Not wired for sound

I am not sure that you can see this particularly well but this bike (not mine) has a bluetooth speaker in one of the water-bottle holders. The cyclist plays music from his phone as he pedals along. It’s handy on the canal towpath where other path users can hear him. I had some adventures with this cyclist. First he helped me to do a photoshoot with a banner at Falkirk Grahamston station where we arrived. He had been explaining that he didn’t like hills and was just out for a day instead of ‘sitting at home watching the telly and growing old’. If he didn’t smoke and did eat breakfast he might manage hills a bit better, but I refrained from sharing that insight.

The Avon Acqueduct

After the photoshoot I caught up with him at the top of the hill to Falkirk High (the clue is in the name). He decided he was going to cycle with me, all 30 miles back to Edinburgh. To my subsequent shame, I wasn’t too keen on that but didn’t object. We headed West and our first challenge was the very-long and very-dark canal tunnel. Happily I have integral bike lights which helped a lot and I emerged safely at the other end. My new-found friend didn’t. After waiting a bit, I went on and had a lovely ride. I sat to eat a sandwich at Linlithgow where a kayak race was starting and my cycling friend pedalled past with his bluetooth pop music. He didn’t see me then but I came upon him further along the canal, having stopped for a smoke. I stopped to chat and found, when I restarted, that I had a puncture. He very kindly did most of the repair for me. I was prepared enough to have everything I needed except wet wipes, which are environmentally un-friendly anyway. Half-an-hour later we were on our way again and I managed to get home, showered, changed and to the for a delightful concert that afternoon.

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Invisible buses

I have to say that bus travel in Ireland is just grand when you are used to the particular bus. But not otherwise. The bus that I wanted had a clear timetable online and a bus stop in the real world, which clearly said ‘X20’ on the route I wanted. However, ‘everyone knows’ that it goes from a different place. That I had checked out that different place and still couldn’t find the X20 probably reflects my diminishing powers of managing out there in the world.

Anyway, I got a three-wheeler thing that went through all the villages imaginable. I think that they built some of them just to make the bus trip longer. At the end of it was a warm welcome and a catch-up with a friend from childhood. That I messed up our communications too is just one more indication of seniorhood. The great joy is that it doesn’t matter at all.

Another joy is that Spring thinks it has arrived here in Ireland. Gorgeous magnolias are bursting into life in Maynooth and you can go for a walk without a hat and gloves.

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Essentials of travel – a keep cup and make-up bag

I’m on the train to Englandshire  and have the real pleasure of sharing space with a group of young women heading to Newcastle for a ‘hen night’. They are young (early twenties at the most) and had travelled very little, particularly by train. They are bemused that their phones know where they were; they are recounting advice from their Grannies about not drinking too much and are generally good company.

We got into conversation (not that I never need an excuse) because one of them was showing another the contents of her make-up bag. It matches her suitcase so she is gorgeous before she ever starts on the make-up process. I took a photo of it with my keep cup for perspective, that is size perspective and approach-to-travelling perspective. My suitcase for a week’s holiday is not much bigger than her wonderful make-up bag!

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But what is it?

This is another story from visiting the lovely Butchard Gardens on Vancouver Island. At brunch/lunch time this sign was on the food counter.

‘What is it?’, I asked

‘Cauliflower and goats cheese’

‘Yes, but what is it?’

The ‘server’ went to a large (really huge) file named ‘Ingredients’.

‘No’, I said, ‘I don’t want to know that is in it, but what is it? … What does it look like?’ By now I could see that our communcation was not all that it might be.

‘It comes in a ceramic dish about this size’ (demonstrating large bowl, which in North America is no surprise), she said.

Another server tried to help … ‘It’s six ounces’.

I gave up and ordered it.

It was a soup.

Lia had thought it was salad and I had thought it was a upmarket version of cauliflower cheese. It tasted delicious anyway. The servers didn’t understand my problem at any point in that exchange.  They were not amused when I returned to take a picture of the sign.

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How to scare away boars

‘Tacca’

Everyday problem, right? Here’s an elegant solution from The Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island.  A stream runs into a bamboo cane, blocked off at the end. When the water in the cane reaches a certain level it tips over and empties. It then crashes back onto a strategically-place stone, making a gong sound. It clearly works as there are no boars in sight, other than this elegant sculpture. He is called ‘Tacca’ after the artist who made him and he is a copy of ‘Porcellino’ who resides in Florence.

Bike on front of busPS – these gardens are gorgeous at any time of year and worth a visit. Buses run to and from Victoria and you can take you bike on the bus. What’s not to love? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to pop your bike on the front of a bus in Edinburgh? *sigh*

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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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