Monday, May 13, 2019

4 May - Vancouver to Victoria

I took the guidance of Google Maps to understand how much time it would take me to Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal from the house. I had a booking for the 8.25 am departure. My aunt told me that the ferry would not be as busy on weekends as it is on weekdays with commuter traffic. Even though I had to report only at 7.30 am I left the house at the stroke of 6. Traffic was light and I reached the terminal in less than an hour. At the check-in, which I could complete from within the car in a few minutes, I produced my booking, paid the balance amount and was asked to join a lane with a pink colored slip on the windshield. Boarding started after almost an hour. Announcements were made much before the boarding for people to return to their vehicles as many had gone off to the restaurant to grab something to eat and drink. I stayed put in the car and attended to social media requirements.
The boarding was completed in quick time and as the ferry was not full there were enough places to park oneself. I took a leisurely stroll on the deck taking in the beautiful sights of the Bay and clicking away merrily as the sun rose to give the Bay a shimmering hue. When the ferry began its journey to Nanaimo the cold winds tore into my body and soon I was back within the comfortable confines of the ferry. I sought refuge in a strong cup of coffee to warm the insides. The journey lasted barely 90 minutes and in the eagerness to watch the ferry dock I missed the announcement asking passengers to return to their vehicles. I realised the mistake when I heard the announcement for the driver of a Chevy Impala to return to the car! My car was at the head of one of the queues. When I got to the car, huffing and puffing, people in my queue gave me dirty looks and were impatiently behind their wheels to move out.

After disembarking from the ferry I drove leisurely to Victoria, setting my sights to the place I had booked for the halt that night. On the way, a short distance to Victoria, I caught sight of a Chevy service center and decide to go in there. When I was playing around to understand the controls on the display of the car the odometer reading and the digital speed indication suddenly vanished. Try as I did, I could not get the display I wanted. When I drove in to the service center I met the smiling Dan to who I mentioned my woes. He patiently explained to me how I could get various information about the car from the controls on the steering wheel. When I told him that I am on a drive to the East he told me that I should halt in Thunder Bay to take in the beauty of the place and also shared a couple of camping sites. Apparently, he hailed from there. I thanked Dan, gave him a copy of my book and motored on to Gaslight Inn in Victoria.

A smiling Linda opened the door and quickly completed the rental formality. She showed me to my comfortable room and the shared bathroom. She has just three rooms for B&B rental, which she said is almost full for the four months that she operates them. As I was being shown around I was taken in by the breath-taking array of blow glass art pieces, paintings and jewellery. When I enquired about them she told me that most of them were her own creations and some others of her compatriot artists. I complimented Linda and her husband, Jeff, for the impeccable environment they had created.

I had jotted down a couple of places to visit in Victoria. I did not stretch them because I wanted to rest properly before starting the expedition. My foot also had not healed properly after the corn was excised. Dressing had to be done daily and antibiotics had become part of daily meals. I reached the much publicised Craigdarroch Castle as the first stop of the sightseeing tour. To say that the experience was a disappointment would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. It certainly is an ornate building with large number of bedrooms for its intended occupants and servants on four floors. Of course, it was not a structure that brought forth oohs and aahs, except for the fact that it was envisioned and built by a man, Robert Dunsmuir, who came to Vancouver as a mines hand. He built his vast empire in Victoria out of shrewd investments. The sad part was that the Castle was completed only in 1890, after he had passed away. The large number of bedrooms testify to the ten children he and his wife, Joan, had. The castle feel on hard times before the war and was converted into a military hospital. Later it served many purposes before becoming a heritage monument in the 1960s.

The legislative assembly of British Columbia operate from the Parliament Buildings that face the majestic Inner Harbour. The baroque style buildings are in a large 110 acre plot with fountains, statues, memorials and lawns. At the entrance to the building is displayed menu of the Parliament dining hall, which is open to the public. Guided tours are offered at designated intervals round the year. A statue of Queen Victoria stands proud in the foreground of the buildings, with the magnificent Empress Hotel to her right. Next to the statue is a two hundred year old, 100 feet tall sequoia tree which is the official provincial Christmas tree. Thousands of lights decorate the tree every December. Horse drawn carriages are a great hit with tourists here. The hairy horses and their carts can take one on a historic tour, if one has the time and money. The Victorian age remnant is hotly debated as out of place in an urban area. The V2V ferry, which transits Vancouver and Victoria announced boarding from its terminal when I was on a stroll there. Passengers keen to catch the ferry were running to it, some with local ice cream cones and some others Thai crepes in their hands. I was tempted by both. After slowly savouring the banana flavoured ice cream in a small cone I gravitated towards the crepe kiosk. The lady at the helm induced me into a mango and banana crepe with caramel sauce which set me back by CAD 9. It was a very large portion, though.
The next item on the agenda was to recce the Zero Mile monument area. I got around there pretty quickly, but had to do a couple of rounds of the Beaver Hill Park to get to the ideal location to take photographs with the car. I found one and marked them for the morrow after testing out a few photos. On the way back to the Inn I drove along the lovely Bay, where I parked in some locations to take in breath-taking sights. At one such place an Indian origin family were engaged in flying fancy kites that looked to be on hire from a vendor.

After I got back to the Inn I walked a short distance to a store for a couple of beers. Once I got back to the room I had them with a sandwich of ham slices. All was set for the expedition to start when the Sun rose again.

3 May 2019 - Another day in Vancouver

Yesterday it had been quite cold in Vancouver for a man from Chennai. Particularly on the visit to Grouse Mountain. I wasn’t prepared for snow on the mountain top. Even though I had woolens in the car I didn’t have it on me. My aunt seemed to sense that I wasn’t properly togged for the cold weather I was likely to encounter in the east. She opened out her cupboards and hand over a couple of very warm coats which I could use on the drive. Such is the concern and care of family.

I had heard so much about Stanley Park that I decided to go there when the legs were fresh. My aunt had told me that my cousin form UK and his wife used to hire cycles at the Park and go around to the many attractions in the Park. The salubrious environment surely was excellent for such activity. I was completely overawed by the Stanley Park when I reached there. The Park covered over 1000 acres and is reportedly a natural formation enriched by the skyline of downtown Vancouver, English Bay and the Vancouver harbour. It is thickly forested, despite the untamed logging that had happened in the past, the work of nature over many hundreds of years. The Park has many forest trails to trek and explore, walking paths, beaches, lakes, children play areas, picnic places, biking paths and is home to the famous Vancouver Aquarium. Some of the over half a million trees within the park are over 100 years old and stand tall over 200 feet. The Hollow Tree, a red cedar tree stump, is reputed to be more than 1000 years old. The remnants of the tree was restored and moved to its present location by Hollow Tree aficionados in 2011, where it is a darling with visitors.
The English Bay looks glorious from the Park and popular beaches for sunbathing, swimming and sunset watching front it such as the English Bay Beach, First Beach, Third Beach, Kitsilano Beach, et al. Kitsilano Beach has the longest swimming pool in all of Canada, the salt water outdoor Kitsilano Pool. The Vancouver Seawall is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladers.

The Granville Island was an industrial production area prior to the Wars. Post it the area fell upon hard times and was 're-engineered' in the final decades of the 20th century. Today it is a vibrant tourist centre with brightly painted shops, a busy Public Market, gourmet shopping experience, an extensive marina and the overarching presence of the Granville Street Bridge. The Public Market has a farmers' market where permanent and day vendors retail food, fresh fruits and vegetables, local crafts. An experience not to be missed while in Vancouver, it stays on in your mind for long. Aquabus provides commuter and sightseeing services off the jetties in Granville Island.
Once I returned to my aunt’s home it was decided that we would go to a Greek restaurant for dinner. However, before that I asked her to take me to the Cobs bakery from where she used to pick up delectable bakery products. I knew I could use some for my trip. When I got to the bakery I found it difficult to choose what I didn’t want! Such was the fare and the smells that arose within the store kept me wandering from display to display till I selected more than what I actually had gone there for. Then on to the Galini Greek Kouzina and Grill restaurant. My Aunt, Dr. Teresa George, a most gracious host, said that the food there was awesome. Once I had feasted I knew that what she had said was an understatement. We ordered the George's platter for two which had an assortment of lamb, chicken, rice, Greek salad, pita, spanacopita and some more! To top it all, there was a bowl of chicken soup, served on the house. A couple of pegs of Captain Morgan's spiced rum with coke helped wash down the heavy meal. The meal was so tasty that I couldn’t bear to leave what I had to because of the enormous portion. My aunt told me that the secret to eating large portions is to sip on a glass of red wine and eat slowly. Surely, a lesson well taken for the future

Sunday, May 12, 2019

2 May 2019 - In Vancouver

The day didn’t start too well. I had a few things to rearrange in the car and I got down to it just before breakfast at 8 am. What I had to do was in the boot of the car. When I took over the car from Hertz rental I had noted that both the keys were put together on a steel wire which I could not separate. With the result, I had to carry both the keys together all the time. While rearranging the luggage in the boot I had place the key in it and took a while organising the stuff. While I was doing all this breakfast was announced and in a hurry to get to the table I closed the boot and realised, in horror, that all the doors had got automatically locked. And, the keys were in the boot. There was no way I could retrieve them. Even the papers of the rental were inside the car. I was a bit crestfallen that such a thing should have happened. Anyway the challenge had to be met. Over breakfast of scrambled eggs, buns and the tastiest bacon I have ever had I called up Hertz assistance from a number I salvaged online. After many prods to press numbers I got through to an executive. I told her that I had been locked out of the car. The first thing she confirmed was that I was in a safe place and safely parked. After affirming that she asked me for the license plate number and my name. I felt that she didn’t seem to have that on her database just then. A while later she told me that I would be charged CAD 12 for the assistance. I told her that I had paid a premium for on-road assistance and demanded to know why I should pay yet again. She told me, to my utter disappointment, that what I had paid for are premium assists and not for such a thing as being locked out of the car! After I agreed to the charge the executive went offline for what seemed an eternity. Suddenly she resurfaced and asked me to check if the doors were unlocked. When I got to the car, it was. The unlocking had been done online and the executive reiterated that I would be charged for the assistance. A few numbers were punched on a computer and CAD 12 would be my penalty. So much for the on-road assistance premium. Immediately as I retrieved the keys I separated them so that I would not have to carry them together again. The unpleasant experience did not deter me from enjoying the most wonderful breakfast. The eggs and bacon disappeared from the plates and found refuge in a place that would eventually add inches to the waist that was already a waste.

As it was the first time that I was using a left hand drive vehicle and that too the Chevy Impala behemoth I had to be careful about clearance on the right side. During the day I drove over a couple of kerbs and infringed on the lane to my right. I did not have proper view of the front of the car as the seats of the car were too low. Till I got used to the car, I said to myself that I would sacrifice speed and even ignore annoyed drivers. The other problem I encountered was the fuel consumption. The petrol engine was guzzling fuel like a true glutton that she was. I thought a few times about changing the car, but then, I was comfortable to drive and she had enough kilometers on her till the next service.
While planning the expedition I had chalked out the places I wanted to visit while in Vancouver. With some assistance from my aunt, who has been resident in the city for over two decades, I made out the day’s itinerary. Grouse Mountain was to be the first stop. The entry fee is quite steep at CAD 56. I realised, as the day progressed, that the advertised rates are almost always without the taxes, which added a fair bit to the final price one paid. Grouse Mountain is publicised as the ‘Peak of Vancouver’. At over 3800 feet above the Capilano River the high playground is reached by gondolas. As I got to the higher reaches of the mountain the amount of snow increased. At the place where I got off there was about knee high snow. Paths were carefully kept free of snow, but one had to be careful to avoid the slush and water. It has a ski slope that is active in winter, zip lines, shopping places, grizzly centre, sky theatre and many other activities. The Peak supposedly offers smashing views of downtown Vancouver. Thanks to the mist, and almost freezing temperature, the views were not that great this day. The highlight were the couple of playful grizzly bears oblivious to the stares and cameras of visitors, particularly fascinated school children who seemed to be on a study outing. The commentary of a volunteer supplied nuggets of information to the visitors. It was too cold to spend more time exploring the area and, with more swirling mist, I had no hope of enjoying the views of the city and the River below. The gondola that took me to the peak was jam packed with students and other visitors. The gondola was rated to carry 100 passengers. Fortunately, there were fewer passengers on the way back. The only consolation was that the parking was absolutely free. It is quite possible that the same was included in the steep ticket price!
The word Capilano is said to have originated from the word Kia’palano, meaning beautiful river. That was also the name of a great indigenous chief of the region in the early 1800s. The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park was purchased by an enterprising lady entrepreneur in 1983 and turned it into a successful commercial enterprise. Little wonder that the ticket price was steep and so was the parking rate. The Capilano Suspension Bridge across the Capilano River is a 450 feet long link 220 feet above the river. The walk did test even the strong of heart. With so many people on the bridge all at once some could not stomach the sway of the bridge. A few could be seen holding on to the handrails for dear life. The floor of the bridge was fully covered. So one did not see the chasm below. The cedar-scented rainforest air, numerous streams and thick vegetation is an experience. The Treetop adventure has seven suspended footbridges linking massive trees 110 feet above the ground giving awesome views of the forest floor. The Cliffwalk is another superb experience where one walks along a narrow precipice above the River with labyrinthine cantilevered bridges and jaw dropping lookout points. The walk affords awesome views of the canyon and it brought goose bumps on my arms when I read that the bridges are anchored only at 18 points along the cliff. To promote the facility the leaflet that goes with the entry ticket has six points where stamping machines are installed. One gets a ‘certificate’ if all the stamps are secured on the leaflet and handed over at guest relations while exiting. The enthusiasm with which the old and young went about looking for the stamping machines was infectious.
Canada Place is situated on the waterfront of Vancouver and is a massive building with roofs that look like sails. It draws comparison with the Sydney Opera House building. It houses the Vancouver Convention Centre, World Trade Center, the 500 room Pan Pacific Hotel, virtual flight ride of FlyoverCanada and is the main cruise terminal for Alaska. Hovercrafts operate in the vicinity and the locality is studded by tall, glass high rises and superb walkways along the waterfront. An iconic building in the vicinity of Canada Place is the Marine building that has featured in many movies and TV shows because of its Art Deco architecture and lustrous interiors.

A drive through Gastown highlighted the underbelly of the city. With hundreds of homeless and drunk people on the street and brightly painted walls this part of the city is named after 'Gassy' Jack who set up a salon near here in the late 19th century.

Before dinner I requested my aunt to take me to a grocery store from where I could pick up a few things I would require for the ensuing trip. Dinner consisted of chicken bake, potatoes, sautéed veggies and mango.

1 May 2019 - Travelling to a new land

Leading up to the preparations for the expedition on the TCH my health has been a bit off and on. On one of the winter trips to Kazakhstan I contracted an eye disease which the doctors found difficult to diagnose. They were not able to determine why both the eyes were inflamed. Over a few months, steroids, antibiotics and regular lubrication reduced the inconvenience and killed the pain. Another trip brought on an impossible cough for a couple of months. More antibiotics and antihistamines. In February I had to get a massive corn removed from under the big toe of the right foot. While the initial healing was quite fast, despite the poor diabetic numbers, necrotic tissue came in the way of complete healing.  Despite the passage of nearly three months the wound hasn’t quite fully healed. Massive doses of antibiotics and daily dressing has improved it, but it is matter of worry as I embark on this expedition. Thus, dressing, dinner and departure was the order of the evening. The hospital where I got the daily fix of intravenous antibiotic and dressing was busy with emergency cases. A lady was on the verge of a lung collapse and a young man was brought in with a massive wound between the thumb and forefinger. While one was revived with nebulisation, the second was stitched up with blood oozing copiously. After all this was attended to I was attended to. The Doctor was happy with the progress of healing. He told me that I should avoid any further wet medication of the wound and prescribed medicines to wash the wound daily and dry pack it.

I had planned to leave my car with my cousin Abraham in Chennai. After a couple of drinks and lively banter it was time for dinner, which Abraham decided would be in Pedrones, a new restaurant in Perungudi. After taking leave of my uncle and aunt we settled for dinner in the restaurant. I decided on a Cream of Mushroom soup and a drink of mango and passion fruit. By the time the soup was finished it was time to leave for the airport. I got dropped to the airport by Abraham’s driver in my Champion, from who I would be away for nearly seven weeks.

 The Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was obviously full going by the people at the check-in counters. The queues were very efficiently managed by the staff. I feared that my bags would be a tad overweight, but they turned out to be just fine. After moving slowly in the immigration queue, when I reached one of the counters I was asked to meet the immigration officer and verify the Canada visa. It got my goat. As it turned out all Canada visas were verified by the officer before stamping. If that was the case, people should have been directed to first meet the officer and then move to a special queue, as the numbers warranted that. Finally all that was done and it was time to wait for boarding after passing through security gates. The Central Industrial Security Force personnel who are vested with duties of security in airports take their own sweet time scanning bags. They are not bothered about the queues of people waiting. Their own small talks take precedence over those waiting!

Breakfast was served on the flight before landing in Hong Kong. The hospitality was flawless. The only complaint I had was the poor selection of Indian movies in the entertainment section.  After landing on time I moved through immigration and security meant for transit passengers and went in search of the Plaza Premium lounge to rest for the next few hours before the long haul to Vancouver. The three hours in the lounge was spent experimenting various foods and drinks. When I was in the lounge I remembered the last time I had been in that lounge. That was in transit to Sydney on 1 March 2018 for the Australia Highway 1 expedition. I had been sick and running high temperature. I was in much better shape now despite the foot.
The flight was announced in time and the aircraft pulled out nearly 30 minutes late from the parking bay. I had a middle seat and with a hefty Punjabi guy at the window seat I expected a troublesome 12 hours. His beer drinking only heightened my anxiety. I should not have worried, for he turned out to be a tank. After a few hours I had to ask him if he wanted to use the toilet. He said ‘Nahi ji’ and went back to his can of beer. The 12 hour journey across the Pacific to Vancouver was be mighty boring without sleep and entertainment. I was forced to see Chinese movies for want of other alternatives and sleep deserted me almost all through the long flight. I was happy when the Captain announced that we would land in Vancouver 30 minutes earlier than scheduled. The queue in immigration was humongous. Fortunately there were enough kiosks to electronically declare purpose of visit and what one carried. However, there were just two officers to physically verify the entries and that delayed the movement of the queues quite unnecessarily. By the time I was done with that my bags were on the carousal.

The next ‘task’ was to hire the car that I had booked online through Hertz. The car rental counters were a short walk from the exit. A Fijian lady attended to my reservation. I told her that I would like a car in good condition because of the long distance I would be doing in the next 45 days. She came up with a brand new Chevrolet Impala that had done just 643 km!  During the younger days, years before the Indian economy opened up and imported cars were the preserve of the rich and mighty, I have heard people talk in awe of “that man who owned an Impala”. And, her I was, ready to drive that massive white beauty. On road assistance and car hire together cost me a bit over CAD 3000. I have to watch out for the mileage, which is notoriously poor in the Chevy Impala. And, it was the first time that I would be driving a left hand drive car! On other international trips I had taken the right hand drive car along, while in Australia and New Zealand right hand drive cars alone were in use. So this was going to be a test, at least for the first few days. Therefore, before I pulled out of the rental parking slot I went through a drill to become more familiar with the vehicle.

It was a smooth drive to where my Aunt lives in Surrey. The traffic in many places slowed down the drive. However, in under an hour I parked in her house in a lovely gated complex. The rest of the evening was spent catching up with news and understanding the country a bit more. Supper consisted of asparagus, kale and chicken roast, after which I went on a short walk in the neighborhood. It had to be early to bed as the previous day’s lack of sleep was catching up fast.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Maple Leaf Country

Canada as the name of the country is said to have originated from a native language of what was then North America and present day Canada. In the Iroquoian language kanata stood for settlement or village or land. It is understood that the name of the settlements since the arrival of the French in the 16th century has been Canada and the country has never been known by any other name since then. The European navigator Jacques Cartier is credited with naming the country Canada, circa 1535. British colonisation in the 17th century came into conflict with that of the French. After the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the defeat of the French all their territory in Canada passed on to the British. With gradual agglomeration of territories Canada became a self-governing entity in 1867. However, it was only after the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 that Canada became sovereign and free of the legal dependence on the British Parliament. Despite the obvious influence of the French and British it must be appreciated that the Vikings were the first around 1000 CE to occupy a part of what is now Newfoundland. The Spanish and the Portuguese explorers did not find anything interesting in that part of the world for settlement and did not leave their imprint in Canada, unlike in South America. It is said that the Portuguese disappointment of not finding gold and silver resonated in their name for the land, ca nada, meaning ‘nothing here’ or the Spanish acqi nada for ‘Cape of Nothing’.

The western boundary of the country is the North Pacific Ocean and its eastern boundary is the North Atlantic Ocean. This geographical spread has given the country its motto “From Sea To Sea”, prescribed in its coat of arms. While the magnetic North Pole is technically currently within the Arctic territory claimed by Canada it is said to be shifting further towards Siberia. The most populous settlements are in the territories bordering USA. With a population density of less than 3.5 per square km, it is one of the least populous countries in the world. The northernmost human settlement in the world is in Canada, less than 900 km from the North Pole at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. The country has 10 provinces and 3 territories. Canada shares with USA the world’s longest undefended border at over 8800 km. It also has French and Danish neighboring land masses.

The use of Maple leaf as an emblem for Canada harks back to the early days of French settlement. While the French and English speaking territories adopted the golden and green maple leaves as their emblem it was adopted in the coat of arms of Canada in the 1920s.  Its ultimate acceptance as a national symbol happened with its incorporation in the Canadian flag in 1965. The 11 pointed maple leaf on the flag indicates no particular genre of maple leaf, but the 11 points are supposed to signify its 10 provinces and one for the three territories. The Royal Canadian Mint has been producing golden, silver, platinum and palladium bullion coins called Maple Leaf since 1979. Acquiring one is high on my agenda during the Canadian sojourn. Significant for the TCH expedition is the fact that the TCH sign boards are distinguished by their green maple leaf.

Not many who have traveled to Europe and Americas would not have had maple syrup with toasts, waffles and pancakes? Where does the syrup come from? Predominantly three species of maple, namely sugar, black and red, are used to make the syrup. Nails are drilled into the trunk of the tree to collect the sap. It is then heated to evaporate the water content and thicken the syrup. Maple syrup is thought to have been the ‘recipe’ of indigenous North American tribes. It was adopted by European settlers and the production process and technology employed underwent changes. The syrup is high in sucrose content and certainly a no-no to a diabetic. However, the unique flavor is tough to resist, as I have learned from trying many times. Quebec province reportedly produces 70% of the world’s maple syrup and 90% of the country’s maple syrup export. Recently, this produce was in the news when Saudi Arabia banned its import following a political standoff. Hundreds of liters of Hutchinson’s maple syrup, specially packaged for Saudi Arabia, were ‘stranded’ and the company feared losses. Canadian pride surfaced and the people sought out the consignment meant for export to Saudi Arabia and bought them for their consumption. This saved the traditional industry from huge losses. This is ‘nationalism’. It comes from the heart and not from thumping 56 inch chests and expending hot air!

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...