Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A brooding Miami sky

There's lots to like about the United States, but the fact you can rent a car for $17 a day (and that includes all the insidious fees) is one of them.

With a 15 hour layover in Miami I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my bags. Schlepping them through the city didn't seem overly convenient. Getting a hotel was too expensive. So, renting a car seemed like a good option. I could store my bags in the trunk, and wheels would give me the opportunity to explore.

So, bleary eyed from the overnight flight, I took a shuttle to the car rental centre, hopped in a little white Kia Rio and drove east toward the beaches. I scanned the radio stations and found most were in Spanish. Not surprising, I suppose, when I later learned that more than two-thirds of the people in Miami speak Spanish as a first language. Just 25% claim the same for English.

I followed Highway 1 north toward Fort Lauderdale, passing through Golden Beach, where the money in this small community oozed from the beachfront mansions to the boulevard of stately palm trees that looked as if they were manicured daily. Residents seemed cloistered in their grand homes behind large walls and fancy gates. 

I stopped at Hollywood Beach and walked across the powdery, gray sand. The sky looked bruised, as clouds coloured deep purple and black brooded in the background. The sun struggled to be seen, while the waves crashed onto the beach. I laid in the sand, closed my eyes, and let the warm water wash over me.

Except for the lifeguard and the odd jogger who passed by, I was alone at the beach.    

Hollywood Beach, between Fort Lauderdale and Miami
I left Hollywood Beach and turned south towards Miami leisurely driving through the string of beach towns. Beautiful apartment towers lined the beaches, while million dollar homes and million dollar boats lined the canal on the opposite side. Finally, I reached Miami's famed South Beach, where its pastel hued art-deco buildings are filled with apartments and quaint hotels, trendy restaurants and funky coffee shops.

The pastel colours of South Beach

After a quick walk through the area, I hopped back into the car and drove across the Venetian Causeway, so named because of the old, white bridges that span the many man-made islands in Biscayne Bay. For added drama, two shafts of lightning on either side of me shot down and the ominous roar of thunder shouted across the bay. Then, the sky that had looked bruised and beaten for much of the day exacted its revenge by lashing out and unleashing a savage rain storm.

Thinking it must be a sign to leave, I make my way to the airport.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Sleepless from Seattle

It's nine-thirty at night, and I'm in Seattle waiting for an overnight flight to Miami. I can't sleep on airplanes! I don't know if it's the seat, the noise, the proximity of the person next to me,or maybe some psychological issues of wanting to be in control (lest I'm seen drooling in public). Maybe it's the thought of sleeping with 130 other people.

I have a friend whose super power is that he can sleep anywhere - I'm sure he could even sleep on a 3rd class train in India. Even my father-in-law can fall asleep sitting up on a chair or sofa. I wasn't bestowed with such powers.

I remember once on an overnight flight from Honolulu to Vancouver. It was an old Canadian Airlines DC-10, and the in-flight entertainment didn't work. This was only a problem for me and the guy sitting across the aisle, because everyone else (including my wife) was sleeping. We just looked at each other knowing that we wouldn't be alone in our suffering. I don't know if one can read too much into the fact that a couple of hours into the flight those enjoying a restful flight had been shaken awake by bad turbulence. If we all can't sleep, then no one will.

Another time my wife and I were on an overnight bus in Australia and I had taken a Gravol, or a reasonable facsimile, and just as I was feeling groggy and my eyes heavy, the driver said he was stopping for a rest, and we had to exit the bus. I tried to stay awake in snack shop in a brightly lit gas station in the middle of an Australian nowhere, before climbing back on the bus and trying to sleep.

At 2,724 miles, the six-and-a-half hour flight from Seattle to Miami is the longest non-stop flight in the continental United States. And for me, no doubt the longest sleepless night as well. And if that wasn't bad enough, I will be in Miami for about 15 hours before boarding another overnight flight to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
When I went to bed last night, I thought about how it would be three days until I would again be able to fall asleep in a bed.

A shame really that super powers can't be bought or traded. Maybe I will just have to find myself a palm tree to rest against on Miami Beach.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fifteen bucks to Mexico...sort of

What's the cheapest you've ever paid for a flight somewhere? I once paid about $40 (taxes and fees, if there were any, included) for a 90 minute flight on Iran Air, from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz to Tehran. An added bonus was getting to fly in an old Soviet-built Tupolev 154, which shook something terrible on takeoff.

I also bought a ticket for $39 for a flight from Seattle to San Francisco. The total cost of that return trip was $110. And a year or so ago, I snapped up tickets for the family to fly nonstop on Air Canada from Vancouver for Maui. I felt bad (okay not really) only paying Air Canada $410, taxes included, for the return flight.

Through a complicated online booking error, a friend of mine and her family (and several friends) booked a flight from Vancouver to Cairo for $350 (taxes and fees included). For those like my father, who would rather sail across the ocean rather than step into an airplane, the routing -- Vancouver-Toronto-Rome-Cairo-Rome-New York-Los Angeles-Vancouver-- may not have suited you, but for $350 I would have offered to walk the aisles clearing away meal trays.

Now what does all this have to do with the title of the post? Well, if you've noticed the flight deals in the newspaper recently you might have seen that you can fly to Mexico from Vancouver for $15. Of course, you'll have to leave on September 27 and return a week later. Oh, and you'll need to add $290 in taxes and fees. But for $305 you can find yourself on a beach in Mexico.

So, where does one find cheap fares? Sometimes it's luck, like the $400 round trip fare from Los Angeles to Sydney I once stumbled on just hours after the folks in Australia woke up from a night's sleep and discovered the error. But often it's take some poking around the Internet. And before you jump on that cheap fare, make sure you've added in the extras -- like fees for checked baggage, advanced seat selection, and for those with birthdays that fall on Wednesdays.

A couple of useful sights I have used.

Click on Airfare search and plug in some destinations. You can even search for a month period to find the best deal. And while you can't book directly from this site, it will give you the fare breakdown, which you can then use on a booking site or the airline's website.

You will find a lot of travel related information on this site. If you're looking for cheap airfares, then click on the Mileage Run Deals. Many of these deals are posted for people wanting to maximize the number of miles in their airline loyalty program, so you'll read about people who'll fly from San Francisco to Australia, only to spend a couple of hours in the airport, before reboarding the same aircraft back to the U.S.

Kayak is another useful tool for sourcing out good fares and prices on flights, hotels, and car rentals.

And remember, if you find a good deal, send me a postcard (do people still send postcards?).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sometimes we can't taste success on the first try

Like it was for the 4,000 other participants, it was the unique challenge of cycling 120km from Vancouver to Whistler that first attracted me to the GranFondo Whistler. I’ve driven the Sea to Sky Highway countless times, but to do it on a bicycle would be an entirely different experience. And so for the past five months I’ve excitedly been waiting for the day of the event. That it would end prematurely on a stretcher in the Medics tent was not how I imagined it to unfold, but more on that later.

As I mentioned in a previous post I had never been one of those real cyclists, clad in Lycra, but over the past four months I followed a training program that would make it easy to climb the hills and cover the distance to Whistler. Physically I was feeling great. I had lost a few pounds and was in better shape than I had been in years. I felt a great sense of accomplishment about 6 weeks ago, when I completed a 170km ride in Washington. Sure my legs felt like they had been hit by a truck when I finished, but considering I had been pedalling for more than seven hours, it was to be expected.

But soon after that ride, I would learn that my iliotibial band (a tough group of fibers that runs along the outside of the thigh; connecting the gluteal muscles and the tensor fascia lata muscle to the tibia, just below the knee) had become irritated, causing pain and discomfort in the knee.
I hoped that with rest, visits to the physiotherapist, and exercises specifically designed to strengthen the muscles in my legs and butt, I would be able to ride the GranFondo.

The day couldn’t have begun any better, as I joined the more than 4,000 cyclists crowding the start on Georgia Street, with the sun rising behind us. Soon I was rolling through the Stanley Park causeway and onto the Lion’s Gate Bridge. I admired the stunning view, while chatting with some other cyclists.

My legs felt great climbing Taylor Way in West Vancouver, and I was pleased with my time, when I hit 20 km, near Horseshoe Bay, in a little less than an hour. As I snaked along the Sea to Sky Highway I took care of my legs by resting them and not pedalling down steep hills. I nursed my left knee by pushing harder with my right leg--a strategy that I would later learn may work on a short ride, but would not stand up on a long one.

As I rounded a corner at Furry Creek, the first large hill rose up like a giant towering in front of me, as if daring to challenge its might. On the side of the road a group of supporters cheered on riders. Two women held a sign with a Lululemon logo on it that read, Do one thing a day that scares you. I overheard one cyclist say, “It doesn’t scare me... it just hurts.”

I was buoyed by the halfway sign, near Squamish and felt that despite some discomfort in my knees I was going to make it. After downing some pizza and pasta at the Squamish rest stop, I continued on and felt confident tackling what many would consider the most challenging part of the ride, a continuous climb that goes on for more than 7 km, and rises more than 1,000 feet.
“What a damn hill,” I heard a woman next to me mutter, as a line of cyclists, looking like a group of mountain climbers scaling a peak, pushed higher. Further on, I said to that same woman, “Are we there yet?” She replied that the hill had to end sometime.

I got off my bike at the fourth aid station, and I could feel that the ride was taking a toll on my knees. But after a quick rest, I set off again, and with just 30 km to go, I thought I could eke it out to the finish. I even imagined sending an, I DID IT text message to two of my friends and former colleagues, who are always keenly interested and supportive of my worldly exploits. But in the end I would never send that message.

As I soldiered on, the pain in my knees became sharp, and I winced each time my legs struggled to push down on the pedals. I knew a rest stop was only about 5km away, and I thought that maybe, just maybe if I could make it there, I might be able to get to Whistler.

But as I passed a sign on the highway marking 100km, the pain was excruciating and I could no longer will my legs to push anymore. I climbed off my bike, sat on a concrete barrier by the side of the road, and called my wife, who was waiting for me in Whistler.

“I can’t do it,” I said to her sounding defeated. “My legs won’t go anymore.” I asked her to come and pick me up. But just then two motorcyclists doing first aid duty stopped, and when I told them I couldn’t go any further, they called for someone to pick me and my bike up.

I stood on the side of the road, and as other cyclists passed by me I thought about success and failure. And while I was disappointed that I didn’t reach my goal, I tried to console myself with the fact that I gave it everything I had. And I reminded myself that sometimes we don't always taste success on the first try.

It was more than an hour later before I would arrive in Whistler, near the finish line in a small bus. I tried to stand to get off the bus, but I couldn’t. I tried again, but fell back into the seat. My legs had seized up and I couldn’t walk. Someone came to the bus and said they would get a wheelchair and a doctor. I was helped off the bus, and wheeled to a stretcher in the Medics tent, where they worked on my legs until they would move again. In great pain, I got into our car and my wife drove to our hotel. It’s not how I thought it would all turn out.

If my body will allow I’ll ride again next year, and try and slay this beast.