From Costa Rica and beyond

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Of Gravel Roads and Frontier Towns

It's about time my travel/riding blog be updated. I am now back in Vermont, where after just a couple days my lawn is mowed and raked and my house clean and livable. The school year will start very soon, so why not procrastinate by writing one last blog entry?

The previous entry left off in Port Hope Simpson where I enjoyed a comfortable night in a B & B, before traversing 225 miles of gravel (and 252 miles to the next gas station!) to Goose Bay/Happy Valley. So how was the ride? The ride was rather uneventful and a bit anti-climactic. The weather was good - sunny and neither too hot nor cold. There were occasional crosswinds to contend with. The road was good too. It was very well maintained. Probably every 50 miles or so I encountered a grader methodically plowing the road. Early in the day, one caught them in the beginning stages of their work, leveling the surface and pushing the extra dirt and stones to the middle of the road. Riding that freshly plowed surface was great as there were fewer stones and thus less fish-tailing of the bike. Later in the day, the graders plowed the middle and spread the gravel evenly back across the two lanes, which made for a smooth, but very rocky surface.

I made good time zipping along as fast as 60mph. I stopped for a couple bathroom and snacking breaks, but otherwise had no need or incentive to stop. A breath-taking view could have halted me, but the view was very consistent: scraggly black fir trees either blocking further views if on flat terrain or dominating views if the road crested a hill. There were, of course, a few streams and a couple small lakes. Other travelers on the road ranged from normal cars, tractor-trailers, and even a German overland vehicle with giant wheels (and spares) and seemingly equipped to survive a nuclear holocaust and the rapture. The plates indicated they were from Aachen.

As I approached the end of the gravel portion, my bike stalled and rolled to a stop. I still had not driven 220 miles. My bike usually has a range of about 240 miles and that's without the extra 2.5 gallons I had already put in my tank from my jerry can. Yikes!!! I switched the lever to the reserve tank and rolled on...this time a bit more slowly so as to conserve fuel. I was relieved somewhat to reach pavement, then to cross the broad Churchill River. I was extremely relieved to finally reach a gas station! How could my bike consume so much fuel?!?

Happy Valley/Goose Bay are consolidated towns that (as I've learned is the norm) look way less frontier-like than most people imagine. Walmart is there, the Canadian automotive equivalent to Walmart, Canadian Tire, is also there. There are a couple motorcycle dealers, as motorcycles and ATVs are very popular in this part of the world. Fast food restaurants like Tim Hortons are also represented. My number one priority there was to get my new sprockets and chain for my bike. Having made really good time, I pulled up at Frenchy's Motorcycles with 1.5 hours until closing time. All my parts were there. Thanks to their helpful crew, I was gone by 5:30. My worries about a broken or slipping chain were also gone. A stop at the tourism office did not convince me to stick around. The wish to visit my parents and friends in Michigan and to get back to Vermont at a reasonable time also urged me onward. I drove another two hours west on  the paved portion of 500 and found a nice spot just off the road for some brookside camping.

Black flies and mosquitos awaited me, but I was ready this time. I dismounted my bike and grabbed first thing for my netting and the DEET. What a difference DEET makes. I sprayed it over my clothing, on the netting, and by the entrance to the tent. I could now relax, fix up another helping of ramen noodles with turkey chunks, and watch a mama bird tutor her two young on how to snatch black flies in mid-air. Such sweet schadenfreude! Sleep eluded me that night though. As soon as the sun disappeared, the cold air rolled into my tent and put my sleeping bag (rated for 40F, I believe) to the test. I was cold! In my half-sleep I complained about the sleeping bag, not knowing that temperatures went down to about 38F that night. Of course, the clear skies that allowed that to happen also warmed my tent up nicely in the morning. I didn't get up until 10am. What a rough life!

The paving process is actively underway on 500. I suspect it will all be paved by next year. On this day, though, I had another 120 or so miles of gravel to cross...and dust to breathe. It was a dry day. The 500 has more traffic than the 510. Construction vehicles (for the paving work) kicked up so much dust that one simply could not see anything as they passed. The dust and grit got in my helmet, everything! Shortly after blindly passing a pick-up/trailer combo (which kicked stones up at me), my bike again rolled to a stop. No WAY!! I had already poured the 2.5 extra gallons in the tank. How could I be out of fuel? I had traveled perhaps 160 miles from Happy Valley/Goose Bay. I hailed a passing car and asked them if they had any extra fuel. They did and eagerly handed me their can. I opened the tank and...saw that there was still ample fuel. Ruh roh! I returned the can and sent them on their way. What could the problem be? Perhaps the fuel pump or fuel filter. I knew I wasn't too far from Churchill Falls, so I was mentally preparing to push my bike, if need be. I tried the ignition one last time fired right up. Whew!!

At Churchill Falls, the gravel ends (or begins). The town's raison d'etre is the giant hydroelectric generating station located there. This town is truly a company town. Nalcor owns everything except the gas station. Employees and their families live in company owned houses (and pay about $100 rent per month). There is no real downtown. Instead there is a big building (I though it was a school with sort of modernist architecture) which houses a public library, a grocery store, a restaurant, a small hotel, etc. Of course, I didn't realize this at first. In my quest to find the downtown (and some food and maybe a garage!), I stopped at a house where a man was working outside. He turned out to be the town planner (a company employee) and a mechanic with all the right tools. He helped me clean the bike's air filter. As we did that, it dawned on me what the actual problem was. The dust was plugging the valve that allows air to flow into the tank, as the fuel is consumed. When air can't enter the tank, a vacuum is created and the fuel stops flowing. What a relief! Dale told me about the town and how it is to work there. I was impressed to learn that every employee and family member who lives there gets two allowances of $2200 to go on vacation away from Churchill Falls. When you retire, you have three months to get out of there before new tenants move in. Dale also urged me to tour the generating facility - something I had been hoping to do.

Say what you will about massive hydroelectric projects, the engineering is remarkable. This 5500 megawatt facility is located in a massive underground slab of granite. So as not to destabilize the granite, it was all bored out by hand and machine - no dynamite. Eleven tunnels funnel water to turbines that turn generators at very high speeds. The power is sent mostly to Quebec which consumes some and sends the rest to the northeastern US.

After an interesting tour (along with a Canadian and a German rider), I ate a Donair Supreme (a hybrid Doener and pizza) and called friends I had met in Gros Morne. They live just two hours from Churchill Falls in Wabush (right next to the better known Labrador City). Helene answered the phone and said I was very welcome to stay with them and with two French hitch-hikers they had met.

Labrador City and Wabush also defy the image of frontier towns. The streets are paved. Houses and neighborhoods are generally nice and neat. Again, fast food chains and big box stores thrive there just like everywhere else. These towns are not company towns like Churchill Falls, but they are industrial towns - iron ore is the business up there. Right now, that business is humming, both figuratively and literally. The mines with their giant trucks and cranes and the processing facilities can be heard around the clock seven days a week. One particular mine has an automated train that goes back and forth sounding its horn every five seconds non-stop. This sounds awful, but where Wayne and Helene live, one can just barely hear these sounds. There are, of course, some oddities about these towns. The homes, originally paid for by the companies, are very homogenous. Modest homes are quite expensive, as there is no new property available - it's all owned by the companies which have mining rights. Many of the people working in the service sector are Philippinos who will typically stay a few years and build up their savings. I didn't sense much cultural friction there. Some anger, however, is directed toward "Fifo's" - Men who Fly In and then Fly Out for short term jobs. They don't have a stake in the community. Helene, however, noted that some anger toward them is totally unfounded. She once heard two women in a store complain that Fifos were to blame for the lack of tampons in one of the local stores (almost all Fifos are men).

I stayed two nights with Wayne and Helene, their son, Phil, as well as a couple young relatives who are summer-jobbing up there and of course the French couple. Wayne and Helene enjoy a full house - and it was fun! We ate very well and had a great time chatting late into the night. They gave some of us a tour of the nearby Quebec town, Fermont (iron mountain), with its imposing building (housing everything from stores to residential apartments to a strip club) called "The Wall". Wayne, an avid rider, got out his BMW 1200gs Adventure and led me on a ride up some very treacherous trails for some great views over the cities and countryside. From there, one could also see just how close the Summer's forest fires had come. About 2 miles is all that separated the town from the fires. The local population had been evacuated and roads were closed. I was lucky to arrive a couple weeks after the disaster.

From Labrador City, the road turns south into Quebec and eventually down to the city Baie-Comeau on the Saint Lawrence River. Much of the northernmost section of this road is gravel. Making the first 50 miles or so worse are all the curves in the road. Turning on gravel is not fun. The apparent lack of any reason for most of these curves made me wonder cynically if there was some Quebecois philosophy behind what the roadsigns labeled 'sinuousness'. Eventually the road straightened. Soon I was on pavement again...and then off it again. The highlights of this 1.25 day ride south were the Michouagan Reservoir (a ring lake that fills a giant, ancient meteorite crater) and the dam that created the reservoir, Manic 5. The latter must be an engineering marvel. It's facade (or downstream face) is composed of giant concrete arches whose supports stretch downward and forward. They appear to prop up the rest of the dam like flying buttresses on a cathedral. Here too, there are not many gas stations. But by now, I was figuring out that the lower mileage I had experienced was not due to any problem with my bike, but due to driving over gravel at relatively high speeds, wheels a-spinnin'.

After one last night tenting at the side of a lake, I was back on major roads heading west. The northern shore of the Saint Lawrence has some quaint towns. I sped on to Quebec City where I visited Sylvain and Suzanne who had loaned me a sleeping pad when mine failed in Gros Morne. They kindly hosted me that night. I loved both their apartment (which in typical Quebec fashion has graceful exterior wrought iron stairs up to their second story front door) and their slightly gentrified neighbourhood, Limoilou, with its good eateries and strong socially and environmentally conscious ethic. Big Agnes did not manage to get a replacement pad to their home in time for me - not by a long shot.

That was, for me, the end of this summer's grand adventure. My bike and I put on a lot more miles (highway miles) heading to Michigan to see my parents (Arlene and Ted) and friends (Cara and Mike, Tracy and Dennis). I was lucky to be able to visit a number of friends as I rode eastward (Marilyn) and westward (Jess and Jesse, Elfi and Maxime).

It was another great trip. Considering a trip to the Maritimes? I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Newfoundland and Labrador

Labrador at last! I was one of the last to roll off the ferry boat into...Quebec. Yes, the ferry to Labrador actually docks in St. Sabon, Quebec. Less than 10k to the north, a sign welcomes you to Labrador. A number of small communities are spaced along the paved road heading north. I was not sure where I would overnight, but Red Bay was definitely on my itinerary. Perhaps a bit more than an hour of driving up and over some long inclines and descents and past numerous lakes and small harbors (including one with an iceberg lodged in it) got me to this newly crowned UNESCO site. In the early 1500s, it was the Basque who pioneered the whaling industry to satiate Europe's demand for lighting oil. They found Labradorian waters abounding in North Atlantic Right Whales among others. History forgot their presence here until the late 70s when a researcher in Spain came across wills and receipts pertaining to a shipwreck said to have transpired in what is today Red Bay. The wreck of a modern ship in a November storm made some think that ship might be near the old wreck whose fate was also sealed in November. And underwater search soon found the San Juan and now the Basque presence here is chronicled and celebrated. A small but new and very nice museum houses a whaling boat and many other artifacts as well as context. After visiting the museum, I strolled along a beachside trail littered with whale bones dating back to the 16th century (or so I was assured at the museum).

Red Bay is also noteworthy for being the endpoint of this paved portion of the road. I stopped where the gravel begins to take a photo and to lower the tire pressure on my bike. A man on a BMW 1200GS pulled up having just completed the ride from the north. He assured me finding a camping spot would be really tough in the next section of the ride. With that news and with a mutual wish to chat with someone from New England, we set up our tents next to the church in Red Bay. We were assured the bugs would be not be so bad there.

Perhaps, but that did little to help us combat the swarms of black flies that greeted us, especially as the wind died down. I donned my head netting and quickly learned that blackflies will creep their way into anything. Soon there were hundreds outside my netting and probably a half dozen inside it. They also crept their way down my back and into my pants (the broken fly -- aptly named? -- probably facilitated that attack). A dinner of Ramen Noodles along with some chunk turkey I had bought was tasty, but testy. How to maximize my meal while minimizing that of the black flies? The best solution I found was just to hurry the meal and go to bed. I took a little run to lose the flies before bounding into my tent. That seemed to have worked until I saw more and more of the buggers emanate from the corner where I threw the head-netting. Fortunately, they seemed disoriented in the tent. Now they were the hunted. I'll have to give my tent a very thorough scrubbing when this trip is over.

Despite the persistent buzz of mosquitos trying to break their way through the tent screen, I slept fairly well. At 5am, the rain started and my slumber ceased. My tent is getting wet, my bladder is full, the bugs are waiting...what to do? The answer was to pack up as quickly as possible and hit the road. No bugs can fly that fast. A roof at the entrance to the museum was near, so I emptied my tent of heavy items and then carried it, still intact, to dryness where I toweled it off and packed it, trying to remain composed as the flies renewed their onslaught (do they never sleep??). A quick farewell to Will and I was off.

So far, the gravel road has been easy going. I can comfortably ride between 40 and 55 mph. There are rocks and a few rough patches, but compared to Ruta 40 in Patagonia, this is a relatively easy ride for a motorcyclist. What frightens me a bit is that I am alone and that it is so far between communities. Other than the road itself and an occasional motorist, the only sign of human existence are sleds that have been left just off the road as well as an occasional makeshift log bridge that allows ATVs to cross the gap between the road and the woods (they remind me of a very humble modern corollary to the medieval drawbridge). After a little more than an hour of driving past this rough, rocky land with its tall, very narrow spruces and firs, the rain faded and after another hour I was in Port Hope Simpson. Right now, I am writing in my room at a B and B. I feel a bit wimpy and indulgent stopping after such a short day, but I have my reasons. It continues to rain and I do not want to spend a second consecutive night in bugs and in the wet. Most importantly, the next town, Happy Valley Goose Bay, is over 400 km away (and there are no gas stations in all that way!). I am expecting a new chain and sprockets there, but one part of that trio has not arrived there yet, so there is no need to hurry there. Plus, tomorrow is supposed to be a nice day.

Having my own room, I am able to recharge my keyboard - such a bonus!! That is the primary reason I have not posted in a while. So what else have I been up to? The short answer is: "Newfoundland, That's what!" That is too short, though, so here is a bit more.

Newfoundland (pronounce it like 'understand') is fantastic! I took the ferry to Argentia and was in St John's two hours after disembarking. What a fun town! Row houses in the city center are painted in all shades of red and blue and green and yellow etc. There are fun, locally owned shops and stores to check out. George Street and environs throbs until 4 in the morning (yes, I know this first-hand) with music ranging from techno to amplified Newfie folk. Meet some nice people at your hostel (as I did - Ben, Lynn, Garech, Cynthia, Guillaume) or adjust your chain in a parking lot and meet a random German phd student who just bought a KLR (Regina), and you're guaranteed to have a great time. Several of us visited Cape Spear, the easternmost tip of land in North America, and watched whales from our perches atop high bluffs. We turned westward and then watched the sun set from Signal Hill where ships would receive guidance before entering the narrow harbor. Ben and Regina and I daytripped south on the Avalon Peninsula. The hot temps prompted even me to take a swim in very chilly waters. We ate mussels and moose burgers at a little diner and then visited Lord Baltimore's first attempt to find a new home for dissenting English Catholics (He had better success in Maryland). We also fought tough crosswinds before returning to Saint John's.

After three nights in St John's, I headed northwest to Bonavista where John Cabot was the first European (huge asterisk - stay tuned) to step on these shores. If you're in this vicinity, be sure to check out Trinity; it's what you get when you put Peacham, Vermont on the oceanfront. The next day took me farther northwest to Twillingate Island where I free-camped atop a cliff a couple hundred feet above the crashing sea. The next day was rainy, but I motored to Badger nevertheless and hopped on the T'railway, an old railroad bed converted to an ATV trail. This lent my ride a bit more adventure and even saved on mileage, although the bumps certainly beat up my bike. A deep section of gravel caused me to lose control and crash land just off the path. Two elderly couples on four-wheelers were right behind me. By hand, they pulled a rope and helped me back up on the path. This trail through the heart of Newfoundland was stunning. Much of it was flat and green, at times forested, at times treeless. The Gaff Topsail, as the area is called, is marked by four Topsails that are, as best I can figure, monadnocks or solitary mountains whose resistant stone allowed them to survive the glacial age and later erosion, leaving them to tower close to 200 feet above the surrounding tundra. With now sunny skies, I rolled into Gros Morne National Park where I spent three nights and enjoyed amazing scenery from the summit of Gros Morne mountain and took a cruise on Western Brook Pond, which is like a magnified Lake Willoughby with mountains towering 2700 feet above the 600 feet deep lake. Something remarkable about this lake: It has very few nutrients and thus very few ions, so its water reportedly will not conduct electricity. Something else remarkable: After hearing me pine about the faulty seam on my brand new, super comfortable Big Agnes sleeping pad, a man from Quebec City loaned me his. I'll return it soon (Big Agnes, to their credit, is replacing it and shipping the new one to that man's address).

My last stop before the ferry to Labrador was L'Anse aux Meadows, where Leif Erickson and a small band of Vikings built a very modest settlement 1000 years ago.

Whew, it is very good to be caught up on my blog. I'm still looking for a computer so I can upload all my pics. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Fort Louisbourg, Nova Scotia

July 12, 2013

The night of the 11th was warm, but very misty. It was smelly too. A fish rendering plant was right next to the campground. While this may be the stinkiest campground in the world, there were redeeming qualities. The bathroom and shower facilities were very clean, there was a lounge area with wifi, and there were little rooftops over picnic tables at each campsite. Knowing full well that it might rain overnight, I removed the picnic table and replaced it with my tent. That had little effect on the mist that drifted horizontally with the wind. But while water did creep under the tent, I remained dry atop my sleeping pad. In the morning, I got up early so I would be ready to visit Fort Louisbourg when the gates opened. After showering, I commenced packing. I took out my super absorbant mini-towel and started drying the rainfly. I had just finished and started undoing the stakes when rain struck. It poured. All my efforts were undone in an instant. The opaque grayness hinted that this rain could last all day. Great. I migrated to the lounge and checked Canada's weather radar. The worst was passing and the storm should be done in an hour or two. This was a perfect time for breakfast at the diner across the street. A breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries and coffee drove the rain away (the fish smell remained). I returned to my campsite, shed my rain gear, and pondered how to dry everything. The ground was soaked. So, I took my straps, threw them over the beams supporting the roof and hoisted my tent off the ground and dried it off as it hung. I felt pretty clever.

The gates had long been open, but the woman at the ticket sales counter said my three hours were perfect for a good visit. A bus retrieved us tourists at the welcome center and drove us about one kilometer to the fort. Across a small harbor, the fort looked elegant, dominated by a wide, colonial style dwelling above and with a ceremonial yellow gate on the waterfront. The French sense of style goes way back. Their military ineptitude also goes way back. Twice this fort was attacked by the English, both times over land (the defenses were directed toward the water - an acknowledgement of English naval prowess), and both times (1743 and 1758) it fell. The French had, however, established a remarkable outpost and community at Louisbourg. The village thrived on the cod they caught in the rich North Atlantic. Some of that cod was eaten there, some was traded inland, and much was shipped back to France for great profit. Although I am a history teacher, places like this can bore me to tears. However, Louisbourg is very charming aesthetically, gastronomically, and in how the "inhabitants" interact with the guests. The buildings remind one of historical buildings along the Maine coast with beautifully weathered Shake shingles on the roofs and exterior walls. Small garden plots can be found in spaces between the finer dwellings. Each person is greeted and briefly interrogated by a security-minded soldier in contemporary garb (English folk beware!). Go to the bakery and buy some fresh, warm bread (white bread for the officers, brown break for the rank and file). Kids are given costumes and engaged in games. Women are cleaning and cooking. Soldiers are showing off their living quarters where three share each bed. A 15 minute ceremony with marching and music culminate in the firing of the canon precisely at noon. If hunger strikes, there is a kitchen preparing delicious food elegantly served with faux (I hope!) pewter plates and bowls and spoons (no forks nor knives). I had a delicious pea soup, turkey pie, and scrumptious break pudding with coffee.

With that, it was time to return to my bike. Now I am on the ferry awaiting departure to Newfoundland. The sky is partly cloudy. I am dry. We leave dock at 5pm and will arrive in Argentia (I would soooo like to write Argentina!!) at 10am.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A New Adventure

Riding through Latin America on a motorcycle never entered my mind as a youth. Family trips up through Canada, especially those spent on the rugged northern shores of Lake Superior, planted a sense that adventure lies in those cold remote regions north of the US border. My sabbatical ride south amended that viewpoint. The north, however, has not gone away and neither has my motorcycle. So, I'm riding again, just as far north as I can here in the east. The Trans Labrador Highway will be the extent of my ride north before the path leads south into Quebec. On the way there, I can visit Newfoundland which has long been on my list of places to explore.

Many miles separate Vermont and Newfoundland. This first post (no promises how many there will be!) summarizes how I got to Louisbourg, Nova Scotia.

I always get the jitters before heading out on a trip like this. Most elements of a trip like this are within my control: How precisely should I plan the route? Is my bike ready? Do I have all the gear I need? What gear do I really need?

One element in particular is beyond my control: the weather (Let it be good!!!).

Preparing my bike was not a huge job. Concerned about bottoming out with the considerable weight of me and all my gear, I purchased a raising link to lift the bike's rear end and to tighten the suspension. This also makes it less likely for my bike to tip over away from the kickstand when parked - something that plagued me during my sabbatical. I also bought and replaced the clutch cable and bought new Heidenau K76 front and rear tires and decided not to bring spare tires. Heidenau tires are supposed to have great quality. As new as they are, they should stay in one piece over the gravel of the Trans Labrador Highway. I think the only other real telltale addition to my gear (other than what I brought to Latin America) is a mosquito net that fits over a hat. There's no malaria up there (yet), but I would rather have malaria than to have all my blood sucked out a milligram at a time.

The jitters were minimal as I left home on the 5th of July. since my first day's destination was Belfast, Maine, home to my friend Mark and his family. Still, my departure was not immaculate. Outside my walkout basement, I started the bike (choke on) and walked up to the front door to lock it. I came back down and found the bike not running. Hm. I fired it up again. It ran for a moment and stalled. Huh? Third time...the same. Grrrrr. The weather was hot and humid and I had all my gear on. I was already getting soaked with sweat. Am I low on fuel? Turn the fuel gauge to "reserve". The bike fired up...and stalled. WTF? Another try...this time no ignition at all, just a motor turning over in vain. Open the tank. Yup, it's low on fuel, but the reserve tank ought to work. Sweating even more, I go back up to the front door, unlock it, tramp downstairs, get my lawnmower fuel, put it in the tank, go back in the house, close the basement door, go back upstairs, close and lock the front door. I am drenched. Look the bike over again...and then it occurs to me. I bet I turned the fuel gauge the wrong way. Turn it 90 degrees, hit 'start', let it turn over a few times and then the bike comes to life. good grief. The drive to Maine was, mercifully, uneventful, although I nearly panicked when I thought I had left my Spot device at home (this was on hour east of Saint Johnsbury). A quick check of my paniers showed I was mistaken. Whew. Now, six days later, I can say that I don't think I forgot a thing.

After a great weekend in Belfast, I made my way to the Canadian border on a misty Monday morning. The rain gave up keeping pace with me before I even reached the border. My entry into Canada was dry and easy. New Brunswick presented me with a newly surfaced highway complete with an impressive fence system to keep moose and other big critters out. The fence had numerous one-way gates keeping animals off the highway while allowing the truly hapless ones who found a way onto the highway to be guided back into the forest, away from harm.

A quick look at the map showed green on the Bay of Fundy - a national park. I arrived there around 5pm, set camp, and dashed out for a hike along the shoreline. I set a good pace so the teeming mosquitos and blackflies could not keep up. The trail was perched up on cliffs, so while the view across the bay was lovely, it was hard to get a good sense of the epic tide for which the bay is famous. I took another hike in the morning, but by that time it was (as it was during my last walk) low tide.

Tuesday was very similar to Monday, except the weather was gorgeous the whole way. I enjoyed the coastal route just east of Fundy National Park with its winding roads, hills, green grasses, cliffs and beaches, estuaries, and (of course) views of the bay. Here too, I rode until about 5 and stopped at a park - Caribou and Monroe's Island Provincial Park. This time my hike was truly on the beach with views of the distant Prince Edward Island.

Wednesday led me to Cape Breton and the highlands. This big peninsula is definitely worth the trip. The ocean views are magnificent. The road follows the coast and winds  up the cliffs of the highland offering vistas and driving conditions that reminded me of California's Highway One (without the fog!). I had been given the impression that the towns along the way are charming. There are certainly a myriad of festivals planned (most starting on or after July 15). Many of them highlight Celtic roots. However, most of the towns themselves are rather spartan. Most homes are unremarkable, modest homes. The towns typically have a dock or two (for lobstermen and whale watching tours) and a few motels or cabins and restaurants geared toward the tourists.

Judique is a town famed for its Celtic music. I raced past the Celtic Music Interpretation Centre. What I appreciate about Judique came after the town - an ATV trail. I found this trail when making a quick pit stop. What a temptation. Should I ride it or not? May I ride it? I finally ended my indecision and just did it. About 50km further I reached its end in Inverness. This trail was a thrill to ride. It was fun to be off the pavement, away from the traffic, and cruising an old RR bed winding past swamps, lakes, forest, little harbors and over streams. In all that way, I encountered four other people. My luck was compounded when I got a delicious burger at a very unassuming beachside food joint in Inverness (probably the most scenic of the Cape Breton towns with a lovely beach and renowned golf course). North of Inverness, I found the Cabot Trail that enters the National Park. The highlands tower above the ocean at a pretty uniform height. The plateau is home to bogs, little lakes, and lots of very wind abused stubby pine trees. That is all a blur to the motorcyclists who flock here as much for the thrill of the twisting tarmac as for the scenery. I enjoyed both!

Indecision gripped again about where to camp. The final national park campground that came in question looked a bit grim, so I headed north to the tip of the peninsula. The Jumping Mouse Eco Campground in Bay Saint Lawrence was quite a reward for the longer than expected drive. Perched above a tiny lobstering village and harbor, the campground affords a breathtaking view north with towering sylvan mountains sheltering the bay to the east and west. I was the only guest. I set up camp, marveled at the views, walked to the pier, and then wondered how I would sleep with the wind gusts and threatening weather. The rain never materialized, but the wind was amazing. Lying in my tent, I could hear individual gusts of wind zip past...sometimes a ways off, sometimes striking the top of my tent. I have never heard the wind like this. It was like there were witches or spirits joyriding just over the treetops. Over time, though, they faded...and so did I.

I am now in Louisbourg, home to a restored French fortress. This fort's fate has been a footnote in my AP history class for years, as it was built by the French, taken by the British in the War of Austrian Succession, it was returned in the peace settlement (Status quo ante bellum) and then taken for good in the French and Indian War and destroyed by the British. Today's ride was a foggy and damp one. I am now poised for the next leg of my journey. I made reservations to take the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Argentia, Newfoundland tomorrow. I have also made reservations at the youth hostel in Saint Johns, Newfoundland. Tomorrow will be a big day!

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Last Few Weeks in S. America

Oddly, I used to find more time to write when I was on the move than I do now stationary in Buenos Aires. I have been wanting to write, but my limited computer access and circumstances have kept me away from the keyboard. Two things have kept writing at bay in the last few days. Preparing to fly my bike to Miami definitely commanded my attention. If something had gone wrong with that, I would land in Miami next Wednesday and would be stuck. Of course, there might be worse places to be stranded. Fortunately, all went very well this last Tuesday. I rode my spic and span bike out of BA to the international airport, met the contact person, rode to the cargo terminal and met Martin who crated and wrapped my bike after I had removed the front wheel, loosened the handle bar, and squeezed all the gear I could into my panniers and any free space on the pallet. For any riders who are reading this and wondering who they can trust to ship a bike out of Buenos Aires, All Cargo has been totally reliable and professional for my friends and me. There are woeful stories out there of scam artists and there are companies that offer amazing services but cost much more. And speaking of woeful stories...the other matter that has cost me a lot of time recently and caused me much anxiety is the state in which my former tenants left my home after abandoning my house without any notification on the first of June. Fortunately, I have amazing friends in Vermont. Karen Alexander and Roo Mold checked my house, made sure new locks were installed, and made sure no permanent damage was done to the interior of the home. Denise and Paul Scavitto and Jennifer Goodhue worked with one of my tenants all day Tuesday and removed the 900+ pounds of garbage that my tenants had left unattended (for over two weeks!) outside the house. Hopefully the bears will now forget my home and stop prowling around the neighborhood (my poor neighbors). This drama is still not resolved, as the tenants still have lots of  stuff in my house and of course a huge clean up job awaits me when I get back. I expected that to a certain degree, but this is more than I had imagined.

Despite all that, I have plenty to share about the last few weeks here in Argentina. I moved out of my room in Chacarita on the 3rd of June. Being sort of homeless (I spent two nights at Stafford and Fernando´s), I figured this was the perfect opportunity to ride north to the Misiones province. Misiones is named for the Jesuit Missions established there in the 17th century. The ruins of these remarkable settlements remain, but by far the biggest tourist draw in Misiones are the Iguazu waterfalls. They are considered one of the world´s seven natural wonders and a day´s visit leaves no doubt that they are worthy. The falls are not just a couple grand cascades, but well over one hundred of them, big and small, falling an average of 200 feet. The surroundings are green and lush. Water seems to be everywhere and it is all heading in the same direction. The volume of water is not as much as the Victoria Falls in Africa, but my friend and fellow rider Tim, who met me at Iguazu, confirmed first hand that the falls of Iguazu are much more of a crowd-pleaser - partly because of how observable the falls are. Indeed, the infrastructure of the park on the Argentine side of the border is impressive. Well constructed walkways winding over the river and above cliffs give visitors amazing access to views, mist, and the gentle thunder accompanying so much force. Tim and I had a great day exploring the park and taking a plethora of photos. Every new angle seemed ready to give me my most Ansel Adams-esque photo.

The next day, I started heading back south. I didn´t ride far though, as I got a late start after an oil change and because I wanted to visit the ruins of the San Ignacio Mission. Anyone who has seen the movie, the Mission (with Deniro, Neeson, and Irons), understands the draw of these historical sites (and if you haven´t seen the movie, you should. Great acting, great soundtrack, great scenery, essentially true story.). More than perhaps any other religious enterprise in the so-called "New World", these extensions of the Catholic Church found considerable success and sympathy among the local aboriginal peoples - in this case, the Guarani. This is partly because the Guarani belief system fit quite well with what the Jesuits presented them and because the Jesuits were working and even fighting to protect the Guarani from slave traders. The very communal Guarani people also appreciated that the Missions´s profits (which were considerable) were put right back into their communities.

I spent that night in the border town (to Paraguay) Posadas. I knew I had a long ride ahead of me. The ride from BA had taken two long days of riding through a lot of flat, visually numbing farmland in the province called Entre-Rios. To break up the return trip and to see another major Argentine city, I decided to ride back to BA by way of Rosario. The ride to Rosario took over ten hours and crossed more than 1000km in one day. This was probably my longest single day ride of the entire trip. I was soon struck (literally) with just how alive the Entre-Rios region is. For the first time since last August, I hit a bird. A brown pigeon enjoying the hot tarmac, waited too long to fly away and when it did, it veered right in front of me and smacked the top of my helmet. I looked worriedly in my rear-view mirror expecting to see blood, guts, and feathers. Instead, all I saw was a bit of a sag in my visor. I stopped and found that the force of the impact had broken a plastic bolt that attaches one side of the visor to the helmet. That meant I was now riding with a broken bolt on my helmet, a broken bolt on my crash guard, and the consequences of a broken bolt on the right-side foot peg. (Good bolts are really important) At any rate, as I rode on, it became clear why I had finally hit a bird - there were thousands of them all along the road. There were gorgeous birds of yellow, others all white except for a bright red head, there were pigeons of all sorts and duck like amblers that were surprisingly nimble on the ground, but never flew. There were also birds of prey and foxes looking for some easy feed.

Rosario was like a small BA (but still has more than one million residents). The waterfront, overlooking the Parana River was lovely. Joggers and walkers and maté sippers love this long, public space. Gazing across the great Parana back into Entre-Rios, a giant wetland devoid of any sign of human activity, it felt like being at civilization´s last outpost at the end of the known world. Rosario was significant for my voyage in a unique way though. The inspiration for my trip was the movie, Motorcycle Diaries, about a great motorcycle trip made by the young Che Guevara. Che was born in Rosario in 1928 and the elegant bourgeois building where he first lived is still standing. There is nothing on the building itself to indicate it´s most famous resident, but the Che Guevara Hostel right across the street takes care of that. So in a sense, Rosario was a very fitting place to visit here at the tail end of my journey. It was also the site of the last (I hope) roadblock of my trip. My nighttime ride into Rosario took me through a villa (slum) and led right to some protesters and newly ignited tires. While sizing up the situation, a young man told me motorcyclists could pass through. So, I rode up to the line of tires, hopped up on the sidewalk and went around the blockade. A few kids and a woman came over to object, but I was already through and short of using force there was nothing they could do. I was delighted with how vacant the streets were on the other side!

After two nights in Rosario, I rode the remaining four hour trip back to Buenos Aires and moved into the Kilca Hostal in the downtown area. This hostel is not elegant. Indeed, it is rather run-down, but it is friendly, inexpensive, and has room to park a number of bikes - very rare in BA. The nice thing about living in hostels is meeting people and being tourists together as opposed to alone. So, I have revisited some places here and checked out some new places. A couple nights ago, I went to the Cathedral with my friend, Tim, and a couple others. This former church is now a very cool Tango venue. The walls are covered with graffiti-like modern art. That and the darkness of this space create an almost gothic ambiance - which is magic when combined with tango music, organic Argentine wines, and inexpensive tango lessons (and lots of cute women!). I met one of them on the dance floor - Carla Soto of Lima, Peru, who taught me the first few steps of Tango (or did I teach her?? Hmm....). I also finally visited Tigre, a small city outside BA famous for its quaint waterways through parts of the Parana delta. Carla and Vaneska and I enjoyed a boat tour past groves of reeds and cute cottages.

Another noteworthy evening was when I met with Ade Barkah a few days ago. Ade, a computer programmer from Toronto, and I first met in Baja and rode together for about three days. He just arrived in BA after pushing just as far south as he possibly could before being pushed back by the Patagonian winter. Ade and I went to my favorite pizza joint, Angelín, and then walked along the lively Avenida Armenia. We each had a lot of stories to share. I look forward to visiting him sometime in Toronto.

The goodbyes have begun of course. Tim (who I first met in Guatemala) sold his KLR (a big goodbye) and caught a freighter headed to Senegal. My last night of volunteering at a home for girls was Wednesday. As usual, I met my friend Majo (Marie José), and went with her to the home. Being a holiday (Dia de la Bandera - flag day), not many of the girls were there, so we played board games with those remaining and just hung out. Afterwards, Majo and I swapped stories and shared a pizza.

More goodbyes are coming in the next couple days before my flight to Miami. I will miss quite a few people and I know days are coming where I will wish to be back in BA, but I am ready to move on and to explore the US some as I ride north to Michigan.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Really Fine Night

The following comes from an evening about three weeks ago. I took notes as it was happening. I realize that some of the likenesses drawn in this journal-style entry will mean nothing to those who don´t know the persons referenced. But it is my blog after all :)

It has been a tough day. I left my debit card in an ATM about a week ago and just realized it yesterday. Today was spent scrambling in order to get money flowing to me as soon as possible. Thank goodness Stafford was able to spot me some cash to tie me over.

So I was feeling a bit brain-dead and hungry too as I approached the corner cafe on the way back to my apartment. Since it is cold now, the windows were closed and I heard next to nothing, but there were lots of people inside and a number of smokers just outside the entrance. The big crowd and the warm light reflecting off wood trim and antique cameras beckoned. It was tempting to pass it all by and return to one thing that was a sure thing on this marathon day (that being my apartment and the salad nicoise whose fixings I was carrying with me). But why not escape for a while into a charming, bustling porteño cafe?

I stepped in and found a white haired jazz band playing It Had To Be You. One last table remained free. I took my place and ordered a beer which came with a tiny bowl of peanuts. Beer and protein - a good combo! Particularly the beer in my empty tummy had an almost immediate effect and added to the fun and the free flow of writing ideas as I scribbled in my notebook. It became abundantly clear to me why Christopher Hitchens prefered to write while drinking whiskey.

Whether it was the beer, a bit of nostalgia or just coincidence, the white-haired virtuosos of the Musicos Cabildo Norte Jazz Club almost all reminded me of someone.

The trombonist with his generous round belly and simple button-up shirt reminded me of my Grandpa Ehrean. If he had stopped and stuck his false teeth out at any of the kids present, the illusion would have been complete.

The keyboardist was a diminutive (and aged) version of my friend Jim Webber who I once helped schlep a vintage electric keyboard into the back of his Subaru.

The guitarist looked like a Gunter Grass without the burdens of a self-anointed moralizer.

The saxophonist reminded me of Saint Johnsbury Academy´s now retired automotive teacher, Tom Moore, as one might see him all dressed up at the Academy´s Christmas Party.

The drummer was a shorter version of former US Director of Intelligence, John Negroponte. The drummer did not miss a beat, so unlike his doppelganger who spoke unintelligently at graduation a few years back about Saint Johnsbury´s namesake (His assumption was wrong - the city is not named for Saint John.).

As they advanced from one jazz standard to another, the performers rotated, giving a slightly more literal meaning to musical chairs. There were a lot more musicians present than I thought...maybe even more performers than audience members.

The shortest and perhaps oldest of the performers, occasionally picking his guitar, occasionally joining other vocalists, reminded me paradoxically of Herman Munster with his box-like head and very prominent chin. His face, however, was as white and wrinkled as Herman´s was green and taut.

Another guitarist, perhaps the most elegant of the men bore a resemblance to my great grandfather from Sweden...perhaps crossed with post-war Germany´s chancellor, Adenauer.

There was a clarinetist too. A Benny Goodman with an incredible comb-over.

Of all these men, there was only one dark-haired interloper. I think I would have bleached my hair if I were him.

The elder musikmeisters, the tunes from the golden age of jazz, the b & w photos in this cafe cum photography museum all carried me away from the day´s worries. I was struck by how many amazing musicians there are in Buenos Aires and by how such quintessentially American music has become a part of the world´s musical heritage. This American felt really lucky and even a bit proud to be enjoying one of his country´s great and truly appreciated cultural gifts performed masterfully by men who may never have set foot on US soil. It was a really fine night.

Friday, May 11, 2012

May in BA

It has been weeks since I last posted an article on my blog. In some ways, I am a bit disappointed that more has not happened. The opportunity to work at a hotel fell through without a word from its owners. It has been hard to find volunteering opportunities. Such opportunities for foreigners usually comes with a price tag (but I am making progress here). Making friends has also not been a piece of cake. Thankfully I have had Stafford MacKay and his partner, Fernando, to help me and give me company from day one.

Nevertheless, things are good here in Buenos Aires. My explorations of this city continue - and there is a LOT to explore and observe.

Walk through Buenos Aires on a nice, sunny, weekend day or holiday and you will see people walking with friends and family, sitting at nice cafes, or chilling out with their kids and dogs and sipping yerba maté (a traditional green tea). That´s what I did on May Day. At the time, I was reading Pamuk´s My Name is Red, and would sit and relax in the sun while half reading and half people-watching. In a grassy neighborhood park I was pleased to see people frolicking and extremely good-natured dogs running around, sniffing each other and sniffing the ground.

On this day I was headed for the Ateneo, a spectacular book store in the affluent Palermo district. But after walking at least 1.5 hours, I found the workers of this biblioteca were also celebrating their day. No worries. I know that bus #39 can take me from Avenida Santa Fe right to my apartment. Any time I am out late at night (as was the case last Saturday - until 2:30am), if I don´t know how to get home, I can simply hoof it over to Avenida Santa Fe and catch this bus. At night, some of these buses have red curtains and blue lights and (typically) 80s music playing (Boy George, Queen, Duran Duran). I was surprised to see even the fire extinguisher replaced by a decoration - a mini statue of the Virgin Mary. The Catholics in this country probably figure that the latter is just as likely to save lives as the former.

What else have I found in the last few weeks? In the Almagro district I stopped at a cafe across from the Italian Hospital (there is also a German one, a British one, and probably more) and found not only really good coffee, but the best cheesecake I have had since leaving the US. What a great surprise! Not far away is a shopping mall made out of an old marketplace. The building is enormous, composed of three parallel arched spaces (the middle one being the highest, not unlike the nave of a cathedral). For me, the highlights of this place were found in the upper levels. There are two McDonalds in this mall, but one is truly unique - it is kosher! The menu is not as expansive as at other franchises, but the lines were still plenty long. There is also a carnival for kids upstairs. Neverland is the name and offers a swinging pirate ship, a mini roller coaster, and an elegant Ferris wheel fitted snugly in the arch of the central hall. It was a crowded place on that rainy day.

Buenos Aires is not without poverty. I still have not happened upon a slum (although I have been told there are slums and warned to stay away at night), but one walk brought me to Plaza Miserere, a sadly apt name for a city square. An enormous mausoleum for Bernardino Rivadavia, Argentina´s first head of state, sets the mood. The homeless and their makeshift tents and beds perpetuate the sadness. Tragically, the adjacent train station is where well over one hundred people died a couple months back when a typically overfilled train´s brakes failed.

One new friend is Valeria (as a friend of mine asked, yes it is pronounced like ´malaria´). We spent one evening walking from art venue to art venue on one of BA´s Open Gallery Nights. Coincidentally, that day was the anniversary of the Guernica Bombing during the Spanish Civil War. There are quite a few ethnic Basque in Argentina. It seemed somehow fitting that there were a number of pieces that were reminiscent of Picasso´s cubist and collage periods. While not one of the better exhibits, the exhibit that most hit home was a gallery full of embellished motorcycle helmets. The message was that every rider should wear one (Shame on you Michigan!! All The Gear, All The Time - ATGATT). Seven million Argentines ride 4.5 million motorcycles and accidents on these bikes are the number one killer of people between 15 and 19 years. It is estimated that 80% of those deaths would be prevented by properly wearing a helmet. Later, Val and I went to a bar called Dada. I doubt Duchamp and his rebellious Dadaists would have approved of this rather bourgeois hangout using their name. But at least the food was good. I don´t think I would like Dada food.

My Spanish continues to progress, albeit slowly. The day of the open galleries, I received an email from Valeria. I was surprised to see that it was addressed to "Dale, ..." I figured she must have another American friend named Dale and just had a little brain cramp. Later that night, I asked her about it. She pointed out that "Dale" (pronounced doll a) means ¨Let´s go.¨

Politics are ubiquitous in BA. Protests (whether for farmers, marijuana legalization, or any sort or subgroup of workers) are commonplace in front of the Congresso or the Casa Rosada. Just a couple hours ago, I was on the subway and a handful of young people were beating their drums in a station. A most likely homeless woman who was panhandling in my train car made a number of people laugh when she good-naturedly joked about how there is never a day without some protest in BA. Political graffiti can be seen everywhere, even in nice neighborhoods. Statements like "El pueblo por Christina" are reminders of the populist Peronist President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner´s popularity. She has been giving Argentines, journalists, and the world a lot to think about lately. Her expropriation and nationalization of the oil company YPF has angered Spain (whose Repsol previously owned YPF) and made international investors nervous about investing in Argentina. For me, this news was at least an interesting distraction from the Malvinas/Falklands issue, which is in itself a distraction from looming inflation and international debt crisis. I worry about this lovely country. Its economy is in danger of imploding and its president does not strike me as a steady and wise leader. A couple days ago she debuted a commercial for TV on the Malvinas issue. I can´t think of a democracy where the executive branch has run an advertisement on a foreign affairs issue (I bet someone is going to find an American example to prove me wrong on this!). For Argentines, many of them stoked by jingoistic propaganda, this issue is a no-brainer, but I don´t think many of them realize just how complicated it is historically and in terms of international law (not to mention the question of the islanders themselves who are loyal to the UK).

I have at last found a place where I can volunteer. Stafford asked a friend of his, Majo, if she had any ideas for me. Last week she took me to a home for teenage girls. I worked on a little English with one sweet 14 year old and helped a learning impaired young woman with a little very basic reading and writing. When Majo and I were done, it was time for dinner at this home of about 23 young women. We joined Padre Pablo (also a volunteer) and a bunch of the kids while others served the meatloaf and fries. It was a fun meal that kept me on my toes trying to communicate in Spanish. Volunteers at this facility are arranged through an NGO called Siloé. This seems to be a great organization. If you are going to spend a couple months in BA and want to volunteer, you should contact them.

Slowly but surely, the trees are growing bear and the temperature is dropping. I have taken my sleeping bag out of the stuff sack and have even put my water bottle filled with hot water in my bed to help me stay warm on a couple occasions. I like this weather though and the sense of change. Plus, I know that I will soon be enjoying this year´s third summer when I arrive in Miami on June 27.