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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.

Cycling Minneapolis

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.

Shop away the calories

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.

Midwest Pride

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.

All aboard the Nostalgia Express!

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

An accordion, a guitar, and a warm country welcome

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 place where nymphs come from

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.

The strangest museums

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.

Hunting for truffles in Istria

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.

Across the Adriatic

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.

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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.

Backward, but not left behind

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.

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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.

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This is the second post about Turkmenistan.  Click here for part 1.

Filth is forbidden

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.

The white city

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.

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This is part 2 of my blog post about traveling in Uzbekistan. Click here for part 1.

The wisdom of Karimov

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.

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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.

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The Long March
April 122015

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.

The Long March

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.

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Full tilt into China
April 112015

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.

How to queue in China

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.

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This is part 2 of the blog post about Japan. Click here for part 1.

A thousand bows

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.

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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.

Jet ferries and bullet trains

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.

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Crossing the Pacific by freighter

Part 1 | Part 2

Filling the hours

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.

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Crossing the Pacific by Freighter (Part I)
March 142015

Crossing the Pacific by Freighter

Part 1 | Part 2 (available soon)

All aboard

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.

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  • The White City of Ashgabat

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  • The Long March

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  • 10 Days in Japan: Part 2

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  • Crossing the Pacific on a Freighter (Part 2)

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  • Crossing the Pacific by Freighter (Part I)

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