Category Archives: Travels

What Next?

It’s been about nine months since I last posted, so maybe no-one will ever read this. But I do have something to say.

I’m now living in Wells in Somerset, just a few miles down the road from Glastonbury.

I have returned to this country after an incredible adventure that took me around the world. Everywhere I went people welcomed me, from post-colonial Africa, to post-war Vietnam to Francophone Quebec. Also, there was no obvious generation gap, as I shared dormitories, explored new places and went dancing with new friends of all ages.

The press, and others, are now trying to increase the divisions in our society by focussing on the obvious difference between the majority vote of young people versus that of the “over 60s”.

Remember, David Bowie was 69 when he died.

The demographic of “over 65s”  includes people who were born in the 20s, people who experienced WW2 and those who voted for the “welfare state” at the conclusion of that epic struggle. They have seen unbelievable changes during their lifetimes and may not necessarily feel they were all improvements. Also, many now live solitary lives in poverty, as our state pension is one of the lowest in Europe.

Since we joined the EU there has been a campaign of misinformation by certain media about all aspects of our life. This has become vindictive over the last few weeks, while unscrupulous and self-interested politicians have exploited the situation.

In the end, 37.5% of the electorate voted to leave the UK, while 34.5% voted to remain, and no parameters had been set to determine what should be considered a mandate.

The newspapers are full of tables comparing old with young, North with South, Scotland with Wales. .

Don’t let them take you in again.

The main cause of the problems in the UK lies with successive governments, who, in their arrogance and ignorance, have tried to deflect the blame for their errors of judgement onto the EU, immigration, extremist forces, the opposition or any other scapegoats they could find.

It is our own politicians who have brought us to this dismal day. They are now seeking to capitalise on the confusion that this totally mismanaged referendum has left us with.

I consider myself lucky to have been born in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century. I could expect basic standards of clean air and water, I could travel where I liked (if I could afford it), and I can claim human rights that would be unthinkable in certain countries.

But essentially it is the planet Earth that I share with my fellow humans and, indeed, with all living beings. All the energy and mass in the universe once shared the same tiny point and we are all made of the same stuff – stardust.

So for anyone out there, feeling disappointment and anxiety about their future after “Brexit”, don’t look to the politicians or the press to find you someone to blame.

We need more love and compassion at the difficult times of our lives, not less.

Even for those very public figures who have brought us to this predicament.

But I do hope that somehow we might still be able to stand together with our European neighbours and friends to face the future and a new day.

“The heart is like a garden. It can grow compassion or fear, resentment or love.

What seeds will you plant there?”

Buddha

Washington DC, Friday 25/09/15

I left Nashville by Greyhound bus. I thought I was going to Charleston on the coast of South Carolina. After a stop at Wytheville I realised that we were going in the wrong direction. In fact I had bought a ticket to Charleston, West Virginia. 

This was a really stupid mistake. I had not noticed that there are two Charlestons, and that both bus routes pass through Wytheville. Though I had checked the ticket, I had not noticed the tell-tale WV, identifying the state. Doh!

So when I arrived at the other Charleston, I had to buy another ticket to my intended destination. The girl at the ticket office was very kind, let me leave my backpack without fee and told me how to get around town. 

I had a thirteen hour wait and there wasn’t much to see. I hung around in cafés and the mall and went to see “A Walk in the Woods” at the local cinema. Not a great film, but it filled in a couple of hours. 

Another nighttime bus journey and I was actually where I wanted to be. 

Charleston is charming, in many different ways. The first thing I noticed was the design of houses, typically with first floor verandas around the side, or balconies in front.  

   The official buildings can be very grand. This is the old Customs House, which is right by the old market, a popular hangout for tourists.  
 There are free trolley cars to get you around the city and they are used by the locals as well as sightseers. 

They eat a lot of seafood and “grits” and other things which are not vegetarian, but people were very accommodating about my diet choice. (Grits is a kind of maize porridge, but I was warned it contained lard). 

In fact, the people are what makes this place so pleasant. They say hello to you as you walk down the street, often with an unexpected compliment. They talked to me in the street cars and in the restaurants and thus introduced me to what they call Southern Hospitality, which feels completely genuine. 

Charleston has a bit of a dark past. This was laid before me in the museum, which dealt with the War of Independence, the history of slavery and the city’s role in starting the Civil War. 

There was a great deal I did not know about American history and I found the museum most instructive. I will not discuss all that here, but the exhibition continued into the more recent past, including the Roaring Twenties and onwards. This, for example, is Gershwin’s piano, as this is where he wrote “Porgy and Bess”. 

 I did explore Charleston’s history further. This Old Slave Mart was used to buy and sell slaves who were born within the Southern plantations after it was prohibited to transport slaves from Africa. 

 I also visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the only property of its type which remains in the hands of its original family owners. Although Spring would be the best time to visit, because of the magnolias and azaleas, it still exuded a sense of the old South.  

   Charleston is an attractive and lively place, as I discovered while taking a “pub stroll” one evening. However, I also read about a shooting at Mother Emanuel church which took place on 17th June this year. Nine people were killed in a racist attack. I was shocked and appalled to realise how divided this nation still can be and I suggest you read some of the details of the case and its aftermath. 

I wanted to move on to Savannah, a little further South. Yet I was once again having a problem. All available accommodation was very expensive and it was not easy to get in and out of by public transport. This was also true of New Orleans, which I had always intended to visit. Eventually I just bought a plane ticket directly there, which cost an arm and a leg as far as I was concerned. I managed to find a cheap but pleasant hostel, but on the shuttle from the airport people were descending at the Hyatt, the Sheraton and the Marriott, places which cost £150-200 a night. 

I had a great time in New Orleans. I spent two nights in the NotSo Hostel, (say it out loud and you may understand the Southern accent). Then two more nights with a lovely family who were my Servas hosts. 

My first night in the hostel I went out to the French Quarter with all the people in my dorm. We ended up in Frenchmen Street listening to some live jazz. This involved walking through Bourbon Street, which is seriously weird. You are allowed to walk around carrying alcoholic drinks as long as they are in plastic containers. They sell pre-mixed cocktails from large pump containers. Girls are apparently given bead necklaces for flashing their breasts, though many of them were not wearing much in the first place. It was a bit like Newcastle, with sweat. 

The feel of “Nawlins”, is unique, however. People hang over the beautiful ornamental balconies. They relax on porch swings and rocking chairs.  They ride the trams. Everyone talks to you, all the time. 

Here are a few images from my time there.  

    
   I took a tour out in the swamp, something I was really looking forward to. The boat went out on the Pearl River and through the bayou. The weather was not the best, as it was chilly and overcast. Also I was a little upset that the guide of a supposedly “eco”tour fed the animals with hot dogs and marshmallows. Nevertheless, it was a dream come true.  
   

  

 My last evening there was one of the best. My host family took me out to a jazz bar under the stars, where the food was great and the live music even better. They were utterly congenial company and it was a sensational ending to my time in the Deep South. 

The die was cast, however. Though I’ve had some fantastic times in the USA, seen some marvellous places and met some extraordinary people, I had bought my ticket back to the UK. I was tired of spending hours on the Internet trying to find a cheap enough place to stay that wasn’t a motel miles out from the city. I didn’t want to hire or buy a car on my own, because of the hassle and expense, but America is still the land where the car is king. I even found myself wishing I had lots of money – and isn’t that where the American Dream stems from? 

All around the world I have found happiness in the most unlikely places and here has been no exception, but it sucks you in and entices you with the consumerism. 

Many of the people I’ve met in the last two years have very little, but they are happy to share. They care about their friends and family. They know how to enjoy themselves but can stand in awe of the beauty of nature around them. They have been so enthusiastic about my adventure and have helped me in so many ways. 

Tomorrow I will see some of my own family again. I’m so excited. But as I learnt on a mindfulness meditation in New Zealand, with every step, and in every place on this wondrous planet, I have arrived home. 

New Orleans, Tuesday 22/09/15

It was a joy to spend some time with my old friends, Ed and Dolly, at their beautiful home in Montclair, New Jersey. 

The first day I was whisked off by Dolly and her daughter, Claire, to the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan to see an exhibition of fashion. Based on the theme of “Through the Looking-Glass” it showed Chinese costume through the ages, juxtaposed with more modern variations, many of them very beautiful and/or playful. As it was well-attended, the lighting was subdued and there were mirrors all around, it was difficult for me to take good photos, but these two capture a little of the mood.  

   We also took in an exhibition of portraits by J. S. Sargent and another on Lewis Carroll. The latter included a copy of the original story that was given to Alice Liddel by him, complete with his own drawings and with some distinct differences from the version we know. Then we met up with Ed for dinner. A lovely day with friends. 

Over the next few days I explored Montclair a little and met some of the neighbours. 

We drove out to Pennsylvania to view a property selling lavender, which may or may not figure in Ed’s retirement plans. We stopped in Doylestown, where literally the whole town was out to see an team of eight carthorses pulling a carriage delivering beer to all the bars. 

One day I took some time off from visiting gardens and having great food with the Rosens to take a trip in to Manhattan by myself. One of the things I wanted to do was walk along the High Line, a park of wild flowers built on a disused elevated train track. It was a popular place to be, with people having their lunches while sitting on the numerous benches or just taking in the scenery.  

 As you can see from this photograph, though, there is a large boardwalk which means I was not walking among the plants in the way I had hoped. Nevertheless, it is an admirable initiative and seems to be inspiring similar projects elsewhere. 

I visited the Chelsea Market for the first time, but after that I went on a nostalgic trip, visiting 52nd Street and First, where Chris and I had stayed for a few months when our daughter, Eleanor, was very little, and strolling in Central Park. Sadly, FAO Schwarz, the huge toy shop on 5th Avenue, (the one that features in the film “Big”), has been closed down. 

Finally I visited the memorial at Ground Zero. I found the twin squares, each  with water falling into a seemingly bottomless pit, quietly moving. 

It has been many years since I was last in New York and I may never be there again. Thanks to Ed and Dolly’s hospitality I was able to relax, enjoy discussions about the future, but also reflect on the happy times I spent in that city long ago. 

Partly at Ed’s prompting, I flew off to Nashville, Tennessee. It was raining hard when I arrived, so after the shuttle ride to the hostel, I only ventured out to a nearby Mexican restaurant for something to eat. 

Nashville is not a particularly easy city to walk around. Though there are sidewalks, many are closed for construction and others run along featureless roads. Because of the location of my hostel I had to walk beside a long flyover to get to downtown. During the day there didn’t appear to be much going on. It did provide me with this classic image, however.  

 After 6pm though, Nashville bursts into life and becomes a completely different animal. There was a free concert in a park, Live in the Green. I went with someone I met at the hostel. It was quite small, but the music was great. There were two local bands, both excellent, followed by Rodrigo y Gabriella, the acoustic guitar duo who play Nuevo Flamenco and even heavy metal. 

The next day I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Though a little costly, this was definitely worth it and I learnt so much. 

There was a section on Sam Phillips.  For those who don’t know, he was the founder of Sun Records, as well as a couple of radio stations. He discovered a few artists, including B.B.King, Howling Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, oh yes, Elvis Presley. He advocated racial equality and opened opportunities for female artists. 

As you would expect in the museum, there were lots of memorabilia, and I also took the tour to the RCA recording studio, where an X marks the spot where Elvis would stand to sing during sessions. 

One of the most informative displays for me was on the partnership of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the producer, Bob Johnston. 

 Because Dylan chose to record three albums in Nashville, using session musicians as well as a group originally called the Hawks, who later became The Band, many other artists followed suit. They discovered the superb musicianship of the local talent and opened up Country music to new influences. 

So after an instructive day, I joined with some more people from the hostel and went to Broadway, where all the bars have live music. The first place we tried, the musicians were good but the set was pretty middle-of-the-road Country. The next place, the band playing were not particularly competent. But the third place was just right and I danced until 2.30am. 

Back to the hostel and the next day off to Charleston. 

Nashville, 12/09/15

From Ottawa I went on to Quebec City, via Montréal bus station. I stayed with another Servas host family in an area called the Sillery, a little way out from the city centre, or downtown. It’s a quiet, quaint area, with pleasant walks, but unfortunately at risk from the “developers”.

There’s an old, walled part of the city, which comprises many attractive buildings and La Citadelle, a huge fortress built by the British.

  
 This is an enormous hotel, situated below the Citadel and viewed from the esplanade in front of the river.

As you would expect, there are plenty of souvenir shops, restaurants and art galleries. The floral displays are as remarkable as they are elsewhere in Quebec. There was a good public transport system to get me around the various attractions. But. . .

On my first visit to the old city I was surprised to see a huge, block-like Hilton hotel very close to the old walls and the Parliament building. Across the river there is an oil refinery and in the opposite direction you can see smoking factory chimneys. Beside the old port there are rows of silos.

Of course I realise that this is a working city that needs to exist in the modern world. There are many places around the world that have been preserved as tourist attractions and this is no exception. I just wish there had been a little more discretion as to how they organised the juxtaposition of the old and the new or functional.

Perhaps the site of greatest historical significance is The Plains of Abraham/Les Plaines d’Abraham. This is now a large green park on the cliffs along the foreshore, but in 1759 it was the location of a battle between the French and the British. Though the British won on that occasion, the victory was not decisive, but eventually the French ceded New France. The conflict soon diverted to repelling the forces of the United States.

The importance of these events should not be underestimated. The motto of Quebec Province, displayed on all vehicle registration plates, is “Je me souviens”. There is some controversy as to the true implications of these words, but I believe that to all French speaking citizens the meaning is clear. I leave it to you to draw your own inference.

During my thoroughly enjoyable week spent in Quebec City, there were two experiences that particularly stood out for me.

One was an exhibition at the Musée de la Civilisation by a female artist, Karine Giboulo. Called “Cités Bidon” and inspired by a visit to a shantytown outside Port-au-Prince in Haiti, it consisted of several extensive models of daily life there. The figures are tiny but modelled in exquisite detail. The world of the slum-dwellers is contrasted with that of the wealthy, in this case fat marmots, not cats.

  
 The other thing was a free open-air circus, “Crépuscule”, recommended to me by Martine, my host. With a minimum of costumes and props, but loads of enthusiasm, this small team combined drollery with skill and artistry. As well as the troupe of trampoline artists who bounced off and onto the side wall, I especially admired a young woman who whirled around in an enormous hoop.

   Sadly, I had to say goodbye to my ecco sandals. These had served me through jungles and markets, mud, sand and streams. I’d been up mountains and was drenched by thunderstorms. They never came undone and they were super comfortable. While crossing a road, the back strap of the left foot snapped. Martine told me they could probably be repaired, (they still repair shoes in Quebec!), but there was a sale on in the city, so I’m now sporting a pair of cherry red replacements. Not suitable for “hiking”, but who cares?

Before heading off to the USA again, I returned to Montréal for a few days. I was welcomed back by Madeleine, (a long-term friend of Chris Golden), with whom I had been staying. She is totally charming, good fun and a has a wealth of information about the city.
I took the opportunity to visit the botanical gardens. I had already experienced their amazing flower displays around the city. They are particularly noted for their three-dimensional designs. This one is on a traffic island.

 Although people flock to see the Japanese and Chinese gardens, my preferences were for the alpine garden. . .

 and the specialist gardens, a feast for the eyes as they displayed vegetables, aromatic and medicinal herbs, poisonous plants and crop varieties, all artistically laid out in enclosed spaces. The herbaceous borders had audacious colour combinations which worked perfectly.

On my penultimate day in Canada, Madeleine took some time off her arduous work schedule to take me for a drive around and to show me the Oratoire St-Joseph, which stands on heights overlooking the city. It is more ornate on the outside than inside.

   Then, too soon, it was time for another fond farewell as I set off on the long train journey to New York.

Quebec City, Thursday 27/08/15

Montréal is a city with a split personality. To the French speakers it is “mon-ray-Al” with the accent as above, whereas I was accustomed to calling it “mon-tree-all”. Classically French architecture, such as the Hotel de Ville . . .

 stands in the same neighbourhood as buildings that would not look out of place in London.

The Bank of Montreal.

Modern tower blocks, seen in this view from Mount Royal/Mont Royal,

mingle with steepled churches. In a city that has harsh winters and piles of snow, they put stairways on the outside of the buildings.

 It’s an entertaining place, with plenty to explore.

I admired the wooden interior of the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal, but also noted a statue of Jeanne d’Arc in pride of place next to the main altar.

  All of this, of course, reflects the history of the Province of Quebec, which I explored at the Musée d’archéologie et d’histoire at Pointe-à-Callière, the first area to be occupied by Europeans.

The short video which opens the visit to the museum complains early on about the attacks on the new settlement by the Iroquois and the need to build a palisade to protect the inhabitants. However, it was the Iroquois who frequented what is now Quebec, so it is hardly surprising that they would react in this way.

The French inhabitants are said to have traded with others of the First Nations and used them as guides, culminating in the Great Peace Treaty of 1701, between the French and 40 different tribes. By this, the Iroquois, who had previously sided with the British, declared themselves neutral.  This part of the world was by then known as New France.

Though the French built a wall to keep the British out, hostilities continued. Famously, during the Seven Years War, Voltaire referred to this struggle as being over “a few acres of snow” in his book Candide, a first edition of which is held in the museum.

Eventually  the British took over Montreal in 1760. So now we’re all friends.

Well, of course it is all very complicated. Queen Elizabeth 2 still appears on the money, but conceded true autonomy to Canada by the Constitution Act of 1982.  For those of you who are thinking this is of little consequence (and I hope not thinking it’s all too boring for words), this took place at the time that the British were sending troops and arms to a group of little-known Islands we call the Falklands.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Anyway, there’s a whole exhibition about snow in the museum, the clothing, types of transportation and snow clearing equipment. There’s also the history of the ski-doo, so called because of a typing error and invented by J-A Bombadier.

So now you know.

Some of the things I like about Montréal:

The Gay Village

 The swings, for children of all ages, that play tunes as you swing.

 The vegetables.

 The plant displays, (of which more in a later post).

 A fantastic art display by David Altmejd of which this is just an example.

 This is huge and totally mind-blowing.

I will be going back to Montréal, but I also wanted to see the nation’s capital, Ottawa. It is only a short bus ride away.

My first day there, my Servas hosts, Peter and Donna, two marvellous people, took me out to a friend’s rented cottage by a lake, an hour and a half drive away. Very quiet, very good company and food and a thoroughly relaxing day out of the city.
Ottawa is small and very attractive, with a canal, the river and lots of parks. There are beautiful buildings, but unfortunately there is only a brief summer in which to do repairs to them, as well as road works, so getting good photos can be difficult. Particularly pleasing though, was the lack of traffic, even at 8.30 in the morning.

I went to the Parliament.

 They have their own Changing of the Guard ceremony. I’m afraid this always seems a bit Monty Pythony to me, especially as they have to do it on grass, so there is no satisfying crunch of gravel as they stamp about.


There are beautiful views of the city from the top of the Peace Tower, at the front of the building.

 I was lucky to be there while there was a terrific fireworks display over the river and a sound and light show.

 I went to the art and history museums, took long walks and found interesting areas of the city outside of the Downtown area. I am glad that I followed up the recommendations I was given to visit.

Montréal, Sunday 16/08/15

Toronto is perhaps the most multicultural of cities I have visited in North America. On the street you can observe people from all over the world and hear many languages other than the official English and French. The city is composed of many different districts, each with their particular characteristics, but which tend to melt and meld into their surrounding neighbourhood. 

So the Entertainment and Financial districts are both characterised by glass buildings which stand out across the harbour. 


 Along the waterfront, however, there are open areas, parks, art and concert venues and restaurants and cafés. A bit further back is Roundhouse Park, where you find the Railway Museum and the Steam Whistle Brewery in a plot containing a fully-restored locomotive turntable. 

Further North I passed through Chinatown to get to Kensington Market, an older district and home to alternative culture.   

 It is designated a “National Historic Site of Canada” and as well as the shops and restaurants the houses and gardens have an unrestrained atmosphere.  

 
In the nearby Art Gallery of Ontario there was an exhibition of work by Emily Carr, a Canadian artist and writer. She experimented with styles and techniques, while focusing on native culture and nature, as she cared passionately about conserving both. Here are two examples, (unrelated), of her work in both spheres.  

   I also admired pieces by a First Nation artist, Manasie Akpaliapik. This is one side of a multifaceted sculpture in whalebone.  

 Thanks to a recommendation from my Servas host, Dorothy, I took the ferry to Ward’s Island, one of the Toronto Islands a half-hour trip from the Waterfront. It is considerably quieter than the Centre  Island, which caters largely to families and children, and is free of cars, though there are plenty of bicycles and quadracycles. The weather was perfect and I’d taken a little picnic. Once again I was struck by the styles of houses and the flourishing gardens.  

   
Niagara Falls is best seen from the Canadian side, it’s said. It was certainly worth a day trip, but actually was not as accessible as the other great falls I have visited, unless you pay extra. So I took the boat, which means being herded around and clothed in pink.  

 The view of the “American Falls” and the “Bridal Veil Falls” from the boat are impressive.  

 The amount of mist, though, means that I took better photos of these and the larger “Horseshoe Falls” from the riverside.  

   Though not as high as Victoria Falls, nor as long or beautiful as Iguazu, the sheer volume of water is tremendous, and apparently they divert 30% for hydroelectric power. 

I had been warned, but as for the town itself, “tacky” hardly describes the alternative attractions on offer.  

 Perhaps I am a little hard on Niagara. 

On the way back to Toronto the bus stopped at Niagara-on-the-Lake, which, though full of tourists, was more like a Canadian version of Burford, (“Gateway to the Cotswolds”), with antiques and specialist food and clothes shops. 

For something completely different, on the recommendation of Dorothy, I met up with a group of people to hike part of the Bruce Trail.  This is a footpath running along the Niagara Escarpment. It was a guided hike of 17 kilometres, through forest and fields, with good company and charming scenery. Sometimes we would be walking through head-high grasses and flowers.  

 Other times we wandered shaded paths under the forest trees.  

 We even passed through The Hole in the Wall, which is not a now defunct restaurant in Bath, nor a gang of outlaws, but a crevice in the escarpment.  

Finally, on Sunday I checked out the Old Town and the “Krinos Taste of the Danforth” Greek festival on the street of that name, where I ate spanakopita, or spinach pie. I had a quiet evening before boarding the train the following day, bound for Montreal. 

Toronto, Sunday 09/08/15

To cut a long story short, I’ve taken the train from Jasper to Edmonton, from Edmonton to Winnipeg and from Winnipeg to Toronto. 

The first trip was only a few hours but both the others were over twenty hours and two nights. In economy you only get a seat but I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me. Even so, it’s not very comfortable and I didn’t get much sleep. When I woke, it was usually with a stiff neck and/or bad back. 

The passenger trains are frequently late, as the freight trains take precedence on the busy lines. Due to the summer heat, there were also concerns about the rails buckling, so the trains slowed to speeds between 10 and 25 mph. 

It was all worth it, however. As long as you wrap up warm against the air con, you can sit in the observation car. The landscape is superb. 

Coming down from the Rockies, there are rolling plains before you reach the true Prairies. Though the land is vast, it is far from boring. The assortment of rushes, reeds, vetches and grasses mean the scenery is multicoloured and moving, waves of diverse grass heads, of different heights, sweeping across the landscape. 

There are wild flowers by the tracks and butterflies flutter up in the wake of the passing train. 

From Winnipeg to Toronto the conifers  gradually give way to deciduous forests, as ever broken up by rivers and lakes. In fact I wonder how much of Canada is actually land. It’s certainly one of the most difficult maps to draw. 

Homesteads dot the terrain and “stations” can be anything from a stop at a road crossing, to, in one case, a field, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, when one woman jumped off a quad bike and ran to board the train. 

It’s quirky and friendly and quite wonderful. 

Pictures are hard to take through train windows, even at these speeds, but here are a couple. 

   It’s not just the countryside that makes  Canada such a pleasure. I’ve stayed with Servas hosts in each of the cities and they’ve all been exceptionally kind, helpful and interesting. In Edmonton I even stayed with a woman who was a friend of my Servas host and expected no remuneration other than my company and conversation. 
If any of you are reading this, you know who you are and I hope you realise how happy I am to have met you. 

As for the cities I’ve visited, there’s always been plenty to see and do. 

My first day in Edmonton, I walked down by the “creek” to Muttart Conservatory – four glass pyramids displaying plants from differing biospheres. What was interesting to me was how many of the plants I have seen in their natural habitat and was able to recognise and identify. In the wild, however, plants are not in such pristine conditions, and there is death and decay all around, as well as insects, fungi and other organisms to process it all. 

Whyte Avenue is “the place to be” very close to where I was staying. There were health food restaurants and stores, vintage clothes shops, eclectic book stores etc. Again, the people were so friendly I usually got talking to someone to while away the time and some lovely girls in a specialist tea shop even asked for my blog address. 

During my stay, there was the “Taste of Edmonton” festival. You buy tickets at the venue and then exchange them for tasters or drinks at stalls run by local eating establishments. This took place in a square next to the art gallery, with some interesting exhibits but even more intriguing architecture.  

   The farmers’ market I went to in Edmonton was one of the best I’ve visited, in terms of quality, choice and, (guess what?),  shiny, happy people. 
So Winnipeg had a lot to live up to. Fortunately I was staying with a truly genial family and the Fringe theatre festival was in full swing, so I had a wonderful time. 

I saw several theatre pieces, mostly entertaining. The Forks is a park cum recreational area by the river, where I spent some time before visiting the Museum of Human Rights. This is another building of architectural interest.  

 Its remit is to cause people to reflect upon the past policies of Canada and to inform about human rights issues around the world and throughout history. 

It is a brave enterprise. Subjects that it deals with in an informative fashion are the history of residential schools, designed to separate First Nation children from their own culture, (echoes of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” in Australia), the disappearance of indigenous women thought to be due to violence and abuse and an ongoing national scandal, and the laws governing the right to vote, or otherwise, in Canada’s past. Less impressive is the scant attention to human rights abuses in South America, Palestine and China, amongst others and the apologia for Canadian forces in Afghanistan, though they do allow for dissent on this issue. 

Nevertheless, Winnipeg is a place where debate is welcome and fresh ideas abound. It may not be perfect, but it has much to recommend it. 

While I was there, I decided to use one of my rail tickets to go to Churchill, up on the 58th parallel and a land of sub-Arctic tundra. This turned into a bit of an adventure. 

It is only accessible by train or plane. The train took over two days, as the going was slower than usual, thanks to a derailment two weeks earlier that had put everyone on alert. 

We passed grassland, forests of spruce, birch and larch, (known as Tamarack locally). Wild flowers were predominantly willow-herb, one of my favourites, due to its profusion on bomb-sites in which I used to play as a child, (here appropriately called fireweed), and golden-rod. There were beaver lodges and dams, though I didn’t see any beavers. 

Churchill has its own particular spirit. It has a permanent population of around 800. You wouldn’t go there unless you have family or, like me, are searching for wild beauty. The main attraction is supposed to be the polar bears who hang around here in the winter and in autumn waiting for the ice so they can go and catch seals. None were around while I was there. 

I saw plenty of Beluga whales, however, from a zodiac I took out on the estuary. They are very fast, so it’s hard to get good pictures, but they were happy to come up to the boat and poke their heads out of the water to take a look at us. 

What I really wanted was to see the tundra in summer. I took “Tundra Buggy”, a huge, Polar Bear-proof truck, into the Wapusk National Park.  

 They keep to certain rough tracks established by the navy a while ago, for now the area is given over to conservation and research. 

The plant life is necessarily adapted to the winds, snow and ice. The black spruce trees only have branches on the side facing away from the sea. There are clumps of shrub willow. Our guide told us that flowers would last no longer than a week, while others would take their place until the brief summer is over.  

 The tide was going out while we were there, but this was the view out to Hudson Bay.  

I realise that after some of the astounding places I have been to, this may not seem so impressive. However, for me this remote and deeply complex environment was quite thrilling. Well, I could get excited by seeing Canada geese in Canada and not just in Hyde Park, but this land is precious and under high risk from climate change and other phenomena. For example, we saw many Snow Geese, which was delightful, but apparently there are now too many of them as they destroy the roots of the trees. They are hoping the predators, including foxes, wolves and bears, may be more inclined to reduce the numbers as their opportunities to catch more traditional prey decline. 

The day after my inspiring day  in the subarctic wilderness I went to check out of my hostel, to be told that the train had been cancelled as parts of the track had been washed out. Now, there are no roads out of Churchill to the rest of Canada, so I was starting to think I might be staying there longer than I anticipated. Instead, VIA rail was planning to fly the rail passengers to Thompson, where the train had been forced to halt.

 At that stage there were no further details as to when we would go, so the hostel let me keep my key and said they would keep me informed. I took the opportunity to visit the small museum. Here I came across tiny figures carved by the Thule people, the first recorded inhabitants.  

 Once again I discovered myths about mermaids and mermen and was particularly taken by this carving.   

 I visited the Tourist Information Centre, where we learned about the Hudson Bay Company and the trappers. There were skins from all the animals taken in Canada, and though I would not want any animals to be killed, it was an opportunity to feel the fur of a wolf or a beaver. 

The previous day I had been in a little shop in town and met an Inuit man who wanted to give his side of the story. He believes that much of what is considered to be the culture of the Inuit is erroneous, including the interpretation of the “Inukshut” or man-like stone figures, said to be a kind of signpost.  

 I was unable to go to his presentation as my flight was arranged for that afternoon, but for anyone who may find themselves in Churchill in the future, look up Thomas and Joy Kutluk, 431 229 3315, and learn what he has to say. 

So, a small group of travellers, some of whom I knew from the train trip up, were taken to the tiny airport. I was in the first of two prop planes, each holding fifteen passengers, to set off to Thompson.  

   It was really a piece of luck, because there were great views of the landscape, a couple of rainbows seen from above and the setting sun as we were landing.  
    
 When we arrived at Thompson airport, a group of young men from the flight went off in their own bus. That left seven of us to get into the Greyhound bus laid on to take us to the station. We had to explain to the driver that there would be another plane arriving later, as he had been expecting the whole group. 

At the station it was another story. The three couples with me all had their own transport, so I was all alone when I walked up to the train. There were all the staff and a totally empty train of several coaches, including sleepers, and only one passenger! I felt like a celebrity. It was a source of merriment and obviously I had to inform them that the others would be along later. Anyway, I got chatting to the staff and they gave me a free drink. By eleven that night we were all installed and settled down for the night, as we were not due to leave until the following afternoon. This train was also very late getting into Winnipeg, so we were all treated to a free dinner. Well done VIA rail!

With just one day in Winnipeg before setting off to Toronto, I went to the Living Prairie Museum. This was my opportunity to wander among the tall grasses, listen to the wind, identify tumbleweed and encounter many species of dragonfly as well as a few of my old acquaintances, the Monarch butterfly.  

   Just a little green. 

Edmonton, Monday 20/07/15

i took the Greyhound bus from Seattle to Vancouver. I got talking to a very interesting woman who at the moment is working to try to get better deals for young musicians/singers who are struggling to make any money within the present music industry. Very relevant now, if you know about Taylor Swift’s part in getting Apple to pay artists during the three month free trial of their new music streaming service. My companion got off before the Canadian border and I went on to Vancouver to spend my first night in Canada in a hostel near Jericho Park, one of the beaches along the shoreline. 

The first day in the city I visited the downtown area and the Art Gallery. I don’t know why, but it somehow reminds me of Bristol, though it is newer and cleaner. 

That afternoon I met up with Steve, who had offered to be my Servas host and put me up for a while, even though he is very busy trying to do up his apartment. First we went for a walk in Lynn Canyon Park.  

 Not many cities have such a site of natural beauty so close to the commercial centre. To see how it all fits together he took me to Cypress Provincial Park, high up across the bay.  

   We finished the evening with a walk along the riverside and a light dinner at a Craft Beer Market in a large renovated Salt Building. Steve is a very engaging person to talk to and I drank samples of local beers, so the evening passed very pleasantly. 

The following day I walked over to the university area, (UBC), to the Museum of Anthropology. There are several different sections. The entrance leads on to a large glass hall with canoes, house poles and other large artefacts.  

 There was a small, more intimate and interactive area dealing with the cultural lifestyles of the local First Nation peoples. I admit to knowing very little about them and I was touched by their need to tell their stories and in particular to protect a sacred burial ground in the city.  

 There are some specialist galleries and the large, important, Multiversity Galleries, housing thousands of objects from around the world. Like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, there are drawers beneath the exhibit cases packed with more collections, but it is newly presented and with better lighting. I’m sure you could spend days in there, especially learning about the Musqueam, the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Haida indigenous tribes. 

Steve had to leave for a few days, but he very kindly gave me a key and allowed me to stay while he was away. This gave me an opportunity to settle in, do a little yoga and meditation and explore the local area. I admit that I did not see that much of the city as a whole, but the shops and cafés in this part of town were diverse and rather trendy, (including lots of places offering “medicinal” cannabis), with friendly people willing to chat. I was able to cook for myself, leave my toiletries in the bathroom and listen to my own music – small pleasures but so rare in my travels. 

When Steve returned, there was just enough time for another beer and a meal before I had to board the train to Jasper.  

 It’s a 20 hour journey. I didn’t sleep much, but spent a lot of time in the observation lounge. Here are some of the things I saw.  

    
 One of the people I met on the train was a wonderful woman called Marie-Eleni, who is Australian with a Greek mother. She has lived in Canada in the past and travelled, literally, all over the planet. I learnt a lot from her and we discovered we were staying at the same hostel, so we were able to do things together over the next couple of days. 

We went to the summit of Old Fort’s Point.   

 We walked by the Athabaska River and around lakes.  

   On an evening drive we saw Black Bears and Elk.  
 This still gave us time for yoga in the park and periods to go off to do our own thing. But there was only accommodation for two nights, so although there were so many places to   explore and animals to encounter, I had to get on the train. 

I was leaving the majestic scenery of the Rockies behind and I wish I had planned better and had greater funds so as to have spent more time and gone further. Canada is an extraordinary country and I am fortunate to be here. 
 

Vancouver, 10/07/15

As my flight left Bogotà at 12.15 am, when I arrived in San Francisco I had been up for over 24 hours. We hadn’t been given anything to eat on the flight and I was not allowed in to my dorm until 3 pm, so I went to get some strong coffee and a bagel and then wandered around like a zombie for a few hours, sorting out a new SIM card and buying some trousers to replace the ones I’d had since Bangkok, which were barely holding together. 

Somewhat refreshed the next day, I set off for Golden Gate Park. While I was there I discovered an exhibition of Turner’s paintings in the “de Young Museum”. It was a magnificent collection. In the more formal works there is an incredible amount of detail, but when you get up close it just seems like smudges and brush strokes. The exhibition was entitled “Painting Set Free”, (a little ambiguity there) and one of my favourite images was this, of his hotel room in what appears to be Italy. 

 So interesting, when we usually associate him with landscapes and sunsets and, of course, ahead of his time. 

I had arrived in SF in Pride Week, so that evening I joined guests at my hostel and a couple of others on a “Pride pub crawl”. This involved wearing lots of rainbow colours and lights and wandering around Tenderloin district, one of the less salubrious parts of town. I hooked up with a delightful male nurse from Chile  and some of his friends. He was so happy to be there and especially at a bar called Gangway, which claims to be the oldest “gay bar” in SF. The evening ended with dancing with random strangers and being escorted back to the hostel around 2.30 am by a guy sharing my dorm. A highly entertaining day. 

The downside of being in SF at this time, however, was that the hostel had raised its prices considerably for my third night and that there were no beds to be had at all for the weekend. I spent the best part of the next day trying to find a place to stay and a way to get there. Greyhound buses were putting up their prices by the minute, literally, as “tickets are selling out fast”. 

So I ended up going to Sacramento by train. 

There were several reasons for this. There were no places to stay in Yosemite National Park and a day trip cost over £100, which for a quick tour and four hours in the park I felt was unreasonable. Also that would still leave me with a problem as to where to stay for the night. 

I was hoping to go to Portland, so a stop at Sacramento was not out of the way. Unfortunately there were no cheap places to stay in Portland either. 

As it happened, I enjoyed my time in California’s Capital. I went to a farmers’ market, which was totally different from the higgedly piggedly markets of South America, with everything labelled and laid out on trestle tables. 

I came across a small park concert of African American music and Joe Leavy, (soul singer with a popular single, Standing in the Shadows), was performing. It was all about the love. 

I sauntered into Old Sacramento, which has buildings and a design dating back to the mid to late 19th Century, with a boardwalk and all.  

 I had great fun. 

There was a candy store, like a room in Willy Wonka’s factory, where you can  try free salt-water taffy in all sorts of flavours, as long as you eat on the premises.  

 There was a fun games/ media store.  

 A shop that sold kites of all shapes and sizes . . . 

 and perhaps best of all for me, down a narrow stairway, a treasure trove of old vinyl music in two rooms and old jukeboxes in the third. The owner and I really hit it off, as he let me listen to some tunes and I started with Jeff Beck. He gave me a hug when I left. 

Just a little aside, but important nevertheless. The Supreme Court legalised same sex marriage on 26th July, while I was in San Francisco, so that was another thing to celebrate. While I was walking the streets of Sacramento, however, I got talking to a young woman petitioning for equal rights in the workplace. Her female partner was dismissed from her post as a teacher when it was known that she was engaged to a woman. Discrimination is still exercised and not everyone has the wherewithal to fight it in the courts, while many state’s anti-discrimination laws do not extend to private sector employment.  

Bypassing Portland, I took the train through to Seattle. We passed through some outstanding scenery and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen on my travels, because of the coniferous forests and the sweeping plains. After a night and a day of travel through Oregon and Washington, we reached Puget Sound at sunset. The light was lovely and the weather was fine. 

Seattle in the sun is a good place to hang out. There’s some interesting architecture, though I don’t think the skyline is exactly as they showed it on Frasier. 

 There’s Pike Place market, where you can buy anything that you want in the way of food. There are remnants of the 1962 World’s Fair e.g. the Space Needle and the monorail. There’s Starbucks!!

Because of a serious fire, they had to rebuild Seattle. Unlike other cities, such as San Francisco, which were built on hills, they built the hill around the city.    

 
The highlights of my time there were my visit to the EMP Museum, (Experience Music Project). There are whole sections devoted to fantasy, horror and science fiction genres, with props and costumes galore.  There is a history of the electric guitar and a Jimi Hendrix corner. 
This is Nirvana’s demo tape.  

 The other best part was taking the ferry to Bainbridge island. On a clear day you can see Mount Rainer from the Sound.  

 The island itself is obviously a very desirable place to live.  

 And once again I was lucky enough to catch the sunset.  

 Seattle was my last stop on the West of the USA. I had to move on, because the States were proving to be very expensive. Also I think I was a bit dumb. I was back in the First World, where people are organised and have very short holidays. Of course they plan ahead and places are booked up. They have their own transport and carry supplies. My habit of just turning up and seeing how things turn out has had to be modified. I have to think ahead. 

Next I will let you know how I get on in Canada. 

Sacramento, 29/06/15.

The bus journey from Cartagena to Medellin really gave me a feel for the country. Through the night there was the familiar swaying motion from side to side and back and forth which meant we were going through mountains. In the morning I could see densely wooded hills and rich valleys with knobbly meadows where small groups of cows grazed on the lush grass. People were sweeping their yards, milking cows or weeding the fields. Many of the houses were small and simple, but had been brightened up with colourful paintwork and masses of flowers. 

I was surprised, coming in to Medellin, to find it a predominantly red city, with most of the houses built of brick blocks. This was borne out when I took the Metrocable, which climbs over one of the poorer parts of the city. I am used to the shacks in other places being constructed of bits of wood, bamboo and metal, but here, though crowded in on top of one another, they were solid and the streets were comparatively clean. 

  The Metrocable itself is an example of speed and efficiency. Although the queue was long it took only a few minutes before I was in one of the constantly revolving cars, as helpful supervisors sorted the people into groups for boarding.  

 The metro ticket you buy, (again, a single price for all journeys), allows you to use the cable also, but I then paid an additional fare to go to Arvi Park. This is an immense nature preserve above and behind the city.  

 For me, though, the Colombian ability for organization was a little too much in evidence, as there were paved walkways, barbecue stations and even a tent in which to watch the football. It was primarily a good day out for all the family, while the reserve itself is more inaccessible. I did get to ride in a Chiva, however, one of the colourful rural buses that are rapidly disappearing from Colombia.  

 The following day I arranged to go to the “Penon de Guatapé”, a giant rock overlooking a valley which has been flooded in order to construct a dam. It turned out to be a real coach tour, which I have avoided, but I got talking to people as usual, both local and travellers, so it was OK. 

The day included walking the 659 steps up the rock to the fantastic views from the top.  

   

   We were allowed to wander in the little town, where the inhabitants use their imagination to decorate their houses, sometimes with traditional images, some with a more personal subject.  

     After a truly boring walking tour of Rio I thought I’d never go on another, but I’m pleased I gave it a go in Medellin. The guide, Hernan, was very knowledgeable, explained a lot about Colombian history in a few minutes and an amusing way and took us to places we probably wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. He is very proud of his city and I tend to agree with him that Colombians are working hard to make the most of what they have and trying to change things for the better. 

I moved on to Manizales, further South. Nice location, shame about the city. Happily, I managed to get out into the surrounding countryside. One day I spent in a beautiful coffee plantation.  

 I learnt a great deal about the processing, drank a fair amount of coffee and spent a few hours relaxing in the shade.  

 Then I went to an ecological park near the city.  

 I saw several different species of humming birds but the best thing about this place was the orchid grove. For the first time I was able to see them in a more natural environment.  

   My time in South America was nearly up. I took a short trip to Pereira, a much nicer city than Manizales in my opinion, so that I could take the bus to Salento. From here you take a jeep to the Bosques de Cocora. There is a quite challenging hike up the side of the valley, through the cloud forest, where you have to cross rickety wooden bridges and scramble over rocks to get to the top.  
   Then there is an easier descent past the tall wax palms that are native to this area.  

 One review on Trip Advisor describes it as Jurassic Park meets Dr. Seuss. 

The little town itself is picturesque and was packed the day I was there as it was Father’s Day.  

 I got a lift from a delightful family I met on the path, roamed the streets, had a late lunch and then back to catch the bus to Pereira. 

After Pereira I had just one more day in Bogota, before I had to take the flight out at 12.15am. I took the opportunity to visit the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. I did a bit better with the bus service this time as I discovered that the return buses do leave from the same place, but have different letters. The Cathedral is 200 metres underground and built in an old salt mine. It has great significance for the Colombians and especially for the miners who used to work here. 

 There has been salt mined here since pre-Columbian times. 

So it was time to pack my bag and off to the airport to fly to San Francisco. 

A final image from my time in S. America, for those who did not follow my link to easytransferbrasil. This is me in full travel mode.