In the interests of economy and stock control, all you can get is the airline, pre-measured miniatures, that the server opens and combines for your beveraging pleasure.  Around midnight we’d had enough and lurched back to our car.

Did we mention our room was small?  With the seats folded and the beds lowered by our car attendant, we entered a space that appeared even smaller than before, but now with beds and a black cargo net to ostensibly keep the occupant of the top bunk from rolling out.  Or, it was just a little kinky touch to put one in the mood for some playful restraint-based sauciness?  We surmised it was more for passenger safety on the top bunk.  After our contortionist act of getting undressed and space on the top bunk to stash our daytime clothing, we bedded down.  Having been married for this long, like most couples, we can adapt to almost any sleeping position with our partner.  I pulled the short straw and was wedged between the wall of compartment and her, spooned together.  I can assure you that there is no nicer way to fall asleep than curled around your beloved, being rocked gently by a train.

At 6:00 am the next morning, we stopped in Kamloops.  One of Marylou’s colleagues lives in Kamloops and he said he would try to meet us.  As the stop was only a half hour for fuel and a crew change, Kevin did roll out of the rack to meet us as the sun was just barely illuminating the sky on a very chilly morning.  It was a nice reunion for Marylou and Kevin who had not actually met up for more than a year, but talk daily on the phone.  Eventually we had to leave, Kevin to return home and get his children ready for school and us to the dining car for breakfast.

Via Rail does feed you well in the sleeper class and breakfast on The Canadian is excellent.  With a fully stocked kitchen in each dining car, you eat well.  Eggs how you want them, bacon, sausages, hash browns that started as a bag of potatoes and finished on the flat top, toast, coffee, juice and the rest.  Or oatmeal, or a continental breakfast, or everything all at once.  The only drawback of dining on Via is that they fill each of the four-tops as people come to breakfast. Not that we had any issues, being seated with strangers is part of the adventure of train travel.  Conversations usually start with the usual litany of where are you from, where are you going and what have you seen along with names, some social pleasantries and the usual awkwardness of strangers sharing a table at 6:30 in the morning before the coffee has arrived and you’ve finally floated to the surface of vague consciousness, remembering your manners.

After breakfast we lurched back to our room and decided that one of us had to try the shower.  This time Marylou drew the short straw.  Each sleeper car has a shared shower, walled off and lockable, of course, but still shared between everyone on each car.  The anteroom was just big enough to let you put your arms out, so that only your elbows were touching opposite walls.  Inside the shower compartment itself, one had an instant flashback to a 1971 home renovation to add a shower to the basement rec room by a parent with absolutely no skills and no measuring tape, but several tubes of caulk.  Everything worked but there is a certain gymnastic skill that must be learned to perform ablutions on a moving train, without falling on ones ass, or opening your scalp on the shower head.  Plus, you must keep the water valve plunged in, to keep the water running long enough to actually shampoo, rinse and repeat. 

Despite the feeling of being in an over-moistened food processor, Marylou did escape with her life.  Then it was my turn.  I too did not have the gymnastic skills to bathe without wedging myself into one corner like an Escherian first-draft doodle to keep from going head first into the hall, or out a window, with soap on my cullions and a dazed expression from banging my head. 

With the sun now up we reclined in our room, lounging on the bed while Marylou dried her hair.  Note to self:  Bring a hair dryer, there are none provided.  We could see the Rockies unfurling out the window as the train promenaded along.  This particular stretch of track is not high-speed rail.  It’s more of a graceful canter, rolling and twisting around some of the grandest mountains in the world.  The rails essentially follow the North Thompson River, working their way up, around and across some of the most remarkable scenery on the planet.  The cameras came out and there was much photography until her hair finished drying.  We unfurled from our room and walked forward two cars to the dome.  The dome cars are achingly stereotypical of The Canadian.  About 30 seats, encased in glass, sticking up out of the roof of the car, giving you a 360 degree panorama of the Rockies.  Every few seconds the camera shutters went off, as another vista revealed itself, but we were going slow enough that you could say “Look at that” instead of “That was beautiful and now a half-mile behind us, sorry you missed it”

Invariably we needed to stretch our legs.  The Vancouver to Edmonton leg of the trip has three dome cars and a fourth ‘observation’ car with huge wrap-around-and-over-the-ceiling windows that we claim actually give you a better view than the dome cars.  We sat, being rocked by the train, watching the river below us, crossing under us, then around us again.  We could see the far end of the train following loyally behind, as the tracks curved around rapids, or over bridges.  Every few minutes a village or town would sprout up, the sawmill near the rail line, then “Filthy Bob’s General Store and Bait”, some modest houses, a small farm and the occasional glimpse of someone hanging laundry out on the line, over top of the rusting hulk of a 1968 Chrysler that was put out in the back yard in 1982 as a coop, shelter for the field cats and general plaything for the dogs and children, all accompanied by a very hypnotic rumble of the wheels on steel.  The occasional screech yowl as the train was redirected over a crossing or a switch. 

Then, without warning, there is the thundering growl of a freight going the other way, bullying the air out of the way, dragging well-car containers, loads of lumber, auto racks, oil cans, propane, LNG, and box cars of things, hustling along with 12,000 horsepower straining up the grades, air horn blazing as the engines pass and the horn swoons down in the Doppler effect.  Everyone jumps just a little as the freights rocket by.  These are commercial rails and passengers get the seconds to fast freight on tight deadlines.  Occasionally we stop on a siding to get out of the way.  Not all the tracks are doubled, some still on the same path when these routes were carved out of the sides of mountains in the 1880’s.  The story was there was a dead Chinese worker for every mile of rail that was punched through the mountains, killed on the job from falls, blasting or just bad luck.

We roll by Mount Robson, the tallest peak in Canada, the distant top wreathed in clouds, snow permanently clinging to the shoulders then past Pyramid Falls, tumbling down from the mountains above, melt water in September from so high up that summer never really comes.  Which also explains the heli-skiing year round.  Lunch is taken in the dining car.

Finally we stroll into Jasper, Alberta.  It’s cool bordering on cold and one of us has not brought a jacket quite warm enough.  Jasper is so pretty it makes your eyes hurt.  The train station is right along the main street, a restored classic, with The Canadian stretched out behind, looking like a Kodachrome slide from 1961 in a magazine advertisement to Visit Beautiful Jasper! 

We’re stopped for ninety minutes to let passengers get off, refuel, rewater and for us to do just enough shopping.  The main street has a few stores selling souvenirs and embarrassing tourist clothing.  Someone finds a jacket with enough warmth for the rest of the trip, that isn’t emblazoned with the word Jasper in foot-high letters.  We stretch our legs a bit and take in the sites.  Jasper is ringed by mountains and in ski season is packed to the rafters.  In early fall, it is more manageable.  We return to the train, wiggle into the room and decide that a drink is in order to ward off the chill of the Rockies.

For dinner or lunch you choose your seating.  There is the first seating, the second seating and a third seating.  We’ve chosen the third seating for dinner, so we have time for warmth-restoring drinks with a couple from Australia, exchanging stories, observations and jokes.  Another round?  Why yes, yes we would.  It seems that the right quantity of alcohol helps with walking on the train, counterbalancing the motion of the cars.

Edmonton to Winnipeg in our next instalment.   Yes, we will post some photos later.

Doing A Canadian Dream I

The spousal unit and I have managed to live together in a real and legally binding manner for twenty-five years: September 24th 1988 was our wedding if you want to be precise about things.  We’re nothing if not romantics, so we decided that we should mark the occasion with something a bit out of the ordinary. 

Submitted for your approval, Doing A Canadian Dream, Part One. 

Canada, for those of you here and already know, is a damn big country.  For those readers in the US and elsewhere, we have a whole extra time zone and a half off the right side of the map of North America.  St. John’s Newfoundland is actually closer to London, England (2,326 miles) than Vancouver, British Columbia, which is 4,590 miles away.  So, being proud Canadians we decided to cross about 4/5ths of it in one go, but not the way you might think. 

From FL34 (34,000 feet) you don’t see much, even on a clear day with a window seat.  Marylou and I had talked for a number of years about flying to Vancouver and coming back on the train.  Yes, the train.  More specifically, getting a room on The Canadian, the only transcontinental train left in Canada.  To celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary, that is exactly what we did.

Thanks to some Aeroplan miles we flew Business Class from Ottawa to Vancouver for a couple of days’ sightseeing.  Vancouver is stunning of course, an international destination city usually in the Top Five of “Cities You Must See” lists.  Those who live on the West Coast have a way of living that is the envy of the rest of us in the country.  If you invite someone from Vancouver to dinner on Tuesday night at 7 pm, they’ll likely show up on Saturday at 11 am.  Relaxed is the key word and being exposed to the beauty of the mountains right outside the front door is exactly why.  Nobody rushes, nobody worries and nobody cares in the nicest way possible.  Conversely, in Toronto, entire families will cram 72 hours worth of ‘living’ into 23 hours and wonder why the hell you are sitting on your ass with a whole extra hour left over.  We’re looking at the city and the mountains is why. 

As for accommodation in Vancouver, we did some comparison shopping.  Three nights in a nice hotel, a Marriott, or three nights in the very best hotel:  The difference was barely $200 and using the anniversary excuse, we went luxe.  The Shangri-La is, undoubtedly the best hotel chain on the planet.  We’ve both stayed at various Four Seasons, Westin and W properties and they are very, very good, but the Vancouver Shangri-La has a reputation of beyond very, very good.  In keeping with their corporate heritage, there is no 4th or 13th floor in the hotel and the service is astounding.  Do we, modest Central Canadians that we are, deserve this level of luxury and attention?  Hell yeah!

Let’s put it this way, had we called up the concierge and asked for a live giraffe, the inflatable escape slide from a 747 and a crate of champagne with a dwarf as sommelier, dressed in full hula-girl costume all would have appeared within the hour.  That level of service is however, only part of it.  Other hotels offer that kind of service for their guests, usually with a tiny hint of smirking disdain and the oh-so slightly raised eyebrow that you are not really deserving of their level of service.  The Shangri-La?  No condescension, just a genuine, sincere willingness to be of service. 

As an example, we spoke with the concierge about where to go for our anniversary dinner on Monday night.  She recommended L’Abbattoir, made the reservations and even arranged for a cab to pick us up promptly at 7 pm.  Come 7, the valet pulls up in the house car, a Mercedes limousine and drives us to our restaurant in Gastown, completely gratis.  At breakfast that morning, the service manager brought us two luscious chocolate dipped strawberries, with “Happy 25th Anniversary” chocolatiered on the plate, again with their compliments.  Small, important touches that were sincere and heartfelt.  Even when we checked out Tuesday afternoon, the cab was late, so the valet pulled out the house Merc again and drove us to the train station, unbidden and very welcomed.  Training a service staff can only go so far.  The Shangri-La ensures they hire good-natured, caring people to begin with, then hones them to an edge of service perfection that is simply impeccable.

We did do other things in Vancouver.  Being downtown Marylou wanted to see some of the high-end stores, Tiffany & Co. being one of them.  We entered and were welcomed to look around by a courteous staff, one of whom asked the usual where are you from, what brings you to Van?  We explained our circumstance and bless her heart, she took an interest in Marylou.  Would you like to see some of our diamonds?  Marylou being all woman said what any woman would:  Yes please.  Out came a 5.2 carat engagement ring and Marylou was invited to try it on.  Her current engagement ring is a modest .50 carat, from 25 years ago and she does cherish it, but a chance to try on a monster from Tiffany & Co. does not come often.  And the price? $478,000.  No, we did not buy it.

However, we did, in our stroll down Robson, find ourselves outside of a silver store.  We did buy two silver bands, for less than $60 and I did get down on one knee to propose again, in the middle of the store, much to the tearful delight of the shopkeeper’s staff and customers.  She said yes.

Tuesday evening we presented ourselves, courtesy of The Shangri-La-La house car, to the Pacific Central Station, the departure point of The Canadian.  Via Rail, the entity that runs The Canadian, has baggage limits on their train.  As we had a two-person room, there is not really enough space to have all your luggage with you.  They recommend that you pare things down to what you would take as airline carryon and check the rest in the baggage car, without access to it for the remainder of your trip.  The reason is simple enough.

The Canadian cars are the stainless-clad streamline train cars you might imagine from a mid-50’s Hollywood thriller.  Originally built by the Budd Car Company, they are the height of technology from 1953, built for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the CPR, one of the progenitors of Via Rail.  They have been overhauled.  Once.  That was to bring their mechanicals up to 1970’s standards.  This is not to say they are primitive, or dangerous but they are, well, Spartan. 

Our room, Car 211, E, was a standard two-person room.  That means you get bunk beds that fold up into the ceiling, exposing two seats for sitting during the day.  A toilet, not much bigger than your high school locker and a sink and mirror with running water take up one wall.  There are a few cubbyholes to store your toothbrush, a book and your carry-on luggage.  Adding a bag of chips means the room is full to bursting.  Naturally, it being The Canadian, everything is brushed stainless steel or institutional blue-grey enamel.  The beds are exactly six inches too narrow for two people to sleep in them, so I took to the top bunk most nights, clambering up a narrow ladder that seemed to take up all the air in the room.  Changing your mind means that one of you has to go out into the hallway to give the other some space to do it. 

Fortunately we do like each other and don’t mind the close proximity that the room requires, except that one morning I had one leg in her yoga pants and one arm through her bra as we both tried to change clothes at the same time.  This has happened rarely in our life together. 

More in Doing A Canadian Dream Part II as we start our transcontinental voyage.             

The Neighbours

Having just finished up a big push at work, I can now take over from Mason Baveux and change the password to the blog account.  I take it he didn’t do anything actionable, did he?  I didn’t find any lawyer’s letters in the mail, or a severed horse head in the bed, so I suppose we can go on.

I got to spend an enjoyable couple of weeks in the Ohio state capital, working like a pit pony, but still having a bit of time to look around, examining the state of the Union, from a Canadian’s outsider point of view.  Which is always a nice way to observe things, as Canadians don’t stick out, at least visually:  This allows us to stay under the radar and watch things.

First off, Ohio is taking a beating economically.  Ohio is a manufacturing state; they make things and we all know how the auto industry is doing.  Layoffs are common, as are foreclosures.  One suburb I drove through, a reasonably middle-class one, had a For Sale sign on every tenth house.  Some were listed as foreclosure properties.  This wasn’t a new suburb, but one that had been in existence, at least by my guesstimate, for seven to ten years.  New enough, but not new-new.  Families, or their banks, had had enough and had pulled the yellow handle.

The media:  There were the usual state and local outrages (“Mayor’s Aide Sells Guatemalan Housekeeper’s Kidney to Saudi Businessman in City Office”) and hours dedicated to the swine flu.  Commercials were almost all local, the predominant advertiser being either a debt consolidation company, or a car dealer with the slogan “Everybody Rides!”, flogging their in-house financing.  Don’t ask what the interest rate might be, as you would have to look up the word usury in the dictionary.

The local newspaper was barely thick enough to mop up a spilled glass of water.  This tells me that editorial consists of two people repackaging AP feeds and doing the cop call every 24 hours.  Ads were almost all car dealers trying to move some inventory, with a smattering of nail and spa shops offering their services. In the classified ads?  More internet job scams that I could actually count.

The folks:  Being in a hotel in the suburbs means you get an odd and not necessarily accurate cross-section of the folks.  Spending some time in a local restaurant and eavesdropping on conversations told me that things were sort of OK, but everyone is sweating it.

Then again, you look around and see a trailer on the back of a year-old pickup truck with a couple of ATV’s on board.  Or shoppers at a local supermarket with full baskets, going through the check out.  Even if Central Ohio is taking a walloping, Columbus is the state capitol, a university town and also has a reasonable sized high-tech and insurance industry to buffer some of the economic wobbles. 

However, I didn’t see that many of the “My Child is an Honor Student at Meadow Lane Elementary School” bumper stickers.  Or, for that matter, too many of the WWJD signs, placards, stickers or tats.  Or at least none of the tats were where I could see them.  Note to those who do have a WWJD tattoo?  I’m fairly certain Jesus wouldn’t have ink, or fifty eight piercings either.  Give it up.

Sports:  Oh hellyeah.  I saw literally thousands of examples of fan-wear, stickers, license plate frames and all the other symptoms of sports zombies let loose in the neighbourhood.  I did catch a few minutes of a sports talk radio show and it was as puerile and moronic as any in Toronto.

Canada.  The few locals I did get to talk with knew what street Toronto was on but were at a loss as to the rest of the country.  This is hardly surprising.  I was asked if Nova Scotia was part of Canada.  I said it used to be, but Holland took it over in 1972, so its now a Dutch protectorate and uses the guilder as currency.  This bait was swallowed whole so I waited for the hook to set, then finally said no, Nova Scotia is still part of Canada:  It’s just that the rest of Canada refuses to admit it.

The other big question was health care.  My explanation is simple.  We traded higher taxes for cradle to grave health care in 1954 and it generally works well enough.  At least you don’t have to declare personal bankruptcy if you break a leg and don’t have health insurance, which is the trade-off we have.

I did get busted for ‘Ooot’, ‘Aboot’ and ‘PROcess’ instead of ‘Awt’, ‘Abawt’ and ‘PRAWcess’, but I can live with that.  It also scared a few folks that I can speak enough French to get along and rarely use ‘Eh?’, which might make me a Bad Canadian in some eyes.  I did manage to redeem myself by using Y’all properly, as a collective noun, verb, adjective, adverb, conjunction, gerund and proper name.

In summary?  The Neighbours are doing OK.  Not great and they’re a bit scared, but they seem to be hanging in.  These days, that’s about all you can hope for.

A Week in San Francisco

As part of job, I was in San Francisco for a week, taking some training.  You and I both know I don’t talk about the job in here, but I will talk about the City By The Bay, San Francisco.

San Francisco is uncommonly beautiful, being built all over a bunch of hills, on the side of the Bay and the Pacific.  San Francisco has a long tradition of being a port city, shipping in and shipping out just about everything at one time or another.  The city is quite green, being a temperate climate, unlike Los Angeles which is a desert with silicone implants. 

The people? Uniformly friendly and approachable.  Sort of a small-town mentality with a big city environment.  You can ask any passerby on the street for the correct time and not be told to do an anatomical impossibility.  Of course, being a beautiful city, housing costs are astronomical, so you get socio-economic stratification.  There are fabulously rich folks and dirt poor folks, with nothing in between.  The middle class can’t afford to live in San Francisco, so they have all moved to the soulless ‘burbs, each within ten minutes drive of a Borders, Bed, Bath and Beyond, the GAP and Wal-Mart big box mall-hell. 

Downtown is clean and orderly, while still retaining some of the city-ness and characters you find in a large city.  The tourist areas are uniformly spotless and safe, after all, people come from all over the planet to San Francisco and the good citizens want to put out their best china and linens. 

I was in San Francisco with a co-worker, who hadn’t been there for several years, so we took some time in the evenings to do a bit of tourism.  First off, the cable cars are just as you see them in the Rice A-Roni TV commercials.  They clank and rumble, climbing the hill up Market street.  Chinatown is a riot of people, languages, smells and colors that stun the eyes, ears and nose.  Yes, there are quaint apartments that seem to defy gravity, clinging to the side of hills.

Fisherman’s Wharf is at once a working wharf and a theme park of a wharf, having been Sanitized For Your Protection as a tourist.  You can get New England Clam Chowder in a bread bowl from one of dozens of street kitchens, the come-on being that you’re at a wharf, ergo the clams are fresh.  There are several hideous tourist traps hawking t-shirts and "authentic" Alcatraz Swim Team jackets along with gum, cameras, batteries and fridge magnets.

We did manage to find a good restaurant and take in the seafood, which was excellent, as well as a sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge that took your breath away.  Some days, I’m certain, God does that just to show off. 

Coming back to Market street, we asked a passenger on the street car what stop we should use to get to our hotel and received concise directions.  After getting off the transit, my colleague remarked that one of the women on the streetcar was a fine specimen of womanhood, specifically the one we asked directions of.  I pointed out to him that she also had an Adam’s apple and knees that looked my mine, as well as just that bit too much makeup to cover a five o’clock shadow.  There was a minor mental earthquake.   

Thursday night however, it was a different story.  I was in my pajamas (the pink, flesh colored ones) watching the History Channel, minding my own business at 8:40 PM.  The bed started to move.  A lot.  Imagine a big, heavy truck rolling by your house, shaking everything.  For three seconds I was confused, as I was on the eighth floor.  Then it struck me.  I am in California.  This is an earthquake. 

I didn’t hear sirens, or breaking glass and a second later, the bed stopped moving.  So far, no issues.  I had survived my first earthquake.  A moment later, my cell phone rang.  It was my colleague wondering what the hell had just happened.  I changed channels to a local station and lo, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake.  No damage.  Nothing more than a few rattled dishes.

Thursday evening we spent some time looking for souvenirs for my colleague to take home to his partner.  We even took a few moments to watch the sea lions basking on the jetties and barking at passers-by.  Sea lions look exactly like you have seen them in documentary films.  Big, flabby and cute, they have a bark like a very big hound dog and loll around staring at the humans with the cameras.  I’m never sure who is on display, as I suspect there is a sign in sea lion-ese underwater somewhere in the bay that says, "Come and see the idiot bi-pedals, but don’t feed them herring and don’t throw things at them.  Thank you." 

By the time things wrapped up on the Friday, I had four hours to myself.  My colleague had to catch a flight, so I was on my own.  My first stop was the USS Pampanito.  The Pampanito is a WWII US diesel submarine, of the Balao class.  The Pampanito is a restored, real, fleet submarine that has been slightly modified so you can walk the length of the interior.  The Pampanito is actually in the water, so it rolls and yaws with the sea, unlike other subs that are dryland monuments to rust held together with paint.

Entering aft you find that more than 20 minutes on a sub will give you the heebie jeebies if you are at all claustrophobic.  Hard steel pieces jut out at angles that are certified by the shipyard to leave bloody gashes in your forehead and scalp if you don’t pay attention.

The Pampanito has been lovingly restored to as close to 1945 as you can get.  They did leave out the asbestos and the toxic lead paint, but you can never get rid of the smell of diesels, sweat, hot vacuum tubes, Lucky Strikes, dust, grease and oil. 

Everything is tiny.  The head is miniscule.  The racks, even for the senior officers are not much bigger than an airline seat folded out flat.  The galley is a miracle of space and efficiency.  Every cubby hole, niche and surface available has some kind of machinery built in to service the needs of a big steel tube that sinks and surfaces at will. 

One of the museum docents aboard served on a sister to the Pampanito and, as it was a slow day, showed me some of the engine room where he served on the Bowfin.  Four big Morse Diesel engines take up all the room.  Underway, according to the docent, you can only communicate by hand signals, as the noise obliterates all potential for speech. 

Under the engines is a whole other space, of batteries, electrical cabling, pipes, oil sumps, bunker tanks and ballast tanks.  Overhead are the levers, valves and switchgear needed to run the boat.  You would burn yourself on something in the engine space at least once a day, and usually bark a shin four or five times a week.  It was considered the informal tattoo of the engine room. 

The control room, dive room and fighting spaces have all been restored.  Some of the floor decking is open grate, so you can see down into the lower levels of the boat, where even more 1943 technology lives.  Occasionally you feel the boat heel in the water, adding a sudden reality shot to the floating museum and memorial to those who are still on patrol. 

Next door on the wharf is another WWII relic, the Jerimiah O’Brien Liberty Ship.  One of only two working Liberty ships left from the more than 2,700 that were built in WWII, the Jerimiah O’Brien is still seaworthy and has the Coast Guard license to prove it.  Most of the ship is open to tour and perhaps the most remarkable part is the monstrous 3-cylinder steam engine that pushed the loaded Liberty ships to a stunning 11 knots.

Hull #230 was welded together in 56 days in Portland, Maine and hit the water on June 19,1943 being called SS Jerimiah O’Brien.  To cheer everyone up, it was painted grey.  Eleven of her stops were just off the shores of Normandy, bringing troops, guns, bullets and beans to the D-Day beaches.

Notice the prefix on the name, by the way.  SS, meaning steam ship.  Not USS, as in United States Ship, or HMCS, for Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship, both designations meaning a flag ship, or one owned and operated by the military.  All the Liberty ships were operated by private companies and all the hands were Merchant Marine sailors.  They weren’t military personnel:  They were citizens.

After an afternoon of floating history and too much walking up, down and around, I needed something to eat.  Pier 1, near the hotel has a number of small food emporiums and I was tired of hotel food and portions.  A nice, crispy french bread, some local cheese and slices of organic Parma ham made it into various bags.  A small container of gelato was obtained and I strolled back to the hotel.  One quick call to room service for butter and cutlery and I was set for a comfortable dinner.

Now that is the way to travel.  Lots of work, some history, a bit of beauty, some interesting people and very good food.  Welcome to San Francisco. 



Air Travel

The new gig doesn’t have nearly as much travel involved.  The previous job saw me spending half of my time either in the air getting somewhere, or sitting on my canasta, waiting to get into the air.  This week, I got to revisit air travel for the first time since the end of January when I flew to Seattle.  Here are my impressions: 

Air travel has actually gotten worse:  I didn’t think it was possible, but air travel has now become a complete multi-sensory affront.  You want a pillow or blanket?  Two dollars please.  You want a free half-can of Coke?  Show me your boarding pass and if you’re not Super Mondo Extra Special Grade ticket, then gimme a buck.  You want a printed out ticket?  Ohhh that’s twenty five dollars.  

Simply put, it has become as hideous as intercity bus travel, but with a longer safety briefing.  The aircraft were uniformly dirty inside and out.  The lavatories on each leg I flew smelled like a combination of waste products and some kind of chemical designed to almost, but not quite, mask the smell.  

The flight crew dare not show their faces to customers.  I saw one flight crew dart from the cockpit to the jetway and back.  He had the same expression as someone doing a perp walk in front of the press after being arrested for indecent behavior with a penguin.  Had he thought to wear his jacket, I’m sure he would have pulled it up over his head to hide his face.  

The cabin crew, universally, have that hang-dog, beaten look one expects from aged carny workers or bank tellers.  Gate agents look almost lifelike and behave the same way:  Hand your boarding pass over.  Show your ID.  Don’t even try to make eye contact.  They can’t see you.  They are not allowed to see you, even if your head is on fire.  

Routings?  Mine wasn’t what you would call difficult.  Toronto to Calgary to Thunder Bay to Toronto.  Which wound up being Toronto to Calgary, then Edmonton, then Winnipeg, then Thunder Bay and then Toronto.  Every leg, except the Toronto to Calgary was flown on the little Bombardier Regional Jets.  All flights were packed to bursting. 

What does this really mean?  Air Canada, our putative flag carrier, just came out of the equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.  Air Canada ‘rationalized’ their service offerings.  They ‘streamlined’ their routes.  They ‘improved their competitiveness’ with other airlines.  Nice jargon, isn’t it?  If I was a stock broker/financial analyst jagoff, I’d feel all warm and gooey inside.   

Service is now a sepia-tinted memory of Years Gone By:  The Good Olde Days of 2005 when, if you asked nicely, you might get a bag of pretzels that were packaged during the Diefenbaker government.  Perhaps, if you seemed nice, you could get a whole can of ginger ale.  Gate agents would look up from their endless keyboarding to make eye contact.  Oh how I long for those forgotten halcyon days of my youth.  

I am fairly certain why things have deteriorated.  An efficiency expert somewhere looked at the profitability of each passenger, measuring with a micrometer.  Air Canada looked at their employees and figured they could threaten mass layoffs to beat them down.  This would get the employees to take a pay cut, give up their pensions, increase their hours and adhere to new service standards that were ‘no service’, as service costs money. 

Costs to the airline means that someone will have to be fired for jeopardizing corporate profitability.  Every dollar is sacred and every penny scarce.   

I shudder to think what is going on in the back when it comes to safety or maintenance.  Those are two big costs the airlines can lasso without customers seeing the corners being cut with a chainsaw.  I do know that the flight from Calgary to Thunder Bay, via Edmonton and Winnipeg was refueled twice, for brief periods.  This tells me that the pilots had to run with the bare minimum of gas in the tanks and would only top up the smallest amount needed to get the airplane to the next stop.   

In their defense, fuel has weight and aircraft weight/balance is a black art of higher math based on temperature, pressure, distance, passenger weight and altitude, but not that much.  The fuel upload at Winnipeg was barely two minutes.  Commercial pilots can’t call for gas without approval of flight dispatch and operations.  You tell me.  

At the end of day, now that I’m back in Mississauga, I want to find the ad agency Creative Director for Air Canada and make them take a flight in the cheap seats.  Then make Monte Brewer, the head guy at Air Canada take a ride with me, incognito, on a typical flight.  No special tickets.  No business class.  No advance warning. 

I doubt if they would have the nerve or the sense to see what their service offerings are really like, not how they are accounted for on a balance sheet. 



Vancouver 2010

The International Olympic Committee has decided to hold the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler BC.  I’ve been to both places a few times and it will be a great show after the fix a few things.  First, is the Road to Whistler, the Sea to Sky Highway. 

The highway has more twists and turns than a Bill Clinton testimony under oath.  Some of the turns are blind, 100 kph off-camber drop-away 90 degree corners where you have a choice of nail a 400 foot granite wall, or plummet 400 feet off the edge of the earth into the Pacific Ocean.  By the way, that’s just after the level railroad crossing, next to the huge propane tanks, across the highway from the Down’s Syndrome Orphanage. 

Tour busses, cars, trucks and vans fill the road day and night.  Many of these vehicles are driven by skilled, professional drivers who make the 4 hour run up the Sea and Sky Highway every day.  The rest are driven by the insane, the amphetamine crazed, the lame, the halt and those who just got off an airplane after a 16 hour flight, rented a big SUV, signed for the all-perils damage insurance and are now driving on a combination of adrenaline, jet lag, a venti-double caf, and all the skills they have developed piloting an oxcart in their home country.  They are in your lane, by the way, trying to read the map and quiet the children.

Whistler itself is post-card pretty.  The skiing is remarkable, world class in all respects.  The village has other issues though.  Whistler has a problem with accommodations.  It is very common for those who work in support jobs, as cooks, servers, dishwashers or ski instructors, to live six to a room.  A rudimentary three room apartment rents for $2,000 a month in low season and perhaps $3,000 a month in ski season.  There are no places for people to live unless you make millions a year.

This will cut into the number of hookers who can work the Olympics, servicing the IOC and their assorted hangers-on, aides, spokespersons and liaison officers.  The Vancouver Olympic Committee will have to address the accommodation issue.  And please, do something about the cost of simple cup of coffee?  $11.00 is a bit much.

Vancouver, being a big destination city probably has enough hotel rooms to handle the onslaught.  Much of Vancouver’s seedier areas were rehabilitated for Expo86 and are now home to leaky, unrepairable, overpriced condos, constructed on landfill and toxic waste dumps from the bad old days. 

There are, let’s call them what they are, tenderloin areas left.  As best I can understand, the 14-year old crack whores are looking forward to the Olympics coming to Vancouver, as they can then be 21-year old heroin whores servicing the visitors.  Assuming they live through the next month or two without being killed by their pimp, or invited to a pig farm party by a serial killer, the next crop of service sector people are ready. 

Gift shops?  There are too many to count.  Traffic in Vancouver has always been screwed up, so the application of the Olympics shouldn’t really matter.  Expect endless globs of confused people rambling around on Robson Street day and night.  Sort of like today, only more of them.

The airport, finally, has been fixed.  Vancouver International used to be a 1963 vintage shithole with airplanes.  It is now actually very well designed and very attractive.  Considering the number of Vancouver Airport Improvement Fees I’ve paid, you owe me a “Thanks Dave”.  Enjoy my airport.

The rest of the city will be fine, as long as there isn’t an earthquake or another eruption of any of the dormant volcanoes in the area.  The Olympics in Vancouver?  Sounds like a fun time for me!