Around Town

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's not everyday I have visitors much less ones from outside Saskatoon. So after taking my friend, Yann, and his son, Frederic, on a 4-day 2500km loop of Southwestern Saskatchewan we set out to do a few activities here in Saskatoon. At first I admit I was not sure there would be much to show, but with a 9-year old boy in particular, those fears were unfounded. We had arrived around midnight the night before and the loop had been grueling so after allowing for a well-deserved sleep-in, we set our sights on Wanuskewin. For those not from here, Wanuskewin is a collection of pre-Colombian native camps as well as cliffs for buffalo jumps and the northernmost medicine wheel anywhere. It is on the north side of Saskatoon and sits right along the riverbank and is lined with trails that pass some of the sites and offer views of teepee villages, ancient sites, cliff, and of course the river. And I'd never been there. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the area was and how well the information is presented. And in any case, it ate up a few hours and settled our collective need for a good old Saskatchewan bison burger. From there we retreated to the city but stayed on the river, driving down Spadina Crescent until we reached another Saskatoon landmark: the weir.

The weir has a special significance today amid all the anti-depression stimulus spending: it was built in 1930 as a make-work project with the intention of regulating water levels in Saskatoon for drought prevention, covering intakes of the powerplant upstream, and so on. Since then, Gardiner dam does all these same functions leaving the weir to serve as eye-candy and pelican feeding trough. There's talk of removing half of the weir to install a hydro-generation plant (at a cost that I doubt is recoverable) and a whitewater facility. I'd like to see the whitewater facility happen with a longer run than proposed but at the moment nothing is certain. In any case we watched the pelicans for awhile and then headed upstream to cross the CP Rail bridge for a look south along the river and into downtown. As a rail buff, I think Yann enjoyed the opportunity to walk along an active railroad bridge - too bad we didn't have a train on there as we crossed.

The next stop was downtown: we parked on 2nd Ave and 19th St near the River Landing where Frederic eschewed the scale replica waterpark that mimics that Saskatchewan river basin to play with stones in the water near a leaking hose. I'd hoped to walk them up the bridge to Broadway Avenue, loop around to Victoria and get some good icecream at Homestead before coming back downtown but Fred was already pretty tired so we walked along the riverbank to the Besborough and had some Saskatoon Berry frozen yogurt at the Bus Stop instead. From there, we walked along 21st St. which still has a bit of that 50s charm back to 2nd Ave and then retreated to the car. I drove them up Victoria Bridge realizing too late that narrow roads are pretty common in France but not realizing that the bridge was soon to be closed (most likely forever) a few days hence for safety reasons. Then we looped down Broadway and parked on Saskatchewan Crescent for a look at downtown from across the river. In our time together Fred had learned to say "Stop pleeeease!" when he saw something he liked and so we did while he crooned "ooh la la". It really is a nice view and Yann was as impressed with the houses - so different from each other but neighbours - as the skyline.

We were driving right past the university so I thought we had to take a detour along Campus Drive. Fred was feeling pretty tired but I remembered that our Geology Building would be of interest so we parked on campus and walked along the bowl (is there ever a summer that it ISN'T all dug up??) to the historic Thorvaldson building and back to geology from there. A full-sized T-Rex, triceratops, and stegosaurus awaited not to mention rodents, snakes, fish, and other creatures and I'm sure we spent at least half an hour as Fred ran from exhibit to exhibit. The best things in life ARE free, I guess. I didn't know if they'd be interested so I took them up 8th Street to Ruckers Mini Golf and Frederic's fatigue remained forgotten for the first 10 or 11 holes anyway. They got to meet Dimitri, a friend of mine that worked there and bought their round, and then at last it was time for dinner: and where else but Athena? I brought Yann a few pints of our local brew, and we all had dinner then Megan - who was hosting them in her spare room but had never met them - showed up and we all sat for some time visiting and so on until they went home and to sleep.

The next day, they would be leaving for Jasper by train and with it being Thursday, I was reserved for the afternoon to help John get some wedding preparation done. So we got up early and headed to the Berry Barn for breakfast: Waffles with Saskatoon Berry syrup. This is another Saskatoon tradition that I've never done. Sure, I've had waffles/pancakes with Saskatoon Berry syrup many times but I'd never been to the Berry Barn for breakfast. To be honest, it was decent but not all that special - but the setting was really nice, right on the riverbank. After breakfast I dropped Yann and Fred back at Megan's to pack and went home to meet up with John. We headed to the west side to do our final fitting and pick up our tuxes, I saw his new condo (which looks pretty nice), and then we headed up to Handyman to pick up decorations, plates, and all sorts of rental gear for the reception. We drove down to the hall where I was surprised to see that John drove pretty conservatively these days considering that we had little time left to get the truck unloaded and get back to the store before it closed. I'm not suggesting I expected him to break all sorts of traffic laws, but we sat behind a long line of traffic waiting to turn on Warman Rd while traffic moved freely in the neighbouring lane.

By the time we did get there, Kirk was already there and while John met with the facilities manager of the hall we hurriedly unloaded everything and I jumped in the truck alone to grab the rest. Most of the staff was just leaving but I caught them before they closed the gates and we loaded the rest in John's truck before I headed back to the Curling Club in record time. The plan had been to work on getting some of the set up done and then meet Yann, Fred, and Megan for a late dinner but by the time dinner rolled around John and I were on top of a three-level scaffolding with a ladder and a bunch of rolls of plastic trying to make a nice decorative radial chandelier. So I didn't really get to say farewell to them or a proper thanks to Megan but they would be back next week anyway. We were up there decorating until 1 AM or so then John drove me home and I finally had a proper sleep.

Saskatoon Photos

Running Back to Saskatoon

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I woke up in Alberta a little before Yann and Frederic, my French friend and his son, started stirring. We were in "The Hat" or Medicine Hat which has the unfortunate slogan, "The Gas City". Hopefully not related to bean consumption. After breakfast at the Perkin's down the street we made our first stop: the tallest teepee in the world. I don't think it should count, really - it's made of steel has crossbeam supports and everything - but nobody seems to be contesting their claim so we'll let them have it for the moment. The highlight here for my visitors wasn't the teepee nor even the nice valley it overlooked but instead the gophers running rampant in the grasses. The gophers were even brave enough to sneak food from the entrance of their holes which Fred squatted beside them. Soon, though, the gophers and the hat were in the rearview mirror and we headed southeast towards the Alberta side of Cypress Hills. There's not much to stop and see in the Alberta park but it is a pretty nice drive and certainly a good introduction to the park. And to be fair, there were some beautiful lakes rimmed with wildflowers that we drove past on the way. But soon we were off the pavement and trucking along gravel roads and one texas gate and a small brown sign later and we were back in Saskatchewan again.

On the Saskatchewan side, our first stop was Fort Walsh, an old Northwest Mounted Police (later to become the RCMP) fort established after the Cypress Hills Massacre sounded alarm bells in the east. The massacre, incidentally, occurred when some of the American wolfers whom had been sneaking over the border to hunt lost some horses and decided it was the Nakota Indians. Canada, of course, was intent on peaceful coexistence with the natives rather than all-out war as plagued the wild western US, and a bunch of massacring Americans coming up north was a real threat to the peace - not to mention sovereignty. So our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, formed the NWMP and sent them marching west to bring peace and order. History lesson finished, the fort looked pretty cool from above and apparently is not only restored but furnished with actors in period costumes living out daily life. But our final day was too packed with sights and we were left no recourse but to admire from afar and travel north. We were going to stop by Harris Lake so Fred could frolic and I assumed it would be on the same road as the conglomerate cliffs which overlook the lake, but was wrong. The cliffs turned out to be scenic and entertaining enough for him anyway, and then we rode off to our lunch destination: The Cypress Hills Winery.

Yes, that's right. There's a vineyard in Saskatchewan and in fact it is the only one between BC and Ontario. They don't have a lot of success with the locally grown grapes but they're trying and what they can't grow the import and make into a nice wine anyway. As well, there are some pretty surprisingly good fruit wines (from someone who doesn't much care for fruit wines) and most importantly at the moment, a place for Fred to run and us to eat. By the time we left, bottles in hand (thanks Yann!), we were reenergized for the many miles still ahead. I wish I could tell you it was a short trip to our next stop but in truth we would do about 700 km that day plus stops all over. So we bee-lined it straight up the 21 highway to Leader and when we got there we didn't immediately turn right to the Sandhills. I, in my unfailing overambition, decided to check out a landmark on my map called Checkerboard Hill. I knew nothing about it and we almost abandoned it as yet another failed attempt to get off the beaten path but we found it at last and the views were well worth it. We also saw the beginnings of yet another thunderstorm forming along the prairie and didn't stay too long. There was a sign for the largest barn in North America just down the road - apparently it had taken 40-something railcars of lumber to construct - but we drove and looked and looked before coming to the realization that it was the old SITE of the largest barn in North America. Fascinating. Then we drove back through Leader and on towards Sceptre where my other plan was foiled due to flooding and road construction: I thought that after visiting the Great Sandhills it would be nice to cross the Saskatchewan River on a small ferry but there was neither time nor certainty on that road and it was abandoned.

So we drove south and found our way - aided a little by my iPhone's GPS - to the Great Sandhills which were again unmarked and again owned by ranchers generous enough to let strangers visit. The thunderstorm was coming in pretty quickly and time wasn't on our side but we did spend a good 45 minutes there climbing up sand dunes and looking out at the prairie and the thin layer of grass that - as one website put it - is all that is keeping this place from being the Sahara. The Great Sandhills were not what I expected but were beautiful in their own way and I think deserved more time than we had to offer them. Large dunes suddenly burst out of the prairies like bubbles of earth and mesh inexplicably into the landscape of grasslands around them. It's hard to believe this is only a two hour drive from home and I've never been here but it is the nature of all things we hold close to be taken for granted. We eventually wound back down the dunes and into my car and drove a bit before parking to watch the thunderstorm rolling in with what looked like some dangerous potential-tornado clouds. I was waiting and waiting to catch some lightning and finally did get a good bolt before we bolted back into the car and away from the deadly mosquitoes. It had just started to rain whereupon a bit too much door slamming had jammed my passenger side window open. So I sped once more as the storm was at our heels until the water on the highway forced me to slow significantly or risk hydroplaning, but soon we were able to speed again and the rain turned to a drizzle and not too much water got in the car. Eventually, Yann tried the window again and we mercifully managed to get it closed before arriving in Kindersley around 9:00 for dinner.

It was already dark and dinner was overdue and pretty good for a small restaurant on the TransCanada (I think it was the Eastside Cafe?). We were not going to get to Saskatoon before midnight and I felt bad - poor Frederic had been a really good sport and hardly complained a word for how hard I pushed both him and Yann and now we had a late night entry into Saskatoon happening. Both he and Yann slept in the car (which made me feel a bit better) right until we pulled into Saskatoon at 11:30. Megan, a friend and fellow traveller/couchsurfer, had graciously offered them the place to sleep that I didn't have and though she would not be awake to meet them we had arranged a way to get into her house and she gave me directions on where to show them not having even spoken a word with either. It is for people like her that I am proud to be from Saskatchewan. The welcome to Saskatoon at night was a little anticlimactic given all they had heard and what little there was to see at that time of day but we were winding up the road trip portion of the adventure. Perhaps the climax was watching what could have been a funnel cloud near Leader, or climbing to the top of a Great Sandhill. Maybe it was the incredible sunset on the Alberta border or the sudden vistas of Cypress Hills. Or maybe it was just simply being in the car, with Frank Black (or Edward Maya) playing and driving along the empty roller-coaster roads of Saskatchewan with a good friend and his awesome son. In any case, the reality is that this wasn't the end of the French Connection for the next morning I would be picking them up to begin our tour of Saskatoon, the Paris of the Prairies. Maybe it's still to come...

Cypress/Great Sandhills Photos

West to Eastend

Monday, August 09, 2010

We woke up from our Assiniboia hotel rested; for the first time since arriving in Canada, Frederic even slept in. I took that as a good sign that the jet lag was wearing off for my French visitors, Yann and his son Fred. By the time we found somewhere open for breakfast on a Monday and finished, it was almost lunchtime (10:30) but we we didn't race out of Assiniboia in spite of what we had ahead of us that day. We stopped instead in their tourist information office to view a safari exhibit. As a memorial, William Prentice's various hunting prizes were on display and although I don't care for even the thought of trophy hunting, it seemed like a small-town North American sort of thing to do so we stopped anyway. I have to admit it was an impressive collection of animals from all over Africa complete with some descriptions and maps explaining how they live. Or lived. Then it was time to lay down some rubber and beeline for Eastend. There, we would encounter one of the richest dinosaur finds in the world championed by Scotty the T-Rex whom Fred was very excited to meet. But it was a long haul for a 9 year old and we stopped about an hour down the old Red Coat Trail (Hwy. 13 which retraced the march west of the RCMP back in 1874) at a railroad crossing. It sounds an odd place to start but the rail line rounded the corner and crossed under an abandoned bridge, over a wooden bridge, and along/over a pond. We actually spent about half an hour there walking, photographing, climbing to the old bridge, and much to Fred's delight, we even spotted some antelope on the tracks although I didn't manage to get a photo of it.

We also stopped at a few oilrigs pumping the precious black stuff from beneath southern Saskatchewan. Frederic had never seen one and I was amazed at how many there were down here in the relatively recent Bakken oil field discovery. I even found a rig owned by a company I have invested in which was a nice touch of reality in an entirely ungrounded stock market. And finally we stopped for construction along the highway near Dollard, one town shy of Eastend. I told Yann the old joke that Saskatchewan has only two seasons: winter, and construction after he commented that most of the province seemed to be under construction. He laughingly agreed and soon we were underway and pulling into Eastend. We'd been told by our Regina friends to stop by Jack's cafe and he would point out the best places to find moose and bison in the area but sadly the somewhat famous and Greek-owned cafe was closed. So we ended up having lunch at a restaurant across the street where, once again, Yann and Fred partook of Canadian-beef cheeseburgers and Iced Teas. Then it was time for our destination here, the T-Rex Discovery Centre just outside of town.

I don't know if Frederic was excited to finally see Scotty or not because he was too busy running from exhibit to exhibit and shouting in French to ask. In the summers they have a paleontology camp in addition to the mini interactive kids' area in the museum and coupled with the surprisingly beautiful badland scenery of Eastend, Yann was considering cancelling his trip to the much more expensive and touristed Jasper. Eastend was a charming town and I would have liked to spend a bit more time exploring it myself but we had a lot to do in far too little time so we packed up and kept on moving, leaving Yann to ponder his plans for the next few days. As much as I wanted them to see and love Saskatchewan, being so close to the Rockies and not visiting would be a shame for any tourist visiting the country and I had to advice against missing that. Our next stop was the eastern block of Cypress Hills but we actually went in the other direction on a tip that there was a bison farm near Dollard which would be a major check on the French checklist. So we doubled back, waited again in the construction zone, and then covered any number of grid roads searching for the farm in vain. Add this to a growing list of failures in my guiding down here. We gave up and drove back through Eastend - missing the gravel road turnoff I'd wanted to take - towards Cypress Hills East.

Cypress Hills shares a spot with the Athabasca Sand Dunes up north as one of those few destinations in Saskatchewan that everybody has heard of and nobody - despite a desire to do so - has visited. I was among that number and it took a few visitors from off-continent to finally get me down here. I have to admit that I was both impressed and shocked. I had a mental image of sort of stretched out undulating prairie reaching for the sky but instead encountered a wall of forest like you might see on the edge of the Rockies. In fact, here in Saskatchewan is the highest point between the Rockies and Labrador. So take that all you "dog run away for two weeks" hipsters. Cypress Hills looks like I expect the north of Saskatchewan (of which I am painfully unknowledgable) to look with pine trees and sparkling lakes and so on. If you could travel back in time it would be an oasis of life surrounded by massive fields of solid ice flattening what would become the Saskatchewan we know, love, and are ridiculed for living in. We stopped at Loch Leven for some stone skipping, walking, and frog catching and of course to give Frederic a chance to dismantle and reposition the rocks in the stream.

From there we drove up and up to Bald Butte which, on a clear day, offers mind-blowing vistas of 120 miles of prairie in every direction. It was pretty clear, but I couldn't make out the distant sand dunes that allegedly can be spotted from our vantage point. There was a second viewpoint that looked over prairie that must serve as drainage for the hills or something as it was filled with old scars of ravines smoothed over and healed by time into bumpy plateaus and little valleys everywhere. The plan had been to cut across to the western block of Cypress Hills directly but due to the flooding that year, the road was totally washed out. As well, it was already 6:30 and there was little time left for exploring the larger section of park anyway. So we improvised a new plan: we would drive over to Irvine, Alberta and spend the night there before taking the road south into the Albertan section of Cypress Hills and backtracking east into Saskatchewan again. That way, we would see the entire park, they could check Alberta off their lists (in case they decided against Jasper), and we would cover more miles that day in the hopes of shortening what would already be a huge day tomorrow.

So we drove through Maple Creek and west to the border where we would witness something unplanned but worth the detour for sure: one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. There was a thunderstorm rolling across the prairie and the sun coloured the pouring rain in shades of gold not to mention the thunderclouds. The sun was just high enough that the cloud shaded the other cloud and produced a vivid line of orange and dark-blue right along the TransCanada Highway and we were just far enough away to be out of the rain. I set up the tripod on my car and we shot it for half an hour as I was trying to capture a bolt of lightning in the orange skies thinking that would be out-of-this-world. Sadly, I never succeeded but I did come away with some very nice photos of it. Irvine, meanwhile, had no place to stay that looked decent nor restaurant where a minor could eat. So we pressed on the last 30km or so and took residence in Medicine Hat where, after a Houston Pizza (which Fred refused to try to our mutual amusement) we finally slept off a busy third day. The fourth and final one back to Saskatoon would be the busiest of all, with another trip through Cypress Hills, a stop at the only vineyard on the prairies, a visit to the Great Sandhills, and finally a stop in the Paris of the Prairie: Saskatoon.

Southwest Saskatchewan Photos

Southern Saskatchewan Circuit

Sunday, August 08, 2010

As you may or may not know, I run a website (which has been woefully neglected on my travels) about one of the greatest contemporary musicians out there, Mr. Frank Black Francis. Here's a link to the website and the podcast I host with a friend. That weekend, a friend and fellow fan (and one of the French founders of Frank Black site Blackolero) would be coming to see Saskatchewan and Jasper and I was going to take a couple days to explore the south and southwest with him. And I cannot fail to mention his hospitality when I was in Strasbourg/Ribeauville, France and stayed with him and his family. My first problem was that my car had no battery left whatsoever. According to my dad, a drive around town didn't help matters which meant that the battery no longer held charge. So I picked up a new one and put it in only to discover that I had no radiator fluid at all and thus a radiator leak and thus needed a new one of those, too. Of course there were other things that week. One of our regular customers, an old family friend, and all around great guy, Doug Mitchell, passed away the past weekend and his funeral was on Tuesday. I had lunches and drinks with some more friends I hadn't seen in some time, a BBQ at Steve's, helped lay sod at my sister's house, cut the grass in our yard, and all sorts of things like that. Plus I tried to do a bit more research so I could hit all the interesting spots in our tour of the southwest. I think by the time the weekend came I was more excited than they were.

The ironic thing is that for all my travel around the world, I have done very little in Saskatchewan or, for that matter, Canada. This is a common syndrome in travelers and I guess it stems from the fact that you want to see places exotic to you and also from an attitude that home can be traveled more easily in short bursts or in old age. The last trip I took to Australasia was completed like this one with an oath to see more of the country I live in although I still feel like I can see it when I'm older more easily than the places I've gone. So it was that I did the Canadian Expedition through BC and Alberta with Alabama Dan last year and so it was that I was taking a few days to do the Southern Saskatchewan Circuit this year with Yann. They arrived in Regina Friday, August 6, late in the evening and I drove down early Saturday morning to pick them up from their hotel. I was a bit late as I was trying to get the tire on Larissa's car repaired that morning (the tire picked up a screw and had a slow leak) and wound up taking my car with some extra antifreeze instead. I made it there in time for lunch and took Yann and Frederic for a quick look at the Parliament building (from the outside - it wasn't on their list to have a look) before going for lunch at my cousins' restaurant, The Cottage. My cousins weren't there but Mike, my cousin's wife (effectively my cousin)'s brother was and we visited with him and his father as well over lunch and got all sorts of tips on places to see in the southern corners of the province. They also insisted on buying lunch which is the way it goes but I did try and hope to exact vengeance on their future visit to Saskatoon.

With some calculating it became apparent that our plans to see Moose Jaw for the day were not practical so instead, I took Yann and Fred to the RCMP Heritage Centre where they train every mountie in Canada. I haven't been there since I was Frederic's age. Well, he's 9 and I was 12 and it was a sixth grade field trip to Regina for the weekend but you get the idea. It would've been nice to have more time to take them to the Science Centre and ... well, I don't know where else but I have to admit that for all the ribbing I give Regina as our rival it really grew on me in our short visit. We stayed the night at Mike's house (again, thanks for showing my French friends Saskatchewan hospitality) and while Yann and Fred recovered from their jetlag, I went out with Mike and a friend of his to a few places in town. The first was Earl's which, well, it's a chain so enough said. We argued over the bill - drinks were the least I could do after dinner and a bed - and when it seemed there would be no clear winner we instead agreed to place each of our visas in the billfold and let the waitress decide. I was sure she'd choose mine as I placed it strategically but instead she chose Mike's and I was indebted yet more. Then we went to a street whose name I can't remember that was lined with bars and clubs and Regina's stock rose a little bit more. It was a great night and I'm very happy we wound up in Regina instead of rushing to Moose Jaw.

We were going to rush instead to Moose Jaw the next morning - out the door by 8, breakfast from McDonald's in the car, and in time for the first tunnel tour at 9. I learned quickly it doesn't work this way with the French. In addition to leaving 45 minutes late after Yann replied to some work-related emails, when we got to McDonalds and I was already trying to make up for lost time, they ordered pancakes which required parking and sitting and eating. Lesson 2: The French find it disgusting that we eat savory foods in the morning. Egg McMuffins were out of the question. And then Yann needed his after-breakfast smoke. Lesson 3. So we left Regina at about 9:30 and got in to Moose Jaw shortly after 10. I have family here but I have only been once and we didn't look around the town, just drove to a small cabin nearby to spend Christmas. So I was surprised to find that it was actually a very picturesque little city with a historic and well-preserved downtown. Most Canadians probably know that this is where Al Capone ran his bootlegging ring during prohibition in the US but the seediness goes beyond that. Local heroes and heroines include other outlaws like Butch Cassidy and madam Rosie Dale. It used to serve as the red light district for Regina and did so admirably. Today it's a lot more peaceful, at least if you don't get too mixed up with the local ladies at night where I'm told it can still be like the Wild West, and is more known as home to the Snowbirds, for its dozens of murals, and for its iconic name whose origins are still undetermined. And, of course, for its bright future.

From Moose Jaw, we took the 39 southwest until we hit highway 6 which makes a beeline from Regina to the US border. We came perilously close to running out of gas on a Sunday when most service stations were closed but in Pangman we stopped to have a burger and the restaurant owner was kind enough to trade some of the credit on his Co-op gaslock for cash down the street. Loaded up again we held off on our intended destination, Big Muddy, to cross into Montana. This was one of those "so we can say we did it" stops and I think that we almost spent as much time in US customs and in Montana. Yann didn't have paperwork filled out for traveling with a child but they let us continue thankfully and we headed down to Plentywood which was a charming small town before cutting west and into the Montana badlands. It was really nice scenery and Yann has dozens of photos out the car window of the white mud hills over the plains. We passed a gravel road called Chalk Butte Rd and I decided to turn off and see if we could get some nice views of the interior badlands. We had to hop a barbed wire fence but it was quite worth the detour off the highway and, in fact, across the border. Back on the highway we continued to the relic elevators in Flaxville which sounds like a euphemism for having the runs and stopped in a little pub there where the owner told me her grandfather was buried in a beautiful mountie cemetery in Big Muddy. Rehydrated, we crossed back into Canada with much less difficulty and after passing the road for Big Beaver, we opted instead for Big Muddy. That these two places are so close together is probably no surprise to many out there.

Big Muddy itself doesn't appear to be a town but just an area below Big Muddy lake. There were some great heights, cliffs, and plateaus and at times the road felt like a rollercoaster complete with Frederic's "Whoas" and "Whooos" from the backseat. We were looking for Castle Butte and the big turtle I'd heard something about but wound up at a rancher's home instead. We left there with woefully inaccurate directions and had to give up on the turtle, the castle, and the cemetery. I know a lot of this land is private but I think that at least some of it could be marked or even bought by the province for parkland. Thankfully most of the ranchers are okay with the occasional tourist traipsing through their property in search of badland bliss but if tourism were ever to catch hold in Saskatchewan, something would seriously need to be done and this was not the last time on this trip I would feel that way. We headed back to Big Beaver and then up where we passed through Big Muddy valley which, as you might expect, was pretty and a welcome diversion. One thing about driving through Saskatchewan, you learn to appreciate the smallest things. So when a bigger thing like Big Muddy Valley (which would be nice anywhere but was especially nice now) or Qu'Appelle comes along, it seems especially grand. It was well past dinner time and we stopped in the town of Bengough for dinner whereupon I learned that Castle Butte was actually in the valley we had just driven past 15 minutes ago. I took a look at the sun which was close to setting and decided to get my food packed to go then tore off to capture Castle Butte at sunset.

I once again was shocked that what is essentially the landmark of Big Muddy was more or less unsigned. We had been looking carefully as we crossed the valley for signs and there wasn't one - not if you were heading northbound. Southbound there was only a small handmade sign 10m into a farmer's field that would be easy to miss. Considering the government spends $11.5 million not to mention another $4 million or so in revenue and other grants, you'd think somebody could find the money for a few nice signs off the highway. How are we going to show people driving across the province how beautiful it is if we don't hype up what we have? Anyway, I digress. The sun was making everything glow and I knew time was limited so I had raced and finally turned off and then had to guess which butte might be the famous one. I guessed, it turns out, wrong. Still, aside from more mosquitoes than I've seen in the Amazon it was a beautiful scene as the clouds glowed pink and the rock of the butte, normally whitish, hummed with red. It was worth the drive, racing, and mosquito bites. Then back to Bengough in the last glimpses of light for my dinner which, it turned out, I was able to eat in the restaurant before we drove off to Assiniboia to spend the night. It surprised me quite a bit that these small town hotels still charge in the $80 range per night, but we got in and got to sleep 900km later, because tomorrow was going to be an even bigger day. Cypress Hills, Eastend, and possibly even Grasslands National Park.

South Central Sask Photos

A Farewell to Johns

Monday, August 02, 2010

I was home in Saskatoon on Sunday night after saying goodbye to Fort St. John and my cousins there. After visiting with all of my family that night except Larissa, who is currently working at a resort in Mexico, I hit the old familiar bed too hard to notice how comfortable it was or for that matter that it was a whole new mattress. The first week back was a hubbub of activity, unpacking, sorting, and getting things in order not to mention the big event of the coming weekend that had brought me so many tears on the road: John's Bachelor Party. It was the following weekend and there was still a lot to do before like sorting out meals, getting groceries, sorting out a total price,and so on. I won't bore you with all the details of that or my return to "Dynamite Dean and the Formidable Pylons" avec yellow card. We lost by the way, because the ref let the other team score on a handball, not that I'm too worried about such things. Our team regularly celebrates defeats as victories. I didn't call anybody up or plan a big welcome back for myself, instead I'd just go and visit whoever called me. We had dinner with my family and grandparents and John (who is basically counted as family at this point), I met up with Megan and some of her friends one evening, I fell asleep at 9:30 one evening and that's pretty much the week right there. Then, at last, it was time for the weekend and John's bachelor party where I and his other friends and family could bid adieu to single John.

John was running a bit late from work and I had to pick him up from his family's house outside of town. I was running a bit late myself, having forgotten the hamburgers in the freezer at home, needing to gas up, and so on. I should mention before I forget that I wouldn't have gotten it all done that day if it wasn't for Steve helping get snacks, organize the golf tournament rules, prizes, and just being a sounding board for good advice. And while I'm thanking people, I should say that Darren I owe a huge thanks for finding us a cabin - his uncle's - that we could use, booking golf, and helping with things while I was on the opposite side of the world. Now, all that lateness and running around and I still managed to get to John's not long after he did and moreover managed to have him at Athena for the rendezvous drinks at the specified time: 5:30. There we were met by Steve and Kirk, his cousins, as well as my cousin Jonathan. Probably the biggest surprise for the weekend walked in the door about 10 minutes later in the form of his cousin from Edmonton, Mark Mielke. It was pretty impressive for him to get all the way here for the weekend and John was very excited as he'd been assured that none of his family from out of province would be there. Then we hit the road to our destination, 3 XL Athena Pizzas in the back and arrived at Mistusinne on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker around 7 PM that night to find Darren waiting for us. After settling in, getting ice (thanks guys and fictionally attractive ice girl!) and unloading everything we cracked the pizza boxes and the alcohol and warmed up for the arrival of the last guest for the weekend, John's cousin Lee, from Regina.

The night was a lot of fun though we didn't do anything especially wild or nutty. Or at least I didn't think so until I saw the photos. We essentially sat around the living room with our respective drinks in hand visiting and getting to know each other and telling stories that would never come up had a female been present. And apparently dancing on ottomans? We were up and visiting until about 3 AM. I was up again at 5 AM as John shook me awake - something in the cabin was reacting badly with him and he was having trouble breathing and so it was that after a busy week getting caught up, de-jet-lagged, and planning this party we were up after only 2 hours of sleep and racing for the hospital in Saskatoon about 140 km away. I don't think it took us very long to get there but by the time we did he was breathing quite a bit better than when we left (which wasn't saying much). The doctors had him breathe through a device with a ball to see what sort of pressure he could generate and he only got to 300 when a normal person can hit 650 or so. I tried too and for some reason could only hit 450. Hmm. After inhaling the ultimate hangover cure: pure oxygen and steroids, John was breathing at about 420 and we left the hospital picked him up some pills for the weekend (no reaction with alcohol? Great!) and headed back to the cabin.

The timing was really good as we got back at around 9:30 and just in time for me to start on breakfast for everybody. They all had just gotten up and thought we went for a drive to get ice or something but John had the wristband to prove it: he'd promised Leona no "The Hangover" stunts and I had broken that before dawn on the second day. Breakfast that morning was grilled tomatoes with oregano, BBQ sausage, eggs, toast, and hashbrowns. It proved to be a little much to handle all at once cooking for eight on no sleep and Mark saved the day by volunteering to take over the hashbrowns while the others watched Major Leagues on VHS and John napped. We managed to get everybody fed and get ourselves out the door and to Harbour Golf Course with two minutes to spare before our tee-time. Steve's rules were specifically designed for the course and really made the golf fun though I was a bit too tired by the end to swing much less get too crazy with them. Still, the best rule by far was the taunting hole where everything from funny one-liners to run-over golf balls to plastic bottles thrown midswing and chipping while the golf carts were buzzing in reverse stretched the creative mischief muscles. The course itself, aside from being in need of new groundskeepers, was beautiful and I felt like we were in BC or somewhere else as sail boats bobbed by on Lake Diefenbaker. That is, until you round the corner and there's the Elbow grain elevator standing on the horizon.

After golf and a lot of sun - did I mention the weather was perfect for this weekend? - we headed back to the cabin whereupon the boys put on the rest of Major League and I got started on dinner. Getting off the course and out of the sun I felt a lot more awake again so I didn't bother napping. We were missing one crucial ingredient from my plans that day and that was oil to make homefries. So plan B was to dice up the potatoes (with help from Darren and Mark) and spice them with whatever we could find and wrap them in aluminum foil. There were three foils, one was spiced with salt and oregano with lemon to be added later, the other with salt, basil, and tequila with lime to be added later, and the third was spiced rum and a mix of spices which proved to be everybody's favourite. I also made up my controversial Greek salad with cinnamon and then BBQ'd some beautiful steaks my dad had cut up for us. And I cut up some more limes and got the tequila shots going. If I may say so it was a really nice dinner although I forgot to cook the bacon-wrapped scallops that were meant to go with the steaks and I couldn't have done it without the help the boys gave me.

That evening after dinner, Lee had brought Beer darts and we went outside and played that until the mosquitoes won and drove us back inside. Here, we all put in $5 and had a pretty good round of Texas Hold'Em. Any time you went head-to-head with John you had to take a shot of tequila (and so did he, of course). Unfortunately, he was out pretty early but I made it to the final three and fatigue finally got the better of me. I don't remember this at all but apparently I passed out on the couch for a little while or at least long enough to be photographed. Then I got back up and we continued the party though I was not up much longer before John passed out and I was close behind. Jonathan left at some point in the night as he had a busy Sunday with work ahead of him and after breakfast, which was a much more simple pancakes, 'maple' syrup, and bacon, Lee had to leave too. Then we went to the beach and swam a bit in the lake (which I know was warm but felt very cold) and returned to the cabin and a Risk tournament after some dishes. I don't remember the order everybody went out but I think Darren was first and he also had to leave to go home that afternoon so he said goodbye there and then. I believe Kirk was next followed by Steve and then Mark, and so it came down a head-to-head between John and I. What would any good best man do in this situation, a showdown with the groom-to-be? He'd let him have the game of course! But I could not shake low numbers to save my life or John's and so I marched triumphantly to victory happy at least that he is used to losing to my invincible armies.

Then it was dinner time and tonight's helpers were Steve and John. On the menu were angus beef burgers with carmelized onions, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, the usual condiments, hashbrowns, and bacon-wrapped scallops. Not long after eating Kirk collapsed in a heap on the couch and a black-dressed John proceeded to flash him repeatedly. The black dress proved a little too tight, however, and John moved to a more wedding-traditional white one claiming that Leona couldn't have that colour to herself. It was probably appropriate given his magnificent defeats in the board game we would bust out that final night: Settlers of Catan. Mark had brought this (and I played it once upon a time in Malaysia) and once we started we were hopelessly addicted. We also had a mission to finish off all the alcohol we could which included my bottle of New Zealand Waimea which long time readers will remember me hunting for over three years, more tequila, beer, and so on. We played until 5:30 AM and after a breakfast of cinnamon buns and cream cheese we played one last game, cleaned the cabin, and started the caravan back to Saskatoon. It had been a great weekend and though not a traditional bachelor party, was a great weekend hanging out with the guys and enjoying the good life.

John's Stag Photos

Northern Nuptuals

Sunday, July 25, 2010

So where was I? I believe I had landed in Fort St. John in the northern half of British Colombia for my first stop in Canada after months of traveling Latin America. I was met by my dad, sister Mariah, cousin Jonathan, and Uncle George who were all up from Saskatoon for my cousin Dean's wedding. Ringing any bells yet? We were seated with my uncle/godfather Bill, aunt/godmother Helen, and several others at the only Greek restaurant in town for dinner of lamb chops and Greek salad not to mention tiny fish and plenty more. It was, to put it mildly, nice to see everybody again. After dinner (thanks, Uncle George!) we went back to the hotel and met up with some more cousins including the groom-to-be and his brother Theo. I was fresh off my 23 hour trip from Rio that very day so I wasn't ready yet to have a big night out but that made no difference. We had some drinks (including Cpt. Morgan and Dr. Pepper, a winning combination) and met Dean's friends and the males of Jen's family before heading out into Fort St. John for a night that didn't quite rival Rio in splendour but definitely did so in company. Eventually, Jonathan and I could take no more and walked back the "three blocks" to the hotel. When I got back into the room I'd had enough to wonder who else was sleeping in the dorm before crashing like a brick on the very non-bricklike mattress.

Morning came as it always does, a couple hours before you'd like it to. We were downstairs for breakfast by 9 AM which included delicious Belgian Waffles in thick Canadian maple syrup, sausages, orange juice, and all the usual fixings that were especially delicious after two weeks straight of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with scrambled eggs. There was a nap involved before the wedding for Jonathan, Mariah, and myself and then we headed out to the acreage where Dean and Jen were to be wed. Arriving home after a long trip is a combination of traveller's anxiety and the terminally ill's miraculous recovery. When you're traveling (or when I am) I want to see everywhere I am thoroughly because who knows when I will see it again? Take it all in, see it properly, you're rushing! It feels like a second chance and you see the world in a new way but you only feel this at home where you don't generally look at the surroundings with new eyes. You want to do it right this time, soak in every great experience there is to have and really LIVE. Forget the old routine, work 5 days, drinks on Friday night, a day of activity on Saturday, and rest on Sunday. You're going to make the most of it and that sounds to me like the recovery of someone who thought their time was up. So I was taking in the surroundings with wide eyes and thinking that it was not at all bad to be here at home and loving the countryside while finally having my family at my side too.

It helped that the place they chose for their wedding was stunning. On a high bluff overlooking an ancient river valley sat a table on a white blanket surrounded by green grass and standing with far away cliffs at its back. This was where the ceremony was to take place. I greeted more family that I hadn't yet seen and met a few new people and decided that while all the groomsmen were just standing around I'd get the hang of my camera in the northern hemisphere. We had our little photo shoot until the photographer came up to Dean and, looking at me, told him that everyone was to remain seated during the reception. Fair enough, I know how to stay out of the way of her photos but she doesn't know that and of course once one person is up and roaming more will follow. But it didn't bode well for my efforts to get some nice photos for them. Still, I tried my best from the seat and they came out alright. The minister was almost always in my way (to quote him, repeatedly, "Come on!") when the photographer wasn't and my angle meant I rarely got a look at Dean's face. But Jen's was there looking very beautiful in the afternoon sun and as they finished their hybrid Greek-Ukrainian ceremony and walked back down the aisle I was able to stand and get a photo or two as well.

Afterwards, when Dean and Jen drove off in their very nice wedding-day car, I was finally able to get a few photos that their photographer somehow neglected/ignored/forgot about of Dean helping her into it. Then we went back to the hotel as there was nothing to do in Fort St John but admire the scenery, gas up the car, and then wash it, and waited for the reception. It was set up and organized quite nicely with each table having the name of a Greek island and decorated in blue and white. I was shocked in the end to see that Dean only had two tables to Jen's many more but it was far away for most of our family to get to. I knew that would make our plans to really get the Greek music going difficult but it turned out that would not be the only factor. Dinner was incredible and I had two helpings not to mention a few Caesars (mmm, Clamato!) and wine while Dean, Jen, and others had some nice speeches and I wracked my brain for a funny anecdote. After a disorganized start and one of the worst-equipped DJs known to the industry there was a zambekiko that nobody was drunk enough for and then a Zorba remix that was faster than light. We danced so fast by the end and so soon after dinner that I had to disappear to the room after to throw up.

In the end though, we did a Tsamiko (Jonathan did not return from the room as he had been feeling as bad as me), kalamatiano, and other Greek dances which some of the largely-Ukrainian group joined in on while the others formed a circle and clapped or snapped photos. I was out of there with Mariah around midnight and probably asleep around 1. We were up again at 5 AM to get breakfast and head out of town towards Saskatoon. Little did I know, we were stopping at West Edmonton Mall en route (hence the REALLY early wake up) for some waterpark mayhem. We took Jonathan on some of the water slides for the first time in his life and it was hilarious - you should have heard him screaming coming down the Thunderbolt! In his terror, he was also leaning all the way back on the sled-skid so when it jumped off the slide and into the water all his weight resulted in a backflip which had everybody in sight roaring. I should confess that his idea of later playing in the kiddie area and using the various devices to soak people was much more fun than I gave him credit for initially.

Then, after a nice bowl of Pho, we were off again for Saskatoon. Everything is really green and colourful as though it's spring and I was loving our prairie landscapes not to mention the skies and sunset. It's something you either get or you don't but the more I'm away the more I appreciate the simple beauty of this province. The funny thing is that I still feel as though I'm on the road, traveling. Maybe I needed a plane ride into Saskatoon for closure or maybe as much as things are the same you can never go home. Certainly I'm happy to be here but as we drove up to our driveway I felt no sense of anything either positive or negative. It's as though I was away in Calgary for a week or something rather than almost a year. On the plus side I am - so far - very interested in continuing to explore the options here at home and make life a bit more interesting here in Saskatchewan while I save for the next big trip, house, move, or whatever is coming next. It will be hard when I'm going to be so busy for my first month back and on that note, I should go and plan my best friend's bachelor party coming up this weekend!

Fort Saint John Photos


Friday, July 23, 2010

My last bus ride on the Latin American expedition was already the beginning of a return to familiar locations. I was back in Rio for four more days of fun in the sun (and in its absence). I’m not sure if it was the beginning of high season or Brazil is just busier in the winter months than many of its neighbours but I had to resort to booking a hostel online – and most of them were full including the hostel I had stayed at last time. So I wound up at Karisma hostel, which had mediocre reviews on Hostelworld but aside from an initially rough greeting involving wanting to hold my passport ransom in some safe it was fine. The security situation seemed pretty solid, with safety boxes inside the traditional wooden lockers and a night guard on duty, and the location three blocks off Ipanema beach didn’t seem to warrant that at all. Additionally, the hostel is at the end of a whole alley of hostels including the well-loved Lighthouse, Girl from Ipanema, and several others. So the atmosphere of the neighbourhood was definitely appropriate for nightlife lovers although the noise from the street seeped into the room. This was compensated for by the fact that the dorm and in fact the hostel only had one other inhabitant, an English girl. We went out for dinner nearby and I was quite ready to ship her back in a tea crate by the time it was finished. She was not only more boring than me (impossible!) but rude to anybody that didn’t speak fluent English. Really rude. That was not how I wanted to spend my last days. I decided to check out of there the next morning and make my way to the Misti hostel in Copacabana as Botafogo was still booked up and headed over there.

This was a wise decision. I had no sooner arrived than I was greeted by a beautiful and friendly girl from Entre Rios, Argentina at reception and she got me sorted out pretty quickly. She recommended me a good place nearby to get lunch by the kilo and I wasn’t disappointed. Then, with the sky slightly clearing in the afternoon, I headed downtown to catch the 60 centavo tram up to Santa Theresa. The tram heads high over the centre on a viaduct and up into the historic hilltop neighbourhood with beautiful views in all directions on the way. But better than the neighbourhood or the views is the tram itself, full of locals and tourists alike to the point that they are literally hanging off the edges which is exactly where I was for this interesting ride. Going over the viaduct it’s a good five storey drop if you were to slip, lose your footing, or let go and many times you had to turn your feet sideways along the running board as we came near to scraping cars and walls along the way. I watched the sunset and walked back down part of the way until I started to feel uncomfortable and then tagged along with a couple guys heading in the same direction to get back into Lapa proper. This isn’t the safest area to be, apparently, after dark much less with a camera but I didn’t feel particularly uneasy and took the opportunity to do a bit of night photography of the beautiful municipal theatre and other old buildings before catching a subway back to Copacabana and my hostel.

Towards the end of the trip – aside from Cheymus – I haven't met many Canadians and a few people have also commented that you don’t see many Canadians down in this part of the world. I hadn’t felt this way and then started recollecting that, aside from Leanne and Janet I really hadn’t encountered many since Ecuador but my theory has been all along that it is a seasonal thing. In the heat of July, nobody is particularly interested in leaving a beautiful Saskatchewan summer, for example. October through March, however, is prime Canadian-spotting season and matches up with my experience. Now, towards the end of July, it was becoming English. My hostel was full of groups of English students fresh from university on their summer break; the difficulty here is that groups are tough to crack sometimes, but I didn’t mind as I had a headache and really hadn’t just had a good read in quite a while (I often write when most people are reading). However, an English girl named Alex arrived on her own and saw me reading Charles Dickens (I’m still plugging away at a Tale of Two Cities) and that started our conversation. As happens more and more here, people seem to think I’m from Brazil or Argentina so seeing me with an English book in my hands helped break the ice. I chatted with her a bit and then we met a group of really friendly English guys fresh off the plane and spent the rest of the night visiting with them and trying to give them ideas on things they could do in Rio and introducing them to caipirinhas.

The next day, they all set off on my guided tour where I finally donned my sandals, grabbed a chilled coconut, and walked all the way along Copacabana beach to Ipanema where I set up shop. Towel, book, beachfront views, and Brazilian girls passing around a soccer ball in bikinis plus, at last, a beaming and burning sun. I enjoyed the day thoroughly. I met back up with the group at our hostel to take them on the evening section of the tour: a walk up to Sugarloaf to catch the sunset. My plan had been to walk to the top of Urca and then cable car the rest of the way up but on the walk up I decided I wanted to do something a bit more adventurous for my last days in Rio so I strolled up to the helicopter stand. It turned out they had two people wanting to go and were in need of a third and although I initially walked away I decided that the time was perfect and I would definitely have an unforgettable sunset so I went back, paid, and the next thing I know, I was being whisked down to the helipad with a local and his son and we were off the ground. The helicopter ride came so fast I didn’t have a chance to get excited or barely even get my camera ready but as we came around Christ the Redeemer glowing pink in the sun’s final rays and He stood with Sugarloaf and Rio spread before him I was definitely getting there. I was gushing and babbling about it for a long time when we got on the ground, and this was before seeing my photos even. The sun had set by the time we landed, with views of Copacabana as a bonus on the way back and I had another reason to get excited.

The dusk light was even more beautiful than the last time I’d been up here with Cheymus and I took full advantage of the beauty, my camera, and my tripod. Every once in awhile I realize how much better my new camera is and two months later, this was one of those moments. It colours it captured looked surprisingly good and I was once again very excited. We hung around on the lounge chairs and watched dusk turn to night and the city lights come on, then headed back down to the base. From there, still in tour guide mode, I took the group to the little Chinese-run shop down the street from my old hostel for the cheapest dinner in town: two shredded chicken and cheese/pudding salgados with a Coca-Cola for four reals. Then we got back on the subway, headed home, and called it an early evening. My last full day was upon me and I’d need rest. I’d planned to get up for sunrise and head to the beach but ruled that out with a press of my thumb and headed out around 8:00 for some early-morning photos instead. Along the beach were sand sculptures of buildings, monuments in Rio, and my personal favourite: women in thongs lounging on the beach. I didn’t get back in time for breakfast which worked out alright in the end because I had run out of dinner times to visit a Churrascaria. That night, we all had plans to visit a soccer match at the famed Maracana stadium, home of the Flamengo team, and the next night I would be en route to the airport around dinner time.

But you’re surely asking was a Churrascaria is, and it’s time I explained. Basically, they throw a bunch of fine cuts of meat (filet mignon, for example) on a skewer and slow roast it on coals. Some of the meats are layered with a cheese that melts and infuses in but my preference was for the pure meat. Then you grab a plate, load a few sides – say sushi, salad, lots of olives, and some oysters – and sit down. Within a minute one of the servers will pass with a skewer of some meat or another and ask if you would like him to shave a piece for you. You DID leave room after the buffet visit, right? And as you’re nibbling on this, someone with some sausage or fried cheese or roast pork or ribeye will inevitably come by and offer you some right until you flip over a little pog that is red or green to indicate your willingness for more. The price for this incredible feast was 34 reals ($20) and well worth it once on your visit. The problem arose that I simply ate too much. I probably ate $10 worth of olives alone, not to mention 15 pieces of sushi and sashimi, lots of clams and mussels, and countless meat portions. I was ridiculously stuffed and it actually wrecked my day in that I waddled home and slept like a whale.

We all left for the game at 6:30 PM and were picked up by Danielle, our very friendly Flamengo-fan/guide. It was pure laziness that we went on a tour as I was pretty sure that the game wouldn’t be sold out and we could get there with one bus or another. But it was my last night and why not? We wouldn’t have known where to sit which, I have to admit, our guide did, and we were right in the middle of some of the craziest soccer fans on the planet. But you could definitely do it cheaper (less than half the 85 real cost) if you wanted to. The singing started 20 minutes before the game and didn’t stop until we got back on the shuttle bus that took us there. As well, they were armed with drums, flags, and countless other instruments of fandom. The stadium was once capable of holding 200,000 people until seats were installed and fire regulations enforced, and so it now holds 90,000. That day, the game was not against a particularly good team and there were 15,000 in the stands and I can only shudder to imagine the sound of 6x that many fans in one place. Around the stadium were lots of little activities and things to bring the crowd in earlier (or spread arrival times) and keep them entertained not to mention traditional pre-match necessities. My favourite example of this was a bust of Mame Garrincha put prominently in the front entrance when he played for Flamenco. But he betrayed fans and team alike by switching to their rivals some time ago and it is now tradition that you smack the statue upside the back of his head for this treachery.

The game itself was decent until Flamengo scored their first goal and became complacent and devolved quickly from that. Even a tying goal by Avai didn’t get the level of play up to standards. In the second half, only a series of bad calls and rough conduct could energize the teams into trying to win a decisive victory and break the tie. The last 15 minutes were intense, but in the end it was the crowd and fervor more than football that were the drawing card. It being my last night, we returned to the hostel and hung out with some of the other travellers with caipirinhas, games of spoons, and a few beer warming up. We (well, I) wanted to go out for Samba but that was not meant to be on a Wednesday night so we went nearby to a so-called salsa club (which was actually just a hostel bar) and hung out there for a while before coming home. It wasn’t a wild or incredible last night, but I suppose after so many great things in this city, it didn’t have to be. Plus, my last day would prove to be packed full of activity. The first stop was a trip into one of the favellas (basically, ghetto/slum) with a volunteer named Vanessa from an NGO. I paid 65 to go, which was the same price as one of the tours, but with the advantage that the money was going right to the community instead of a tour company and that I wouldn’t feel like I was a clueless tourist in a human zoo. I gathered that they didn’t do this often as the president of the NGO (or ONG here) came and met me personally at the hostel before Vanessa showed up.

Like most of the poor areas in Latin America, the favella was in a beautiful section of Rio, crawling up from a beachfront looking out toward Ipanema up into the hills overlooking most of Rio. They are unplanned, unengineered, and suffer many problems with rainfall and even simple navigation. Sometimes you have to cross through three homes to get to yours from the road, for example. If you heard about the recent flood-related deaths in Brazil they were from these hillside favellas not diverting rainfall properly and their poorly engineered non-foundationed structures collapsing and sliding down the hillside. We got there by a mini-van to a certain part and then motorcycles up the hills and narrow streets into the heart of the favella where the NGO is based. They seem to do a lot for the people, or at least they are trying to – it turns out the organization is quite young but from the sounds of it they are already making a difference. I met some of the students and then a protégé of Vanessa’s that she is trying to groom to take over the ‘tour’ part of the NGO. The girl was very nice but far too shy for this occupation, I fear, but perhaps this is exactly what will bring her out of that shell. The girl (I’m sorry I can’t remember her name) had an interesting story, though. She grew up in the favella and was one of the first the NGO helped get grants to study in university. As for the walk around, the favella was actually in pretty good condition compared to other places I have seen and the people had enough pride to clean up their garbage and everything. We talked to a few people but Vanessa would go into Portugese and I would stand around wondering what to pretend to be doing and would barely get a translation although sometimes this was because she just wound up chatting with someone. In any case, it was good to go and see firsthand.

I managed to whip off a quick burst of souvenir shopping that afternoon and a few hours on the beach as well. I felt sad to turn my back on the beach and walk back to the hostel and I wondered if I should be living somewhere else. But of course the grass is always greener and I doubt I’d be at the beach all that often anyway if I actually lived here though who knows. I definitely was feeling the end-of-trip pressures that day. Back at the hostel I changed and started my packing then came back to the beach with the English boys to get the sunset at Ipanema. It was absolutely beautiful – this seems to be the city of sunsets and none have failed to astound me on this trip. Suddenly it was 5:45 and I needed to be packed and ready to get my taxi at 6:30 at the hostel so I started making my way back only to discover the traffic was really heavy. I found a quieter road and a taxi to rush me back to the hostel and got back with only a few minutes before 6:30 and threw everything into my backpack. The man we’d arranged a cab with never showed up so at 6:50 I took another cab that seemed trusty with the English couple that was leaving that same evening and we were at the airport about an hour later. There were no problems checking in and only a slight hiccup when the immigration officer couldn’t find a place to put the exit stamp of my passport but I was prepared for this. Then, one expensive pack of M&Ms later, I was on a 9:55 flight heading for Houston.

I hadn’t eaten all day aside from a quick corn-on-the-cob while rushing back to the hostel from the beach and a chicken burger of questionable value at the airport and had some pains in my stomach as well as a fever to contend with on the flight. And seats that pretty much didn’t recline. I woke up at one point so sure I was going to be sick that I carefully vaulted over the friendly lady beside me (she was asleep) and headed to the washroom where I sweated a lot and not much else. So it wasn’t a great flight but on the other hand I happened to be awake as we crossed over the Guyanas and Venezuela leaving the South American continent and watching the moon glisten over the open water which felt like a symbolic moment in the adventure. I’m hoping it wasn’t symbolic that as I neared the Gulf of Mexico there was lightning everywhere (tropical storm Bonnie, I later discovered) and the water didn’t seem to be as shining. For some reason I had to clear customs in Houston in spite of the fact that I was not actually entering their country but I was out and back on a plane for Vancouver in 2.5 hours. In Vancouver, the customs officer was really friendly. I’d brought back some peppers for my mom and she said they were fine and then the other guy that decides if you’re being searched or continuing was really friendly and finished our conversation with “great to have you back” and a friendly slap on the shoulder as I thanked him and walked back into Canada.

The final leg of the journey was after a few hours layover in Vancouver’s VIP/American Express lounge where I ate a nice free lunch, sipped some gingerale for my stomach, and used the wifi while I worked on my blog and waited for my plane to pull up. Then it was off to Fort St John in northern BC, along the Alaska highway and the furthest north I have ever been in Canada – and interesting contrast to being almost as far south as I have ever been on this earth. It was a bit disorienting, actually, to suddenly have the sun high in the sky, sunsets after 10, and no garbage bin in the toilet – what about the plumbing?! I landed and got off the little plane and then made my way into the airport where I sat, worked on the blog, and helped a lady unload alcohol from her truck. I guess it really didn’t feel like I was at home, this was just another leg on the trip and it was a strange feeling when my dad’s truck finally pulled up an hour and a half later (they had just made the drive from Saskatoon) and I was hugging my dad, Mariah, my cousin Jonathan, and my uncle George. Then we were off to the hotel where I would see more family I hadn’t seen in an even longer time and go for my first real meal back in Canada – lamb chops and Greek salad. As I listened to my dad and uncles talking in Greek at one end of the table while I joked with my sister and cousin and ate, I decided that it was really great to be home again. I hope that I will continue to have things to write about while I’m here and time to do so, but if you’re not subscribed have a peek at that or if you have a Google/Yahoo/Twitter/AIM/OpenID account you can also “Follow” this by clicking on the button in the bottom left. In any case, thank you for following along on my latest adventure and I hope to have many more to share in the future.


Long Road to Rio

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand. This is probably the best line that Duran Duran ever wrote and it captures the feeling of Rio de Janeiro, the Marvellous City, perfectly. When I was booking my flight home, there were doubts at my wisdom in choosing Rio as my final stop on this nine month expedition from Mexico. It was an extra country on a crowded itinerary, I needed a visa, Brazil was expensive, and flights from Rio are at a premium to other cities in South America. The City of God washed these away like sins at a baptism. But it didn’t happen immediately. We were supposed to have a free transfer from the bus station to our hostel but hadn’t been told that we needed to email to ask for it and after burning through Cheymus’ phone card with El Misti hostel in Botafogo where we had reserved we were no better off. They couldn’t find our reservation and were also supposed to have emailed them to get the pickup and it was pushing on the deadline of 10 PM for pickups. A guy from Sao Paulo in the food court overheard us talking and offered us his phone to sort things out and we finally got the hostel to agree to pay 2/3 of our cab fare which was as good as we were going to do. That said, there were two of us and I think they could have paid the whole thing but that’s an aside. After the cab was sorted we arrived without further incident and the stop in Rio had begun.

In spite of this original mixup I quite liked the Botafogo Misti and the area itself. The hostel had lots of friendly people, one of the better breakfasts I’ve had included on this trip, and a good layout conducive to meeting people. After our first of such breakfasts, toasty ham and cheese sandwiches, watermelon, honeydew, eggs, cake and juice, Cheymus and I set out. It was a beautiful day and we (I) took the weather for granted somewhat after pretty much non-stop beautiful days all week. Cheymus wanted to do the beach but I wanted to get some sightseeing under my belt first so I could relax more on the beach. But what we ended up doing was basically just walking around. We walked all the way from our hostel in Botafogo to Copacabana, the world famous beach, and had sore necks by the time we left. Brazilian bikinis are a lot more provocative than elsewhere and a lot less material. The plan had been to get back to the iconic Sugar Loaf (Pao do Azucar) mountain that stands over Rio’s beachfront and to the top for sunset but we didn’t make it in time so we watched the sunset from the picturesque Urca neighbourhood below instead.

Redemption Day

The rumour on the street is that the best time to see Christ the Redeemer is early in the morning but like all advice, it is true or false depending on the person receiving it. On the one hand, a morning arrival means that His face is lit up nicely by the morning sun. But your views in the direction of Sugar Loaf and the famous harbour are obstructed by this same light. Further, I was told it was not possible to be up there for sunset, when views over the city must be the nicest anywhere in Rio, but I would later confirm that this is not the case either. Either choice still requires getting there. There are frequent busses right to the base of the statue and from there – usually – you can get on a supposedly fantastic cog rail line to the top. Be warned that lines are long. This option was closed when we got there but we met an Aussie at the base and the smart option for a group of three or more would be to get a taxi up. You can pay 45 to go up and have a cab wait to bring you back down as well from the base which would have worked out to 15/each. Then the ticket to visit Christ and the surrounding park is 26 reals (have I told you yet that their currency is actually pronounces hoy-ays?). Instead we paid 50 each for a shuttle service up and back including entrance ticket. When you get up there, aside from the impressive sight of this imposing and tall figure with arms spread to rising sun and Rio’s most famous areas, the views in all directions are spectacular and it’s not uncommon to lose an hour or two just staring. It’s only polite.

Sweet, Sweet Sugarloaf

In retrospect, much of my quite long stay in Rio was a search for yet another incredible view at this time of day or that. Looking back, I believe I have more sunset photos here than anywhere else – ever. The most iconic part of Rio’s skyline is probably Christ the Redeemer but it’s debatable heel-biting runner-up is the famous double mounds of Pão Azucar or Sugarloaf which shoot up from Rio’s harbour like an eruption of rock frozen in time. The larger of the two mounds is actually Sugarloaf and the smaller Urca. Most people – which, as you may have guessed, means not me – pay 44 reals to take the cable car to the top and back down. But it is an unadvertised fact that you can climb to the top of Urca through an unmarked but decent trail along the side for free. Unlike Christ the Redeemer, there is one best time to be here and that is at sunset. Which brings me to the next unadvertised fact: after 7:00 you can ride down on the cable car for free. So Cheymus and I headed up around 3:30 on the trail and watched a beautiful sunset unfold. We’d planned to only do half the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf (which you can’t walk up but if you’re feeling adventurous you can rock climb with a group) and back for 22 but when we got to the top of Urca, Sugarloaf was glowing in the setting sun and it seemed that we would have nice views from there. I suspect Sugarloaf would also give some beautiful views of Copacabana beach and is probably not to be missed but for the moment, we were happy to save the money after a fairly expensive day up to Christ. It got a bit chilly waiting for 7:00 to come around, so a jacket or sweater is not a bad idea if you’re thinking about doing the cheap way.

Schwaffeling Selaron

We met up with some of Cheymus’ friends in their Copacabana hostel after some bad directions and a bit of wandering but it had been a big day and we were both tired so we didn’t head out to party with them or even, for that matter, stay there with them very long. The next day we were greeted with pretty heavy rain so Cheymus went to say goodbye to his friends while I pretty much chilled out in the hostel, got some laundry done, and met a couple cool Germans and a hilarious Dutch guy who educated us on ‘schwaffel’ which apparently was the word of the year in 2008 or 2009. Its meaning is best left undefined on these pages I think. We stayed up pretty late having drinks and joking and the next day they joined us on our excursion to the centre. First we went to Cinelandia to see an absolutely beautiful theatre and then we walked to the famous Rio steps (as seen in the Snoop Dogg video, Beautiful not to mention several movies) called Escadaria Selaron or Selaron Steps. Selaron is a Chileno artist that lives in Rio and specifically on these steps that he has spent the last twenty years decorating and he was painting on the steps when we arrived. In the summer months he is known to be wearing red speedos, a large moustache, and not much else as he lounges and paints there. He also has an art gallery off the steps featuring pointy-boobed pregnant ladies, sometimes Selaron himself, and painted in blacks and reds and occasionally yellows. I set aside a piece I particularly liked but that still needed varnish and unfortunately never made it back to pick it up.

Our path took us past the viaduct upon which the tram for Santa Theresa crawls to the next stop, a very strange cathedral indeed. It is designed as a truncated cone of concrete with a glass-block cross along its flat top and a wall of stained glass radiating downward from the top. It wasn’t a beautiful place, especially with the overcast sky, but it was worth popping in to check out. From there we walked towards Uruguiana for what I had been led to believe was a crafts market where I could pick up some gifts for home, but it was mostly dodgy electronics shops. It did serve one function in our day’s plan, however, and that was to furnish us with some burgers. Having had enough, we went back to the hostel, stopping on the way to pick up supplies for the five of us to make some pasta. We all pretty much disagreed on the quantity needed of everything: Cheymus had too many onions, so we sent him back to drop one off. Rikkert, the Dutch guy, was sure that Jasmin had too much sauce, and I thought that Philipp had more meat than we needed. In the end, though, we made an excellent Bolognese pasta with some chilli peppers, cinnamon (yup, my touch), ground beef, onion, garlic, and balsamic vinegar. Cheymus did a lot of the cooking and Jasmin offered advice to him while I tinkered with the sauce. The two boys were off Skyping home so we left them to it. Afterwards, we all went out (except for Chey) and had a great time.

Paraty y Para Mi

It was now Friday morning and Cheymus and I had plans to meet up with Cristina and Bruna in a small beach town called Paraty for my final weekend in Brazil. Normally this town would get its own entry but owing to the rain I’m just appending it here. It’s a five hour bus ride from Rio and also 5 hours from Sao Paulo which itself is also five hours from Rio. Everything here is five hours away as though it were some sort of time warp. We stayed at the Misti hostel there which, true to form, didn’t bother to pick us up at the bus station but it didn’t seem to be too far a walk so we just made our way on foot. That night was a quiet night and aside from me doing a bit of walking around and shopping in the drizzling rain over the very dangerous cobbled streets (ankle support is not optional) and then Cheymus watched a movie while I crashed. We had been hoping fervently that Saturday, when the girls arrived, would offer some better weather but it did not. Normally, Paraty has plenty of hikes to beautiful beaches and fishing villages, boat excursions, SCUBA diving, and a plethora of activities. In the rain, there is little to do but eat so once they got settled in we all went out and went for a nice lunch which was followed by an afternoon of hanging out and visiting and a pizza dinner that night. I would say goodbye to all three of them as they went back to Sao Paulo the next day at the bus station because I had to return to Rio to catch my plane out. There were some problems finding accommodation but soon I was sorted out (more or less) and giving them all hugs. Back on the bus, my last for this trip, I returned to the Marvellous City once more.

Rio and Paraty Photos