Monday, March 23, 2009
There are no ads thanking me for taking transit or hailing me an environmental hero. Instead, there are ads suggesting what pathetic little lives we transit users have. How else to explain when Money Mart and other payday loan sharks, the Credit Counseling Society, the Rental Assistance Program, and the Pardon Service are all advertising to such a captivated audience? There are ads for employment centres, and several ads for various career colleges. One school even has the slogan, swim with the new fish. How nice. What they really mean is that you have to take transit because you’re a flunkee and your only hope of redeeming your pitiful life is to take one of their courses.
I even noticed one ad today from the Centre of Disease Control, with a man staring out to the stinkin’ masses with a bar of soap in his hand, and the simple message, “start by using plain soap”. I noticed others on the train checking to see if they too applied deodorant.
Even the cell phones ads are geared to losers. Instead of showing off the latest features of the phones, the messaging is all about the lowest rates. They might as well say, “Yes, even smelly you, with bad credit, no job, a lousy education, and a criminal record can still have a cell phone at low rates.”
As the train rolled into my stop, I looked up and saw one ad that asked, “Need an Education Plan.” Maybe what it should have said is “Need a Life Plan?”
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
"Go ask your mommy," I said!
See how easy that was.
Then there are questions that are a little trickier to answer. Like yesterday when he asked, "what is light?" Why do kids have to be so curious? I didn't know what to say. Somehow my usual response to these types of questions...it's magic, son...just didn't seem appropriate. So I did what any self respecting parent would do. I changed the subject.
Doesn't my son know that his Dad is scientifically deficient. The last science class I took was in Grade 11, and it was Earth Science, which was really a remedial class for losers who had no aptitude for the "real" sciences. Most students dissected pigs and frogs, or amputated their classmates' limbs. Some got high learning the chemistry period table, while others debated frictional and centripetal forces. We learned about rocks. I digress.
Why didn't he ask what the capital of Burkina Faso is? Or the deepest part of the world's oceans? Or the currency used in Panama? (In case you'd like to impress someone at your next cocktail party, it's...Ouagadougou, Mariana Trench, and the U.S. Dollar.)
Later, and wanting to feel enlightened, I did a Google search on light. I'm more confused now than I was when I was ignorant about these types of things.
Light waves are a little more complicated (no kidding), and they do not need a medium to travel through. They can travel through a vacuum. A light wave consists of energy in the form of electric and magnetic fields. The fields vibrate at right angles to the direction of movement of the wave, and at right angles to each other. Because light has both electric and magnetic fields, it is also referred to as electromagnetic radiation.Light not only vibrates at different frequencies, it also travels at different speeds. Light waves move through a vacuum at their maximum speed, 300,000 kilometers per second or 186,000 miles per second, which makes light the fastest phenomenon in the universe. Light waves slow down when they travel inside substances, such as air, water, glass or a diamond. The way different substances affect the speed at which light travels is key to understanding the bending of light, or refraction.
Sure...now how am I supposed to explain that to my son?
"Better go ask your mommy!"
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
We wandered down to the harbour area, hoping that the immigration officer had somehow made a mistake, and that the hovercraft would operate the following day. But any hope of that happening was quickly dashed when we started talking to a young man, who was dripping wet after having swum in the lake. The next day was Sunday, and for sure, he told us there would be no boat, and no one was really sure when it would operate.
“Aeropeurto,” I said, sounding desperate, and with my arms stretched out mimicking an airplane. The guidebook suggested that San Carlos was served with flights to the capital, Managua. From there, a short taxi ride would take us to Granada. The young man led us to a small office, where one could supposedly make reservations. No one was there, but someone nearby said that it should re-open in an hour or so. We sat outside grasping a sliver of hope that a flight would leave that evening, or even the following day. For a moment, I thought that we might get to Granada sooner than if there had been a ferry. We kept glancing at our watches, but no one returned to the office. Feeling somewhat helpless and dejected, we returned to our room.
We hadn’t eaten much all day and our bottle of water was running low. We were emotionally drained. Both of us had travelled a lot, but as we sat on our beds, our heads hung low, it was the first time that we felt the road had beaten us.
The walls between the rooms in the hotel were made of thin, wood paneling. A ledge ran along the wall, and we noticed a light coloured, powdery substance on part of the ledge. We wiped it clean, but within minutes it reappeared. My wife then lifted the mattress and noticed an army of bugs moving about. “I guess we are both sleeping in one bed,” she said, after inspecting the other mattress. The thought of two people trying to sleep in a single bed in the sticky, tropical heat didn’t seem overly inviting, so I made a last attempt to see if the airline office had re-opened.
It looked as deserted as it did when we had been there earlier. It was then that I thought to myself that we should abandon our goal of reaching Granada, and return to Costa Rica the following morning. I walked along the town’s main street, where women were preparing an evening meal over open fires. I stopped and spoke to a man who sold soda and other confectionaries from his tiny home. I gave him a dollar for a large bottle of Pepsi. I made my way back to our hotel. The streets were empty. But I could hear music and singing, coming from a nearby church. I peered in, and noticed that the pews were overflowing. I stood outside for a few moments, soaking up the atmosphere. It was the most beautiful thing in this squalid and impoverished town.
I returned to our room, and pronounced that we should forget trying to get to Granada, and return to Costa Rica in the morning. My wife took the Pepsi from my hand, gulped a few mouthfuls of the warm fizzy drink, and then said matter-of-factly, “I made that decision hours ago.”
We had started the morning with a full bottle of water, but the long journey had left us with very little, and not enough to brush our teeth. We didn’t trust the tap water, so I ventured out again to see the man that sold me the pop, in the hope that he might have some bottled water. He didn’t, but he led me to a small bar of sorts, where bottles of water were lined up against the back wall. I had used up my last U.S. dollar buying the Pepsi, and all I had, apart from some traveller’s cheques, was a wallet full of Costa Rican money, which they wouldn’t accept. With no Nicaraguan Cordobas, they wouldn’t sell me any water.
After brushing our teeth, we ended up rinsing with the Pepsi. Having only eaten a granola bar and a banana that day, I was starving for anything, so I rummaged through our bag and found a package of M&Ms. I was about to tear into them, but not before my wife suggested, in a sensible yet forceful manner, that we might need them the next day. Who knew when our next meal would be, she reasoned.
We turned off the lights and tried to get comfortable in the single bed. I lay on my side, pinned again the wall, while Carrie, also on her side, fought to stay on the bed. The only saving grace was a fan that whirred away in the corner, providing some relief from the heat. Sleep wasn’t really an option that night, but when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Around two in the morning, a torrential rain pounded down. Thunder and lightning followed. Then the power went off, and with it the fan. Soon the hot, still air in our room got feverishly thick.
The moment day broke, we hurried down to the harbour, hoping to catch an early morning boat back to Los Chiles, but the first one wouldn’t be leaving for a couple of hours. An older man, who was also waiting for a boat negotiated with someone to take us to Los Chiles in their speedboat. The cost was five dollars each--double the cost of the regular boat, but we would get there in half the time, and we wouldn’t have to wait for two or three hours. But this good news was quickly dashed when the immigration officer wouldn’t allow the boat to leave, because he saw the operator drinking alcohol.
After some time, we climbed aboard the regular riverboat, and sat on a wooden bench at the back, next to the older man that had tried to secure our release earlier. His English was limited, but good enough that we learned he was travelling to his home in Liberia, a city in northwestern Costa Rica, and a gateway to the Pacific beaches. It was where we wanted to go, so instead of enduring a long bus ride back to the capital, San Jose, and then another long ride north to Liberia, he offered to drive us. With so much that had happened over the past 24 hours, it was the kind of good fortune we needed. By nightfall, we would be in Liberia, and the following morning, we could be sitting on the beach.
Once in Los Chiles, we climbed into his old and battered car. It sputtered to life. I wondered how we would ever make it across the country. We stopped at a roadside eatery for some lunch, and not having eaten in 36 hours, I gobbled down a large plate of chicken and rice. My wife, on the other hand, poked at a sandwich that I think she still regrets ordering. We jumped back into the car and roared across Costa Rica, driving on mostly deserted and unpaved roads. There were few towns of any note, until late afternoon, when we rolled into Upala, a small town near the Nicaraguan border. Our car had been making a terrible noise for some time. We were surprised it had made it this far. While our driver got out and started hammering away at one of the wheels, we looked around wondering if we would be forced to spend the night here. But a little hammering seemed to do the trick, and we carried on. We stopped at a service station, and our driver filled the car with about $20 worth of fuel. I had considered giving our driver $25 when we got to Liberia, so I felt content that his gas would be covered, and then he would have a little extra.
It was a warm evening when we arrived in Liberia. People were congregating in the city’s main square. We asked to be let off in the centre of town, so we could easily find a hotel. We pulled our bags out of the car, thanked the driver and gave him twenty-five dollars. His demeanour changed and he demanded a hundred dollars. We had never agreed on a price, and he was driving to Liberia anyway. He wasn’t persuaded when I told him that twenty-five was enough. In hindsight, I wonder what would have happened if we just walked away. Instead, I emptied my wallet and gave him eighty dollars. We felt cheated, but were relieved to be in Liberia without having to endure an arduous bus journey.
The following day, we found a small hotel on the beach, and recounted our recent adventure. We even laughed about it. It felt as if we had been travelling for weeks, but our trip was only a few days old. Almost sadly, the rest of our vacation went smoothly. I often wonder how things would have turned out if we hadn’t taken the road less travelled, or if we had made it to San Carlos before the ferry left. Whatever the case, I still long to see Granada.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
We closed in on Arenal, an active volcano that looms over Fortuna, a small town in the north of the country. I was reminded of the trip we took nine years ago (that's me part way up the volcano).
Below is part 1 of that adventure.
We found ourselves in Los Chiles, because when we looked at a map, it appeared close to Fortuna, where we had spent the previous night. There are two main border crossings between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Most travellers use the crossing on the Pan American highway, near the country’s west coast. The other access point between the two countries, and the one less frequented by foreigners, is at Los Chiles, a small town on the Frio River.
Los Chiles, with its many rundown, wood buildings, had the feel of a border town. It seemed less a destination, and more a stopping point on the way to somewhere else. For us, the somewhere else was Granada, Nicaragua’s oldest Spanish city, and graced with many colonial buildings. The city rests at the northern end of the mammoth Lake Nicaragua. Our research suggested that a short boat trip down the Frio would bring us to San Carlos, in Nicaragua, and from there a catamaran would whisk us across the lake to Granada. It seemed easy enough.
Looking around at the sparse amenities that Los Chiles offered, my wife commented that she was glad we weren’t spending the night there. Someone directed us to the Immigration office, where we had to report before leaving. We waited in the sultry heat for close to an hour until the office opened. And with the kind of promptness not necessarily accustomed to in this part of the world, it opened at one o’clock, as the sign promised. The officer took a few dollars from us, stamped our passports, and directed us to the river.
A long, narrow, wooden boat, with an outboard motor attached to the back was waiting, and we were waved aboard. The boat carried about 20 people, most of whom were Nicaraguans travelling home after working in Costa Rica. The river was muddy, and flowed at a languid pace. Dense jungle rose up from the banks. After thirty minutes, we came upon a small wooden shack, set high above the river. A large Nicaraguan flag moved lazily in the tropical heat. Six men, most wearing army fatigues, stood idly. One of the men looked menacing, and carried a large gun. It was the Nicaraguan border patrol, and I couldn’t help but think these guys must have drawn the short straw to be posted at such a remote location.
One of the men sauntered down to the river as our boat pulled alongside a small dock. The man with the gun kept his eyes trained on us, while his colleague spoke to the operator of our boat. Speaking in Spanish, we couldn’t understand the conversation, except when the soldier pointed at us, and the boat operator said, “Canadian”. The soldier smiled, saluted us, and with that our boat pulled away and continued downstream. The jungle soon gave way to marshy lowlands, and we passed small homes, built on stilts above the river. Large egrets soared overhead, while others were perched high atop the trees. The river emptied into the wide, open waters of Lake Nicaragua, where we could see our destination, San Carlos, in the distance. To our right, the San Juan River carried water from the lake to the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, engineers had once considered building a trans-American canal between the Atlantic and Pacific here, but political instability, forced them to build the canal further south, in Panama.
From the river, it was hard to get a sense of San Carlos. Small, wooden buildings backed onto the river. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, and we knew that the hovercraft to Granada would have already left for the day, but we were content on staying the night in San Carlos, and would take the ferry across the lake the following morning.
We scrambled onto the dock, went to the Immigration office, and handed over our eighteen-dollar entry tax. When asked, we told the officer, with knowing assurance that we were going to Granada. “But the boat has already left,” he said. “Then we shall go tomorrow,” we replied with confidence. As our conversation unfolded, it became clear that there was no ferry service the following day, and maybe not the next day either. Not wanting to believe this information, we picked up our bags, shook off some pesky kids offering to help us, and continued through a narrow walkway that led to the town’s main street. We walked through the dusty streets. Flies and other bugs flew up in our faces, as our feet disturbed them from feasting on discarded fruit peels and other bits of garbage. It was a surreal experience as people stared at the gringos that had come to their town. Maybe they were simply curious, or maybe they wondered why we had taken the road less travelled.
The mid-day heat was wearing on us, and since we were probably going to have to spend at least one night here, we decided to look for a place to stay. We pulled out our guidebook, which suggested the only clean place was the Cabinas Lykos. As luck would have it, not more than a few feet in front of us was a large painted sign with an arrow pointing toward that hotel.
We climbed a set of stairs, and stood at a small reception area. It was dark inside, except for the light that radiated from a television that sat on a table in the middle of a large sitting area. Soon a woman appeared. Her English was only slightly better than our Spanish, but she knew enough that we were looking for a room. The small, fifteen-dollar a night room fronted the darkened sitting area, where we saw the television. Two single beds separated a narrow space that led to the bathroom. Aching for a shower, I turned the taps that were hooked up to a pipe protruding from the wall, but nothing came out. I found someone and not knowing the Spanish word for shower, I acted it out. They went out back, and like magic, water trickled from the pipe.
Tomorrow, the adventure continues
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Today, we travel to Sighisoara.
I shared the compartment with an older couple. He was nicely dressed in a three-piece suit, and she wore a dress and a periwinkle scarf that matched the colour of her wispy hair. As our train pushed deeper into Transylvania, the morning fog added a sense of mystery to the passing landscape. I wished I spoke Romanian, because I’m sure my seatmates would have stories to tell about life in Romania. Besides, they were probably just as curious of me as I was of them. Instead, I offered them some chocolate. Wrapped up in his newspaper, he declined, but a smile lit up across his wife’s face and she gladly accepted. It was nice to see that a woman’s love for chocolate is universal. She rustled through her purse and pulled out a bag of peppered pretzels, which she offered to me. “Multumesc”--thank you, I said. The train slowed as we neared Sighisoara, and since this was my stop, I gathered my bag from the rack above. I nodded and smiled at the couple as I left the compartment. They waved back.
“Are you from Canada,” a woman asked, as I jumped off the train. I wondered how she knew where I was from. “I’m Christine…Gabriel said you would be on this train.” Christine and her husband rent out part of their home to visitors, and it came well recommended. Up on a hill, not far from the station, stands Sighisoara’s beautifully preserved citadel. Lucky for me, Christine’s home was located in the middle of this charming medieval town.
We walked up the cobbled streets to the citadel, where we passed under the 15th Century clock tower. It was like stepping back in time, and being invited into a town that we usually read about in history books. In the shadow of an ageless church, artisans sold their crafts much as they would have hundreds of years ago. A maze of quaint streets, void of vehicles, led us to Christine’s home. I left my bag and began exploring this restful town. I enjoyed losing myself down enchanting lanes.
Sighisoara is rightly known for its ancient heritage, but it also lays claim to the birthplace of “Dracula”. The legend of Dracula is difficult to sort out. Vlad Tepes, a 15th Century Wallachian Prince, who was born in Sighisoara, is often credited with being Dracula, the vampire-count featured in Bram Stoker’s renowned story. While Tepes was rather bloodthirsty, especially when it came to his enemies¾impaling them on wooden stakes--he was not a vampire. The only part of Stoker’s story that has any fact is that it was set in Transylvania.
Vlad Tepes, or “Dracula’s” house is now a restaurant and bar. I didn’t want to get caught up in the Dracula-hype, but I forced myself to have dinner in the home. It wasn’t tacky or kitschy like one might find in other parts of the world. In fact, except for a small historical marker on the outside of the building, one wouldn’t know it was the former home of the infamous “vampire”. I climbed a set of wooden stairs, where a narrow hall led to the main dining area. Sets of large, medieval looking chairs surrounded small wood tables. A knight’s metal armor, complete with axe, stood nearby in an alcove. And on the menu was Dracula [tomato] soup.
One day, I decided to rent a bicycle and explore the nearby countryside. I headed west on the main road that ran through Sighisoara. After a steady upward climb, the mountains parted and the road spilled out into a beautiful valley. Fields of corn, coloured by the mid-day sun, stretched out like a warm blanket on the earth. I shared the two-lane road with large transport trucks, buses, speeding cars, and horse-drawn carts. But mostly I was alone. The silence interrupted only by the passing of a distant train.
The first village I came to was Danes. Small, beautiful homes lined the main road. Each house was adorned with an ornate cross. I stopped at a small store to replenish my water supply. Instead of receiving a few cents of change from my purchase, I was given a bright red candy--a Romanian tradition I had read about. After a few gulps of water, I mounted my bike and continued on. In the distance, I noticed a church spire rising above a small village. As I got closer, a road sign pointed to the town of Dumbraveni. I pedaled across a narrow, wooden bridge and parked my bike in front of the large gothic church, the one I had seen from the road. I walked along quiet streets, past well-kept homes.
Finally, I made my way back to the church and found a bench, shaded by a leafy tree. After a quick rest, I looked at my watch, and was surprised that it was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon. Wanting to get back to Sighisoara before dark, I jumped back on my bike and took a shortcut to the main road. Along the way, I passed gypsy farmers finishing their work in the fields.
After two days in Sighisoara, I returned to the train station for the five-hour journey back to Bucharest. I climbed aboard the train, found my seat, and peered reflectively out the window. I didn’t see any vampires in Transylvania, but I did find enchanting and magical towns. And bucolic fields, surrounded by verdant hills. As the train slipped out of the station, and Sighisoara faded into my memory, I hoped that one day I might return to Transylvania.
I arrived at Bucharest’s main train station, Gara de Nord, prepared for the roving gangs of gypsy kids that were supposedly waiting to pick my pocket. I was almost disappointed when I didn’t encounter them. There was the odd kid begging for money, but they were quickly swept out onto the street. The station was bustling with activity, but I found my train easily enough. I climbed aboard and located my compartment, where I discovered that I had been sold a first class ticket. I didn’t mind. The eleven-dollar fare was a bargain for the three-and-a-half hour journey to Brasov, my first destination. I settled into my seat and peered out the window. Weary travelers were just waking up as the overnight train from Belgrade crawled into the station. On the next platform, supplies and people were being loaded onto the Sofia – Moscow train, and then as scripted, my train jumped to life at 7:24 am, and inched away from the station. We rolled past drab, concrete, Soviet-style apartment blocks, but soon the train picked up steam, or should I say electricity. Bucharest melted away, leaving us in the middle of a vast, fertile plain that stretched to the horizon. Except for my music, I was alone in the compartment. The sound of the train’s whistle drifted across the passing cornfields, which the morning sun had brushed a golden hue. It was as if someone had spread sweet honey across the landscape.
Ninety minutes after leaving Bucharest, we began snaking through the Transylvanian Alps. We passed small villages. The conductor threw newspapers to expectant and eager townspeople. The scenery took on a decidedly alpine look. The autumn leaves were painted with vivid yellows and rich reds. Even the houses had a mountain-look to them.
The train rolled into Brasov’s train station. The town was much larger and more industrial looking than I imagined. I clamored down onto the platform, and followed the crowds to the station.
Brasov is one of Romania’s most visited towns. In winter, people flock here to indulge in the nearby ski resorts. Others are drawn, so they can follow in the footsteps of Dracula. But since I was only in Brasov overnight, I chose to discover the town’s medieval centre. I followed my map, and walked about fifteen minutes from the train station past modern-looking apartments, banks and a multi-level shopping mall. As I got closer to the historic part of town, the buildings teased me as they took on more colour and character. Then, as if in a theatre production, I walked onto the town’s main stage--Piata Sfatului, the central square. Narrow streets had opened up into a stunning plaza. Beautifully crafted and coloured Baroque buildings lined the square. The Council House, built in 1420, and painted custard yellow, rose gently in the middle. It was in this building that the town councilors, or Centurions, as they were known, would meet. Today, the Brasov Historical Museum calls it home. As I strolled through the plaza, with its many outdoor eateries, I had to keep reminding myself that what I was seeing was genuine--it wasn’t some Disney or Las Vegas creation that we get so accustomed to in North America.
Brasov’s famed Black Church, named so because of its blackened appearance from a fire in 1689, towered above the square and is still used today by German Lutherans. Brasov is comfortably tucked in a v-shape valley between two mountains, and began as a German mercantile colony in the 13th Century. Frequent attacks by the Tartars and Turks, forced the Saxons to fortify their towns with sturdy walls. Much of the wall surrounding Brasov is still intact.
I met up again with three people from Edmonton, who coincidentally I shared an apartment with during my stay in Brasov. We decided to go to the top of Mount Tampa, which climbs nearly 1,000 metres above the town. There was a cable car that whisks people up the mountain in minutes, but someone in our group suggested we hike up. We began the ascent, and followed the switchback of trails that went on forever. The colourful leaves on the trees formed a natural canopy. We stopped along the way to rest and admire the view. As we climbed higher and higher, Brasov got smaller and smaller. It looked like a town out of a fairy-tale. We made our way to a lookout that jutted out from the side of the mountain. The view was spectacular, but we couldn’t linger long, because the afternoon sun was quickly dropping behind the surrounding mountains.
We ended the day by finding a restaurant that had been built in an underground cave.
Look for part 2 tomorrow, as I travel deeper into Transylvania and visit the quaint town of Sighisoara.