I’m on a bus from Seattle to Vancouver. It’s the last leg of an exhilarating trip around the world, and I’m excited to return home. Will the city be as I remember it, or will things have changed? And more importantly, will it still feel like home, after such a long and eye-opening adventure?
I’m on board the Amtrak Empire Builder, which is the iconic American rail service between Chicago and Seattle. This being the last night of my round-the-world trip, I treat myself to a sleeping car. In the process, I experience the very unique brand of customer service that only Amtrak can provide.
I spend my first night on board in a coach seat, much the same as I did when traveling from New York to Chicago. I again get two seats to myself, so I’m able to curl up and get a reasonably good night’s sleep.
For my next and final night on board, however, I treat myself to an upgrade. While booking a sleeper car is usually prohibitively expensive for a solo traveler, doing so only for a short segment of the trip (in this case, from Spokane, Washington to Seattle) costs only $100 extra. I consider this well worth the price considering that I have slept sitting up for two of the past three nights. The price also includes breakfast. The catch is that the transfer takes place at 1:40 a.m.
Since I’m transferring to a different passenger class, I’m issued two tickets, and, confusingly, I need to change trains in Spokane, from the #27 to the #7. The attendant explains that the two trains are joined together, but that eventually they split and head in different directions, one to Portland and the other to Seattle. She tells me that I will need to collect my luggage, get off the train in Spokane, and then re-board again in the proper car. When I ask whether I can just walk the short distance through the train to my awaiting sleeping chamber, she tells me through narrowed eyes that such an action would be very complicated indeed. She agrees to discuss the idea with the attendant of my sleeping car, but makes no promises.
When night falls and the view out the window is dark, I find it hard to stay awake, and end up falling asleep. At about midnight, I’m shaken awake: it’s the attendant again.
“Did you just get on the train?” she asks.
“euhhhhhhhh?” I reply dozily, clearing the sleep from my eyes. “No, I’ve been here for two days.”
She looks irritated. “Oh, right.”
I fall back asleep, and set my alarm for 1:30 so that I won’t miss the transfer. When I awaken and check the GPS on my phone, however, we’re nowhere close to Washington State yet, let alone Spokane. The train is running hours behind schedule. How it’s possible to be late while crossing an expanse of empty land with no stops at night in summer, I’m not sure, but here we are.
“I have a roomette booked from Spokane,” I remind the attendant. “Do you know if it’s available now? We’re supposed to get in at 1:40.”
“Like I said before, I’ll have to ask the person in charge of the sleeper car,” she replies.
“Did you ask?” I inquire.
“No.” She walks away.
Hours later, as early signs of dawn are beginning to show on the Eastern horizon, we finally pull into Spokane. I grab my bag, stumble off of the train, walk three cars up, re-board, and find my roomette.
Americans don’t generally travel by rail, so the overnight sleeper trains popular in Europe don’t exist here. Instead, Amtrak has built sleeper cars targeted at luxury travelers, and unfortunately there are no basic options for less-affluent customers, like the four- or six-berth shared rooms available in other countries. Instead, Amtrak provides private rooms suitable for two to four people, and you must pay for the entire room—no sharing. The best rooms come with a large bed, separate seating, and a private washroom and shower, but these can run upwards of a $800 a day, so I elect for the most economical option, the two-bunk “roomette” with no washroom.
When I transfer cars in Spokane and find my room, the attendant is still cleaning up after the previous guests, who apparently just got off. He has folded away the top bunk, and makes up the cot-sized bottom bunk like at a hotel, with fresh white linens and a soft pillow. I get some fresh air outside for a few minutes, and when I return, the room is ready for me.
My roomette is tiny, about the same size as the footprint of the bed, plus about 50 cm to one side for shimmying in from the hallway. The glass sliding door can be closed or left open to let in air and light, with optional privacy provided by dark curtains. There are several clever space-saving ledges and shelves, however, so I have no trouble fitting my luggage and self inside. I imagine having two people in here would be a tight squeeze though. All of the necessary amenities are here—outlet for charging my phone, tiny garbage pail, ancient analogue radio dial for in-bunk listening, a reading light, a bar of soap, and even a bottle of water. In fact, it’s quite similar to the capsule hotels I stayed in in Japan.
I get a good night’s sleep (or, rather, morning’s sleep, since the sun is already starting to rise by the time I finally get my bunk), and the next morning I indulge in a shower in the little shower booths on the bottom floor. It’s fun to watch the water drain through a little hole and directly on to the tracks as we clatter by. When I return to my roomette, the attendant has magically transformed the bottom bunk into two seats facing one another, and my belongings have been neatly arranged to one side, making for a comfortable and private little chamber in which to spend the remainder of the journey.
I’ve already explained how lovely the dining experience on board the train is. I have also hinted at the surprising lack of focus on customer service. The two collide at my final breakfast.
Breakfast is included for sleeper-class passengers, so after my shower, I saunter down to the dining car, this time approaching from the direction of the locomotive, where the first class passengers reside, not the caboose, where the rabble are seated. I am seated with a lovely older lady who is a joy to chat with. Our waitress, however, is thick and flushed, with a deep, throaty voice and a twitchy face.
“Soooooorrrrrry for the delay folks, I’m run off my feet here. God! I can’t keep up. I’ll take your order later.”
Minutes pass. Then ten minutes. Eventually she returns. “What do you want?”
“I’ll have the cheese omelet, please,” says my companion.
“We’re sold out of omelets.”
“Ok, I’ll have the egg sandwich then.”
“Do you want cheese on that?”
“Wait, you have both eggs and cheese, so can’t the kitchen make an omelet?”
“I told you, we’re sold out of omletes.”
Right. I order eggs sunny side up with grits and sausage. The waitress pours us both coffee, and some time later, my breakfast arrives: scrambled eggs and potatoes. Right. My companion also gets something different from what she ordered, and points this out to the waitress, but after a threat of “the kitchen is really backed up…” we decide to just stick with what we got.
After we finish our food, we ask for more coffee, mostly so we have an excuse to stay and chat longer (there are no more customers waiting in line to be seated.) “Coming right up,” our waitress says. 5 minutes pass, no coffee. “Oh right, I forgot the coffee, didn’t I?” she says when she passes again. 5 more minutes. Nothing.
I decide to take matters into my own hands and walk to the adjoining passenger car, where there is a large stainless steel dispenser bearing the label “complementary coffee for sleeper-class passengers.” I pour myself a cup, but when I try to return to the dining room, an attendant appears out of nowhere and blocks my way.
“You can’t just take this coffee; it’s for sleeper passengers only,” she says, glaring.
“Actually, I’m staying in a roomette one car down,” I explain, “but I boarded late last night, so you probably didn’t see me.”
“One car down is not MY car,” she retorts. “This coffee is for MY passengers only. Do you realize that I have to make this coffee myself? Now I might have to make more.” I find this prospect doubtful, given the enormous size of the reservoir, and wonder why it matters, really, since coffee is easy to make, and this is her job, after all.
“Would you like me to pour this cup of coffee back in the carafe?” I offer. She snorts and moves to one side to let me by. As I leave her fiefdom, she mutters loudly: “some people are so inconsiderate.”
As I walk back to my table, the waitress notices me carrying a full cup of coffee. “Oh, I’m sorry honey, I forgot your coffee, didn’t I?” No matter, I say, because there is plenty available next door, although the attendant was very reluctant to let me have any. As I take a seat, the indignant attendant bursts through the door.
“What’s wrong with you?” she steams at our waitress. “Your customers are stealing my coffee.”
“It’s not your coffee,” the waitress spits back. “It’s supposed to be for all sleeper passengers.”
“But now I gotta make more!”
“So make more!”
An argument ensues, in full earshot of everyone in the dining car, with accusations of sloth and ineptitude slung in both directions. My companion and I shrug at one another, drink the rest of our coffee, and sneak off.
The train pulls into Seattle King Street Station at noon, only 90 minutes late—apparently we recovered several hours since Spokane. Juan, the scholar from Argentina, is excited, because today is Seattle Pride, and he has never seen a gay pride parade before. Unfortunately, I am unable to join him, because my onward bus to Vancouver departs in less than an hour. Seriously, Amtrak—get your scheduling on track.
King Street Station is gorgeous, with white pillars, elaborate molding, and a beautiful ceiling. Apparently all of this was covered with a false ceiling many years ago in an attempt to “modernize” the station, and was only rediscovered recently. I walk from the station two blocks to 5th and King and wait for my onward bus to Vancouver, the last connection in my long journey.
At 10:30 p.m. on Friday night, I board the train that will take me back to the West Coast. It’s a 36-hour journey from Minneapolis to Seattle—two sleeps—so there will be plenty of time to enjoy the scenery across the great plains and the Rocky Mountains, and to meet the interesting people who travel using this slow and classic mode of transportation.
American trains may be slow and unreliable, but they do have one excellent redeeming quality: onboard dining. I have failed to pack any food, so I am obliged to eat at the onboard café and restaurant. The café is on the bottom floor of the observation car and sells snacks, sandwiches, beverages (including beer and wine), and other sundry items. It’s open late, and is operated by a friendly man in an impeccable Amtrak uniform who always smiles and says “sir”.
The restaurant is something else entirely. It occupies the top floor of one of the rail cars in the middle of the train. It is set up like a retro diner, with booths for four on either side of the aisle. There is a galley kitchen tucked at one end where meals are made, and two servers patrol the aisle to take your order, albeit using a strange system where you must scratch your choices into a piece of carbon paper, which is then passed on to the kitchen. The panoramic windows make for a scenic meal.
The food is American home-style, and consists of things like steak, roast chicken, mashed potatoes, white rice, and leafy salad. Breakfast is the stereotypical American fare of eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes. All is eaten with proper silverware and is served on china plates emblazoned with the Amtrak logo (or perhaps they’re actually plastic versions designed to parrot the old designs, thus preserving the sense of nostalgia, but I have a hard time telling for sure.)
I am also treated to a special culinary surprise, available only by special order and picked up at one of the stations along the way. The dish is fried chicken and blueberry cobbler, a local specialty apparently, and comes packed on a neat little cardboard box. The chicken is stiff and an overcooked (I need to ask the attendant to microwave it warm in order to choke it down), and the cobbler tastes like it came out of a can, but no matter—it’s about the experience.
There is limited seating available in the dining car, and since I am a solo traveler, the hostess always seats me with strangers, which gives me the opportunity to meet some of my fellow travelers. Typically, they are older couples with lots of spare time and an uncanny knowledge of the American rail network, and little to no knowledge of the rest of the world. I listen in on several debates about the virtues of the various Amtrak routes, each of which is named according to the terrain and legends associated with the regions they traverse. My train from New York to Chicago, for instance, was called the Lake Shore Limited. This train from Chicago to Seattle is called the Empire Builder. There is also the Maple Leaf (New York to Toronto), Cascades (Portland to Vancouver), and the California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), to name a few.
Most of the people I meet are traveling by train primarily to experience the slow pace and classic style of the golden era of the railway, not as a mode of transportation. Juan, an enthusiastic young man from Argentina, has already trained from California through Texas to New York, and is now on the final leg across the north to Seattle, finishing a loop of America before starting a master’s degree at Stanford. Another group is traveling to Glacier, Montana, for a hiking trip.
The scenery along the way is, of course, gorgeous, and I spend many hours gazing out the window as farmland transitions to foothills and then to mountains. The best place to observe the scenery is from the “club car”, which features swivel seats and panoramic windows that stretch up and over the ceiling like a solarium. Like in the dining car, seating in the club car is at a premium. Before leaving on the trip, a friend warned me that it’s important to snag a seat if it becomes available, because early-rising senior citizens will claw their ways there at the crack of dawn, wheeling oxygen tanks in tow and wearing Depends, making it possible to stay all day without leaving, thus being able to practice the uniquely senior activity of seated fossilization.
Some entertainment is provided on board. Twice during the trip, a pair of National Parks rangers board to give a lesson on the environment and wildlife. One points out a couple of antelope grazing in a field. At another time, a storyteller boards for several hours to teach passengers about the life of Native Americans in the region, both before and after colonization. One of the rangers points out a small patch of field fenced off with chain-link, sticking up curiously out of the flat plains. “That there is a missile silo,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Under that field is a nuclear-armed minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile.” Huh.
There is one group on board that is using the train expressly as a mode of transportation, not just tourism, however. One of the train cars is populated with about thirty Amish men, women, and children, all from Michigan, who are easily identified by their traditional outfits. All of the men who are old enough sport a long beard and suspenders, while the women all wear plain home-made dresses and a starched white bonnet. Oddly, they also wear store-bought running shoes, and are toting around enormous sacks full of candy and other junk food, which they consume in quantity.
The Amish passengers speak to one another in Pennsylvania Dutch, a language I didn’t even know existed. One couple asks me enthusiastic questions about my trip around the world. What was it like traveling through Central Asia and the Middle East? Did I go through Germany? Their ancestors are from there. After I’m finished my story, the wife surprises me with tales of her own travels. She has been to Banff several times, she says, and to Quebec City. Her and her husband traveled on the California Zephyr several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I feel foolish for thinking that Amish people never leave home.
One morning, when I am lucky enough to snag a seat in the observation car, I strike up a conversation with an older gentleman. I ask if he is a farmer. No, he replies that he works in an R.V. factory. He tells me that his entire extended family is traveling from Michigan to Montana to surprise his brother for his 50th birthday. I imagine the scene: a man hears a knock on the door, opens it, and sees on the doorstep, unannounced, his Amish brother with 29 relatives in tow, all of whom live thousands of miles away and do not travel by airplane. Imagine!
I arrived in Minneapolis last night after a long train and bus journey from New York. I’ve decided to take a brief break from traveling and spend 24 hours in Minneapolis before moving on. I’m not expecting much of the city, but I decide to suspend my preconceptions and give it a chance. And I’m glad I did, for this Midwest city is full of surprises.
Like many forward-thinking mid-sized cities, Minneapolis has installed public bike sharing kiosks throughout the downtown core to encourage people to cycle. I’m generally a fan of the concept, although my recent experiences in London and New York were somewhat frustrating, and so I decide to explore the city on two wheels.
I rent a bike from a Nice Ride curbside automatic kiosk near my hotel. It costs only $6 for 24 hours of unlimited use – a bargain! – with the one catch that you must return each borrowed bike within 30 minutes, or else face a small penalty. This is supposed to encourage people to take short, one-way rides, rather than tie up a bike for the entire day. There are Nice Ride stations all over the city, though, so this doesn’t strike me as much of a problem.
Surprising as it may seem, Minneapolis has plenty of bike lanes, so I plan my route along the green lines on my map. I start on city streets heading (I think) south, but promptly get lost and find myself well to the west. After a course correction, I realize I’m already pushing against my 30-minute time limit and divert to a docking station to deposit my bike. No luck – I’m a few minutes late, and am charged the $3 late penalty. Rats.
I immediately withdraw a second bike and then resume my journey towards Cedar Lake, a forested park on the edge of the city. This part of the trip is on a nice paved path through city parks and beside a railway line in a valley, so it doesn’t feel like I’m in the city. Soon I’m pedalling through a light, airy forest along the shore of Cedar Lake. I see signs pointing to nearby Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. My spirit of adventure is ignited, and I consider circling all three lakes, but then I realize that I’m once again running up against the 30-minute limit. I switch into high gear (on the heavy steel cruisers rented by Nice Bike, this is third gear) and pedal as fast as I can to the next docking station. Out by the lake, there are relatively few docking stations, and though I arrive in time at the spot where my map tells me one should be, I cannot find it. I frantically search the maze of residential streets and park paths, but by the time I find the station, it’s too late. Another $3.
Frustrated, I immediately withdraw a third bike and reset the clock. From the lake I follow the Midtown Greenway east toward the river. The path follows a narrow strip of park that snakes in a long line below the grade of the surrounding neighbourhoods, possibly tracing the route of some defunct rail line. This time I make sure I have enough time, and after twenty minutes emerge to street level and renew the lease on the bike (now on bike #4). I am surprised to see shops, a theatre, and a vibrant little street market. Apparently Minneapolis has a nice “uptown.” Huh. Cycling? Markets? This isn’t the sprawly American city I was expecting.
I continue following the greenway, then head north to Franklin Ave, which I follow east to the river. I deposit my bike on time, and the walk half way across the Franklin Bridge, which straddles the Mississippi. Although I crossed the river last night by bus, I was too tired to notice, so I consider this the moment when I truly enter the American West.
I’m quite impressed with Minneapolis’s efforts to make the city green and bike-friendly, but America’s obsession with highways, cars, sprawl and consumerism definitely thrives here too. At the hotel clerk’s recommendation, I hop on the light rail and take it to its terminus station, the Mall of America, on the outskirts of the city. I’m both excited and a bit nervous to see what sort of place has the honour of carrying the name of the country known for decadent overindulgence when it comes to shopping and spending.
The mall is absolutely enormous. The doughnut-shaped floor plan spans three levels, and is filled with shops of all types, and much else besides. The first thing I see is the entrance to the underground aquarium, swarming with children. A mall with an aquarium? OK… I take the escalator to the second level and immediately notice a huge scale model of a US Navy battleship on display in a nearby store. Upon closer inspection, I realize that it’s made out of Lego. There’s no Lego for sale here, though – evidently this store exists only to showcase someone’s weird obsession with building large and eerily accurate Lego models.
I start walking around clockwise around the mall. I am drawn to the wedding dress store (and chapel!), which has a sign explaining that they do not participate in scavenger hunts “due to the nature of the items for sale in this shop”. Next to it, I see that there is an wing attached to the main building as an exhibit space. There are two special exhibits on now: The Barbie Dreamhouse Experience (for the girls), and a Star Trek thing (for the boys). I mention gender because the marketing banners, colour schemes, music, and (above all) the guests themselves meld together into the most perfect example of gender stereotypes I have ever seen. See Barbie’s kitchen, complete with colourful appliances and a cupcake station! You can read the description of the exhibit yourself here. I’m not much into space fantasy myself, so I line up to see Barbie, but reconsider when I see the price of admission is a hefty $24. I continue walking instead.
A quarter of the way around the third floor I take a break and line up for a Chipotle burrito in the food court. I snag a table overlooking the amusement park that fills the enclosed space in the middle of the doughnut. The rollercoasters whiz around mostly empty, but occasionally I hear a high-pitched screen of delight as the train races around a loop-de-loop. In the atrium adjacent to the food court, near the entrance to the cinema, titan-scale Lego superheroes are suspended in the air, locked in eternal action. This place sure is intense.
After packing down my gargantuan burrito, I decide I’ve had enough shopping and head back to where I started to catch the train back into town. I made it less than half way around a single floor. Forget bike-share – walking the Mall of America is the best exercise in town.
When I get back downtown, I decide to take the long way back to my hotel in order to see a bit of the business district. It’s Friday afternoon, and the streets are buzzing with activity. As it happens, this is the weekend of Minneapolis’s Gay Pride festivities, and the city is clearly getting ready for a big party. This year’s festivities promise to be particularly exciting, since this morning the US Supreme Court released its long-expected decision guaranteeing the right of same-sex couples to marry nation-wide, thus striking down any remaining state-level bans. (Minnesota removed barriers to same-sex marriage in 2013.)
I witness a touching scene that makes me realize that America is finally turning a new leaf on LGBT rights. A woman and her young son, both neatly dressed, hail down a bicycle rickshaw from the sidewalk. The driver pulls over and helps them into the back. He has hollowed eyes and unkempt hair, and looks like he likes to drink Bud and shoots racoons at the dump for fun.
“What is all this celebration about?” the mother asks.
“It’s Pride weekend,” the driver responds.
The mother looks confused. “Pride of what?” she asks, genuinely.
The driver doesn’t miss a beat. “Gay pride. There’s a parade and music and stuff. It’s pretty fun.”
The mother doesn’t seem affected. “Oh, ok. Can you take me to this restaurant please?” she says, showing the driver a piece of paper. They roll off.
Such a change. Only a few years ago, protests for LGBT rights ripped through urban streets, and Pride was a debauchery-laden headache best avoided by the straight-laced and family-oriented. Now it seems we’re just a part of the wallpaper.
I pick up my bag from the hotel and then hop back onto the light rail, which takes me to the central train station in St. Paul. The square in front of the station is blocked off in preparation for the Jazz Festival. I wonder how the festival will manage in the face of competition from Pride?
I already have a printed copy of my ticket, so I skip the line and go directly to the waiting hall. The room is great and beautiful, with a vaulted ceiling, a gorgeous tiled floor, and lots of richly ornamented wooden furniture and fixtures – an absolutely perfect place to depart from on a cross-America journey. I am absolutely captivated by a piece of public art suspended from the ceiling. It’s a net of LEDs curved into an undulating surface of shimmering light, evoking the look of sunlight fracturing through the surface of a swimming pool, as seen from below. Periodically, the silhouette of a swimmer glides across the surface, arms and legs fluttering and stroking, the LEDs dimming in sequence to create the illusion. It’s like someone hung a magic curtain from the ceiling, its diaphanous folds revealing the view from a crystal ball placed at the bottom of the pool at some sunny resort.
After about an hour of waiting, I see the approaching train through the window, and the atmosphere among the waiting passengers becomes electric. They’re all as excited as I am. We’re about to take a train to the west coast, crossing the great plains and the mountains, just like an explorer in olden times!
When we are finally allowed to board, we are already fifteen minutes behind schedule (official Amtrak wall-mounted TV screen says: On Time). Next stop: Seattle.
I’ve just left New York City behind and departed on a nearly nonstop journey across America. It’s June 24, and I hope to get back home to Vancouver by Sunday night only four days from now, so I won’t have much time for sightseeing.
The first leg of my trek takes me from New York through Chicago to Minneapolis by train and Bus.
I leave from New York’s Penn Station at 3:40 p.m. on Amtrak’s North-East commuter train, the Lake Shore Limited, which travels between New York (and, alternately, Boston) and Chicago via Albany. I descend the escalator from the waiting hall and am corralled towards the end of the train by a series of ushers in uniform. An attendant glances at my ticket and then muses to himself absently about where to seat me.
“Actually, I have a reserved seat,” I say, pointing to the printout of my ticket, which says reserved coach seat. “I’m having a hard time finding my seat number anywhere, though.”
The attendant looks at me with a patronizing smile. “Oh, reserved seat just means that we guarantee you will get a seat,” he explains. How strange. I wonder what general seating would have entitled me to? A square of carpet? He spots another young fellow walking down the platform. “Here, you can partner up with this guy. Don’t lose your buddy!”
My buddy and I board the train and sit down in a pair of unoccupied seats near the end of the coach. As the train lurches out of the station, we strike up a conversation, and I learn that he is a musician traveling back to Chicago for band practice. Jason (my buddy’s name) plays the bass (the orchestral string instrument) and prefers to travel by train because he doesn’t trust the airlines to handle his instrument.
The train follows the Hudson River up the west side of Manhattan, and before long we’re clickity-clacking through the countryside without a skyscraper in sight. I’m in the train’s last car, which allows me to look backwards along the tracks from the caboose window. There’s not much to do, though, and I pass the hours reading, writing, and watching the scenery.
The car slowly fills up as passengers climb aboard at the stops along the way. At one, while my buddy Jason is in the washroom, a large, flushed man in a grey suit plunks himself down into the seat next to me.
“I’m sorry, but this seat is taken,” I say. “He just went to the washroom for a moment.”
The man looks at me with unbridled rage. “This is my assigned seat,” he exclaims, “and I’m not moving just because you want to sit with your friend.” His chins tremble as if electrically charged, and his carotid artery pulses.
I’m momentarily dumbfounded—this man is about to explode! I choose my next words with delicacy. “Er, right…well, you see, the conductor must have accidentally shown you to this seat because my friend is in the washroom and it looks empty. See, there is already a destination card.” I point up to the sticky note attached to the luggage compartment that indicates that the seat is occupied. “I’m sure the conductor won’t mind if you sit in any of those other open seats…”
“I PAID for this seat, I have a TICKET for this seat, and it’s not YOUR job to tell me what to do. The conductor gave ME this seat, and its MINE.” I stare with my mouth open. If I say anything more, he might just detonate, a barrel bomb of cheap woolen fabric and saturated fat.
I glance over at Jason, who has returned from the washroom and is perched on the seat across the aisle. He shrugs, and then disappears again to the front of the coach. A few moments later, the attendant appears. “I’m sorry sir, I mistakenly thought this seat was empty, but it’s already occupied,” he explains. “You can have the seat three spaces back.”
The angry man nods, stands up, and vacates Jason’s seat without a word. Jason, the attendant and I all look at each with puzzlement. What could have happened to this man to make his universe so horrid?
Fortunately for us in coach class, there many empty seats in our car, so when night falls Jason moves across the aisle, giving me the luxury of spreading out over two seats. I curl up awkwardly and get a fitful night’s sleep.
The next morning, I wake up and head to the dining car for breakfast. Seating is limited, so the waitress seats me at a half-full table with some other travelers. Across from me is a couple from California who like to travel by train to “see things close up.” He is a fairly accomplished traveler, unlike his wife, who is afraid of flying, eating unusual foods, getting lost, having her wallet stolen, and conversing with people with accents, among myriad other things. She absolutely rules out traveling anywhere where English is not the official government language and not universally spoken by the entire populous. Her husband, in an effort to reduce his wife’s anxiety level, involves her as little as possible in the conversation and usually speaks of her in the third person, thus allowing her to pretend she isn’t present.
The other guest at my table is an older lady named Rose, who speaks continuously for 60 minutes about her volunteer work with new immigrants near the Texas/Mexico border, where she lives in a trailer (provided for free by the organization) and makes an enormous difference. Say what you will about Americans, there is no doubt they are Passionate about Issues.
The train is supposed to arrive in Chicago at 9:45 a.m., but by 11:00 we’re still trundling along at a slow pace through the suburbs. I start to wonder whether I’ll make my 12:00 connection. When I express my concern to Jason, he sighs. “You don’t take Amtrak often, do you? You should never book such a tight connection.” Two hours and forty-five minutes doesn’t seem particularly tight to me. When I express this, Jason continues: “Once I was six hours late arriving in Chicago. Sometimes the cross-country trains arrive a day late.”
If Amtrak is that unreliable, I wonder how they stay in business. Travelers on a schedule—business people, for instance—could not tolerate such uncertainty. A discount flight is often comparably priced, and faster, than the train (albeit less comfortable), and the bus is cheaper and runs more frequently. A lady in the next seat leans over and explains that it’s not Amtrak’s fault: they’re at the mercy of the freight companies, who own the rails, and who prioritize their own traffic, leaving passenger services to suffer delays. That explains the erratic delays, but it doesn’t explain why anybody bothers to travel with Amtrak.
The train pulls in to Chicago Union Station at 11:35. With only twenty-five minutes to spare, I strap on my backpack and walk briskly to the corner of Van Buren and Canal streets, a few blocks away, to meet my onward bus connection.
Although there is a perfectly good train service from Chicago to Minneapolis, the combination of airline-style tiered pricing and an infrequent schedule made Amtrak both expensive and inconvenient, so instead I booked a ticket on Megabus, one of several bus lines that run regular service between Chicago and the Twin Cities. Mega is one of the newer breed of bus lines, with slick marketing and low prices targeted at tech-savvy students who have more interest in texting and listening to music on their headphones than conversing with the invisible person next to them or beheading a fellow passenger with a kitchen knife (ahem, Greyhound…) The bus is a double-decker, with panorama windows, and even offers complementary semi-functional wireless internet service. All for the low price of $24.75.
The bus is already waiting at the curb when I arrive, ten minutes before the scheduled departure time. I have paid a $3 premium for a seat fronting on the stairwell, which gives me better views and freedom from a reclining seat in front. After I board, the driver turns away a small cohort of wannabe-passengers who did not buy a ticket over the internet in advance, which is apparently the only way Megabus sells tickets. This, I suspect, is a big contributor to why their client base is more sophisticated than your standard dog-brand carrier—only those with an internet connection, a credit card, and the ability to execute a plan can get a ticket.
One minute before departure, the driver warns over the intercom that the bus will depart precisely on time due to a corporate directive to improve on-time performance. Sure enough, at exactly 12:00 noon, she closes the door and shifts into drive. I watch as a man in a wheelchair frantically rolls up to the door, waving his ticket, pleading for the driver to stop. No luck—the driver pulls away, leaving the poor man spinning in the dust.
The coach is full, and despite being nicer than your average bus, is nevertheless crowded and noisy. The driver gives a very lengthy safety talk, explaining in detail the various things that are not permitted on board, such as smoking, listening to loud music, drinking alcohol, or walking around. “Thank you… for… your… understanding,” she says for the hundredth time, after explaining that the bus will not wait for tardy passengers who fail to board in time after rest breaks.
The highway between Chicago and Minneapolis is not very inspiring. There are lots of fast food restaurants and shopping plazas. This is one reason to take the train, I realize—the rails run through more scenic territory. We stop for 30 minutes at a service station primarily aimed at truckers. It’s not beautiful or interesting, but it does give me a chance to stretch my legs after hours of being idle.
If you’re into eating packaged crap, the rest stop between Chicago and Minneapolis is the store for you. Cheeze twizzles, ice cream bars, soda, jerky, candy feet, cigarettes, and all sorts of other things that come with a warning label from the surgeon general are available in abundance. An apple? Not a chance. I consider buying a chocolate bar, but they only sell the extra-large king sized variety, two for $2, and since I feel is is unadvisable to eat the equivalent of four full-sized candy bars for dinner, I decide against it. A cardboard stand announces in bold yellow lettering that if you buy their 36-ounce plastic travel mug, your first “cup” of coffee is free. I shudder. Starving as I am, I buy the healthiest option available, a crispy chicken burger from the attached Wendy’s fast food restaurant.
The rest of the journey to Minneapolis goes by without incident. We pull into St. Paul’s (the other Twin City) first, and most of the passengers get off. At about 9:15 p.m. (25 minutes late), we finally arrive in Minneapolis, and I walk the several blocks to my hotel. I basically haven’t slept for two days, so I collapse onto the bed and fall asleep.
I’m in New York City, staying with my friend James in Midtown, and my partner Mike has joined me. We’ve already explored the parks in museums, so it’s time to dive into another side of New York – live entertainment. But before we can be seen in public, we need to visit the local barber shop.
New York’s neighbourhood streets are lined with small ma’ and ‘pa shops, and one of the most iconic is the barber shop. Men from every age group and social class descend on these tiny shops to have their manly manes styled into something appropriate for the coming week of high-speed life. Neither Mike or I need a haircut, but we do need a shave, so we wander down 10th Ave one morning in search of an iconic spinning candy cane pole, the iconic symbol that decorates the window of every barbershop in the world.
We find a shop within two blocks of James’ apartment. Upon entering, we are immediately encouraged to take a seat in their classic vinyl pump chairs with polished metal bases that haven’t been upgraded since the 60s. There are three barbers in the shop, all muscular Middle Eastern men with thick black stubble and the mannerisms of Sylvester Stallone.
“What can I do for you, boss?” mine asks.
“I’d like a shave please,” I reply.
The barber nods and gets straight to work. He reclines the chair, thrusting my throat upward into murdering position, and then pulls out his tools: a straight razor, a hot towel, and a can of Gillette shaving cream. He wraps the scalding towel over my face. “Is the heat OK?” he asks, without waiting for a response. After the hair on my face has been suitably scalded, he removes the towel and smears the foamy cream over my skin and up into my nostrils.
My man gets to work removing the hair on my face by carefully peeling off the top layers of epidermis with his razor blade. Occasionally he looks down, but he seems more focused on the conversation with his coworkers.
“Did you see what happened to Mikey last night?” he asks his neighbor.
The guy shaving Mike shakes his head sadly. “What a shock, huh? They popped him twice in the gut, and then an hour later he shows up half-dead in the hospital parking lot. He should’a followed through on the deal, ya know?”
“Yeah, you don’t want to screw those guys,” my man replies. He takes a break to wipe the blade on a towel. I notice a deep scar running down his bicep. I feel my face burning.
“I wonder if he’ll make it though?”
“Nah, he doesn’t make it. I watched the latest episode online. It’s not released on Netflix yet.”
Ah, so the tough immigrant barber holding a straight razor to my throat isn’t involved in a drug ring after all—he just watches TV. New York just ain’t what it used to be.
New York is an entertainment hub, particularly when it comes to live music and theatre. There’s so much talent in New York that even a second-rate street busker huddled over a sidewalk vent is likely to be better than your average bar act back home. And when it comes to top-drawer live shows, the entire universe revolves around one point: Broadway.
I have to admit: I love musicals. I’m the sort of guy who, when not paying attention, might accidentally burst into song while walking down the street, causing others on the sidewalk to stop and stare. It’s perfectly in character, then, that I am able to squeeze in four shows during my time in New York.
The first show I see is Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical about a musician who escapes East Germany after a botched sex change operation. At our performance the lead role of Hedwig, first made famous on Broadway by Neil Patrick Harris, is played by Darren Criss (who played Blaine in the TV show Glee). It is basically a one-man show, and I’m nearly driven to tears by Criss’s incredible vocal and stage talent. It’s a raw and moving performance of unparalleled originality.
The next day, Mike and I decide to see a matinée performance of Chicago, a classic musical about the vain Roxy Hart trying to get herself out of women’s prison after murdering her lover. Roxy is typically portrayed as a pouty blonde floozy, but, oddly, the role is currently played by the black American singer Brandy. Her decidedly un-Broadway approach to the performance gives a fresh interpretation to the somewhat-stale musical, and her unique voice makes the songs sound new to me.
James and I also check out The Spoils, an off-Broadway play starring Jesse Eisenberg (he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.) Non-musical plays in New York generally garner much less attention (and commensurately smaller budgets and audiences) than the mega-musicals, but they do offer a better opportunity to get intimate with some great actors. The play takes place in a New York apartment living room, and follows the antisocial main character’s self-destruction as he systematically alienates himself from everyone. The characters are imperfect and real, not at all like the heroic demi-gods portrayed on Broadway, and in them I recognize shadows of some of the people I know, and, more disturbingly, a bit of myself as well. It’s not an uplifting experience—the actors don’t even smile at the curtain call—but the real New York isn’t all song and dance either, is it?
James doesn’t come to see Chicago with me and Mike because he needs to stop by a box office in the early afternoon to pick up some last-minute tickets for “a cabaret.” That seems fine to me—I’m sure a New York cabaret will be quite entertaining—but I don’t think much about it until that night, when we head over to the Hammerstein Ballroom.
And that’s when it hits me. James didn’t just get tickets to any old cabaret. This is a sensation. It’s legendary. It’s the best burlesque show in town, and happens only once per year. We’re going to Broadway Bares.
The show is put on by the charity organization Broadway Cares, which raises money to fight HIV/AIDS. The show features about a hundred of the hottest Broadway stars performing elaborately choreographed striptease numbers. Imagine it…these people have made a career out of belting perfectly in-tune ballads while simultaneously doing aerial backflips. They’re some of the most gorgeous and fit individuals on the planet. And the stage is full of them, thrusting and bouncing and spinning and flouncing at full throttle. I’ve never seen so many pert bottoms and rippling abdominals in once place, and likely never will again.
I can’t really explain the event any better than that, but suffice to say, it was profound. Check out the videos on their website if you’re drooling. https://www.broadwaycares.org/bares.
New York is a wonderful city. It’s big, dynamic, busy, noisy, smelly (especially on garbage day), creative, tasty, rich, wild…and on and on. The best of nearly everything can be found here. I want to stay. But then again, I’m looking forward to getting home, so after a week in the Big Apple, it’s time to pack up and keep heading into the west.
The food in America generally does not rate well. Huge portions, fast service, and lots of grease is what pops into most people’s heads when they imagine “American cuisine.” That being said, Americans are also known for being rich, rich people like good food, and New York is the nerve center of the American elite, so it should come as no surprise that very good food can be had here. Add in Manhattan’s ant colony-like population density and its people’s 24-hour lifestyle, and you have a recipe for a bewildering dining scene that provides everything from discount hotdogs up to a top-drawer three-star Michelin extravaganza.
I arrive in New York three days ahead of schedule. I’m really excited to be here—not only does it mark the resumption of my journey around the world that was so unexpectedly interrupted, but I also get extra time to indulge in everything that this amazing city has to offer. Shows, dining, celebrity, the latest trends, the most illustrious traditions—the Center of the Universe has it all in abundance.
I proceed from New York’s JFK airport to my good friend James’s apartment, located at 41st St. and 10th Ave. I am horrified to learn that the rent on his smallish, but well-appointed, 1-bedroom midtown apartment costs $3800 USD per month. I’m even more horrified to learn that this is not unusual.
Rent aside, the outrageously high population density of Manhattan does carry some benefits. Like most buildings, James’s has a concierge, which makes it easy to receive packages and grocery deliveries, and to leave a key or message for a friend. Amazon even offers 1-hour shipping on certain items. It is unnecessary to do one’s own laundry because seemingly every block hosts a so-called ‘Chinese laundry’ that will do it for you for a reasonable fee, returning your socks and shirts folded, compressed, and wrapped into a loaf-sized package. Food is available 24 hours a day everywhere.
Outside of Manhattan, city life is experienced in a totally different way. We venture to the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queen’s for the local neighbourhood summer solstice celebration, and even though we venture only a few subway stops from Grand Central Station, the streetscape is transformed. There are few high-rise buildings, the sidewalks are narrower, and not many people are out on the street. Gas stations and nail salons are the dominant retail force here. The celebration in the park itself is lovely, however. Neighbourhood kids line up to have their faces painted, and young families sit together on the grass listening to a performance by the Queen’s Symphony Orchestra. The striking skyline of Manhattan, seen over the East River, forms the backdrop to the festivities.
The difference between Manhattan and its boroughs is even more striking on Staten Island. James and I take a ferry from the terminal at the southern tip of the financial district, passing the Statue of Liberty on the way. When we arrive, I’m astonished to see parking lots, low buildings, and a general lack of residential development. Why is the area around the ferry terminal, only a short (and free) boat ride from the financial heart of America, not dense with leviathan housing developments?
The experience is again different Brooklyn, which, I am told, is by far the most desirable of the non-Manhattan boroughs. While clearly much busier and wealthier than Queen’s or Staten Island, the parts of Brooklyn we see are less noisy, less dense, and less congested than Manhattan. It too can be reached from by subway in mere minutes. This is where those who do not wish, or cannot afford, to live in Manhattan come. Why it happened here, and not to the other boroughs, I cannot say.
New York is famously hectic, but fortunately there are places within reach to escape the din of the city. Central Park is the most obvious of these, of course, and without it Manhattan would be intolerable. Gazillions of people swarm the southern half when we visit one weekend morning, and one path at the access point near Columbus Circle is so busy that a park employee is permanently stationed there with the singular task of telling cyclists to walk their bikes. The northern half of the park is quite peaceful, however, and we easily find a quiet bit of lawn to relax on. There are enough forests, ponds, meadows, and walking trails to make you forget, at least temporarily, the craziness of the city that surrounds the park.
Another good place to escape the crowds is Governor’s Island, which is accessed via a secondary ferry terminal just down the street from the one to Staten Island. The island used to serve some administrative purpose, but now its old brick buildings and open lawns are largely dormant. A section of the island has been converted to a sort of pseudo-natural vegetation zone planted with grasses and bushes. James and I sit in a courtyard, nearly alone, and enjoy an iced coffee from a food truck. Somewhere in the distance I hear music drifting over the air from a distance, a miracle in a city where the clatter of subway cars and the drilling of jackhammers normally drowns out anything pleasant.
New York hosts many incredible museums, and one could easily spend weeks engrossed in learning. I decide to visit three museums during my stay in New York: The fashionable Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the historic American Museum of Natural History, and the esoteric New York Transit Museum.
At MOMA, the most crowded of the three, masterpieces by the likes of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Warhall are housed under the same roof as oddball creations by contemporary artists. James buys a one-year membership so that he can return again later to see the ever-changing exhibits, which carries the added bonus of giving us skip-the-line privileges at the coat check. An exquisitely eccentric special exhibit by Yoko Ono is on at the moment. My personal favourite of hers is Bag Piece, a sort of performance/sculpture hybrid where two people are supposed to climb into a large black sack and exchange clothes. When I visit, the bag contains only a single person who has decided to slither around the floor slowly, sort of like an earthworm would do when dropped into a cup of water. I wonder if Yoko Ono would approve of the improvisation.
The American Museum of Natural History is a different affair entirely. Its halls are packed with highly engaging exhibits showcasing an immense collection gathered on the thousands of expeditions financed by the museum over the years. Several halls are dedicated to the display of animals from around the world, many of them in elaborate dioramas designed to mimic the animals’ natural environment. Each diorama is encased in an ornate wooden cabinet set into the wall, with a polished brass plaque affixed to the front to explain the scene. Despite being constructed 80 years ago, the vivid hand-painted backdrops and lifelike scenery are quite convincing, and are works of art in their own right. Even more impressive is the collection of dinosaur skeletons, the first in the world. An enormous brontosaurus, assembled from real fossilized bones over 100 years ago, appears to still bear the original iron scaffolding that is used to position the bones into the well known dino formation. Rushing on, we venture into several other exhibit halls, belatedly realizing that we do not have time to see even a fraction of everything on offer. In one room is a display of actual asteroids found on the surface of the earth, including some of the largest hunks of meteoric iron ever found. Next is an immense collection of rocks and minerals. The special exhibit showcases life forms that can tolerate extreme conditions, such as its Tardigrade mascot, a small organism that can survive several years in outer space. And that’s not even a tenth of it. We leave when the museum closes.
The final exhibit we visit is the Transit Museum, which is located in an unused subway station in Brooklyn. Here the creation and operation of one of the world’s largest public transit systems is explained through posters and artifacts. The bulk of its construction in the first half of the 20th century was marred by political vitriol that any citizen would recognize in today’s battles, but somehow they overcame the controversies and build an amazing interconnected system that moves millions of New Yorkers per day, 100 years on. I’m particularly fascinated by the old subway cars parked at the nonfunctional platform. There is an example from every design iteration. Interestingly, not much seems to have changed since the 1960’s.
One could visit museums endlessly in New York—I particularly recommend the Tenement Museum, which I visited on a previous trip. But there is much more to New York than paintings and dioramas—there are shows to see, food to eat, and people to watch. And a close shave.
In this video, starting in New York City, I travel clear across America by train and bus in four days.
In this video, my attempt to circumnavigate the planet without using an airplane is foiled by a rogue boarding time. I make the best of it in Southampton and London.
In this video, I travel to London, Cambridge, and the countryside around Cardiff, Wales, during my last week in Eurasia.
In this video, I cross Europe by train, seeing bits of Italy, France, and Switzerland along the way.
The moment I have been dreading has arrived: I am about to climb on an airplane, the first in my long westward journey over sea and land that has spanned tens of thousands of kilometers. I must fly because the only ocean liner that still crosses the Atlantic, the Queen Mary 2, left without me, and I do not have enough time to wait two weeks for her next trip.
My plan is to meet the Queen Mary 2 in New York, at which point I will resume my journey. Since it’s my fate to fly over the ocean, I might as well enjoy it. So follows my account, from the perspective of someone who has crossed the rest of the planet on the surface.
Cunard has provided me with a business class ticket, so my airplane experience is quite improved from what it would have been otherwise. Check-in is smooth and fast because “premium” customers such as myself get their own exclusive line-up. Following check-in, I’m invited for a complementary breakfast in the lounge. There are nice views of the runway, and plenty of comfy chairs to sit in.
When my flight is announced, I am directed from the lounge through the airport and directly onto the waiting plane. I have often wondered why business class passengers are invited to board the plane earlier than other passengers—who would want to? I discover the answer as soon as I sit down. A friendly and smiling steward immediately appears to take my jacket, which he hangs in a closet upfront so that it doesn’t get wrinkled. When he returns, he is carrying a glass of sparkling wine.
The flight itself is not only comfortable, but also actually enjoyable. My private pod has a three-way adjustable power seat that can extend completely flat, and there are several cupboards and shelves within reach to stow my personal belongings. Premium noise cancelling headphones are provided, and they make the movie-watching experience comparable to being in a quiet room. A selection of world newspapers and snooty magazines, like Vanity Fair, are available if desired.
The food is the best part of the journey, not least because the ceremony of setting up and taking away the various courses fills a substantial fraction of the time in the air. My meal starts with strips of cold herbed chicken in tzatziki sauce, followed by a mixed salad with pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes, and then a selection of breads. I choose beef tenderloin (medium-rare) as my main. Dessert is Italian cannoli, which, I must admit, has an authentic taste and texture.
When the captain announces our descent for landing, I begin to pack up my computer and return my seat to its full upright position. The steward waves at me to stop. “The captain doesn’t mean you,” he says. “Make yourself comfortable.” Sure enough, the man across the aisle from me is working away on his laptop and sipping a drink, fully reclined, while surrounded by various detritus disgorged from his carry-on, which is lying sloppily on the floor in front of him. Apparently business class passengers don’t have to follow the landing rules.
I collect my bag at the baggage merry-go-round and then walk the distance of a pilgrimage to get to the train. I soon find out that the $5 ride takes me only to another train, which costs another $3 or so. The machines on the inside of the turnstiles will dispense only one-time ride tickets, so I must pay to exit, purchase a 1-week New York City transit pass from an identical machines on the other side, and then reenter through a different gate. A customer service agent stands helpfully next to the machines to guide the steady stream of confused passengers through the process.
Over an hour later, I emerge from the subway into Manhattan. The journey from my hotel in London to the streets of Manhattan took about 13 hours, compared with 7 days for the cruise ship. I guess flying has some advantages.
The Queen Mary 2 arrives in New York City seven days after I was supposed to board it in Southampton. I take a ferry from the tip of Manhattan to Governor’s Island, which is just across the water from the cruise ship terminal in Brooklyn. I see her, a hulking mass of blue and white painted steel, tied up to the pier, absurdly large and uninteresting, like a toppled-over apartment complex. My nemesis. My Waterloo. Bobbing as she is next to the loading cranes and warehouses of southern Brooklyn, the Queen Mary 2 looks tired and overweight, like the weary wife of some minor dignitary.
I’m sure she’s nice on the inside. Maybe one day I’ll find out for myself.
There is no hope of taking a ship across the Atlantic. I must fly. I spend a few more days in London before my flight to New York, and am pleasantly surprised by the cruise company’s response to the fiasco.
For the first few days after the incident, I feel like the world is painted in gray scale. I’m shuttled from one drab business hotel to the next, all perfectly comfortable and undoubtedly expensive, yet with none of the character and excitement that I’ve grown accustomed to on my long journey. Cunard has provided Alan and me with an open tab for dining, so we take our meals at the hotel restaurants. It’s hardly a replacement for luxury cruise fare, but it fills our bellies. I use the hotel gym every day to blow off steam. These are the first hotels I’ve stayed at that are nice enough to even have gyms.
Alan and I explore the Heathrow neighbourhood on foot before his flight. There are lots of hotels, and not much else. Even the nearest movie theatre is many kilometers away. We find High Street, which is the usual name in UK towns for the street with shops and restaurants. There are a few convenience stores, an appliance repair shop, and an ill-looking pub, but nothing that warrants a closer look. There’s nowhere else to walk to, so we return to the hotel and surf the net.
Alan flies out the same afternoon. Upon hearing his story, the British Airways agent instantly upgrades him to business class—a nice surprise. I, on the other hand, move to a hotel in central London to await my fate.
I spend the next two days in London, trying to figure out what to do next. Cunard has put me up in a hotel near Hyde Park, a part of the city I have never seen, so at least I have tourism as a distraction. I spend my first evening wandering through the 625-acre park, taking in the peaceful gardens and monumental statuary. Cheerful people relax in the open fields, and cyclists peddle along the paths as they commute home from work. Kensington Palace, the famous childhood home of Queen Victoria and, much later, the adult home of Princess Diana, stands at one end of the park. The oblong pond known as The Serpentine divides the park through the middle, offering refuge for geese and ducks.
The following day I take a trip out to Hampton Court, the magnificent royal palace first used by the Tudor king Henry VIII, and subsequently by such infamous monarchs as Elizabeth I and William of Orange, among others. Queen Victoria opened the palace to the public, and ever since it has been a magnificent attraction open to everyone, great and low.
There are many things to see in the palace—too many for one day. This is especially true this year, the 500-year anniversary of its construction. While I’m taking a rest in Henry VIII’s great dining hall, I am surprised to hear human voices in song heading towards me. A half-dozen courtiers, all in splendid dress, walk slowly through the room, singing a beautiful period song. It’s one of the many small theatrical performances that take place periodically throughout the palace. They create a rich, immersive experience, and guests are encouraged to gather around and experience them as if truly present. In these very halls, Henry VIII’s wife Jane Seymour gave birth to his first male heir, and then she promptly died of complications from childbirth. In the nearby council chambers, I witness a very tense and personal encounter between Elizabeth I and Sir James Melville, envoy from Scotland, focused on the qualities of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
I tour as much of Hampton Court as I can in one day. The kitchens are particularly interesting, as they detail the enormous logistical challenge of providing hot, decadent meals to hundreds of royals, courtiers, and other important people each day. To make it feel more real, a man in costume roasts meat over a fire, and loaves of fresh bread are stacked on a table in one corner. The authorities even went so far as to commission an 800-piece set of pewter tableware, which presently sits in racks in the storeroom, just as it would have for the Tudors 500 years ago.
I leave Hampton Court with a much better perspective of my own current difficulties. Kitchen servants could go a lifetime without ever seeing the grand halls they serviced, barely 50 meters away. Wives were beheaded for not producing sons, sons were disowned for not being to the queens’ taste, queens and servants alike suffered from terrible infections and ailments, today easily cured. Almost nobody traveled anywhere at all.
Am I still upset about what happened? Sure I am. But it’s time to stop disasterbating and get on with the trip, now that I’ve been awakened to the blessing that my life is richer that that of a king.
That afternoon, I receive a final phone call from Cunard to discuss what they can do for me. Besides a full refund, they offer me a business class flight to New York, as well as accommodation and meals in Manhattan until the day the ship was supposed to arrive. I think this is quite fair—it gets me to my intended destination and allows me to spend a few extra days sightseeing, all at no cost to me. But it is what they tell me next that makes me realize what good customer service is all about (and I paraphrase):
“We’ve read your blog, and we are truly sorry that you are now unable to fulfill your goal of traveling around the world without using an airplane. We are particularly sorry that you didn’t get to experience the luxury of the Queen Mary 2, and the historic context relevant to your journey.”
An apology: always good. She continues:
“We would like to offer you a complementary transatlantic crossing for you and a guest, so that you can complete the final segment of your around-the-world trip at a later date.”
Truly? I’m impressed. Such compensation—business-class flight, city hotels, free cruise for two—is undoubtedly costly, and it tells me that Cunard really does care about my life-long dream to circumnavigate the world without using an airplane. I will never be able to claim that I did it all in one go. But in a year or two, when I can find the time, I will have a second chance to board the Queen Mary 2 at Southampton and sail to America, and thus achieve symbolic completion of my journey.
The Queen Mary 2 has just sailed from Southampton, and I’m not on it. I’m standing at the terminal, dumbfounded by the outrageousness of the situation. I’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean. I’ve crossed Asia and Europe. Seas, mountains, deserts, political uncertainty, poor infrastructure, perilous storms; I have slayed them all. And now, in England, I’m stopped in my tracks by an incorrect departure time given by a vacation cruise line. The elderly take this ship. Families take this ship. There’s probably an on-board morgue to transport the corpses of those who die on this ship. How is it possible that I, the seasoned circumnavigator, missed it?
My project to circumnavigate the planet without using an airplane is in immediate and critical danger. But maybe there is still a way…
“Can I take a helicopter?” I ask the agent who stands with Alan and me at the nearly deserted terminal. The agent looks at me with a sympathetic look that says, in a word, no. “What about another cruise ship?” I ask.
I know the answer before I ask. The Queen Mary 2 won’t return to England for weeks, too late for me to meet my July 1 deadline to return to Vancouver. And no other passenger ship crosses the Atlantic, the rest having fallen victim to the convenience of air travel. My only hope now is to find a merchant ship, leaving immediately, that can take me to the American east coast. I know my chances are remote.
Cunard sends a taxi to take Alan and me to a hotel while we (and they) figure out what to do. Safely ensconced in our characterless business hotel, we wait. Within a few hours, we receive a phone call from Cunard’s head of customer service in Europe. He apologizes for the mix-up and promises that all of our meals and lodging will be provided until further arrangements can be made. I feel like crying.
Everyone has a go-to activity that cheers them up, or at least distracts them, from stressful situations. Some people eat a tub of ice cream. Others go for a vigorous run. I go to a drag show.
As luck would have it (loser’s luck, anyway), the London Hotel in Southampton has a drag show on tonight. Aland and I decide to go, and as an act of defiance, I don my most outrageous cruising outfit—a blue shirt with silver cufflinks, slim black trousers, a blue velvet jacket, patent leather shoes, and a vibrant red silk cravat.
When Alan and I walk into the bar, all heads turn. The senior-aged drag queen on stage stops and looks straight at me. “My, my, my,” she says, “the last time I saw a velvet jacket like that…on a boy like that…I was still a young serving wench at the country manor. Tell me where you’re from, sweetie.”
“Vancouver,” I reply. The queen looks at me for a further cue. “It’s above Seattle,” I say helpfully. Still nothing.
The queen gathers her skirts and signals for music. “Well, wherever that is,” she says, tapping her feet to the rhythm, “here’s a song for you, sweetie.” And then and there, at a backwater drag bar in Southampton, I receive my very first personalized drag queen serenade, a song about Chicago, but with the lyrics modified on the fly to fit in whatever she knows about Vancouver, which is essentially nothing.
After the song, she approaches me with the microphone. “What are you doing in Southampton, honey?”
“I was supposed to be on a cruise, but the ship left without me,” I reply.
“In other words, you were late,” she says, to laughs from the audience. I laugh too. And why not? There’s no need to clutter up a good evening with a sob story.
The queen sings several other songs to me over the course of the evening. One is Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To the Moon; the irony is not lost on me. When the pub closes down at the end of the night, a cross-dressing man who has been watching me from across the room approaches and hands me his business card. Professional luxury yacht service and installation, it says. “Send me an email tomorrow morning,” he says, “and maybe I can help.”
Reinvigorated and with new hope, I get to work as soon as I return to the hotel. I send an email to the cross-dressing yachter. I phone the travel agent in Australia who booked my cargo ship journey across the Pacific, and she promises to scour the schedules for a merchant ship leaving Western Europe this week. I find the contact information for an agency specializing in cargo ship travel from the UK and send them an email. This done, I try to get some sleep, but my mind is racing. Just maybe…
The next morning I receive another call from Cunard’s customer service chief. He says that he too has been trying to find a cargo ship for me, and that he hopes to have more information by tonight. Alan will be given a plane ticket back to Vancouver, departing the following day, and a full refund will be issued to both of us. He says a car will pick us up in the afternoon to take us to a hotel in London near Heathrow Airport while we wait for more information.
A black Mercedes picks us up as promised and drives for several hours to Heathrow. On the way, I receive an email from my Australian cruise agent: there is a ship leaving June 30 from Genoa, but it doesn’t arrive in New York until July 12. Too late, I reply. That evening I also hear back from the UK-based agency. There is space on a different ship leaving Rotterdam on on June 24 and arriving in Charleston on July 6, they tell me. Again, too late. I check my email one last time; there is no reply from the yachter.
The following morning I get another call from Cunard, this time with news: he’s found a third ship. Sadly, it too will arrive too late.
“Can I have an agent contact you about arranging a flight to New York?” the customer service chief asks.
I feel the last bit of hope drains away. That’s it, then. I’m going to have to fly. “Yes, please,” I reply.
After spending 13 weeks crossing the expanse of Eurasia, it’s finally time to set sail again and head west across the Atlantic Ocean. This is the last major hurdle of my circumnavigation, the only remaining pinch point. And since it’s a scheduled service, run by one of the most reputable and luxurious large cruise lines in the world, I’m more worried about the style of my outfits than the risk of delay.
When Sunday morning arrives, I wake up in a buoyant mood. It’s cruise day! Fortunately, there’s no need to rush this morning. Several weeks ago Alan called our personal “cruise vacation planner” (i.e. customer service agent) to request a late boarding time. She assured us that, despite our official boarding time of 3:30 p.m., we could board as late as 9:00 p.m., and put a note in our file to that effect. So we enjoy a lazy Sunday morning of homemade breakfast and coffee with Dave and Clive, and then I spend an inordinate amount of time organizing and coordinating my cruising outfits. It’s all ready for action: black slim-fit three-piece suit for formal dinners; selection of bow ties; royal blue velvet jacket with red silk cravat for enjoying brandy in the Admiral’s Club; lightweight baby blue cotton blazer for strolling the lido deck in the afternoon. Finally, a use for all of these things!
Clive drives us to the local train station just before lunch, and we catch a rickety old local train, transfer in Cardiff, and then spend a few hours trundling along the rails at low speed towards Southampton. When we arrive, we hop in a taxi and ask to be taken to the ferry terminal.
“What ship?” the driver asks.
“The Queen Mary 2,” Alan replies.
The driver hesitates for a moment, looking puzzled, but then starts driving. I guess he didn’t expect that two vagabondish men, one carrying only a worn-out backpack, would have tickets on such a luxurious ship.
Not long after, we stop at a security gate and the driver exchanges a few words with the guard. I can see our ship sidled up to the pier; its enormous bulk blots out a good segment of the sky. After a long pause, the gate opens, we pull through, and then drive inside a big steel hulk that looks like an ancient airplane hanger. Dozens of oversized British flags hang from the iron girders that hold up the ceiling. There are a few other passengers milling about, their luggage stacked high, but the scene is otherwise quite subdued. I was expecting more fanfare.
As we get out of the taxi, a man in a uniform walks up to meet us. “What ship are you here for?” he asks.
“The Queen Mary 2,” I reply.
“I’m sorry,” he says jokingly, “but the Queen Mary 2 has sailed.”
I laugh half-heartedly—this is no time to joke!—and reply: “nice try, but we saw the ship as we came in.”
There’s a long pause.
“I’m serious,” he says. “Boarding closed an hour ago. You’re too late.”
“But that’s outrageous!” exclaims Alan. “Your customer service agent specifically said we could board as late as 9:00! I wrote it down, see?”
The agent takes and briefly scrutinizes the printed e-ticket with Alan’s hand-written annotation. “It says right here, boarding at 3:30. I’m sorry, but it’s your responsibility to be on time.”
The agent is unmoved. “You can write whatever you like over the ticket, but it doesn’t change the facts. I go with what the ticket says, and the ticket says 3:30.”
Is this ticket agent really going to prevent me from boarding? Impossible. I try explaining my particular situation: that I’m circumnavigating the planet without using an airplane; that crossing the Atlantic is the last major obstacle between me and success; that I’m blogging about my journey. The agent’s eyes brighten for a moment, and he exclaims “oh yes, they told me about you!” Recomposing himself, his face resumes its unsmiling and emotionless position. “But I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
Up until now I have failed to notice the family of four that arrived at the same time as us. No longer. The mother erupts: “What do you mean we can’t get on the ship? We must get on! We can’t fly. My daughter has special needs, she can’t fly. The ship is supposed to leave at 10:00 p.m. See, it says so here!”
The furious woman tosses the agent a piece of paper. It’s a printout from Expedia, the online travel agent she used to book the cruise, and sure enough, it lists a departure time of 10:00 p.m. The agent creases his brow for a moment, but then looks up and replies: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to contact Expedia about this. I don’t know how they got the wrong information, but there’s nothing we can do.”
“Nothing you can do? Stop the ship!” she screams. “Tell it to lower the ramp.”
“I’m sorry, but it has already cast off. I can ask for a pilot boat to take you out, but they already refused the same request for another late passenger an hour ago, so I doubt they’ll do it for you.” The agent walks away and appears to make a very brief phone call. Ten seconds later, he’s back. “I’m sorry, the ship has left, and they won’t send a pilot boat. There’s really nothing I can do. Is there anything else I can assist you with?”
As if on cue, the air explodes with the sharp double blast of the ship’s horn. It’s leaving. It’s really leaving.
With this final pronouncement, fatefully emitted by the ship itself, the stranded family loses control. The mother screams, the father cradles his head, and the kids run wild. The agent loses patience and starts yelling back. Divorce is mentioned. Meanwhile, an older Asian couple, who I have failed to notice until now, stands silently next to their pile of hard-case luggage, looking utterly lost.
I don’t know what to do. I pace back and fourth in great agitation, thinking rapidly. How can I get on this ship? Or, failing that, how can I get on another ship? And how can I do either without the cooperation of the agent? He won’t help me if he thinks it was my own negligence that caused me to be late.
As if reading my mind, Alan pulls me aside and shows me his phone. He has found an email, dated two months ago, from the very same customer service agent to whom he later spoke on the phone. It was sent in response to Alan’s initial inquiry about possible boarding times.
Alan: …I was hoping to know the boarding time [before the e-ticket is issued], if possible.
Company representative: …as early as noon, the latest will be at 9 pm, one hour prior to ship’s departure.
Alan: …it sounds like that assignment is more of a suggested time for boarding…
Company representative: The assigned boarding times are indeed guidelines for a faster check-in; otherwise, if not adhered to, you at least know the earliest and latest times to get onboard.
Alan manages to extract the agent from his argument, shielding him momentarily from the angry mother’s fury, and passes him the phone. The agent goes pale as he reads the email. He hands back the phone. “Just a moment,” he says quietly. “I need to make a phone call.”
Before leaving Europe, I spend a few days in the countryside of Wales. Wales is mostly rural, and I’m looking forward to meandering through grassy fields and exploring ancient hilltop castles. Half of my family can trace their ancestry to Wales, and this will be my first foray down into the root system of my family tree. In fact, I find that many people here looks like me and my family—pale freckly skin, thick legs, moppy blonde hair, jaw like the front end of a Volvo. Prepare the banquet and raise the family sigil—I’m coming home!
I spend two days visiting Cambridge, the famous university town. Cambridge is one of the oldest surviving academic institutions in the world, and all modern universities can trace their roots to here. I am joined in Cambridge by my friend Pingtao, the same guy who treated me to Chinese hotpot while I was in Shanghai.
Every tourist destination has an iconic activity, and in Cambridge, that activity is boating on the River Cam. Not just any boat ride, mind you. To do it in proper Cambridge fashion, one must take a punt.
Now, call me ignorant, but I had never heard of this particular type of boating before. I know you can kayak down the Ottawa River. I know about the gondolas in Venice. I know about paddlewheel boats on the Mississippi. But what is a punt?
A punt is a long and narrow flat-bottomed boat with square ends, a sort of hybrid between a barge and a canoe. One propels oneself by standing on a platform on the back and pushing off the bottom of the river using a long pole. The word “punt” is fun to use. Examples of its proper usage as a noun are: “Climb in that there punt,” or, ”I’ll bring ten cases of beer to Sir Terrance’s party in the punt.” But that’s not all! Punting is also an action. Proper usage of “punt” as a verb could be, for example, “That dreadful incident with Lord Wimblemere gave poor mother quite a fright, so I took her out for a punt to restore her constitution. What impropriety!” or, “Alex lost his balance and fell in the river while punting.”
Pingtao, Alan and I elect to rent our own 4-person punt, a runt of a punt, rather than hire a professional punter to take us punting in a large 12-person punt. My lack of training, experience, balance, or natural physical ability is a personal punt affront to the professional punters, particularly given the preponderance of non-professional punters perambulating past the parks and peristyles on this particular day.
Pingtao, Alan, and I each take a turn maneuvering the punt along the Cam. It’s a relaxing and gentlemanly way to spend the afternoon. I can imagine Horace and Bernice, my old English couple friends from the cargo ship, bird-watching binoculars in hand, hunting for bunting while punting.
We pole past the back lawns of several famous Cambridge colleges, including Trinity and King’s. It’s difficult to keep the punt pointed in one direction, and we often collide with other boats. Nobody seems to mind much though, and everyone just laughs—this same scene has repeated itself on fair weekends for hundreds of years.
After an exhausting 90 minutes of punting, we decide to seek refreshment. Like in London, it’s OK to buy a beer in a pub and then take it outside, so we each buy a Pimms and Lemonade and head for the lawn. As we stroll along the riverbank, I notice a punt full of students drifting on the river. It’s decked out with a patio umbrella and a Styrofoam box full of bottles. A cardboard sign advertises beer and Pimms for sale. It’s a makeshift floating pub!
After a few minutes of strolling, we find ourselves in a surprisingly rural setting. Knarled old trees drape their arms over the Cam, and cows chew the cud in a field nearby. The ground is damp and loamy. I get the impression that nothing much has changed here in a long time.
Final exams are taking place this month, so it’s not permitted to explore the various academic colleges in the interest of preserving peace for the students. King’s College Chapel is open to the public, though, so Pingtao and I decide to attend the Evensong service. It’s a pageant of high Anglican ritual, with a level of ceremony similar to a Catholic service. Not being well versed in Christian services myself, I find it confusing to follow, but thankfully the church provides laminated cards outlining what is happening, so even the most ignorant pagan can follow along. Most of the service is conducted in song; the chaplain drones question, and the Choir of King’s College chants a response. Sometimes (and this is what the audience is here for), their voices rise in a heavenly crescendo and the choir sings a longer song, filling the vaults with rapturous harmony.
More impressive than the Evensong ceremony is the King’s College Chapel itself. The chapel is enormous, rivaling the size of a cathedral. The complex ribbed vaulting, built using the most cutting-edge architectural techniques of the day, is still wondrous to behold, 500 years after its construction. The stained glass windows are nothing short of magnificent. Along each wall are seats reserved for fellows of the college and other important people. We sit in folding chairs to one side.
After we leave the chapel, I marvel at the history and significance of it all. Great forces of religion, monarchy, and education all converge in this one spot. I am convinced that institutions such as Cambridge are among the most significant achievements in humanity. I wonder what it will be like in another 500 years?
Pingtao and I rent a room for the night in an old manor house about 40 minutes walk from the center of the university. The house is constructed of brick, and it sprawls across a mangled floor plan reflecting centuries of additions and modifications. Chimneys sprout from the moss-stained roof like toadstools, and vines climb up the side. There are two staircases and, purportedly, a secret passage. The rooms are cluttered with a wide variety of historical and academic detritus, and every room has a bookcase filled with literature and paperwork according to no particular organizational scheme. On every surface there are stacks of academic papers, many with hand-written notes in red pen scrawled on their covers. The furniture is incongruous: in one corner might be an elegant Louis XVI roll top secretary desk, and in the other, an IKEA futon bed. The flooring is different in every room: hardwood, tile, wall-to-wall carpeting, Persian rugs, Moroccan kilims.
Our host is an eccentric older lady who looks like she might have emerged from one of the dusty paintings that hang on the house’s papered walls. Her husband teaches at Cambridge, and the house reflects the mindset of an aloof professor. When we arrive, our host kindly offers us a cup of tea before showing us our room. “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t use a teapot,” she says as she alternates dunking the teabag in two mugs, dripping tea on the counter. Apparently teapots are considered posh in England, and are therefore avoided by everyday folk, or those who wish to appear so.
The next morning our host surprises us with a home-cooked breakfast. “How would you like your eggs?” she asks. Before I can answer, she interjects: “I don’t do soft-boiled. Or poached. Is fried OK? I’ll do fried.” She talks continuously for the next 10 minutes, not waiting for, or interested in, a response from us. “You must try the marmalade. It’s famous, and from here, you know? It’s by Royal Warrant. Aren’t you going to eat cereal? Would you like some coffee or tea? I don’t know how to make coffee, so don’t ask. Oh, you work at a seed laboratory, do you? Marvelous things, seeds. You just missed the botanical garden seed swap. Did you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum? You really must…” and so on.
Pingtao and I manage to extract ourselves from breakfast, say goodbye to our host, and then walk to (why not?) the Fitzwilliam Museum.
For our final few hours in Cambridge, we explore two of Cambridge’s major collections: the botanical sort planted in the botanical gardens, and the historical stuff on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
The botanical gardens are extensive and relaxing, but not particularly interesting to a non-specialist. The best part is the series of greenhouses that showcase living collections from different biospheres. Within a few minutes, it’s possible to visit the desert, a remote Pacific island, a tropical rainforest, and an alpine meadow.
The Fitzwilliam Museum, on the other hand, I fall in love with. It showcases Cambridge’s vast collection of art and historical artifacts. One room is filled with medieval weapons and suits of armor. In another is a display of great works of art, including some on-loan bronzes attributed to Michelangelo. One room has a collection of works by Degas, although they’re displayed with so little ceremony that they are easy to miss.
In one magnificent room upstairs normally used to display British paintings, a woman gives a free recital…on the harp. After playing a short piece on the smaller of two harps, she chuckles haughtily and asks whether the audience was amused by her droll choice of playing the piece on the small harp, when the larger harp would have been the obvious choice. The audience titters knowingly. I realize then that the highbrow world of Cambridge is beyond my comprehension. Pingtao and I go our separate ways, he back to his seed laboratory in Norwich, and I back to London.
I arrive at London’s Victoria Bus Station, having just traveled from France through the Chunnel. I will be spending over a week in the UK in advance of my transatlantic crossing, so I have lots of time to explore the region. My first day in London, which I spend with my friend Alan, is very instructional on the British way of life.
I take the tube from Victoria Bus Station to my hotel near Old Street Station. The Old Street area used to be downtrodden, but now, thanks to the efforts (and cash) of hipsters, artists, and young professionals, the area has gentrified into a cool neighbourhood of cafés and communal creative workspaces. I have a quick dinner in a fancied-up pie shop, and then head into the city for a night on the town.
I meet Alan at the stage door of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Alan and I will be spending the next three weeks together, first in the UK, then on the Queen Mary 2 for our transatlantic crossing, then finally in New York. Alan’s friend John, who sings professionally in the chorus, joins us at the stage door. He promises to give us a tour of the neighbourhood and take us to some “fun places.”
As John walks us from Covent Garden to Soho, he nonchalantly points out the former homes of various luminaries who have lived in the neighbourhood. “William Blake lived there,” John says, waving at a row house as we pass. “Charles Dickens worked in there,” he comments. “Jane Austin used to stay somewhere around here,” he mentions as he looks about for a moment, trying to remember, but then shrugs and keeps going. “Mozart lived in that inn for a while as a kid,” he says of a place down the street. Really, I think? I look it up later—yes, really.
When we arrive at the pub, The Duke of Wellington, John tells us to wait while he gets us a beer. When we try to follow him inside, he turns around and says: “I told you to wait!” Perplexed, we stand around on the sidewalk. A minute later he reemerges with three pints of beer. Apparently, in nice weather, Londoners drink around the pub rather than inside it.
As the night goes on, more and more people congregate on the sidewalk, and before long there are two police officers wearing their iconic round-topped hats strolling up and down the street to remind people to stay off the road. I hear an unusual scraping noise, and then see a taxi rolling to a halt at the corner, its rear bumper dragging on the pavement. I watch with interest from across the street as the cabbie gives a report to the officers, who dutifully write it down in a little notebook. Then, to my amusement, two drunken young men approach the officers to give an eyewitness report, while simultaneously drinking gin and tonics from a plastic cup. As they describe whatever it was they witnessed, they wobble from side to side, their drinks sloshing about. After they’re finished, the boys give the police officers big sloppy hugs, and then stumble on their way. It’s only 11:00 p.m.
We make one more stop at a nearby pub, where a short and doughy man regales me with complaints about how most Britons don’t vote, which essentially makes the UK a tyranny of evil unelected thugs, no better than a dictatorship. When I try to argue the point, supported by my recent experience of actually visiting various countries under dictatorship, he shushes me with a drunken hand motion and continues his tirade. I inch away; he doesn’t notice.
Most pubs in London close at midnight (even on a Friday), so before long we’re back at our hotel. Having the pubs close early is a good system, really—it allows for a good night’s sleep, no matter how sodden the night. And a good thing, because tomorrow we’re getting up bright and early to catch a train to Cambridge.
Warning! Only read this section is you’re a public transit nut.
London is a huge city, and the transportation options can be bewildering. Fortunately, the city has the Oyster Card, a genius device for accessing and paying for public transit. It’s a loaded-balance proxy card system pioneered over a decade ago, and it works so well that many other cities worldwide have copied it. A central computer automatically calculates the appropriate fare based on where you enter and exit the system, eliminating the frustrating exercise of fumbling for cash for fixed-fare cards or tokens. The city is still innovating, and now even the Oyster Card seems destined to become obsolete, in favour of the contactless payment chips built into many credit cards and phones. Soon, you will only need to wave your mobile phone at a sensor to gain hassle-free access to the transit system.
There are many different ways to get around the city by transit. Often the most convenient option is to take the Underground (or “the Tube”, as it’s often called). It is one of the largest subway systems in the world, currently with 11 lines and 270 stations, and also the oldest, having been established in the mid-1800s. The tunnels are small and cramped due to their age, making the system quite uncomfortable to ride compared with other cities with newer infrastructure. The system is deep underground, so there are lots of stairs to climb, and the pedestrian tunnels at interchanges are long and winding. To make up for these discomforts, the Underground is without a doubt the fastest way to get around the city, and so it is our go-to transportation option for the duration of our stay in London.
A parallel rail network runs aboveground, and is cutely named the Overground. This services destinations outside of Central London, but still well within the suction zone of the City. For destinations even further afield, such as the outer suburb of Greenwich, there are frequent commuter trains that depart from a number of London’s larger stations. Long distance trains to other parts of the UK depart from a handful of major stations, such as King’s Cross or Paddington Stations. And the Hogwarts Express departs from King’s Cross, of course.
Wheeling around on the streets themselves is a vast fleet of iconic red double decker buses. I find it to be the most fun way to get around London, although certainly not the fastest. On the top deck, large front windows give a terrifying perspective of the street below. Cyclists and small cars disappear into the bus’s shadow, seemingly squashed under its unstoppable bulk, only to reemerge moments later in a different place. Being on the top also enhances the swaying effect as we accelerate, break, and round corners.
The scariest way to get around London is to rent a Santander Cycles bicycle from any of the automated racks that are installed all over the city. For a flat rate of only £2 per day, you can borrow a bike from any kiosk in the city and return it to any other. They are lumbering 3-speed battle-scarred mechanical beasts, but they’re quite acceptable for getting from stoplight to stoplight on the flat streets of London. To make things a little less terrifying, the city has installed a halfway decent system of on-road bike lanes, but they don’t make it any less alarming to ride next to a hulking double-decker bus. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant and surprisingly fast way to get around the city, and I find myself quickly adapting to it.
I spend a few days in Lille, my last destination in continental Europe. I’m hiding here to do some paperwork before I continue on my journey to the UK by the oddball Euro Tunnel.
Believe it or not, I do have a “normal” job in addition to being a professional circumnavigator, and unfortunately I have a bit of postponed paperwork to do. While doing paperwork while riding a bus or hot air balloon or camel sounds romantic, it’s actually quite impossible in practice, so I resign myself to a few days of old fashioned nose to the grindstone desk work.
I say goodbye to the French countryside and take a train to Geneva, Switzerland, quite possibly the world’s most expensive city. Despite its small size, Switzerland is a diverse place, a hodgepodge of French, German, and Italian cultures, all united in their dedication to independence and (formally, at least) neutrality. I will only be in Switzerland for four days, so I’m hoping to see or experience as many stereotypes as possible—a watch factory, a bank, the United Nations, chocolate, lederhosen, those long trumpet things featured in the Ricola cough drops commercials, fondue, a Saudi prince in a private school uniform…Switzerland had better bring it.
I spend three days in the French countryside, exploring the vineyards, farms, and forests on foot. I have been invited by my friends Jen and Colin, who have rented for several months a gite (vacation house) near Chamelet in the Beaujolais region of Eastern France, near Lyon. Away from the bustling cities and vacation spots, I hope that Chamelet will give me a glimpse of ‘real’ French country life.
Jen has been documenting her time in France on her blog, Foot to Earth, which gives a charming account of her daily randonnée (walk) through the nearby villages and countryside.
I catch the train from Milan, Italy to Nice, France with only 30 seconds to spare. The high-speed train covers the distance in only a couple of hours (although, in typical Italian fashion, there is a 65-minute delay at the border for a reason identified only as “fire on train”). Over the next few days I am planning on exploring the French Riviera with some friends, and I’m looking forward to spoiling myself on the fashionable southern coast of France.
I leave Croatia and head towards France, my next destination, traveling by ferry and train. Fortunately for me, Italy lays between the two, so I have the opportunity to spend a day or two visiting Venice and the World Expo in Milan.
I arrive in Venice from across the Adriatic, only a couple of hours after leaving Porec, Croatia. The catamaran must slow down to a crawl as we move close to the city, so I am able to get a good look at the grand edifices of Venice’s noble buildings as we putter into the harbor.
I approach Venice with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, for this marks the first time on my circumnavigation that I return to a country I have visited before. The first time I visited Venice, in 2006, I was on an ultra-budget summer European backpacking tour, following a route so well-worn by fellow 21-year-old party-travelers that there is practically a groove in the road from Rome to Venice for dragging a case of beer. I recall wandering around Venice, thoroughly lost, for hours, entranced by the city’s twisted canals and charming squares. During that visit I slept on a springy cot packed into a room with seven other young travelers and ate at a crowded cafeteria (where wine was on tap), that being all I could afford as a destitute student. When I visited Venice again a year later with my mother and sister, I experienced the relative luxury of sleeping in the attic of a fat chain-smoking Italian’s narrow row house in the garden district. I maintain a certain regret from both trips, however. A regret I intend to rectify.
I walk from the cruise ship terminal to the train station to store my bag—nobody wants to haul a bulging backpack along the edge of canals—and am reacquainted with the famous customer service of Italy. The left luggage service is run by the post office, and there is a long lineup of fellow travelers waiting to drop their bags. The wise among them have brought snacks and entertainment and seem in good spirits, but the rest are restless and angry, caught unawares by the slow pace of service in Italy. I wait for about 45 minutes before reaching the front of the lineup. At the counter is one man who slowly—very slowly—takes people’s payments, often carrying on a lengthy conversation before moving on to the next customer. Another man carries the bags, one at a time, into a backroom labyrinthine, taking about a minute per bag. A third man stands behind the luggage-fetching counter, although since there are no people retrieving their luggage at this time in the morning, he leans lackadaisically against a wall, doing nothing at all. I dread to think what the scene will look like in the afternoon, when all of these customers return in a hurry to catch their trains.
Finally unburdened of my backpack, I beeline towards St. Mark’s Square, the famous piazza on the lagoon. Even bees can’t fly in a straight line in Venice, though, and it takes me over an hour to wind my way along the snaking paths, along canals, and past the narrow buildings, squares, and gates. There are signs mounted to the sides of the buildings pointing out the walking route to St. Mark’s, but the arrows are strangely bent and angled, making them difficult to interpret, particularly when a dozen small paths emanate from a central square. I am struck with the notion that unscrupulous shop owners intentionally rearrange the signs to misdirect tourists past their storefronts. At one point, about 20 minutes in, I mysteriously find myself back in front of the train station.
Eventually I do find St. Mark’s Square, though, and there I see what I have been looking for: The Florian Café. The Florian claims to be the oldest coffee house in Europe, having been in continuous operation for nearly 300 years. In earlier times it was the haunt of worldly intellectuals—Casanova reputedly staked out his latest prospects for female companionship from its windows. Now, the Florian is a tourist trap where fanny pack-wearing travelers pay princely sums to experience the former splendor of Venice. During my first visit to the city nine years ago I couldn’t afford anything on the menu, and during my second visit the staff were on strike. This time, though, I will not be denied the pleasure of pretending to be a member of the Enlightenment-era literati.
I march up to café and take a seat at a tiny table-for-one in a resplendent side room. The room is paneled with gilt mirrors and murals of draped figures sitting on clouds. I settle into the corner, trying as best as I can to conceal my grubby camera bag and waterproof jacket in the corner of the velveteen bench. Within seconds, a tuxedoed waiter approaches and asks what I would like. Unfortunately they are sold out of croissants (they’re only available in the morning, apparently), so I settle on a hot chocolate.
Figuring I have some time while I wait, I get out my notebook and pen and prepare to ink some profound thoughts, as seems fitting in such a place. To gain inspiration, I observe my fellow clients. A pair of Asian tourists clap with delight when a large ice cream sundae is brought on a silver tray. An enormous woman wearing a black lacy top squeezes herself behind a tiny marble table, her fat wobbling and flowing as if pulled by tidal forces. An arthritic old man tries for several minutes to sit down, the exertion showing plainly on his spotted face. A suave middle-aged man in an expensive suit surveys the room while absently eating a sandwich.
Less than two minutes later, my hot chocolate arrives. It is served in an elegantly etched glass cup with a silver handle, a carafe of water, a cookie, a petit chocolate, and a brochure advertising the appurtenances of luxury available for sale in the gift shop. I give up on my writing and instead listen to the live orchestra playing in the tent outside while I imbibe my glass of rich chocolate topped with silky mint cream. Delicious. When finished, the waiter promptly produces the bill, and I get the distinct impression that I am expected to vacate my seat for the next customer. So, I pay my waiter for the world’s most expensive hot chocolate—18 euros—don my jacket and camera bag, and resume my role as a scuzzy backpacker.
A few hours later, I realize that the waiter gave me as change an old 10 franc coin, which looks nearly identical to a 1 euro coin, but is worthless. Another example of exemplary Italian service.
I return to the train station by waterbus (which is overcrowded, running late, and filled with angry Italians), fetch my bag, and take a commuter train to the mainland suburb of Mestre, where I spend the night before catching my early morning train to Milan, where I am stopping for the day to see World Expo 2015.
Wait, what? There’s still such a thing as World Expo? Everyone knows about the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, where the world’s tallest man-made structure, the Eiffel Tower, was unveiled to the world, or the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where the latest industrial achievements were showcased. Canadians are likely familiar with Montreal’s 1967 fair, or Expo ’86 in Vancouver. But surely it doesn’t still happen, does it? It does still happen, and this year it’s being held in Milan, Italy.
I alight in Milan’s main train station, again drop my bag at the left luggage service (like Venice, it’s inexplicably run by the post office), and then navigate the subway system to the site of the fair. I’m positively giddy. How many chances in one’s life can one visit such a world-class, yet retro, attraction?
The exhibition is situated on a parcel of land in Milan’s north-west, right at the end of the subway line. When I get off the subway I walk along a long walkway, through the turnstiles, up stairs, over the tracks on a big new bridge, down stairs, along another long walkway, and then finally into the fair. I’m already exhausted. Luckily, there is a free sparkling water dispenser installed near the entrance, so I’m able to quench my thirst in style.
The exhibition grounds are organized around a grand pedestrian promenade, which is flanked on either side with the various exhibits and pavilions. The theme of Expo 2015 is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” and many of the national pavilions are clustered according to a particular foodstuff that they are famous for, such as coffee (Guatemala, Kenya, Rwanda), chocolate (Cameroon, Cuba, Ghana), and rice (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sierra Leone). Most of these pavilions are housed in small nondescript white-walled buildings with little character, probably reflecting their tiny budgets, but the surrounding exhibits are nevertheless quite informative. For example, I learn that the Fins consume more coffee per capita than anyone else on the planet. Fascinating.
As has become customary at Expo, the larger (and richer) participant nations try to outdo one another by constructing magnificent, interesting, or just plain outlandish pavilions. Malaysia’s looks like a cluster of three giant eggs. Monaco’s is constructed from colourful stacked shipping containers. Qatar’s looks like a stone castle topped with a multi-story woven basket. Argentina’s is accessed via an odd system of spiraling ramps, and Vietnam’s is built around what looks like a bunch of upturned matcha whisks. Even the Vatican has a pavilion, although Canada does not.
I am excited to see that Turkmenistan, a country that I visited about a month ago, has a pavilion, and I venture inside to see what they have concocted. By the front door is, of course, a giant portrait of the president—I can see that they haven’t toned down the personality cult for the benefit of the international community. The building appears to be constructed out of white marble and gold, just like the buildings in Ashgabat, and it is filled with displays showcasing conspicuous wealth and plaques making dubious claims of national prowess in everything from horse racing to manufacturing. In fact, such blatant grandstanding is common in many pavilions. Uzbekistan extols the internationally-renowned quality of its fruit and its world-class storage and distribution network (really?). The president of the Dominican Republic is worshiped in a documentary about his new agricultural policy. Yemen has the following slogan painted on the wall: “Coffee and honey. Yemen’s gift to the world.”
Many of the pavilions are indeed as impressive as they purport to be, and there are long queues, sometimes several hours long, to get in. The United Arab Emirates, China, Thailand, and Kazakhstan all seem very popular, and I regret that I do not have time to wait for them. I am able to get into the European Union’s, though, and am treated to an immersive experience explaining the food supply chain. In the first room, I am introduced to two fictional characters, a biologist and a farmer, through a series of artful illustrations shown on framed panels inside what looks like a cozy farm house. After that, I am guided through a sort of multi-sensory journey following the budding romantic relationship of the two protagonists that combines immersive audio, 3D animation, vibrations, and even an occasional spray of water. Although it’s sappy and almost unforgivably optimistic, it’s so well done that I walk out feeling cheerful and amused.
When I emerge from the EU exhibit I realize that I have overstayed my time—I have only an hour to get back to the central station to catch my onward train to Nice, France. So I rush as fast as I can back over the bridge and into the subway, wishing that I could spend a week here. I recommend it to everyone.
In this video, I stop to catch my breath in Croatia, exploring the ancient cities, gorgeous Adriatic coast, and surprising sights.
I head into inland Croatia, visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park, and enjoying the excellent food of Istria (truffles!). I encounter a number of surprises along the way.
After spending several blissful days in Split, my family and I rent a car and drive towards the interior of the country. After several hours, we leave the toll highway for a winding country road that takes us past farms and through forests. Our destination tonight is the small town of Korenica, which will serve as a stopover on our way to Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Google Maps has trouble identifying the streets in this little town, so it takes us about an hour to find our accommodation. Our hosts, Biliana and Nino, welcome us warmly, and offer to cook us a BBQ dinner (for a small fee) so that we don’t have to go out in the cold, drizzly evening. We retire to the two rooms she has prepared for us and enjoy some local wine while we wait.
Some time later, Biliana knocks on our door and invites us to join them in the backyard. They have constructed a shed around a brick hearth BBQ, and a variety of meats are sizzling away on a grate over a heap of smoldering charcoal. Biliana chats merrily while she attends to the food, although some of her stories are rather sobering. She longs for the long-gone days of Yugoslavia, when the standard of living was better. She herself is of Serbian heritage, and while the people of Korenica are welcoming, she acknowledges that not all Croatians accept her. She, her husband, and her two children rely on the meager income from the bed and breakfast for sustenance. There are no customers in the winter months, and in the summer months she sends her children to live with their grandparents to free up their bedrooms for rental.
We eat heartily in the family’s dining room. The children look towards the food hungrily, but their mother insists that they have already eaten and sends them away. After we are finished, though, I notice that she gives them a subtle signal, and as soon as we leave the room, the children dive into the leftovers.
We stay up late with our hosts, drinking wine listening to jazzy covers of pop songs streamed off of YouTube, and conversing with our new friends. Before long, Nino produces a guitar and reveals himself to be an accomplished musician. With a grin and a flourish, Nino also produces a worn accordion, and after another glass of wine I find myself squeezing along discordantly. Everyone applauds me anyway. The evening ends with a few folky sing-alongs, feeling like we have made new friends in the most unlikely of places.
The following morning we head to Plitvice Lakes National Park, just north of where we were staying. It is a crushingly popular destination during the summer months, when a near-continuous Congo line of poncho-wearing tourists clogs up the boardwalk. Now, though, their numbers are more reasonable, and we only have to contend with an occasional umbrella in the eye or Japanese tour group cluster.
The park is most famous for a series of pools that cascade down a series of forested terraces. As it is now spring and rainfall is plentiful, the water flows fast, turning the forest into a sort of Sylvan Venice, fanning out between the trees and down temporary watercourses. Often, the water flows beneath (and sometimes over) the boardwalk itself. A hundred waterfalls, ranging in size from tiny up to a striking 78-meter free-fall, fill the air with the sound of crashing water and the coolness of perpetual mist.
The route through the park takes us along boardwalks, on a tram, and along the shore of the largest lake by boat. At the end of the route, we ascend hundreds of stairs up through a natural cavern, and then walk back to the parking lot, thoroughly amazed.
We drive from the park to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. We are here with the sole purpose of dropping my sister Katie at the airport, so we only plan on staying one night. Nevertheless, we can’t resist checking out the intriguingly named Museum of Broken Relationships.
The museum was born from a temporary art exhibition featuring objects, and their accompanying stories, that symbolize the emotions and circumstance of various people’s failed relationships. The show was a surprise hit, and over time its creator began receiving more and more objects in the mail from heartbroken visitors who wished to share their stories. The now-permanent museum contains an intensely interesting subset of these objects, ranging from the amusing (“I wanted him to suffer, so I took his toaster. How are you going to make toast now?”), to the tragic (a photograph of a young man who, after his intended’s father refused his request for his daughter’s hand, committed suicide by driving off a cliff.) There is a stiletto shoe belonging to a woman who became reacquainted with her high school lover while working as a dominatrix. There is a stack of love letters sent between a soldier and a refugee who found themselves on opposite sides of the fence during the Balkan war.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is not the only unconventional attraction in Croatia. A few days earlier, back in Split, and at the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we had the pleasure of visiting the extremely quirky, but no less engaging, Froggyland. This peculiar museum claims to hold the world’s largest (by far) collection of posed taxidermy frogs. The animals are arranged in themed dioramas, each artfully constructed over a century ago by a very eccentric, and infinitely patient, man named Ferenc Mere. In one display case is a classroom of frog children sitting on little wooden chairs, attentively copying notes off of the blackboard. Another shows frogs going about their professions, such as a chimney sweep and a garbage man, while drunkard frogs sing and dance in the tavern. The most dynamic scene shows an amphibian circus, including frogs on the trapeze, frogs forming a four-tiered acrobatic pyramid, various other displays of balance and strength. A loop of ribbiting plays on tinny speakers throughout. It’s exquisitely weird, the acme of bizarre hobbies. It is quite possibly the best museum—nay, the best anything—I have ever seen.
My mother and I spend our last few days together in Istria, the earlobe of land that dangles into the Adriatic at the northwest end of the country. Istria is famous for relaxing beach towns, mouth-watering Mediterranean cuisine, and—above all—truffles, those rare and horrendously expensive mushrooms that grow only a few places on Earth.
To find out where truffles come from, we visit the tiny village of Vrh, a place that is short on vowels, yet is richly endowed with black and white truffles. Black truffles, the lesser of the two, grow here all year round, and fetch several hundred dollars a kilogram (for the cheapest summer black truffles). The most prized winter whites can fetch thousands.
The son of the Karlic family, which has owned a truffle-hunting company for generations, takes us into Motovun Forest to look for truffles. We are accompanied by two truffle-sniffing dogs (both mutts) who have been trained from birth to locate the subterranean morsels. It doesn’t take long. Within a few minutes, one of the dogs begins to dig and bark, and our guide, caught unawares, romps after him, waving his hat and shouting. Too late—the truffle is dislodged and swallowed whole. It’s not a total loss, though, for a few minutes later, the dogs once again catch a scent and start scratching at the earth. After shooing them away, our guide gently pushes away the earth under a young oak tree to reveal a little brown lump about the size of a chestnut. I dislodge it using my fingers and proudly present my find.
Back on the homestead, we are treated to a meal of truffled eggs, cheese, and salami in their garden. I buy a tiny jar of chopped truffles in oil as a souvenir. Now that my palate has learned to appreciate the full and fragrant taste of truffles, there’s no going back.
We spend our last few days in Croatia exploring the hilltop fortified towns, rural countryside, and seaside villages of Istria. Each is more charming than the last, and I again marvel that most North Americans aren’t very aware of this incredible country. Early on my final day in Croatia, I board a high-speed catamaran in Poreč and head towards Venice, Italy. I’m sad to see the Croatian coast disappear behind me, but am excited to revisit Italy—the first place on my long journey around the world that I have visited before.
In this video, I stop to explore several regions of Turkey on my journey from Iran to Europe.
I arrive in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s famous walled city on the Adriatic coast, after an exhausting 36-hour bus journey from Turkey. After months on the road, most of it across difficult and remote territory, I’m looking forward to the sunny weather and relaxing seaside atmosphere that Croatia is famous for.
In this video, I continue across Iran, gaining an understanding of how life goes on in the Islamic Republic.
I say adieu to my father and head to the Istanbul otogar (bus station). My next destination is Dubrovnik, Croatia, and unfortunately there are several Balkan states in the way. Ethnic and national divisions run deep in the Balkans, and as a consequence there is little demand for bus service, so I prepare for a long, uncomfortable journey.
In this video, I travel through Iran, learning about the culture and history so unknown to those in the West.
I take a bus from Göreme, Cappadocia to Istanbul, the capital of everything in the region since time immemorial. I am excited to see whether Istanbul lives up to its exotic reputation.
I depart Göreme by bus in the morning, leaving my father and sister temporarily (they are flying). The 11-hour bus ride takes me past an incredibly varied landscape. Many of the Turkish passengers fiddle with prayer beads as the ride drags on. The world becomes steadily lusher as I get further from the Middle East. I even pass a body of water big enough to float a boat on.
Istanbul has been around for a very long time. Legend has it that the city, at first named Byzantine, was founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists. The city gained immensely in importance in 330 CE, when Emperor Constantine chose it as the capital of the Empire. The city was renamed Constantinople, and many of the city’s most impressive archeological sites date from that era.
The Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly the most impressive ancient site in the city. The first church on the site was inaugurated in 360 CE. It was rebuilt in 415 CE after a fire, and for a third time in 537 AD after a second fire. It has remained largely unchanged since. Stone circles on the floor mark important places in the church, such as where Roman emperors were crowned, or where the empress stood on the balcony to watch services. Many of the beautiful mosaics and frescos date from this period. After the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Remarkably, the Ottomans left the Christian motifs intact, choosing to plaster over the mosaics and add Islamic symbols as auxiliary decoration rather than destroy the original works. Ataturk converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935, and ongoing restoration work continues to this day.
Near the Hagia Sophia, but hidden underground, is an equally remarkable site. The Basilica Cistern was built around the same time as the third church, and was used to supply water to part of Istanbul for over a thousand years. A stone forest of hundreds of marble columns holds up the roof, and a network of stone and wood pathways allows visitors to wanted through the gloom. Instead of being set on traditional pedestals, two of the columns are supported by overturned carvings of the head of Medusa, themselves reclaimed in Byzantine times from some other more ancient site.
Istanbul used to embody the exotic, a place where snake charmers and carpet salesmen and whirling dervishes converged to bewilder and delight adventurous travelers. My parents visited here thirty years ago, and my childhood was filled with stories of smoky bazaars, the aroma of spices, and foul toilets. In fact, I was in the womb at the time, and to this day the scent of roasting lamb makes my mother’s stomach flutter with memories of morning sickness.
Alas, no longer. Istanbul has lunged into the modern era, and all of the trappings of a modern city are at hand. Mass tourism has transformed the landscape; signs are in English, touts shout from restaurant doorways, and the sites have been beautifully restored and roped off. The walkways are immaculately clean, and modern public transit whizzes along tracks in the cobbled streets. And everywhere I turn, legions of socks-with-sandals tourists mill about, clogging up the narrow sidewalks and ticket booths.
We visit Topkapi Palace, the center of Ottoman power and largesse for centuries. Thirty years ago, guests were permitted to wander around at will, and my parents recall ogling at the tennis ball-sized gemstones that studded the sultan’s throne. Now there are audio guides and dim museum lighting and endless queues. The place is nevertheless incredible, particularly the Harem, which does a great job of transporting me into the world of the imperial court.
On our last day in Turkey we take a cruise (operated by the city ferry company) up the Bosphorus. The shore plays like a historical movie reel as we glide by, with palaces and mosques and churches spanning millennia. The cruise terminates at a tacky village filled with tourist shops and mediocre fish restaurants.
So if you have a dream of taking the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul in search of the exotic and intriguing, look elsewhere. The train stopped running years ago. But the Para Palace, the luxurious hotel that was the symbolic endpoint of the journey, is still here, but now it’s surrounded by the modern sensation of Taxsim, the heart of the new Istanbul.
Istanbul has waxed and waned many times over the millennia, each time reinventing itself according to the needs and aspirations of its rulers. Most recently, when General Ataturk moved the capital of the newly formed Turkish Republic to Ankara, the Istanbul supposedly fell into a funk. That trend has reversed, however, and over the past 25 years the city has reinvented itself as a vibrant, modern metropolis.
The nerve center of modern Istanbul is Taksim, a hilltop district on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The main thoroughfare, which has been converted into a pedestrian mall, is teeming with people at all hours of the day, in a way not unlike Time Square in New York. Western and Turkish brands compete for our attention; I see a Starbucks for the first time since Shanghai.
My sister and I meet up with Ali and Tom, two friends of mine from Vancouver who are on vacation in Istanbul. We dine at a trendy restaurant on one of the narrow alleys in Taksim, and then grab coffee and dessert at a chic café. The vibe is very current, very real; the Turks here look forward to a bright future, and aren’t afraid to show off their confidence. I never would have imagined Istanbul as a place I would want to relocate, but I catch myself glancing enviously at the rental advertisements posted in a window.
My time in Iran is at an end. Continuing west, I enter Turkey, universally acclaimed as a darn great place to visit.
My father and I are dropped at the Iran/Turkey border by our driver, and then pay a taxi driver a nominal fee to drive us up to the customs clearance building. Leaving Iran is even less eventful than entering it. At first we find it difficult to even find an agent to stamp our passports; evidently there are few foot passengers today. Eventually we find someone, he lazily stamp our passports without any questions or inspections, and we are free to go.
On the Turkish side, dirt and onion skins litter the floor, and Turks crouch by huge sacks of onions, potatoes, and melons. The border agent takes about 5 minutes to validate my pre-purchased electronic visa, but before long we are allowed to pass, again without a bag inspection.
Upon exiting the building we are immediately accosted by taxi drivers offering to take us to Doğubayazıt, the nearest city. We negotiate a rate in Euros, and without further ado climb into a battered minivan. 30 minutes later the taxi screeches to a halt in the Doğubayazıt bus station’s driveway, causing the outgoing bus to come to a halt. The driver rolls down his window and shouts up to the bus driver in Turkish. Without a moment to collect our thoughts, we find that our luggage is being hauled out of the taxi and tossed into the bus’s cargo hold, and we ourselves are ushered urgently onto the bus. Our taxi driver has somehow negotiated us a seat on the bus, which just so happens to be going west into Anatolia.
The dry landscape that dominates Iran gives way to rolling hills, rivers, and mountains. The farms are larger and greener, and the buildings are in better repair. Out of the bus window I spot a beautiful snow-capped volcano; it is Mount Ararat, supposedly the landing place of Noah’s Ark. It’s interesting that Noah didn’t stray further from the Garden…
I received many puzzled looks and raised eyebrows when I announced that I planned to circumnavigate the world without using an airplane. Most people’s interest turned to concern when I mentioned that Iran was on my itinerary, however. Isn’t it dangerous, people would ask? Most North Americans don’t even realize that it’s possible to go to Iran as a tourist.
Rest peacefully, dear reader; Iran is a safe and surprisingly modern country, and as long as you don’t tell the government that you’re a journalist or uranium specialist (ehem…), you needn’t worry. Iran definitely has its idiosyncrasies, however, and when it comes to the government’s policies towards its own citizens, some aspects of the country are downright sinister.
The Western media tends to portray Iran as a land of endless desert, oil derricks, religious oppression, and secret nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities, all controlled by legions of nefarious Muslim extremists sporting long beards and black turbans. After spending two weeks in the country, I have come to the conclusion that this is largely true. It is not, however, representative.
We leave Esfahan and drive north, back into the desert. About midday we stop in Abyaneh, a 1500-year-old village in the desert built from ochre-coloured mud bricks. The people here wear traditional clothing and speak a dialect of Persian that went extinct elsewhere centuries ago. The village is situated around a creek that percolates along channels cut into the earth. Women in traditional dress, all of them old and with the complexion of a withered-up apple, trundle up and down the irregular cobbled streets. Many of the women lean up against the slanted walls, looking like little piles of worn fabric, with dried apples and raisins spread out before them for sale.
I cross Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s most mysterious country, and discover some of the most surprising sites I have ever seen.
We leave Yazd and travel to the modern cities of Shiraz (yes, the original home of Shiraz wine) and Esfahan, which together encapsulate 2500 years of Persian history.
Our first stop in Shiraz is the tomb of Hafezieh (Hafez), one of Iran’s most venerated poets. The tomb is surrounded by a beautiful garden, and many local tourists gather here to reflect upon the life and works of Hafez. Many of the visitors mutter lines from his most famous poems as they run their fingers over his tombstone.
Just outside of the gates of Hafez’s tomb, a wizened man walks about carrying a yellow canary perched on top of a box of coloured slips of paper. For a small fee, he will give you a card inscribed with a passage from one of Hafez’s works, and then allow the bird to select a paper from the box at random. On the paper is written an interpretation for the passage that is supposed to have relevance to your life’s circumstance—a sort of poetic+avian fortune cookie. After going through the routine myself, our guide Ehsan kindly translates the poem and interpretation for me (spoken in beautifully rendered prose, no less).
I can’t discuss what I learned or the fortune will be rendered null, in the same way that wishbone wishes cannot be revealed.
Every lunch hour over the last five years, my Iranian colleagues have been tempting me with tantalizing home-style Persian dishes. The variety of spiced, meaty dishes—foreign, but not too foreign—holds an unmistakable appeal, especially after spending the last two weeks choking down drab Central Asian fare.
Chicken, beef, or lamb (anything, really, except pork), ground or whole, spiced or marinated, served on the skewer or off – there are many variations of kabab available in Iran. Chunks of lemony chicken breast are my favourite, but the lamb and spiced ground meat are also delicious. And that’s a good thing, because for whatever reason, kabab is virtually the only thing offered on restaurant menus. So it’s kabab or nothing, every day.
My father and I continue west across Iran’s central desert, accompanied by our faithful guide, Ehsan, and driver, Mr. Mamsoori.
On the eastern border of Iran’s central desert, near the city of Neyshabur, lives a hermit engineer in a wooden town of his father’s construction. Its wooden mosque, wooden bakery, wooden restaurant, and wooden stable were constructed as a sort of amusement park, emulating the pumpkin patch or petting zoo or hobby farm popular with American families looking for a weekend excursion. A decade ago the father died and the children moved to America, but the hermit remained here, trying in vain to maintain a legacy too big for one person alone.
I enter Iran via the Bajgiran border with Turkmenistan. They accept my visa without issue. The customs officer is a friendly barrel-shaped man who has only one question: “Do you have any drugs or guns?” When I affirm that I do not, he lets me pass without a bag inspection. I cross into Iran with nary a trouble—the first of many surprises I will encounter in this misunderstood country.
In this video, I continue across Uzbekistan, following the old silk road to ancient capitals and present-day villages.
In this video, I continue my journey in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, following the Silk Road to Samarkand.
This is the second post about Turkmenistan. Click here for part 1.
Just outside of Ashgabat, Mr. Dima pulls over next to a flowing irrigation channel. It is illegal to drive a dirty car in the capital, he tells me, and so he must wash the Land Rover before we drive any further. Other vehicles are parked nearby for the same purpose. A construction worker tries futilely to wash the mud from his dump truck by tossing buckets of water at it.
When the car is shining like new, we drive the remaining distance to the security barrier that divides the desert from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.
Driving into Ashgabat is like passing through the gates of Babylon. The poverty and decay of the desert vanishes in an instant, replaced by wide tree-lined boulevards and pricy foreign cars. As we approach the city center I can’t help but stare, gob smacked, at the spectacle that unfolds before me. Gleaming white marble palaces line the street, their graceful forms rising from broad squares like ivory-robed giants. Many of their marble and glass facades are adorned with patterned gold lattice, and water tumbles like liquid crystal from myriad fountains.
The least-visited Stan. The richest Stan. The closed-to-tourists Stan. Little is known about Turkmenistan, even among the well-traveled. Few tourists come here, and with good reason—visas are difficult to obtain, and those who manage to get one must be accompanied by an accredited guide at all times. In fact, my three-day visit to Turkmenistan cost a shocking $780 USD—likely the most expensive part of my world trip on a per-day basis.
I am picked up at the Hojayli/Konye-Urgench border by Mr. Dima, my pre-arranged driver, who I find napping in his Land Rover. When I rap on the window he reluctantly climbs out of the vehicle to help me with my bags. He is a tall, surly Russian-speaking man with the appearance of a former KGB agent, and more than a little intimidating.
I climb in the passenger seat and he starts the car. As the radio kicks to life, a powerful Celine Dion ballad fills the Land Rover, followed by a classic Spice Girls song. Mr. Dima smiles and taps along. Never judge a book by its cover.
This is part 2 of my blog post about traveling in Uzbekistan. Click here for part 1.
Islam Karimov came to power in 1990 as the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he suddenly found himself the president of a new independent democracy. He has been Uzbekistan’s one and only president ever since, despite a constitutional two-term limit. Most recently, in 2015 Karimov was reelected to his fourth term with 90% of the vote (no serious opponent was permitted to run, of course).
During his quarter-century in power, Karimov has cultivated a father-of-the-nation personality cult that is on display everywhere in Uzbekistan. Sage quotations pulled from Karimov’s many speeches and writings are on written on highway billboards and museum placards, and his portrait is on display everywhere. The surprising thing is that most Uzbeks seem to support and admire their dictator. Over the course of my organized tour of the country, our guide unwittingly promulgates the Karimov legend, beginning any sentence about the state of the country with: “After independence, our president decided…” Everything from the recent growth in gold mining, to the restoration of monuments, to the construction of a new cargo airport he attributes to Karimov’s genius. When driving through Bukhara, our guide points out a shiny new tennis complex. “Our president likes to play tennis, so he built these all over the country,” he says proudly. Nearby, the enormous palace Karimov’s built for himself (“for when he visits here”, our guide explains) stands empty, surrounded by high fences and a patrolled buffer zone.
I have crossed from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country. Like its neighbours, Uzbekistan is still recovering from the cultural, political, and environmental mismanagement of the Soviet era. But it’s hard to deny the country’s amazing place in history, and the sometimes-quirky, sometimes-frustrating way of life here is undeniably beguiling.
In this two-part post I hope to give the reader some insight into the circus that is Central Asia. I toured the incredible ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, but I will not dwell on history here—Wikipedia provides plenty of reading on the subject. I instead hope to tell a more personal story of my experiences navigating through the realities of this peculiar country.
Let’s face it – you don’t come to Central Asia for the food. Most fruits and vegetables aren’t grown here, and importing anything is made difficult by a distorted exchange rate and capital controls. The country’s culinary scene seems to suffer from an extended Soviet-era hangover, with plenty of bland, oily dishes flavoured with salt and dill. Hunks of fatty red meat (beef, horse, or lamb) feature in almost every dish. At fancier restaurants, ketchup is often drizzled artfully on the plate as a garnish. It’s hard to complain, though, given the prices; a full meal can cost as little as 15,000 som, equivalent (in April 2015 anyway) to about $4 USD. And some of the dishes are undeniably tasty.
After a spending a week in transit, traveling by road and rail from Shanghai all the way to Kyrgyzstan in only four days, I’m looking forward to a rest. Unfortunately, I’ll be resting in Osh, a forgotten city on the border with Uzbekistan, where I arrived late at night after a harrowing journey over the Irkeshtam Pass. When I wake up the following morning, the city is cold and damp with snow, which only serves to exaggerate its greyness. It doesn’t look like much has changed here since the end of Soviet rule. It seems that every building of any size is gated, with the outstretched wings of the gyrfalcon, the Kyrgz coat of arms, emblazoned above the door. An enormous statue of Lenin still stands here, gesturing ironically towards a flapping Kyrgyz flag.
I have reached the Irkeshtam Pass, a high and lonely border crossing at China’s western edge. I am leaving China, one of Asia’s most promising nations, and entering Kyrgyzstan, one of its least. The differences are stark. The paved road on the Chinese side gives way to frozen packed earth, and the border post is nothing more than a shack. The air is sharp and cold, and a thin layer of fresh snow dusts the ground. One of the three people who crossed the border with me, a migrant labourer, decides to spend the night here with friends; the road is too dangerous to continue tonight, he says. The rest of us hire a battered minivan taxi to take us to Osh.
My first few days in China were in Shanghai and Xi’an, two of its most appealing cities. Now I must venture west into China’s hinterland. From Lanzhou I take a high-speed day train to Urumqi, the capital of the restive north-western province of Xinjiang.
There isn’t much to see between Lanzhou and Urumqi; the land is semi-arid and lifeless, with few settlements, and the landscape flickers by for hundreds of miles without changing. The flatness is sometimes broken by sand-coloured hills, and striated mountains appear on the horizon like a mirage. The railway cuts across the desert in an unbroken line, sometimes tunneling through hills or arching over gullies, but never changing course.
When I arrive in Urumqi at night, I see a different side of China. The area around the station is confusing, dirty, dark, and poor. People hock flatbreads and fruits from rickety carts parked in the main square under the watchful eye of policemen. Shady characters whisper to me and wave business cards as I leave the station, trying to entice me to stay at their hotels. Roadblocks and security barriers make it impossible to move in a straight line. Few people here speak any English. When I try to get a room at the Super 8 Hotel, I am turned away; they are not authorized to accommodate foreigners. I get a room at a more upscale hotel across the street instead.
I have arrived in Shanghai, and my mission is to get across China as quickly as possible. First, though, I must get off the ferry—no small task.
As the Xinjianzhen docks at the Shanghai International Cruise Terminal, I join the queue of passengers on the main deck waiting to disembark. Order descends into chaos as the gangway is lowered. The Chinese tourists, most dragging rice cookers behind them on miniature wheeled carts, push with increasing urgency towards the exit. A hundred frenzied voices combine into a cacophonous din—arms flail overhead—elbows jab into ribcages—rice cookers and electronic Japanese toilet seats tumble across the floor. I actually witness a man in an Indiana Jones hat throw a bent old lady to the ground as he claws his way towards the exit.
If the human stomach is capable of digesting it, chances are that it’s considered food in China. I admit that Chinese cuisine is not my favourite, but I do enjoy a culinary challenge, so during my short stay in China I close my eyes, plug my nose, and bite down on whatever slinks my way.
On board the Xinjianzhen ferry from Osaka to Shanghai, the meals are provided cafeteria-style. Breakfast is included free of charge, and consists of several options: fried noodles, Tang, jellied something, and—worst of all—congee. For the uninitiated, congee is a sort of runny rice puree soup, with the consistency and flavor of papier-mâché paste. On the first morning I reach for a cup each of Tang and instant coffee, but a furious cafeteria lady unexpectedly yanks the latter from my hand with a sharp rebuke. Apparently I am entitled to only one drink.
I leave Japan bound for China on the Xinjianzhen, a passenger ferry that has operated on the route between Osaka and Shanghai, mostly empty, for decades. The two day crossing holds little appeal for the Japanese, who would rather fly, and until recently was irrelevant to the Chinese, who could not afford to vacation in Japan. Things are finally looking up for the Xinjianzhen, though, thanks to the newest development in tourism: the Chinese retail tourist.
The recent Chinese New Year holiday saw record numbers of Chinese shoppers visit Japan in search of its “four treasures” of consumer goods—rice cookers, vacuum flasks, ceramic knives, and high-tech toilet seats. Given that many of these products are actually manufactured in China before being slapped with a Japanese brand, this seems odd to me, but no matter. The high streets of Osaka were wallpapered with advertisements for duty-free shopping for foreign visitors, and the Chinese tourists responded with gusto, crowding the sidewalks with their overflowing plastic bags and partially-collapsed rice cooker boxes. Did you buy in excess of the airplane luggage limit? Not a problem—the ferry allows unlimited baggage.
This is part 2 of the blog post about Japan. Click here for part 1.
The Japanese must be the most orderly people on the planet. Train passengers line up neatly in designated spots and allow riders to disembark before boarding. Arrows on the sidewalk indicate which side you should walk on. People taking the escalator stand single file on the left (in Kyoto, it’s the right) to allow those in a hurry to pass.
Every worker seems to have a uniform, which is worn proudly. Bus drivers wear white gloves. Traffic control officers have enormous hats. Train cleaners wear pink aprons with little frills. Businessmen wear a black suit and white shirt. Nobody wears sweat pants in public.
Bicycles are popular in the city, yet there are few bike racks. Riders park their bicycles on kickstands, evenly spaced in designated sidewalk zone, with their front wheels angled neatly in the same direction. None are locked, really, except with flimsy c-clamps over their front wheels to prevent them from being rolled away. Theft is rare in Japan, I learn. To steal is shameful.
This blog post is written by my partner Mike, who joined me in Japan. I hope you enjoy his narrative on delicious, and sometimes wacky, Japanese cuisine.
I have the daunting task of telling you about Japanese cuisine. On a “small” island country, that’s simple, right? You may think it’s sushi every day, all the time. Wouldn’t that be heavenly? There’s more to Japanese cuisine than uncooked fish with or without its usual bag of accessories. On one hand, the food varies by region. Don’t you dare think that ramen in Tokyo tastes anything like Kyoto’s noodles. On the other hand, your venue will influence what food options will be available. In a country with a lengthy and rich history, tradition competes with contemporary style. And then, there are the unique things that you will find only in Japan.
After a endless crossing of the Pacific by cargo ship, I spend only 18 hours in Korea before getting on the next boat—this time, a high-speed catamaran that travels between Busan and Fukuoka, Japan in less than three hours. I need to reach Tokyo the same day to meet my partner Mike, who is joining me for vacation.
On the Busan-Fukuoka “jet ferry” I am befriended against my will by a squinty-eyed vacationing Canadian from Calgary, who restlessly paces up and down the aisle, subjecting me to a one-way diatribe about how expensive this trip has been, no thanks to his wife, who does not understand financial matters. The other passengers inch away uncomfortably as he snaps blurry photos of the sea from each window in sequence. Starved as I am of English conversation, I can barely contain the urge to toss him overboard.
Check out this video about our time in Japan.
The ship arrives in Busan, Korea at one o’clock in the morning, 18 hours behind schedule. At breakfast the following morning (pancakes!), the Captain informs me that the agent will arrive between 08:00 and 09:00 to take me through customs. I say goodbye to the officers and crew who have taken me safely across the Pacific Ocean.
Four hours later (the Korean port authority is not known for punctuality), I finally step off the ship into the busting Port of Busan. I count over forty cranes from my vantage point—much larger than Vancouver. The agent takes me through customs, where I fill out the standard paperwork and a hilariously-mistranslated declaration form (do you have any murder weapons?), and then drives me into the city. He is a master multi-tasker: he puffs on a cigarette, sends text messages, checks hotel prices on my behalf, phones his girlfriend, selects songs (angry American hip-hop is popular) and complains about his job, all while executing acrobatic driving maneuvers (such as an impressively agile left turn from the right lane on a red light squeezing just in front of a transport truck).
There are few activities to keep one occupied aboard a freighter, and even fewer opportunities for social interaction, so the thrice-daily ritual of taking a meal in the Officers’ Mess acquires exaggerated importance. Breakfast is served from 07:30 to 08:00, lunch from 12:00 to 12:30, and supper from 17:30 to 18:00. I am usually greeted at the door by Michael, the ever-smiling Filipino Steward, who acts as waiter. I eat with the German officers, while the crew (all Filipino) eats in a separate room.
Crossing the Pacific by freighter
Part 1 | Part 2
The Copenhagen is large and complex, so everyone is busy keeping her running smoothly. That is, everyone except me, who is contractually forbidden from doing any sort of work. I must therefore employ all manner of activities and pastimes to fill the 25-hour days.
In anticipation of this abundance of free time, I brought a box of blank stationary with me, onto which I handwrite florid personal messages of gratitude to the teachers and colleagues who had a hand in my recently-completed doctoral dissertation. I also brought a tattered paper copy of my family tree for digitization—a snore-worthy task under normal circumstances, but relatively thrilling in the middle of the Pacific. When I’m tired of climbing the family tree, I might read or watch a movie. I use the on-board gym every day when the sea is calm, but not during rough weather, since the weights have a tendency to tumble about, quite literally, like a loose canon. Every morning at 09:00, the captain walks into the gym with an uncharacteristically-friendly “helloo” and weighs himself on the bathroom scale placed there for that purpose—a rather pointless exercise, as the needle oscillates by five kilograms or more as the ship rocks.
I spend most of my time in my cabin, and to introduce variety into the space I sometimes push the furniture that isn’t bolted to the floor into different configurations. Once I tried closing the vestibule curtain in an attempt to make the room feel cozier. This gave me the uneasy feeling that the curtain was concealing some Lurking Presence, such as a bilge-monster, or a coiled kraken tentacle, or some other nautical danger. After an hour of sidelong glances I tied back the curtain.
My camera and laptop computer are essential companions. I spend many hours taking photos, writing (including these blog posts), tidying up some loose ends from home, and experimenting with making amateurish home videos. It makes me wonder what this journey would be like without the vast store of entertainment available on electronic media.
The North Pacific Ocean
Crossing the Pacific by Freighter
Part 1 | Part 2 (available soon)
The entrance to the Port of Vancouver is over a narrow overpass at the northern end of Clark Drive. It’s a hard-scrabble part of town, dominated by warehouses and ramshackle one-story buildings, where trucks grind noisily over cracked pavement on their way to and from the harbor. After a harrowing bus ride through the downtown eastside, during which I make acquaintances of several locals who, it seems, borrowed their personalities from some dystopian near-future science fiction novel, I am relieved to see the faded sign marking the entrance to the Port.
The roadway has no sidewalk, so I must venture under the overpass and then climb a concrete staircase that leads to a chain-link security gate. Next to the gate is a speaker grill and a small black bubble concealing a security camera. I press the button.
“…hello?” says a tinny voice.
“Hi! I’m a passenger on the Hanjin Copenhagen. My contact person is Ivan.”
The tinny voice doesn’t respond immediately, but I hear the shuffling of papers. “Can you hold your ID up to the camera please?” I don’t have my passport handy, so I present my international student card, a peel-and-stick affair that could be forged by a grade-schooler. After a moment, I hear the gate unlock, and the guard tells me to proceed.
I walk along the roadway to the main security gates, where an agent behind a window checks my ID again, ushers me through a turnstile, and then tells me to wait beside a bent stop sign for the Bunny Bus (this, I learn, is a shuttle). After a few minutes the shuttle picks me up and takes me to the berth where the Copenhagen is being loaded. An angled steel staircase descends from the main deck of the ship, several stories above, to ground level. This I climb, my backpack strapped tightly to my body, and then step down onto the deck of the ship that will be my home for the next two weeks.
My bags are packed. The bills are paid. The garden is seeded, goodbyes said, and a dozen e-books are loaded onto my reader. I’m ready to depart on the trip of a lifetime. There’s only one question remaining – when does the boat leave?
The main purpose of a container ship is to carry cargo, not passengers, so the departure and arrival schedule is vexingly ill-defined. I was originally scheduled to sail on the Hanjin Amsterdam on Friday February 27, but was rescheduled onto the Hanjin Copenhagen last-minute, departing Sunday February 22. Unfortunately the Copenhagen was delayed by labour action at Portland Harbor, delaying it several days. It’s now drifting in international waters just to the west of Vancouver Island, awaiting approval to enter Vancouver Harbour.
On Thursday night, that approval was finally granted. According to Ivan, my contact at the harbor, The Copenhagen will start loading its cargo at 09:00 on Saturday, February 28. He simply told me to get myself to “the harbor”, where I can board “any time”. Where at the harbor? I don’t know either! When asked, Ivan cheekily sent me a satellite image of the entire 250-acre harbor complex along with a succinct note saying “maybe this will help?”
I won’t have internet access until I arrive in Busan, Korea in several weeks. (When exactly will I arrive? Nobody knows.) You can track the location of the Hanjin Copenhagen on the map below. In the mean time, I’ll be busy documenting what it’s like to be a passenger on a cargo ship.