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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.