Posts Tagged ‘repairs’

Belize: Part I

5 January 2010

We finally got on the road to Belize on Saturday, January 2nd despite our best intentions. It is hard to leave a idyllic spot like Puerto Aventuras. I received my new bank card on Monday which the Bank of Montreal branch in Whitehorse couriered to me. So, in theory we could have left on Tuesday, but Marilyn was sick, so we couldn’t leave. Wednesday was a day of recuperation for Marilyn. Thursday, New Year’s Eve, Sophie had asked me the day before to try to get the flat fixed on her car, but it turned out she needed new tires according to a local tire repair place. I believed them since they don’t sell tires. So I went and bought a couple of tires in Playa del Carmen and installed them on the car. By then it was too late to leave, so we stayed in Puerto Aventuras for that night, but we did go to bed early. Actually, we were just planning for a short nap, but we woke up in the New Year. In the morning, we talked to Helena about the keys and giving her the money to get the apartment cleaned, and we started shooting the shit. But that turned into lunch, and late in the afternoon, we decided to stay for supper. Helena’s eyes lit up when I mentioned spaghetti aglio e olio, so that’s what we had for supper.

Luigi with raw borrego in front of the restaurant

Finally we left on Saturday morning for Chetumal and Belize after tanking up at the Pemex station in Puerto Aventuras. I found out the gas jockeys only make 70 pesos a day and depend on their tips. According to the president of Mexico, that is enough money to live on, one of the gas station attendants told me. I would like to see these right wing politicians live on the amount of money they think is enough for others. I’m sure Calderón lives on much more than 70 pesos a day, and I don’t think he ever had to. One other point Helena brought up is that the policemen are also grossly underpaid, so it is not surprising they try to get bribes: they do want to feed their families. We stopped for lunch in Felipe Carillo Puerto, between Tulum and Chetumal. Absolutely excellent barbequed lamb (barbacoa de borrego)!

We got to the border around 3:30, but by the time all the formalities (surrendering the Mexican tourist license, getting the vehicle sprayed with disinfectant, getting the Belizean tourist permit, then going through customs and finally buying insurance) were done, it was 4:30. Since it gets dark before 6:00 PM, we figured we better not go too far. So we went to Corozal, the first town after the border.

We stayed at Tony’s Inn and Beach Resort (slogan: “For those who like the best”) on the south side of town. We walked into Corozal looking for what the tourist guide claimed was the best restaurant. On the way, a couple of teenagers playing basketball asked us how we liked Belize and welcomed us to their country. I think I can warm up easily to that kind of people. It was just a pleasant, warm experience, and put Belizeans in very good light. But Belizeans create Christmas light decorations that rival anything in the Yukon for their fantastic kitsch.

We finally found out that the restaurant had been closed for a few years, but recommended another two. We met a young English couple who were also going to eat. The first one, Patty’s, was closed, but Vamps’ Chill and Grill was up. So we went there and had a couple of Belikin beer. I drank my first one to Tony DeLorenzo’s health: may his arm and wrist heal perfectly. Tony and Sierra went to Belize for their honeymoon, and asked me to drink one for him. So I drank four. It’s actually a pretty good beer for a commercial product, much better than the Belizean Lighthouse lager and the run-of-the-mill Mexican beers. The guys had rice and beans and chicken while the girls had fajitas. The couple both worked in operations research (i.e. heavily mathematical applied economics), and Marilyn said she felt out-numbered.

Sunday January 2, 2010

We had a good breakfast (eggs for Marilyn, fruit plate for me with “jacks”). “Jacks”, a specialty of the hotel, were absolutely wonderful wheat tortillas folded over and deep fried, which puffed up when fried. With papaya jam, they were absolutely great. Reminds me very much of the gnocco fritto of Modena, and equally good.

On the road again I was happy to see there were no more topes. Instead, there were f…ing speed bumps all over the place! Can’t these countries find ways of reducing speeding in towns other than those damned suspension-destroying bumps????!!!! Also, Belize still operates in gallons (real Imperial ones, not the wimpy US ones) and miles per hour. When I first tanked up, I was taken aback by a pump price of eight dollars something for gas. But then I realized it was Belize dollars per gallon.  The Belize dollar is worth $US0.50, so that translates to about a dollar a litre, about the same as in Canada.

We then decided to head for the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. We had lunch there in the camper, and walked along one of the bird trails. We came across the Birds Eye View Lodge right on the lagoon. As the rooms are air-conditioned and it’s a really nice and relatively inexpensive hotel, we decided to stay here. Excellent supper of conch and chicken, accompanied by the rice and beans the Belizeans are incapable of surviving without. And more Belikin to keep me from drying out.

Great Egret and Wood Stork

Advertisements

Mad dash to the Yucatán

24 December 2009

Tuesday 9 December, Morelia to Orizaba?

Carlos called me around 10:00 AM to let me know the truck was ready. After going to the bank, getting a cappuccino, I took a cab and got in the truck. I tested it and I don’t think the truck ever ran smoother with the camper. My faith in Mexican mechanics was fully justified, I think.

I drove towards Toluca, southwest of Mexico City, but decided to go around Mexico City rather than go through Toluca. It looked like that road would take me right through the city and I wanted to obey Karyn Armour’s admonition to avoid Mexico DF. It looked like there were major roads that would bypass Mexico, but to the north. So at the end of the Autopista, I set my GPS to go to Tula, which was on the Mexico-Queretaro Autopista. Once I get there, I figured I could head south to Texcoco and then to the Autopista to Puebla.

Of course, I miss a turn on and end up in a small village with topes (speed bumps), which I take a little fast. A few minutes later, I see flashing lights behind me, and the Policia Estatal (State police) of the State of Mexico (There is Mexico the country, Mexico the Mexican State, and Mexico Districto Federal, the Capital city) stops me. They tell me I don’t have a front license plate and that I was driving without sufficient care. I try to explain that I don’t have a front licence plate because the Yukon doesn’t have one. They tell me the fine is 230 dollars. I think, “Wow, this is pretty steep!” So I ask where can I pay it and how long do I have to pay it. They say a week, but I have to pay it in Toluca. So then comes the game of nudge-nudge wink-wink.

They say we can come to an arrangement since I am a tourist. I act dumb (actually not deliberately because I don’t get it at first) and think what the hell, I’ll pay the fine, I did go a little fast inadvertently. So I tell them I will follow them to the station and offer them my passport so they don’t have to remove my license plate (which is what the cops do in Mexico to ensure that the fines are paid: you get your plates back after you’ve paid the fine). The one cop, white European looking, tells the other cop (Indian or mestizo): “¡Explicale! (Explain to him)”. So the second one says: “Lo que el jefe dice es que … (What the chief said is that …)” and I missed the rest, but it was pretty clear that a bribe would have got me off. So I think, should I give them anything?

I decide not to. After all, I don’t think I should undermine the mainly successful efforts of Mexican governments to eradicate corruption. I also think back about a story I heard many years ago from my ex-wife’s cousin (Ricardo, IRRC) who lived in Mexico City for a while. He insisted in paying the fine rather than giving the cop a little mordida and eventually got off. So I say; “No, prefiero pagar la multa. (No I prefer to pay the fine.)” This goes on for a little while and I repeat a few times that I’d rather pay the fine. Finally, the jefe says: “¡Paganos una comida! Just pay us a meal)”. I smile and say: “Si, tengo hambre también. ¿Donde vamos? Le sigue. (Sure, I’m hungry too, where do we go? I’ll follow you.) This is where they give up on the stupid Gringo. The jefe shakes my hand, tells me to drive carefully and wished me a good trip. One little win against corruption!

A little while later, I end up in another village, with a GMC or Chevy SUV in front of me. We end up at a point where the street is blocked because of construction. He turns around and opens his window and tells me to follow him. We go on a dirt track to get on the other street parallel to this one and then the driver stops and signals me to stop. We end up chatting, and the two guys ask me where I’m going. I tell them Cancun and that I am trying to avoid Mexico City. They agree it is an excellent idea and start giving me directions on how to get to the Autopista. I also tell them about the incident with the cops and they totally approve of me not paying, with some nasty comments about bullshit cops. Then another friend shows up. This last guy drives quite often to Cancun, so we pull out the maps and he tells me the best way there. He confirms what the other two guys told me, and tells me what exits to take to get to Texcoco (East of Mexico) and the Arco Norte, a major new highway from Veracruz to the Pacific, which is still partially under construction from Texcoco to Puebla and not clearly shown on the maps. He also suggests that I try getting no further than Puebla that night and states that it will take me at least another two days after that as some of the highways after Villahermosa are in pretty bad condition because of truck traffic.

So I try to follow the directions. I manage to get to the Autopista and I get to a toll booth where government employees hand me literature on Mexico City and a circulation permit that allows me to drive on all days and not only on odd numbered ones, to match my license plates. In an effort to reduce the massive smog in Mexico City, cars are only allowed to drive on certain days depending on whether their license plates end up in even or odd numbers. Then an ambulante tries to sell me a map of Mexico so I don’t get lost and I tell him no thanks, I am going to Puebla. He tells me I am going the wrong way and that I missed the exit to Texcoco and that I have to turn around immediately, before paying the toll. Despite my hesitation, the ambulantes and the young government tourist guides all team up to stop the traffic and guide me as I turn the truck around and drive to the other side of the highway. Making a U-turn in massive traffic at a toll booth and nobody getting excited or pissed off or honking their horn. ¡I love Mexico!

I stop for gas, ask how far the exit to Texcoco is, get the information as it is a little tricky on this side of the highway. I get the exit right this time. After a while, I see the exit to Puebla I am supposed to take, except it is blocked off. At the nearby toll booth, I ask the attendant if I should turn around. He tells me to continue to the end of the Autopista. Well, that ends up 17 kilometres further southwest (instead of east) and I have to go through traffic. My GPS confirms the route. Then I decide to turn back, stop at a store to get some water and snacks (it is getting dark and I have had nothing to eat since the porridge in the morning at the hotel). They tell me to turn back around in the direction I was originally going and to continue on, as it would be too complicated to go through Texcoco. Well, I continue until the GPS tells me to make a left. Big mistake! Had I turned left just another few blocks I would have immediately got on the Autopista to Puebla.

Anyway, I start going on narrow city streets full of topes, followed by a narrow road full of animals on the shoulders, and then another village. As it is getting to the feast of the Guadalupe, there are fireworks everywhere. I go through one village where the traffic slows down considerably where there is a crowd watching the fireworks and partying to loud music. I am sorely tempted to park the truck, pull out my bottle of tequila and join the party. But I think that I need to get to poor lonely Marilyn, so I continue on. At one point I say to myself, one more tope and I will scream. Aargh! Lots more topes.

I finally get to a major street where the stupid GPS tells me to turn left, but there is a median and it is impossible. I continue for a few hundred metres and ask some cops where I can get the Autopista. They tell me a few hundred metres to the left. I, of course, miss the damn entrance to the Autopista. I decide to follow the GPS which tells me to turn right on a street. It then recalculates and tells me to continue for 37 kilometres to the Autopista. I debate whether I should listen to the GPS or turn around. As there is no space to turn around, I continue.

I eventually end up on this narrow mountainous road full of hills, twists and turns for 37 kilometres, driving at about 30 to 50 kilometres per hour, with steep cliffs on one side. Luckily it was dark and my vertigo did not take hold. For the last 10 kilometres or so, I am frustratingly driving right next to the Autopista.

I finally get on the Autopista, and drive past Puebla without incident. I regret that it was dark because I wanted a picture of the factory where our Volkwagen Jetta was born, but, hey, you can’t have everything. At around 10:30 I decide to stop at a truck stop, have some quesadillas, call Marilyn and sleep in the camper. It was a comfortable cool night since the elevation was at about 2,500 metres.

Wednesday, 9 December, Orizaba to Ciudad del Carmen

I woke up around seven, and after a Noescafé at the truck stop, I got on the way. I was just west of Orizaba. There was pretty spectacular scenery, going downhill from the heights of central Mexico to the coastal plain. Volcanoes and hills. It also gets much more humid as I descend and the pines are replaced by palm trees.

I reached Villahermosa without incident and as my friend in that village (I wish I could remember the name) had said, some bits of the road were pretty bad. I changed some travellers cheques and asked for directions as to the best way to get to Playa del Carmen, south via Chetumal or north via Mérida and Cancún. I asked an SCT (Federal government road agency) employee who happened to be in the line-up behind me and he told me to go by Ciudad del Carmen (not Playa), in the Bay of Campeche. He also offered to show me the way as it was a little tricky to get to the highway and he was going that way anyway. So I followed him until the turnoff. At the border with Campeche state, there is an agricultural “aduana”, where they ask me if I am carrying any fruit. I hand over oranges and mandarins, which they do not allow into the Yucatan peninsula for fear of disease transmission. I tell the inspector that there are also orange peels in the garbage bag, which he takes and throws out for me. I also tell him of how, in Canada, they actually wash cars when you leave the island of Newfoundland for the same reason.

I drove on quite a bit and it was dark when I got to Ciudad del Carmen. I decided I did not want to deal with driving in the dark with animals and other dangers on the road. I went to the first hotel I saw. It was a bit of a dump, but for $350 it claimed to have what I wanted: air conditioning and internet. Well neither the air conditioning nor the internet worked in the first room I tried, nor in the second.

So I got a refund and wandered around the city for a bit until I saw a taxi stand. I asked one of the taxistas to show me a decent hotel with internet and air conditioning and I would follow him. He mentioned the Fiesta Inn, and I said OK. We can’t get to the Fiesta Inn because of traffic, so he takes me to the Holiday Inn express. It’s pretty expensive, $1,580, so I pay off the taxi drive and decide to go to the Fiesta Inn. That one is even more expensive. After asking if they knew of a cheaper place, I realize I am too tired, don’t really want to go around the city some more and decide to stay there. I have supper at the hotel restaurant: chicken tacos, but they are rolled up like a cannolo, crispy and packed full of chicken meat.

Thursday 10, Ciudad del Carmen to Puerto Aventuras

The next day, I leave Ciudad del Carmen after breakfast at the hotel. Thin oatmeal and bad coffee and a fruit plate. Past Ciudad del Carmen, there is a very nice mostly deserted beach, with a few hotels and restaurants. I stop to take pictures of pelicans on pilings. After that, a long causeway takes me back to the mainland. Straight roads in flat country. I eventually turn right to go to Escárcega on the main Villahermosa-Chetumal highway, which ends up being pretty good at this point.

Since Tuesday, I see a whole lot of trucks filled with teenagers and young people in sports uniforms, with a painting of the Virgin of Guadelupe attached to the vehicle. They all act as support vehicles for either runners or bicyclists carrying a torch for the Virgin, and they obviously relay each other. I wave and honk at most of them, and, of course, slow down when I am passing them.

I drive almost continuously, hoping to make it to join Marilyn as soon as possible, just stopping to pee. I don’t think I really miss much as the countryside is pretty flat jungle. After I turn to the north just before Chetumal, the highway turns very touristy, with resorts advertised all over the place. Around Chetumal, I call Marilyn to let her know I will get there around 7:00 PM, and I do get to Sophie’s apartment in Puerto Aventuras just after 7:30.

View from Sophie's condo

Morelia

23 December 2009

Sunday 6 December

I already recounted what happened on Saturday the 5th in the “Shit happens” posting. I stayed at a Best Western Hotel, or one of these chains and paid by credit card and discovered I had lost my bank card. Knowing myself, I also carried travellers cheques and still had a few hundred US dollars. The next morning, the hotel would not change travellers’ cheques but told me that there might be a foreign exchange office open at a nearby shopping centre. I couldn’t turn into the shopping centre parking lot because there was a height limit at the gate, as is often the case in Mexico.

So I turned left on the next street, went over a tope (f…ing speed bumps that are all over the place in Mexico and destroy numerous suspensions and mufflers judging by the number of repair shops that advertise mofles y muelles – mufflers and springs). My drive shaft fell off and made a horrible noise. I immediately stopped to see what was wrong and saw the driveshaft with one end on the pavement, with a completely broken U-joint. Shit continues to happen! But then I should have got it checked before, as I was hearing a loud “clack” noise every time I accelerated or changed gears. I had just thought of waiting until Cancún to get it checked out, along with getting a tune-up done.

I thought: “Hey! I’ve paid all this money for the BC Automobile Association membership, including extra for camper coverage. They should be able to help me.” I look all over, but I couldn’t find the phone number except for a 1-800 number that doesn’t work from my cell phone in Mexico, even though it is still a US number. So I try calling Ariel in Vancouver, but there is no answer. I then try Janne in Calgary. She immediately answers, asks me why I don’t look it up over the internet, I told her I was out of the hotel. She looks up the number and I call them. After being put on hold to investigate, the BCAA person tells me they have no Mexican affiliate and don’ know anyone in Morelia who could help me. But the she tells me they will reimburse the towing fee and repair costs when I get back to Canada.

So I call the insurance company who put me in touch with the tow truck company, who ask me if I am the same guy as last night. I say I am, and they say a tow truck will show up within an hour. Of course, that is a Mexican hour, which is more like two hours, same as in the Yukon. Good thing I’m on anti-depressants. Anyway, the driver gets there loads up the truck with some difficulty. I did ask him if he also wanted to use my winch to help, but he really didn’t need it; the problem was with the length of the truck. I learned two new Spanish words: crucetas (little crosses) for the U-joints and güinch for winch (OK, the last is a Mexican Anglicism).

So the driver asks where I want to bring the truck. I say: “I don’t know, does he know any good mechanic?” He tells me about a friend of his who supposedly speaks English as he spent a few years in the States. I tell him: “I don’t care what he speaks, is he a good mechanic?” So he calls Carlos to let him know we’re coming. We drive right around Morelia to Carlos’ shop near the football stadium. He only charges me $M350 for the tow. I discuss the situation with Carlos. He offers to fix it right away—this is Sunday, remember—by welding it, which should get me to Cancun. But we agree that it is better to replace it as well as the other U-joint. He can’t get the parts until the next day, but he figures he can get it done by the end of the day on Monday. I also ask him to do a tune-up (called tunap in Mexican) and check out the speedometer (velocimetro), which has stopped working (I have been using the GPS to check my speed). Other car words are bujias (for spark plugs, same as the French bougies, unlike the Italian candela; they all mean candles), cambiar el aceite for change the oil, filtros for you know what.

Aceite is one Spanish word that is really weird to me, and probably to most Italian speakers. In Italian , aceto is vinegar, generally served with its opposite which is oil (olio). To use a word so close to vinegar as the word for oil is strange, especially since most word in Spanish are close to their Italian equivalents. Cambiar el aceite sounds too much like change the vinegar to me.

I ask Carlos to call me a taxi, but instead he drives me to a taxi stand a few kilometres away, saying that it would take too long. The taxi first takes me to a Banco Azteca which is inside the Elektra furniture store. Kind of strange: a furniture and appliance store and bank all in one, but this store seems to be common all over Mexico. I guess you can get your loan right away. They won’t change travellers’ cheques, but I do have some US dollars they do exchange, so I can pay for the taxi at least.

Armed with my tourist guides, I look for a hotel downtown near the cathedral. One guide suggests the Hotel Valladolid right on the central square. I investigated it along with two other hotels in the same block across from the central square. The taxi driver suggested a cheaper hotel, not far but it was a little too grungy. I’m getting picky in my old age; I’d rather stay in a nicer hotel even if it’s a lot more expensive. In my younger days, I stayed in a lot of grungy places with the dirty toilet down the hall just because they were cheap. Not anymore, except when I go to Ross River. Anyway, I ended up staying at the City Express hotel—Hotel Valladolid in the guidebook—which was the cheapest of the three in the main square, but did not have a view, actually no window in the room.

As a bonus, there was a “The Italian Coffee Company” right below. Finally, the prospect of decent coffee in the morning! Despite living in country that produces good coffee, Mexicans drink Nescafe, with a lot of sugar and milk—to kill the taste, I presume. I like to call it “No es café” (It’s not coffee), but Mexicans don’t seem to get it. I immediately ordered an espresso, extremely short. They were surprised I did not add milk to it. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess. And there is a lot of good food and drink to make up for the lousy coffee.

Clown show main square

Morelia is a beautiful and exquisite colonial city whose historic centre has been mainly restored. There are a lot of worse places I could have got stuck in; if you are to break down anywhere in Mexico, I definitely recommend Morelia. It was originally known as Valladolid named after the Castilian city, but was renamed in 1821 to Morelia to honour Jose Morelos, a hero of the initial Mexican war of independence who was born there.

José Morelos' house

It is quite rightly a UNESCO World Heritage site. I walked around the centre for a while, looked into the cathedral and into another plaza (Saint Francis). I tried to get on a tour which uses a streetcar. They told me the next tour was at 4:30. I got there at 4:25, but as I was the only one there, they decided to wait until 5:00 and then 5:15. I taught the tour booth person some words and expressions in French and Italian. By 5:15, I gave up and came back at 6:00 PM. Still not enough people; the reason they gave was that it was too cold. It was in fact maybe 12 degrees or so and all the Mexicans were wearing sweaters and jackets, which I noted in my smug Canadian way while I was in shorts and a T-Shirt and commented it was a nice summer evening.

I had read in a guidebook about the best taquería in town, which was near the aqueduct. Ah, yes, Morelia also has a Roman style aqueduct with very many arches. That place was closed, but there was another small taquería next door where I ate. Back to the room for some blogging & a Skype call to Janne to try to find out what was happening to Marilyn and whether she made it to the apartment. I also note my phone had stopped working. I go on AT&T’s internet site to try to put more time into it and it tells me the number no longer exists. Which is weird, but it might have happened when I accidentally started downloading  a bunch of games into the phone and I tried to stop it by randomly pushing buttons. It eventually stopped, but I must have screwed something up. $US50.00 of time down the drain.

Monday 8 December, Morelia

Carlos had asked for an advance to buy the parts, but I did not have any cash on Sunday. So I changed some travellers’ cheques at the Scotiabank branch. Yes, they are all over Mexico and brag about being one of the world’s best banks. What they don’t say was that it was politically impossible for Canadian governments to deregulate to the extent the banks would have liked, so that kept them safe.

I had breakfast at the hotel where I got to make my own porridge rather than the watery stuff the Mexicans serve, probably because they heard it was good for cholesterol. The Great Italian Coffee Company was closed in the morning!!! Anyway, I took a cab to Carlos’ garage, gave him $2,000 and went back downtown. He told me he would call around 4:00 to let me know how it was going. Back downtown, I went back to the streetcar tour company and they told me there would be a tour around 2:30 pm and every hour after that. He also told me of a restaurant where to eat typical Michoacán food, near the other side of the plaza. I don’t find the restaurant, but there are a whole lot of small open-air restaurants inside the porticos around a square (San Agustín). I ate at one of them, some kind of enchilada with tomato sauce and cream, quite good along with a bottle of “sangría”, which was a grapey juicy pop rather than the Spanish combo of wine, brandy and fruit juice. For some reason most of the small outdoor restaurants don’t serve alcohol, not even beer.

I also saw a cell phone repair place on the other side of the street from the Plaza. I walked in and started talking to a guy by the name of Hugo who was behind a steel grate, as many of these cell phone places in Mexico sport. Hugo speaks perfect English, having lived in the States for a few years until he got kicked out. (Hello Hugo, if you’re reading this.)

Hugo asks, rhetorically: “What is wrong with someone trying to earn a decent living to feed his family?” Nothing, of course, except for some stupid laws. Here is someone obviously talented and intelligent who would b useful in any country. It is the US’ loss. But then, I might be prejudiced because my father came to Canada illegally in 1952 and made a good citizen and someone who literally contributed considerably to building our country.

Canada needs to start attracting more people like Hugo so they can pay my pension when I retire. And I think Mexicans would fit in much better than others: they are North Americans after all and despite all the superficial differences, our cultures share very much. They have Christmas trees and Santas and red-nosed caribou and we have Mexican poinsettias; we drive the same cars that come from the same factories; our supermarkets are full of taco chips, tortillas and salsas while the Mexican ones are full of the same ketchup and cereals as ours; nachos are as common as hamburgers. The regular coffee is equally bad in all three North American countries. The US sneezes and Canada and Mexico catch the same cold.

Canada should to install immigration officers at the US-Mexico border and interview and invite all the useful deportees. I talked to other Mexicans about their experience in the US. One was a gas jockey at a PEMEX station who had just come back from Minnesota where he got laid off. He worked as a roofer (legally) for—get this—$12.00 per hour! This was a legal immigrant with his green card. No wonder so many Americans can afford McMansions. “Hey, come to Canada,” I said, “you would earn well over $20.00 per hour.”

Another person I talked to was a snorkelling guide at Puerto Morales south of Cancun. He was a fully qualified master stonemason, but there was no work, so he helped his brother out guiding tourists on the coral reefs. He tried going to the US, but after paying the equivalent of two years’ income, he was immediately caught and shipped back. Canada needs stonemasons, bricklayers and other trowel tradespeople as the old Italians and Portuguese who did that work are now retiring. Let’s bring some Mexicans, they are equally qualified and just as hard working. I gave him my card and encouraged him to consider emigrating to Canada.

While Mexico’s official unemployment rate is quite low, there is clearly a massive amount of underemployment. Usually this term is reserve for poor little university graduates who can’t find work in their field and have to take “menial” jobs, such as taxi drivers or waiters. But in Mexico, it affects others too. In the Plaza in Morelia, there must have been at least 20 shoe shine stands licensed by the municipality. How many people need their shoes shined everyday, in a country where most wear sandals or sneakers? And all the vendors (ambulantes) of just about everything, some of whom are at street corners with a bag of oranges or a few bottles of (very good freshly squeezed & cold) orange juice, peanuts, pineapples, newspapers, windshield washing, etc. And all the very small taco stands, sellers of coco frío (cold coconut), etc. Since this is the 21st Century, there are now also vendors of cell phone recharging cards. In the tourist areas, they hassle foreigners by trying to sell them selling crappy souvenirs or artisanal works, but they are also present everywhere else in Mexico, albeit much less bothersome. Despite Mexico’s apparent prosperity, the minimum wage for manual occupations and trades ranges from $M65 to $M85 per day (that’s pesos, not dollars), that is five to eight dollars PER DAY. The average worker maybe earns 10-12 dollars a day.

Anyway, back to Hugo and the cell phone, him and his boss (José, IIRC) check out my phone and suggest getting a more time from AT&T. I tell them it doesn’t work and ask them to put in a Mexican chip and I will get a Mexican number. They tell me the phone will be ready at 4:00 or so. So I figure 4:30, and be there for the 4:30 tour which probably wouldn’t start until 5:00pm anyway. Mexican time is very much like Yukon time, so I’m used to it.

I wander around the city once more, then go have a beer under the porticos where I wrote a blog entry. At 4:25 or so, I go get my cell, buy more time $M500 for $M1000 worth of time as there is a special on from Telcel, who Hugo assures me is the best provider and I can also use the phone it in all of Latin America.  As soon as I got the phone, I called Carlos just in case, and, of course, the truck was not ready but he promised it for 10 AM. My new Mexico phone number is +52 (Mexico’s country code) 443 104 01 36. Telephone charges are very high in Mexico, up to $M3.50 pesos a minute.

In case you’re wondering why I and Mexicans use the dollar sign for pesos, it is because the Peso is the original dollar. After the conquest, the Spanish started minting “Pieces of eight” Reales in Mexico (using Indian slave labour in the mines). These became a very common currency and were used in the French and English colonies to the north. As it was similar to a Bohemian coin called the Joachimthaler or Tahler, it became known as the “Spanish dollar” in the English colonies, while the French called it une Piastre, a word that is still used for the dollar in the Quebec, Acadian and Cajun dialects and in Haitian Creole. The “two bits” expression for a quarter comes from the fact that the peso was divided into eight reales, and was often actually split in eight. So two of those “bits” were a quarter dollar. The dollar sign was originally a superimposition of an S over a P, short for, of course, PeSo.

I finally got my tour at 5;30 or so,as a Polish couple, another Chilean and Polish Canadian couple and a Mexican showed up and paid their 50 pesos. The tour was quite interesting. It started in front of the Cathedral, where a large number of people had assembled. The tour guide told us they were going on a pilgrimage to the Church of the Virgin of Guadelupe and that we would be visiting the church as part of the tour. We saw first the fountain and statue to fertility, then the aqueduct, which was in use until the 1970s.

Morelia church of Our Lady of Guadelupe, main altar

We then stopped at the church of the Guadelupe close to one end of the aqueduct for 10 minutes. As I entered the church, the Hail Mary’s in Spanish got to me and I automatically started to recite them in French and Italian. The impulse was stronger than me. As a traveller, I decided I needed a medal of St. Christopher (the patron saint of travellers), so I asked for one at the small souvenir stand at the back of the church. They didn’t have a medal, but I got an image instead, which I duly put on the dash of the truck the next day. My godmother and aunt Nicolina will be very proud of me once my cousins Louis or Mike relate this to her.

Church of the Guadelupe and outside vendors

To those who want to point out that St. Christopher was desanctified by the Pope a while ago, I can only say that you understand nothing about what it means to be a Catholic, even an atheist one.

Outside the church was a big fiesta with all kinds of food stands: fruit (oranges, mangoes, papaya, apples), sugar cane, tacos and other fast food, religious souvenirs. The Virgen de Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, like St. Patrick for the Irish or St. John the Baptist for the French Canadians. In true catholic tradition, the Saint’s day (December 12th) is an occasion for not only religious veneration for also for joyful partying and feasting.

I was the last one on the tram car; they were waiting for me. Back to the other end of the aqueduct was the taco restaurant I mentioned that was closed last night. I asked the driver/guide if it was true it was the best in Morelia, and he begged to differ. He then went on to describe the cuisine of Morelia and especially carnitas, which are basically pork trimmings and innards cooked in lard. We happened to pass by the office of a cardiologist just then and I said: “¡Y aquí está el cardiólogo! (And here is he cardiologist!)” to general hilarity. The driver made a sarcastic comment about people on diet pigging out on carnitas and drinking a Coke Zero (Mexican version of diet Coke) to lose weight. We also went right to the end of the aqueduct where it originally petered out and went underground. It had been covered up in the 1970s when a more modern water supply system was installed and before they got the idea that it would be nice to preserve their unique heritage.

We also passed by the University Library which was originally the Jesuit college. The Jesuits were expelled from Spain and its possessions in 1767-68. The guide’s explanation was that the Jesuits were preaching human equality (I should say equality among men, I don’t think they even thought of the equality of men and women at the time) which implied an end to the slavery and inferior position of Indians the Spanish empire depended on. This was certainly the case in other parts of the Spanish and Portuguese empire like what is now Paraguay. The Jesuits were showing their progressive stance even then. Their special oath of obedience to the Pope meant that they could ignore the local religious authorities and do whatever they wanted, which is want they continue to do in their support for left-wing causes. I once read that Jesuit priests had the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, which is not surprising as their vow of celibacy prevents them from entering into long term relationships while the priesthood has always been the way the Catholic Church co-opted gay men and the nuns’ convents for gay women.

After the excellent tour, I wanted to stay in Morelia for a few more days to explore everything I learned. But I went for supper instead. I had seen a chocolate place advertising Mexican coffee as well as the restaurant the tramway guide guy had told me about on the Portal Hidalgo off the main square. I went to the coffee place and bought three pounds of coffee (ok, a kilo and a half) from different parts of Mexico: Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca. They recommended another restaurant across the street for typical Michoacán cuisine so I went there. I asked the waiter what was typical and what he liked best. I also asked for a recommendation about a Mexican wine. He turned his nose up a bit without saying anything or recommending any wine. The message was clear and I asked if I was better off drinking beer, which I ordered. He was right, Marilyn had what was supposed to be a pretty good Mexican wine tonight and it wasn’t. But then the grocery store clerk tried to steer us to Spanish wines. I had a pretty good meal but not spectacular but I remember the dessert, a corunda which was a sweet tamale covered in cream. I then went to the hotel, posted a blog entry and tried to get psyched up for the long trip to the Yucatán over the next few days.

Getting to Morelia, Part I

7 December 2009

Monday, 7 December, Morelia, Michoacan

I am writing this having a cerveza under the porticos in the main plaza in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan. The truck is the shop (I should say taller) again suffering from a broken U-joint (cruceta or cardán) on the driveshaft (arbol). But before you GM haters say anything, it turns out the same thing happens to new boy sheep trucks. If you see my page on Facebook, you will see that Lil told me that Simon had the same problem with his new Dodge Ram.

I could pick worse places to break down, like halfway up the pass between the South Canol and Seagull Creek, where I went moose hunting this year. Morelia is a delightful colonial city with a very beautiful historic centre. I could easily spend more time here.

I still have 1,300 kilometres to go to get to Sophie’s apartment near Playa del Carmen. Marilyn arrived there last night (Sunday). She told me she is in paradise: beautiful apartment, beaches, swimming pools, dolphins frolicking with people, perfect weather and hardly anyone there. Sophie is definitely getting the good bed next time she comes to Whitehorse!

Continuing with the narrative of how I got to Morelia, we go back to last Wednesday

3 December, Guaymas to Culiacan, Sinaloa, day 2 in Mexico

As I drove south, the landscape became more agricultural and less desert like. In Ciudad Obregon there were many silos and flour mills and some vegetable oil mills. Eventually the desert gave way to flat country, large fields with much stuff growing that will most likely end up on our grocery shelves this winter. Definitely not campesino agriculture; clearly the industrial kind requiring large investments in machinery and irrigation.  I was then in Sinaloa

For lunch—this will surprise many of you—I had half a charcoal roasted chicken, the pollo asado sobre carbón, a specialty of Sinaloa, and—get this—salsa with cilantro. All with a squeeze of lime on it, of course, since this is México and limón goes on everything. The chicken was excellent, as was the salsa. I am either getting over my dislike of foul, I meant fowl, or Mexican chicken is that good. The smell of roasting chicken is all over the place, and I actually find it wonderful.

It is true that travel changes one; I have disliked chicken since I walked into Zinmann’s  Jewish-Italian poultry store with my mother at the Jean-Talon market in Montreal many years ago. I gagged and had a hard time not vomiting from the foul fowl smell. So telling me that something tasted like chicken was not a good way of getting me to try something. The only chicken I could stand were the chicken sandwiches at McDonald’s, which tasted nothing like chicken, and boiled chicken breast smeared with tons of salsa verde made with anchovies, capers and parsley.

There were also some small holdings with a few cows or goats. Getting further south, I saw a number of cowboys herding cattle. Therioux points out that much of the cowboy culture and lingo comes from Mexico, even the word lingo. The other things Mexican cowboys gave include lassos, corrals, rodeos and the big, wide-brimmed hat. Well, they are still there in Mexico at least in Sonora and Sinaloa.

Arriving in Culiacán, I had a hard time finding a hotel, the first one did not have room, the one they sent me looked a little seedy, and the third also did not have a room. Finally I landed at the Hotel … which had recently opened. I have to add that I lost my way a few times, the f… GPS mislead me and led me into a number of dead ends and sent me the wrong way in some one-way streets. Luckily, Mexican drivers are quite tolerant of stupid gringos.

I have to add that Culiacán gave me a definite European impression, much more than anywhere else I have been in Mexico so far. On the other hand, I found out it is the drug capital of Mexico and I guess it was not surprising it was patrolled by federales and soldiers in pickup trucks wearing the requisite flak jackets, helmets, machine guns and passe-montagne to hide the face.

Supper was another overcooked hunk of beef at a restaurant suggested by the hotel clerk, who was also going there for some take-out. The steak was actually quite good and tender despite not being bleeding red the way I prefer it. Mexican restaurant menus all have a warning about the health dangers of eating undercooked meat. Give me a break!!

Shit happens

6 December 2009

5 December, Tepic, Nayarit to Morelia, Michoacan

In case you’re wondering, yes, I am now in Mexico and am still working on the blog entries for the last few days’ driving, which will be a lot more informative and interesting, I hope. I just had to get this off today. I am half-way to Cancun where I am supposed to meet Marilyn today (Sunday). But I obviously won’t make it as I still have 1300 kms to go.

On Saturday, I woke up wit a queasy stomach. Went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, where I had fruit and oatmeal. The fruit was kind of boring and rather flavourless: watermelon, cantaloupe, banana, mango, pineapple and a few maraschino cherries. The oatmeal was mostly milk, rather than the solid Scottish porridge I was hoping for. The queasy stomach turned into a full blown “turista”. I stopped at a pharmacy, got some Imodium and also took some antibiotics the doctor gave me in Vancouver. I also finally took the cholera/diarrhoea vaccine I was given in Vancouver.

Suffice it to say that I welcomed the toll booths with their toilets, despite the outrageous Mexican tolls. People have complained about my too graphic previous descriptions so I will stop here and not describe the varied quality and cleanliness of autopista toilets.

The turista gradually abated, and I survived the day on water, Gatorade (on sale, boy that stuff is gross) to replenish the electrolytes, and one orange. Should be good for my diet.

I got stuck in traffic for an hour in Guadalajara (Mexico’s 2nd largest city). Why can’t I go around any city without getting stuck? Kept going and decided I would try to make it to Toluca south of Mexico city. After a while, I pass a gas station look at my gauge and see about one-quarter tank left. I figure I better gas up at the next station on the autopista. I drive 7 drive, but no more gas stations, when up to that point there was one every 50 to 100 kms at every toll booth. At the next toll booth, I ask where is the next gas station, the toll attendant tells me 54 kilometres. Looking at my gauge, I figure that I should be able to make it, but just in case I will drive slow. I get to the next toll booth, and the attendant tells me the gas station is closed and the next one is 24 kilometres. I start to get worried and my worries are justified after another 15 kilometres. So I call the number of the roadside assistance on the map I got from Sanborn, the insurance company, but it turns out that it is the wrong insurance company and a different company underwrote my policy. I finally call the right insurance company, and after some discussion, since my policy does not cover roadside assistance, they send a tow truck for which I have pay $1,800 pesos.

As I get out of the truck, a whole bunch of paper goes flying out on the highway. It takes me a minutes to realize it’s all my money that went flying out of my pocket. I panic, but then I decide to get the flashlight and recover what I can. But it is windy. I do manage to find about 3,000 pesos in the grassy median.

A few hours later, around 9:00PM, the tow truck shows up, they siphon 40 litres of gas into my truck and I pay them $1,800 (that’s pesos, not dollars, divide by 12 to get dollars), $1,500 for the service and $800 for the gas.

The tow truck follows me into Morelia, and I stop at the first gas station. I put in $400 worth of gas as I don’t have much cash and notice an HSBC ATM, which only lets me withdraw $1,000 as I had taken out $3,000 in Tepic that morning.

I waver between getting a hotel and sleeping in the camper, but the accessibility of a toilet makes the hotel win. I get to the Quality Inn (which is wrong in the GPS, it has the address for the Holiday Inn). My credit card won’t work for some reason after numerous tries of putting in my PIN, so I pay cash instead. That’s when I realize I don’t have my bank card. I head back to the gas station (20kms each way), ask but nobody has seen the card. I call the Bank of Montreal to cancel the card, go back to the hotel and get to bed around 1:00AM.

Luckily, knowing myself, I have travellers’ cheques, so I can hopefully get some cash today.

In Portland’s clutch

28 November 2009

24 November, Tuesday, Portland Oregon

Slept in and after posting the blog entry and consuming the hotel room coffee, I headed out to another Stumptown on 3rd Avenue for a cappuccino and a blueberry-cranberry scone.

Just walked around on 3rd and then went up Burnside. Lo and behold, I saw Powell’s technical book store. Well I went in, found a manual for 1990 Chevy trucks as well as a used copy of the Joinery book by Gary Rogowski from Taunton Press and some other discount wooddorking books. I tried paying for them and getting them to keep them until I could pick them up later, but they wouldn’t do it On the other hand, they were perfectly willing to put the books on hold for me if I did not pay for them. Go figure!

I walked a little more and decided to take the streetcar to 23rd Avenue, known as Nob Hill; an upscale shopping and restaurant area with most stores in old Victorian era mansions. Interesting street full of shops and good restaurants. I had an excellent piece of halibut at Jo Bar and Rotisserie, then a salad with warm squash. I also went for a gelato & coffee further down the street.

Then I took the streetcar right to the other end of the line, hoping to go to OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). There was the Aerial Tram, which I took to the top and took a number of pictures. I couldn’t get to OMSI by foot from there, so I went back to the hotel.

Mount St. Helens?

Mount Hood

By that time, it was almost time for supper. I settled on going to a French restaurant. When I got there, it no longer existed. I then went to Dan and Louis Oyster Bar on Ankeny Street. Great oysters and good beer. I forgot my credit card there, but retrieved it the next day. The server also prevailed on me to translate the text a t-shirt for her boss. It was in French and was about the Rolling Stones. She was going to do it using a word-by word translator on her cell phone. She did give me a free drink She also suggested that I go a bar at the top a building nearby (the Portland City Grill, at the top of the Big Pink) and enjoy the view. Reminded me too much of the Altitheque disco in Montreal of my younger days, including the crowd. I was starting to feel pretty tired and went back to the hotel room.

Musings US toilets.

I observed a custome in all those American Cities and Townes through which I passed, that is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels, neither do I thinke that any other nation of Christendome doth use it, but only the United States. The American, and also most strangers that are commorant in the United States, does alwaies, at their aisance use a circular strip of paper to cover that part of the seat that their arse doth touch. This form of shitting I understand is generally used in all places of the United States, their seat covers being for the most part made of paper. The reason of this their curiosity, is because the American cannot by any means endure to have his arse touch the same place other men’s arses have touched,  seeing all men’s arses are not alike cleane.

On the other hand, not a bidet to be seen anywhere, to the disgust of most Italians and Frenchmen. If arses are not washed, I guess one needs to cover toilet seats.

Now I don’t want to rest, I want to pee, take a dump and certainly wash after either one. So why call them restrooms? What’s wrong with calling them toilets or washrooms? We do wash or do our toilet in there, but unless you’re really weird, you don’t rest there.

November 25, Wednesday, Portland to Dayton, OR

Woke up late and then drove to Powell Technical books to retrieve my purchases of yesterday. I also looked for a “Car Toys” store to see if I could buy a Mexico map for the GPS. The store was no longer on its older 9th Street location. By coincidence, Nerissa Rosati had suggested that I go visit Gary Rogowski, who is in Portland. So after a bad piece of Pizza and another Stumpcity cappuccino, I headed across the Willamette to Gary’s studio and schools (The Northwest Woodworking Studio). Gary was not there, but I had an interesting conversation with Joe,

Joe

who is one of the mastery students there and then checked out the shop.

Aircraft Carrier

Gary came back, had a short talk with him as he was quite busy and I bought a t-shirt that reflects my philosophy about building. The quote from John Ruskin is: “When we build, let us think that we build forever.

I then went to http://www.woodcrafters.us/ the woodcrafters’ store for a good drool. I did buy Sandor Nagyszalanczy’s book on power tools, on sale for $19.95 from $40.00 ($65 in Canada).

. I had tried calling the dealership, but my cell phone subscription had run out of money. Headed out to Russ Chevrolet, stuck in traffic most of the way, it took more than an hour on US99. The . truck was almost ready. I had a coffee while the mechanic took it for a test drive. Finally back on the road with my Koolatron smelling bad because of the milk not being refrigerated fro three days.

So I went to another Car Toys store not far from the dealership on US99W. They did not have the maps, but did carry cell phones. As the Chinese lady in Seattle had warned me, they could not sell me additional time, so I had to get a new phone number and SIM card and got $50 worth of time at 10 cents a minute in the US. It took the woman at the counter over an hour and she could not get through to AT&T to validate my amount. I would have to do it later as either their system was down or screwed u in some fashion. She also showed me how to use the camera on the phone and I will post her picture as soon as I figure out how to download it.

I looked for a campground/RV park along the way and found one in Dayton, in the Willamette wine country. I headed there, got my site and looked for a restaurant. I found a “Cielo Blu” restaurant on the GPS, so I figured let’s go for non-ethnic food. The restaurant no longer existed, but there was an entry for the Joel Palmer House . Well, it is clearly one of Oregon’s best restaurants and the best meal I’ve had so far.

It started with a little amuse-gueule of porcini-truffle risotto every bit as good as the one I make using Italian porcini and Umbria black truffles. Except this was made from Oregon boleti and truffles picked by the chef’s father. I had a somewhat disappointing truffle in Seattle, which the chef explained was due to commercial pickers harvesting them before they are ripe. Unlike Italy or France, they do not use animals (pigs or dogs) to find them but just rake under Douglas Firs and sell everything.

I asked the server what her favourite wine was and she brought a wonderful Pinot Noir, Willakenzie Estate Pierre Leon 2006. It was so good I had to buy a bottle. I also tried a Pinot gris, which was too much like the Italian Pinot grigios for my taste (thin and acidy), and a chardonnay which was pretty good but nothing to write home about. The first course was the chef’s incredible version of won-ton soup: a mushroom consommé with shrimp broccoli and two wonderful meat-filled wontons. After that An absolutely perfectly and flawlessly cooked piece of fresh halibut, the meal crowned with a piece of flourless chocolate cake, an espresso and a shot of Muscat grappa. It sure made up for the bad piece of pizza I had for lunch. Off the bed at the campsite as I had to get up early to be at Larry’s for t-day at 1:00 PM.

Waiting for the clutch

24 November 2009
Russ Chevrolet, Tigard OR

Russ Chevrolet, Tigard OR

23 November, Monday, Portland Oregon

Headed out at 7:00AM to the dealer in Wilsonville to try to get the clutch fixed. Luckily, I had left-over coffee from yesterday. The Wilsonville dealer said they couldn’t do anything today, so I called Russ Chevrolet in Tigard, south of Portland. The service rep, Robert Murphy, said they could look at it. Diagnosis was clearly what I feared: clutch is burned and needs to be replaced and flywheel turned. They looked for a clutch and found an aftermarket one, available tomorrow. It turns out that GM’s parts depot for Portland is in Reno Nevada and it generally takes 2-3 days to get parts from there. Anyway, estimate is about $1,200 and the car might be ready tomorrow if I’m lucky but Wednesday is more likely. Yuck. I blame Larry Jaques and my brother for jinxing the truck. It has nothing to do with Malcolm’s driving over the track (road would be to generous a term) over the pass to Seagull Creek where we went to sexually harass gentle innocent moose or the steep hills on the streets around Seattle’s Pike Street market

Rented a car (a Hyundai something or other, or maybe some other small Korean job, I forget which, but they all look alike anyhow) and headed to Portland’s visitor centre, which is now open. I talked for a while with a volunteer and he gave me a number of tips and ideas of where to go and where to eat. He also told me about Powell’s book store. I found a room at the Hotel Fifty on the waterfront using Expedia.com, so I headed out there, checked in and parked the car. By that time, it was almost lunch time, so I decided to go to Portland’s oldest seafood restaurants: Jake’s Famous Crawfish Grill. I took the MAX, their light rail system which operates directly on city streets in the downtown area, and then turns into a more conventional system like underground in other parts. The neat thing is that transit is free in the downtown area.

Food Stands

Food stands

On the way there, I saw this series of ethnic food stands surrounding a parking lot. (There was only one non-ethnic one serving gelato and coffee).

At Jake’s I had four different kinds of oysters, three from Washington and one from Fanny Bay in BC. My favourite was the BC oyster, which is from near where Ted, Marilyn’s brother, lives on the Vancouver Island side across from Denman Island south of Comox. After that I had a salmon stir fry, which was excellent with the fish cooked to perfection.

Luigi drinking beer at Jake's Famous Crawfish

Luigi drinking beer at Jake's Famous Crawfish

I had a couple of local brews to accompany the salmon. I noted in their menu that the Arctic Char came from Iceland. ICELAND??? When they could get fresh char flown in from Whitehorse. I talked to the server and got the executive chef’s name (Billie), who wasn’t there at the time. I left him/her a note pointing out that Icy Waters and Ying Allen’s Wild Things could get them arctic char the next day and that the Icelanders probably got their eggs or hatchlings from Whitehorse. So there, I did a little export promotion work.

Luigi eating oysters at Jake's Famous Crawfish

Luigi eating oysters at Jake's Famous Crawfish

I then had an excellent coffee (short double espresso) at Stumptown coffee and headed to Powell’s bookstore, which may or may not be the world’s largest bookstore. Pretty amazing and tempting. As the guy at the visitor centre said, you could spend one hour or one week there. I resisted temptation fairly well, only bought two economics books and one old used Terry Pratchett (Guards, Guards!), which I hadn’t re-read in a long time. I resisted the temptation of buying a hardcover version of his latest. I also found a used copy of Alma Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History, which was recommended to me by Karyn Armour. What I especially like about this store is that used and new copies of each book are side by side and you can choose either, depending on what you want.Powell's bookstore

After that, I headed out the World Forestry Centre in Washington Park on the MAX. it went from being a streetcar to a subway, 300 feet below the park. Some interesting exhibits. I tried the harvester simulator: I will never make it as a machine operator.

I then went back to the hotel & tried to do some work. I have to start getting more disciplined about getting work done. This is supposed to also be a working holiday. The fact that I very little done has obviously nothing to do with the 3 glasses of wine at supper and the half bottle of Pinot noir leftover from last night’s supper.

Anyway, then went for supper at the hotel restaurant (H50 Bistro & Bar) where all they had was a tapas menu. Good tapas at that. I tried three different local whites (pinot Gris, Chard and a sweet Gewürztraminer which I liked a lot), and ate salmon fritters, clam chowder, a Caesar’s salad and “torched” salmon. The salad had an interesting presentation: the romaine leaves looked like a bunch and were held together by a ring or short tube of dried bread. The torched salmon was excellent: crispy on the outside and sashimi on the inside & bottom. I have to try that when I get home. It was served with soya sauce and square cucumbers slices garnished with thinly sliced jalapeños and sesame seeds.

Tomorrow I have to decide whether I go on a drive to the Columbia Gorge and Mount Hood, a wine tour in the Willamette, or stick around Portland.

In the clutch of a slipping clutch (groan!)

22 November 2009
Pioneer Square, Portland

Pioneer Square, Portland

22 November

Took it easy this AM & cleaned up the camper a bit. I left around 11:30 to go to the tourist information office in Portland to get details on a wine tour. Of course, it’s Sunday and it’s closed.

Nevertheless, I had checked things out on The Oregon government tourism site . I had a big sushi lunch in anticipation of imbibing a bit and not wanting to get drunk, even though I intended to spit most of the wine I tasted.

Ponzi Vineyards

Ponzi Vineyards

I first headed to Ponzi Vineyards but my clutch started slipping. Ponzi had a great Chardonnay, some good to excellent Pinot Noirs. I bought a few bottles and a magnum and then headed to an RV park in Wilsonville to while away the day.

Maybe I’ll go on an organized winery tour tomorrow while the truck hopefully gets fixed.

Departure day: caribou, hotsprings and bison

13 November 2009

Left home at 9:15 after loading the food & last minute stuff and I made it to Liard Hot Springs at 7:35, 657 km.

Early on, I realized my headlights were not working. Checked the fuses & they seemed OK. I got worried & tried to figure out what I would do if I had to drive at night. I would have to drive at night if I wanted to make it to the hot springs as the sun now sets around 4:00 PM, I was going east, and it is an eight-hour drive from Whitehorse in the best conditions. I debated whether I should chance it, but good sense finally prevailed. When I got to Teslin where I gassed up, I decided to get the vehicle checked out in Watson Lake and if I had to stay there if need be instead of going to the Liard Hot Springs.

So I drove on, almost non-stop (except to pee) to Watson Lake. It was extremely windy until pas Watson Lake and the wind sometimes made the truck sway uncomfortably. There were flurries around Whitehorse and through the Cassiar Mountains, although, surprisingly, the road was completely dry east of the mountains. As I reached the Liard Plateau, I started seeing blue sky.

Caribou before Watson Lake

Caribou along the Alaska Highway before Watson Lake

About 20 km before Upper Liard, I saw quite a few (about 6 or seven) woodland caribou by the side of the road. I stopped to take the pictures, and a truck that was on my tail honked at me.

I saw three more caribou just a few kms before Upper Liard, a truck stopped to let them cross the road, but one headed back. I guess they must be suicidal caribou to hang out a few kilometers from a First Nation community. On the other hand, they are probably part of the Finlayson herd and the Kaska people have been doing their best to reestablish the herd over the last ten years or so. So they might have lost their fear of humans. For now anyway.

Caribou crossing Alaska Highway at Upper Liard

Caribou crossing Alaska Highway at Upper Liard

I got the truck lights checked out at Rudy’s in Watson Lake at 3:00PM. I thought I knew exactly what was wrong, and that we would have to go fix the connection to the camper clearance lights under the truck. Well, guess what? The mechanic checked the fuses and one was burnt. After the fuse was replaced, all the lights worked fine, although I might have to replace some of the rear clearance light bulbs.

Past Watson Lake, it soon got dark despite our long northern twilight and my speed went down to 80, then 70 (klicks that is). I did manage to take some pictures of bison before it got too dark. By 5:15 or so I was getting really tired and looked for a place to stop. Just before the Fireside lodge at 5:30, there was a turn-off. I stopped there, turned on the propane heater and tried to take a nap. Although I did not sleep, I did rest so that by 6:30, I was ready to go again.

Bison on Alaska Highway

Bison on Alaska Highway

At Fireside, there was a lit sign that alternated saying “Drive Carefully” and “Buffalo on the road for 90 km”. I tried taking a movie of it, but it did not turn out.

At the hot springs, first things first: grabbed my towel & bathing suit (bathing au naturel is frowned upon, silly Anglo puritanism) and headed for the pools. heavenly after a day’s drive.

Arctic char with garden fresh thyme (actually window box fresh, but whose countin’) and wine for supper, along with Maryel’s foccaccia to mop up the juice and half a bottle of Rosso del Veronese.

I gotta figure out a way of recording my thoughts while I’m on the road. I had a lot of great ideas while driving but I forgot most of them.

PS. Pictures coming later as I forgot the stupid wire to connect the camera to the ‘puter in the truck & I don’t feel like going out again. I am inputting this on Friday night in a hotel room in Fort Saint John, BC.

More delays

9 November 2009

Well, I didn’t leave today. I spent all of Saturday and Sunday morning with David Ashley doing electrical work on the camper: wiring a new battery in the camper charged from the truck, installing  inverter so I can use 120Volt stuff. I still have to fix the connection to the camper clearance lights, but that involves going under the truck and neither David nor I relished the thought of lying in the snow.

This morning (Monday), Del Young came over & fixed the propane heater in the camper so I don’t freeze to death at night on the way south or up high in the Andes. The pilot flame was very weak and difficult to light. Del took the heater apart and reamed out the pilot with a very thin reamer. Works great now.  Last time we needed it while moose hunting, Malcolm & I could not get it going, but we did use the stove burners to generate a bit of heat.

Lots of shopping and running around this afternoon: groceries, coffee, maple syrup, truck registration, health insurance (cheap @ $128 for 3 months), travellers’ cheques, Crappy Tire yet again, steering wheel lock & a padlock & good security advice from Eamonn Campbell at Locksmith Services, etc.

I just installed Skype on our computers (my ID is luigi.zanasi if you’re interested).

A bunch more stuff left to do: installing shelves in the camper, finish cleaning up the camper & the truck, getting the bolts on the winch tack welded so it can’t be easily stolen,  and making sure I have everything I need to take. Tagliatelle with ragu’ tonight, the last for a while, I guess.

Maybe I won’t leave tomorrow; well, not before the afternoon anyway.