Train adventures in Canada

Riding the train across Canada has been on my bucket list for some years. It has just come off. I’ve done a short part of it (36 hours) and the experience on the train was as great as is reported. I have a few niggles about what was delivered not quite being what is advertised but the biggest issue is communication.

Edmonton at dusk

Passenger trains here in Canada use lines owned by the freight company so always have to give way. In addition, someone died on the train at an earlier stage. However, it is with the communication of the 10 hour delay that I take issue. Because we had booked directly we got an email that the train was delayed (hurrah for that email) and Via Rail suggested that we phone every couple of hours. Neither their website nor their Titter account made any mention of the delay. Their app didn’t recognise the train at all, which was a useful cop-out. When we phoned, the Via Rail person had to check on the situation each time; so it was not on their screen? The problem was that we got conflicting information each time we rang. Most of this country has 24/7 electricity supply and a corresponding telecommunications infrastructure and service. Via Rail do seem, however, to regard the train as a new technology and, if they are able to track it, which seems unlikely, they don’t tell their staff or customers.

Having to set the alarm to ring for updates in the middle of the night is outrageous when the train, we learnt later, was still many hours away. A 10 hour delay means changed accommodation and connection arrangements at each end but Via Rail take no responsibility for that on the grounds that they don’t guarantee arrival times. Using this train for anything other than part of a vacation would be unwise … ‘I’ll try to make the meeting on Wednesday but I might be a day or so late’!! That wouldn’t wash.

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Polar bears and their prison

Pics of polar bearsI don’t normally record ‘just’ travel experiences here but surely I can make an exception for polar bears. I had the privilege, yesterday, of seeing polar bears in the wild by Hudson Bay, Canada.

The one-day tour flew us into Churchill from where we boarded ‘bear buggies’ (the one pictured is from the other tour company but they each use the same kind of vehicle) to traverse the tundra in search of bear activity. It didn’t take long to find bears because a mum and her cub were crossing the road in the town. On the way to the wrestling bears and the mum feeding her cubs (see the pics in the collage), we saw an artic fox and some Willow ptarmigan, white birds with plumage right down to their feet; they are almost invisible against the snow.

Bear buggy

The town of Churchill has a bear ‘prison’. When bears come into town and won’t leave when asked politely, they are put into a hangar, where they are given only lumps of ice (no gin and tonic). When they were fed there, in the past, they refused to leave at all. After a while they are transported by helicopter out onto the ice on Hudson Bay, where they belong. This system saves the bears from being shot and the population from being mauled – a win-win situation.

It was a great day in spite of the biting cold – it was minus 15 degrees celcius with a wind chill of at least another -20 degrees, making it too cold to be out of doors for more than a few minutes, no matter how warmly dressed. The buggies have observation platforms at the back but no-one managed to be there for very long. The trip included coffee, pastries, soup and sandwiches – all gratefully accepted by everyone!

 

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Elaborate masquerade

That’s what the buying of a bus ticket for an Axa bus in Malawi feels like. They take your money (first), then carefully note your name and phone number on a sheet, along with the serial number of the ticket. The ticket is carefully completed as if you really were being sold a seat. You are not. You are being sold the possibility of getting a seat and not even the certainty of getting on the bus. The idea that they would phone you for any reason is ridiculous – that would imply a service.

There is a competitor bus service, the Sososo bus, but when I went to book, the bus for tomorrow morning was full. Axa bus is never ‘full’, as I discovered when I sat on the floor of the bus for three hours last year, having previously bought a ‘seat’. I should have booked the Sososo bus earlier this time but was hoping for a lift so as to avoid the 5.5 hour journey by crowded and hot bus.

Having this long and laborious process for each ticket sold suggests that someone in the Axa company believes that buying a ticket means buying the right to a seat. They probably travel by car.

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Pillowcases – my red line

As some of you might agree, I am a pretty relaxed traveller, unperturbed by power cuts, lack of water, rickety public transport, confusing directions and all that. Last night I stayed with my colleague, her baby and child-minder in a lodge in Nkhamenya just inside the North District of Malawi. It is rural and there is not a lot of choice of accommodation, particularly near the trading centre.

Shower – sometimes

The lodge looks great when you drive in and meet the manager. We are shown to our rooms, where the beds are not yet made  up – it’s 4 pm. We think that they only have one set of bedding and wash it for each change of guest, hence it being the late afternoon before it is changed. The bathroom was interesting. There were taps in the concrete wall but the water was only turned on twice a day. OK. I can handle that. My room was more expensive because there was a wash-hand basin in the bathroom. OK. Well, no. It drained onto the floor but there wasn’t anything to drain except a trickle when the water was on. I had three buckets in there, two with water in. That would have been more useful if there had been a jug or large mug to use as a ‘shower’ or any other way of using the water. At least there was no need to worry about it being hot. That has long ceased to be of any concern to me!

Expensive wash-hand basin

All of that I took in my stride but …  The bed was made up and there were no pillowcases. I drew this to the attention of the person who had done the bed. She shrugged and intimated that the pillows were just like that. I then realised that this was a red line with me. I often travel with a cloth that could be used in this kind of situation but this was a brief stopover so I didn’t have one. I felt it was a point of principle anyway. When I insisted on having pillowcases she came back with two, neither of which covered a pillow. One was so torn on one side and open on the other that it was no use and the other was the wrong size and shape. In a very un-Malawian manner, I took the matter to the manager. The ‘chamber maid’ had said that this was all they had but he managed to source another pair. I strongly suspect that they swapped them from the room of a less bolshie guest. There is now a great temptation to take a pillow case with me as an ‘essential’ travel item but I will stay with the normal cloth which is more versatile.

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Great stars but electric power is great too

Here in Karonga in the far north of Malawi, there are regular, prolonged power cuts because of the falling level of the lake and Malawi relying almost total on hydro-electric power. When the lights off off the stars are wonderful – the skies are usually clear. It’s lovely to be able to see the Milky Way and wonder about the Southern sky, so different from what I am used to.

The power-cuts have a less welcome consequence in that the temperatures at this time of year are very high and air-conditioning is essential to sleeping. The hotel has a generator but it’s not possible to run the air-con units with the generator – the load would be too great. I asked if I could have a fan as my room’s electricity didn’t come on when the power cut eventually ended so it was still being served by the generator (i.e. no air-con possible).

A giant fan was brought to my room and provided great relief for a short while, till it went off. It had been tricky to plug in so I thought the plug wiring might be loose. Well …. have Swiss Army knife, will travel. I normally only use it for opening beer bottles, but it is handy as a screwdriver and I was fairly quickly able to open the plug. The fuse was askew, so I popped it back and, hey presto, the fan worked again – until it went off with a bang in the middle of the night when the generator stopped. I know that doesn’t make sense but by then it was a few degrees cooler so sleeping was possible without the fan or air-con. When people here talk about Scotland being cold, it makes me long for a cool Scottish evening. I’ll be back there soon enough and will be missing the heat of Malawi.

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Crocodile-free swim

Yesterday, while working at the Lakeshore, I was able to have a quick swim here at Sambani Lodge. I stayed at this idyllic lodge for several weeks in 2008. Much has stayed the same but the new management/owner are upgrading it, redoing the thatched roofs and, wait-for-it, they’ve installed a satellite dish. I was far too busy swimming, taking photos and have coffee (with hot milk) to check out what communication is now on offer here but it certainly includes a phone signal.

The beach is of white sand, the water is warm and shallow for a long way and the place was deserted. On my next visit I must carve out a few days to come here and enjoy it again. Meanwhile it was a lovely interlude with a dear friend in an otherwise packed schedule. No crocs were to be seen but they wouldn’t be here anyway as it is not near the river mouth and it’s not the right time of day for crocodiles. That might sound like a know a lot about crocodiles but I only know enough to be safe! After that I drove back to Mzuzu in a much shorter time than the outgoing 2-hour journey. I am getting used to driving here. Maybe.

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Taxi ride – a multi-faceted experience

After a five-and-a-half bus journey from Lilongwe, which should have taken six hours, had the driver been even half cautious of human life, I arrived in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. Coming off the bus as one of the few white people, I was assailed by taxi drivers wanting to take my bag. Oh no you don’t – I’ll carry my own bag and negotiate a taxi fare when I am safely down these treacherous bus steps.

So, I agreed a reasonable fare very easily and my driver took my bags and put all three in the boot. He instructed me to sit in the front and then agreed a fare with a Malawian couple and they sat in the back. They needed a ride to a minibus as they were continuing onwards – brave people to do that in the dark on Malawian roads. The car only started by jump-starting. This was difficult in the crowded conditions of Mzuzu at that time. He got a push from folk nearby and from his male passenger. However, he then needed to stop for fuel. I should have got out to video that experience. The petrol station was jam-packed but the driver was able to jump-start it even in reverse in a tiny space, with help from passing people again. I was glad that my fare might go a bit towards fixing his starter motor or whatever was wrong. That bit of the experience took me back to my early driving days when you had to be able to jump start a car in order to use one in the country.

Once we have dropped off the lovely, brave, onward-going couple, we headed to my lodgings, which were not far (mercifully). On the way the driver asked what I was doing and where my husband was.

After a five-and-a-half bus journey, which should have taken six hours, had the driver been even half cautious of human life, I arrived in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. Coming off the bus as one of the few white people, I was assailed by taxi drivers wanting to take my bag. Oh no you don’t – I’ll carry my own bag and negotiate a taxi fare when I am safely down these treacherous bus steps.

So, I agreed a reasonable fare very easily and my driver took my bags and put all three in the boot. He instructed me to sit in the front and then agreed a fare with a Malawian couple and they sat in the back. They needed a ride to a minibus as they were continuing onwards – brave people to do that in the dark on Malawian roads. The car only started by jump-starting. This was difficult in the crowded conditions of Mzuzu at that time. He got a push from folk nearby and from his male passenger. However, he then needed to stop for fuel. I should have got out to video that experience. The petrol station was jam-packed but the driver was able to jump-start it even in reverse in a tiny space, with help from passing people again. I was glad that my fare might go a bit towards fixing his starter motor or whatever was wrong. That bit of the experience took me back to my early driving days when you had to be able to jump start a car in order to use one in the country.

Once we have dropped off the lovely, brave, onward-going couple, we headed to my lodgings, which were not far (mercifully). On the way the driver asked what I was doing and where my husband was.

This is a fairly common line of conversation here. When I confessed to not having a husband (note to self: don’t make that mistake again), he got very excited, introduced himself as Abdul and shared that he didn’t have a wife. He then asked if I would marry him and was very insistent that I should. When I demurred, as you would, he strongly requested my phone number. I gave him a wrong phone number which he promptly dialled, getting an innocent bystander, of course. He was quite dumped that I was not accepting him. Fortunately, we were then at my lodgings and I could escape his earnest attentions. How does this man keep any customers? Maybe they are not single women. Why can we women not be more direct in responding to outrageous attentions like this?

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Lovely bedroom

On my first day here in Malawi I am staying in the Kiboko Hotel in Lilongwe, which is unpretentious but perfectly comfortable. I have been upgraded to an executive room and what fun the bed head is with these huge camelions keeping watch on me. Eeek! They are not that big in real life, nor very common in Malawi, I believe.

The wall hangings are beautiful and I am particularly impressed by the framing. It’s lovely to be in Malawi among the warmest-hearted people on the planet. Sure their communication systems don’t work well but their welcome is very real and they are very proud that their country is known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’

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Arriving in Malawi

After a smooth, but long, trip via London and Johannesburg, the arrival at Lilongwe is very pretty, at least on the outside of the building. Inside it’s not so good. There are four processes for immigration. First the visa form must be authorised and no-one asked for all that supporting evidence that I had compiled. Next you must pay the visa fee of $75.00. This takes ages but does produce a receipt. Then the visa itself gets written by hand and stuck into the passport – very pretty. Finally, you are in a queue for immigration and that’s all done. It only too 45 minutes or so.
In the baggage hall there are trolleys (good) but my luggage is not there (bad).

A charade is then played whereby it is pretended that there is a system for locating it and ensuring that it will come tomorrow. In fact, I will just go back there tomorrow and personally look around the luggage hall for it. Without it I cannot go on with my work here so here’s hoping.  Yup. Found the luggage the next day so on with the plan. Sorry the jackaranda tree is on its side!

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Hot cycling

I normally cycle in Scotland where wind, rain and midges are the major challenges and not necessarily in that order. How exciting then to come upon this ‘Group Cycling’ event in Florence – on a hill above Florence to be precise. Here hundreds of people cycled on gym bikes (I think this might be ‘spinning’) to music and loud encouragement. The moves were demonstrated by chaps up the front doing what the gang should be doing.

This seems a very strenuous activity and it was being done in 34 degrees Celcius. I can hardly walk on the flat in that heat, far less pedal furiously. At least one person looked as if he was about to have a heart attack. Emergency services were all around, as they needed to be. Respect!

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