Monday, April 30, 2007

Lost In Translation: Valleraugue, France

LaughatlambRestaurant Menu

Hostellerie Les Bruyeres

Valleraugue, France

April 2007

That laminated poultry must really get the goat of that lamb!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Report: Drive To Town

This Report started out as just a special little treat I was going to put together and send to a few of my friends who are avid drivers. As I worked on it, I started thinking it might have broader appeal. The instant I put a couple of great Jonathan Coulton songs into the soundtrack, I was convinced that many of you might get a kick out of it. So, with no further ado, you are cordially invited to join me for the “Drive To Town” from Les Plantiers to St-Jean-du-Gard here in the South of France on The Voyage of Macgellan! Note: If you are prone to motion sickness, you might want to pop a Dramamine before viewing! (PS - Special thanks as always to Jonathan Coulton for the use of his songs. You really rock, and your “Thing A Week” campaign still amazes me!)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Musing: Time Zones

When I first started talking to my “inner circle” about my idea for The Voyage -- hard to believe that was over a year and a half ago! -- one of my closest friends said something very interesting:  “You handle the time zones and deal me in.”  At the time I thought it was just another of his many succinct ways of summing up a very large concept:  “You’ll be the one moving around.  You know where I’ll be.  You do the math on keeping in contact and I’ll be happy to carry on like it isn’t really any different.”  Simple, right?  Well, until recently it has been pretty simple.  For the first six or seven months of The Voyage I mostly moved south, with a little bit of east.  I went from PDT to CDT to EDT to EST to CST to EST to ECT to CLT to PET to CLT to ART.  Now, you may not know what time zones all those letters stand for, but it doesn’t really matter.  They are all within the time zones spanned by the US -- where most of my old friends live -- and it was a pretty simple matter to keep track of things:  “Okay, I’m in Chile which is the same as  Eastern time, so the West Coast is three hours behind.”  Simple.  Plus, staying in relatively the same time zones made it pretty normal to call and talk to people at normal hours.  Generally, I was awake when they were awake.

As I have rapidly moved east over the past month, the time zone issue has gotten a bit more complicated.  Right now, for example, the East Coast is six hours behind me and the West Coast is nine hours behind, so being awake at the same time is a little less likely.  Also, I have been making a lot of new friends who live all over the world and whose time zones are plus and minus a lot of hours from wherever I may be at any given moment.  This problem really came into focus for me when I saw the clocks pictured above on an internet cafe wall.  There are a number of time zones shown, but there are no labels to say what is where.  Funny!  Ha ha!  But really, try this little quiz:  What time is it in the zones NDT, AYT, GYT, PYT and CLT?  Answer:  They’re all the same time zone with different names.  Not so funny, is it? 

To solve this problem for myself, I’ve done what many people who deal with multiple time zones on a daily basis have done.  I’ve switched to a GMT± standard.  So, if I know that I am currently GMT+2 and I know somebody else is GMT-4 then I know they are six hours behind me.  For me, that is a lot easier than knowing that I am in CEST and they are in CLT.  (In fact, knowing the latter really doesn’t tell me anything I can use unless I have access to a time zone calculator like the “World Clock” link I put on on the left sidebar for your convenience.) 

Look at it this way:  The relevance of time zones has evolved and increased through history.  Before the railroads made it possible for people to travel great distances, time of day was a purely local phenomena.  The time was whatever the local population said it was.  The railroads couldn’t make schedules based on such local variances, so they promulgated the idea of “time zones” and everyone in each zone used the same time.  Even on trains you couldn’t go all that far, so giving the zones names like “Central Standard Time” was fine.  There, “Eastern Standard Time” was an hour ahead of you and “Mountain” and “Pacific” time were an hour or two behind you.  Simple.  Only a very, very few people needed to know more than an hour ahead or behind and they found ways to just deal with it.  With the advent of the airplane, travel distances increased and the time zone issue became somewhat more problematic, but relatively few people made trips across more than a few time zones at a time and they could just change their watches and do the math once to figure out what time it was “back home.” 

I could make pretty much the same case for the telephone, that while people “could” talk across vast zones, few people really did.  The internet -- and to a large degree my beloved Skype and iChat (and others that will remain nameless) -- has made it so that virtually everyone can reach out and touch someone anywhere in the world -- Have I mentioned it’s free! -- and have to deal with time zones accordingly.  It is no wonder that the “early adopters” of  GMT± are “web people” since they are the ones who have to deal with it the most. 

So, what’s my point?  Well, I suggest it is time for you to add one little piece of information to your mental database: Know your GMT± number.  You may not need it everyday right now, but I guarantee you that you will need it and want to know it more and more often in the near future.  When someone from elsewhere in the world asks you what time zone you are in, don’t give them an antiquated, useless name like “Pacific Daylight Time”, tell them “GMT-7”.  Before you know it, they -- and you -- won’t have to look anything up anymore.  We can all just do some simple math in our heads.  For good reason, dealing with time zones in GMT± isn’t just for geeks and early adopters anymore!  It’s not like converting to the metric system or anything, it is just one simple number to learn and remember.  Try it, you’ll like it!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Logbook: L’Americain des Plantiers

LamericaindesplantiersDuring breakfast on Saturday morning, I took advantage of the hotel’s hi-speed internet connection to download a TV mini-series from the iTunes store that was gifted to me by my good friends Jeni and Ron (Thank you!) After that, I packed up, checked out and walked -- down hill! -- to the car rental office at the train station in Montpellier. (Note: If you ever want to rent a car in France, do it through one of the many European consolidators. It will be much, much cheaper than renting a car directly from a company in France and you are more likely to talk to someone speaks English... Just another pearl of wisdom from The Voyage of Macgellan!) After very little paperwork, I went to the parking lot and checked out my new ride: A pretty sweet little diesel Audi A3. I have to admit that preparing to drive in France -- plus the fact that I haven’t driven a car in over six months -- made me a little nervous. On top of this, I was told by everyone I talked to that getting out of the city was very complicated and would be, by far, the worst part of my drive. I had asked the guy at the hotel to draw a good route on my city map, but what he suggested was a series of twists and turns through tiny streets and, well, it looked a little too complex for me to follow while doing the driving too. So, I asked the guy at the car rental office for the easiest -- forget whether it was the shortest -- route to the road I wanted going to Les Plantiers. What he suggested was a simple route to the main highway, going a few kilometers out of town to the east and catching a main road back to the northwest to intersect the road I wanted. With that at hand, I fired up the Audi and was on my way. The first part of his plan worked fine, the A-9 was easy to find and it wasn’t long before I saw the signs for D-65...

Well, let me just jump ahead. I got out of Montpellier okay but got totally lost as soon as I tried to take the “main road back to the northwest.” I had a good laugh as I toured various suburban neighborhoods before finally seeing a sign that pointed toward a town I knew was on my way to Les Plantiers. Once on that road, it was a matter of minutes before I was happily and easily cruising on my way. I stopped at a supermarket and picked up something to eat along with a few staples that I figured I might want when I got to my “tiny village” then had a blast alternately zooming along fine country/mountain roads and creeping slowly through tiny towns along the way. In due course, I pulled into Les Plantiers and immediately fell in love with it. A really tiny, remote and very quite little town, Plantiers looks like every picture post card of rural France you have ever seen: Old stone homes with a narrow road twisting in between, a modest stream bisecting the town with a few ancient stone bridges crossing at various points and a small cafe at the town square, complete with awning and umbrellas. Perfect, just perfect! I promptly parked the car in the tiny square then parked myself at the cafe and ordered a coffee.

A few minutes later, a woman walked by and looked me over a couple of times then said something in French that included the word “American.” Thankfully, there was no hostility in her voice and I guessed she was Jean, my local travel advisor and French teacher. After a few minutes of reminiscing about how we met over a year ago in a coffee shop in Seattle, she led me to the home of Henri and Lisa Bonfils, a lovely older couple who own the gite I have rented. Translating furiously, Jean helped me negotiate the process of getting acquainted and checking into the gite. With a nice little salon and kitchenette downstairs, bedroom and bathroom upstairs, my gite is by far the biggest place in which I have lived so far on The Voyage! It has everything I need and I look forward to my time here. With that process completed, Jean introduced me to Katrine who runs a small hotel/restaurant in town and I made arrangements for dinner. I took a few minutes to unpack, take a walk around town and generally get my bearings. Dinner was fabulous, and I enjoyed enough local wine to be ready for a good night’s sleep!

Sunday morning I was up pretty early, made some coffee and walked to the local bakery for a fresh croissant. As I was walking back to my gite, I passed a distinguished older man to whom I said “Bonjour, monsieur!” and received in return a very warm and completely incomprehensible stream of French. Upon seeing my “deer in the headlights” look in return, the man smiled broadly and said “Ah, L’Americain del Plantiers!” In that moment I realized that overnight in the tiny, close knit world that is this little village, I had become known as “The American of Plantiers!” What an American is doing way out here must be a mystery to the handful of residents. I spent the rest of Sunday pretty much just chilling out and catching up with myself.

On Monday morning I made coffee and got a croissant then had my first French lesson with Jean. We got through some of the basics of hello and goodbye, please and thank you, where is this and what is that, etc. before my brain was fried. I drove “into town” -- that means I drove to St-Jean-du-Gard about twenty minutes away -- to drop off my laundry, get some groceries and check out what that bigger, but still very small, town has to offer. Back in Les Plantiers, I made a simple but tasty dinner and called it an early night.

Yesterday was pretty much a repeat: Coffee, croissant, French lesson, drive to town for lunch and chores then back to Plantiers to do my homework, make dinner and crash. The same was true for today. I know it may sound a bit boring and routine, but I like it. Plus, there are plenty of little ways that the days are different: I always drive a different route on narrow, twisty mountain roads through charming little towns; I have a different language debacle every time I try to use my new French language skills; and there are always priceless little moments that you couldn’t make up if you tried to.

For example, word has obviously gotten around the town’s grapevine that I am trying to learn French. This morning I greeted a man then said, “Il fait beau!” (“The weather is beautiful!”) He smiled warmly, repeated my words in proper pronunciation, then bid me farewell. It was really very sweet -- not at all mean -- and I thanked him. Similarly, yesterday I proudly greeted the woman at the bakery with “Aujourd’hui c’est mardi.” (“Today is tuesday.”) Unfortunately, “mardi” came out more like “merdi” and she only blanched for a moment at my implication that today is “shitty” before smiling warmly and offering me a correct pronunciation to go with my fresh croissant.

The best, however, happened when I left the bakery and met Jacques who, I had been told, is the village’s -- I kid you not -- crazy idiot. Spontaneously joining me for the walk back to my gite, Jacques spoke in a stream of semi-consciousness about I have no idea what. Unable to persuade him that I didn’t understand him -- or not caring a whit -- he persisted without pause. Unable to resist, I proceeded to speak back to him at length -- in English -- about the nuances of the designated hitter in baseball. We must have made quite a pair, because every person we passed obviously couldn’t help but smile and shake their head. When my landlord Henri saw us from his garden, he burst out laughing and shouted to Lisa to have a look. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. It all ended well when I bid Jacques farewell and went into my gite to hide until he had left. Such is the spice of life for “L’Americain des Plantiers” and I’m loving it. I’ll post another update when I’ve got more to report, probably some time next week. Until then, “Au revoir!” from The Voyage of Macgellan!

Haircut Chronicle: #6 - St-Jean-du-Gard, France

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#6 - April 25, 2007, St-Jean-du-Gard, France. Over two months since my last haircut, I was overdue for a “rafraichir”! Anna didn’t understand my wanting pictures until I showed her some other photos from “The Haircut Chronicles”... Then... She did an excellent job, and gave me a proper French haircut! Merci! Cost: 17 Euros ($22)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Logbook: Culture Shock

Cultureshock1My train from Barcelona to the French border was a pretty straightforward affair -- a “regional” commuter train with no air conditioning, uncomfortable seats and packed with people. By the time it stopped in the French border town of Cerbere two and a half hours later, however, there were only a few of us left and we got off in an otherwise empty station. Really, the station was empty except for the half-dozen of us passengers, all of whom -- including myself -- took a moment to look around somewhat bewildered. Within moments, a small cabal of French police emerged from the station building, inspected our papers and ushered us inside where not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. A video screen listed a number of trains and I was able to figure out that mine was one of them, due to depart in an hour or so. With that recon complete, I found a little cafe tucked into a corner of the station building where I was able to get a sandwich and a bottle of water. The clerk spoke no English -- and as you know by now I speak no French -- so we got by in Spanish. Funny!

With a little more time on my hands, I exited the building and looked around for a bit. Although the landscape was similar to where I had just been, the architecture was different enough to give me a clue that I had changed cultures. The absence of any signs that I could read was a clincher: I was in France, truly back to “square zero” in the language department, and in for a true culture shock. (Let’s face it, when I crossed into Mexico I did so with at least a little Spanish and some previous experience in the country. Here, I have absolutely nothing in my skill set.)

In due course, my train arrived and I boarded a very comfortable, air conditioned car then settled in for the two and a half hour ride to Montpellier. Mindful of my unnecessary cab ride to my hotel in Cadiz, I had researched the location of my hotel in Montpellier and found it would only be a few blocks’ walk from the train station. Armed with a map I had downloaded to my Palm T5 -- another of my very useful little pieces of Mac-integrated technology -- I exited the station and proceeded on my way. What I didn’t realize in my research was that the walk was all uphill, but the wheels on my gear bag served me well and I made the trek in a little over a quarter of an hour. Seeing no cars on the pedestrian-only route, I realized that a cab ride would have been impossible anyway. Chalk one up for me!

Cultureshock2I easily checked into my little two-star hotel -- Hotel de la Comedie, right off Place de la Comedie -- and took the lift up to my fourth floor room. I had a good laugh when I opened the door and found the room to be of a very odd polygonal shape and barely big enough for a single twin bed, a two-foot square patio table and a single chair. It also had, however, a fairly large window that opened onto a very old, very French courtyard and a small but perfectly serviceable bathroom. It was also very clean and tidy, so I happily dumped my gear, had my dram and hit the streets for a quick look around. I wandered around the Place de la Comedie for a while, eventually sitting down at one of the many, many open air cafes to negotiate getting something to eat. Not even bothering to try using French -- have I mentioned that I don’t know any -- I pointed to pictures of a delicious looking little pizza and a small carafe of red wine. Sure enough, my strategy worked and I was soon happily full and refreshed. Back in my little hotel room I called it an early night and slept very, very well.

The past two days have been pretty fully occupied by inefficient but successful activity -- inefficient because my lack of language has made everything difficult and time consuming, but successful because I have accomplished quite a bit. For example, I have acquired maps of the area, gotten a France Telecom chip for my phone, picked up a couple of “learn French” books and found a way to eat at mealtimes -- no easy feat, I can assure your. I have also spent a lot of time online using the hotel’s lightning fast internet connection to correspond with my “guide” Jean, catch up on a mountain of emails, Skype everybody everywhere, update this website, download all of my iTunes stuff and reserve a car. Yes, that’s right, reserve a car!

You see, my plan for the immediate future -- starting tomorrow -- is to drive myself out of Montpellier and make my way to the tiny French village of Les Plantiers -- you can find it on Google Earth -- where I will settle into a little cottage for at least a couple of weeks. During my time there, I intend to immerse myself in “South of France” culture, learn some French, broadly explore the area, do some thinking and writing, make adjustments to my gear, catch up on some iLife and even take some time to just relax. I’ve been on a helluva roll for eight months now and I’m ready for a little down time. I’m sure some of you may think The Voyage has just been one long vacation, but I can assure you it has not. Even at times when I have had the benefit of relatively easy logistics -- like being on board ship -- I have still had to “live by my wits” in a lot of ways. Just keeping this website up to date for you requires a lot more time and effort than you would have any reason to imagine.

So, I’m heading to the mountains to adjust to my present culture shock, to chill out and really catch up with myself. I have been informed that the village has no internet, but that there is some in the nearby town where I will have to do my shopping anyway. Thus, you can expect to find updates here from time to time, including -- I hope -- a series of Musings that I have been kicking around in my head for a while, waiting for some quiet time to give them their due. It often occurred to me as I traveled through Mexico, Central and South America that I would have been well served to spend some time up front learning Spanish. I didn’t do so partly because I had some pre-existing scheduling that required me to keep moving, but also because I thought I had enough sense of the language and culture to just wing it. I was wrong. I would have benefitted from some “immersion” at the beginning of my travels there. I’m not going to make that mistake again. I plan to be in France for about two and a half months, and I want to make the most of it. I may not succeed, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Three days of difficult, inefficient “culture shock” in Montpellier has convinced me: There’s more to “living by my wits” than “just getting by” on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Logbook: South Spain Sprint

Southspainsprint1As the ferry docked in Cadiz at about seven Saturday evening, those of us who didn’t have cars were directed to gather on one of the car decks where a shuttle van was waiting to take us ashore. The briefest look at the number of people compared to the size of the van made it clear that many, many van loads would be required to get us all ashore. As usual, there was a crush to be first in line and I just wasn’t in the mood to fight my way through. Instead, I saw a guy who seemed to know what he was doing walking down the ramp with his bags so I followed him. As we walked off the loading ramp, we were accosted by a dock worker who basically asked us what the hell we thought we were doing: Pedestrians are not allowed on the pier. I played dumb and the guy who I thought knew what he was doing made a bit of a fuss. As it turns out, he was either a genius or just lucky because within moments a different van arrived to take just the two of us to the passenger terminal, well ahead of even the first van load from the ferry. Muy bien!

After a very cursory look at my gear, the security guard let me pass and I emerged onto the streets of Cadiz. I walked to a cab stand across the street and asked to be taken to the hotel that Vini had arranged for me from Tenerife. The direct distance to my hotel turned out to be just a few blocks -- I could have walked it -- but the drive was quite a bit longer due to the winding route the cab had to take among the narrow, traffic restricted alley-like streets. As I paid the fare, I was very aware that not having a map -- not knowing I could have walked to the hotel -- was clear evidence that I had “outrun my intel”: I have been moving so far, so fast, with so little time and internet connection to do proper “next step” research and planning that I was completely “blind” and wasting energy and resources as a result. (Note to self: It’s time to park yourself somewhere for a while and get sorted out.)

Southspainsprint2After a simple check in at a perfectly acceptable, nicely located hotel, I dumped my gear, grabbed my book and walked to the nearby town square where I had an excellent salad for dinner. It was still pretty early by local standards when I got back to my room, but I was tired and hit the rack for a solid eight hours of sleep. At about seven on Sunday morning, I found coffee at a little joint in the square and enjoyed two cups of pretty good “cafe con leche” in the company of a number of locals who had theirs with an astonishing array of alcohol chasers. You know I love my Scotch whiskey, but I just couldn’t get myself to “do as the locals do” and have it with my coffee at seven o’clock in the morning! I spent the day walking around and enjoying the old town of Cadiz, a pretty charming mix of old world and new. I at least glanced at most of the popular sights -- cathedrals, Roman ruins, palaces, etc. -- and had snacks along the way at a variety of typical places.

While Cadiz is one of the nicer places I have been in Spain -- and I think it could be a nice place to spend some time if you were in a “Spanish mood” -- I was still feeling ready to leave Hispanic culture behind me. So, I returned to my hotel by way of the train station -- verifying that it was within easy walking distance -- and called it a day. Yesterday morning I checked out then parked myself in a local internet joint for most of the day to confirm my immediate arrangements going forward, catch up on some personal business, Skype some folks and do a very little bit of advanced planning. At about six o’clock I walked to the train station, got on board my overnight train to Barcelona and settled in for the night. With my “not so great” experience of Spanish trains some years ago -- (Hey Ferit, can you say “Bocadillo”!) -- I had extremely modest expectations for this trip. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that the ride was reasonably smooth, fast and quiet. I even got enough sleep to be able to function when I arrived here in Barcelona and pretty quickly found the right ticket window to get my tickets onward.

With a two hour layover on my hands, I stashed my gear in a locker and went outside for a quick walk about. I barely got to the corner before my “bad mojo meter” pegged the pin, reminding me of my previous negative feelings about -- and experiences in -- Barcelona. Some places in the world just don’t feel right. So, I walked right back into the train station and parked myself in a McDonald’s -- yes, I admit it, a McDonald’s -- where I am having some breakfast and a little quiet time. In a few minutes, I will board my train to the border and on to Montpellier, France. Thus, I have executed my “South Spain Sprint” and have no regrets about it. I am now also at the end of my “Atlantic Crossing” and ready to explore an entirely different part of the world. By the end of the day, I will have traded “no habla Espanol” for “no parlez Francais” on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Lost In Translation: Canaria-Cadiz Ferry

FerrydoorFerry Door Sign

Trasmediterranea Ferry

Canaria to Cadiz, Spain

April 2007

All I can say is that I hope the door likes it...

Friday, April 13, 2007

Logbook: Canaria To Cadiz

Canariatocadiz1My plan to post the last Logbook entry on Wednesday night was quickly derailed by the hotel's non-functioning internet connection. I inquired about its status at the reception desk and was told by the cheery young woman on duty that she couldn't tell me because nobody had used the hotel's internet in as long as she could remember. (Reminder to self: A hotel's advertisement that it has internet doesn't mean it works!) I hit the streets and found an internet joint a few blocks away but was told that its wi-fi was not available at night -- yet another absurd new internet encounter on The Voyage! With the time being close to midnight, I decided not to pursue the insanity any further and abandoned my plan in favor of sleep. After breakfast on Thursday morning, I went back to the "no wi-fi at night" joint and was told that, in fact, they had no wi-fi at all. Perhaps the internet gremlins stole their wi-fi while I slept? After a half hour of fruitless searching, I remembered to "mind what I have learned" in my international internet intrigue over the past eight months and made an abrupt change in strategy: I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the best hotel in town. Ten minutes later I walked into the Las Palmas five-star hotel, opened up my Mac and was astounded to find myself on a 4-megabit pipe! I actually did a little happy dance -- which gave the lobby bartender a good laugh -- as I proceeded to update the website, download many backlogged podcasts, TV shows, etc. and have high quality video Skypes and iChats with a bunch of folks. I'd almost forgotten how fun the internet is when you're on a truly stable, hi-speed pipe!

After about four hours of internet bliss -- not to mention two cups of pretty good coffee, a Diet Coke and a club sandwich -- I packed up and walked down to the port to visit with my friends on Polar Star one more time before we all go our separate ways. They were all surprised but obviously happy to see me and we had yet another good round of laughs. As it happened, crazy chef Paul was just about to go in search of internet, so I said "Have I got a surprise for you!" and we wandered back to the five-star hotel together. Another couple of hours -- and beers! -- later, I had Skyped a few more folks, including a woman to whom I had been referred months ago as an excellent travel planner, guide and language tutor in the South of France. With all of my internet stuff caught up -- and with a good starting plan in place for France -- I bid Paul farewell and headed back to my own hotel for dinner and an early night.

Canariatocadiz2Yesterday morning I got up, packed up, checked out and caught a cab to the port where I got my boarding pass and embarked on Trasmediterranea’s Fortuny ferry to Cadiz in time to set sail promptly at 8 am. The ferry is huge, with three decks for vehicles of all sizes, one deck of cabins, one deck for “common areas” and a top deck with a pool, gymnasium and kennel for dogs. It is at least ten times the size of Polar Star and quite possibly the biggest ship I have ever been on. Following the crowd, I made my way to “reception” where I was given a card key and directed down a long hall to room 326. I smiled and said “This is different” when I opened to door to find the cabin arrangement you see here. In fact, there are four bunks in total plus a bathroom and not much room for anything else. Mindful of my unusual amount of gear -- most people have vehicles where they leave their luggage and only carry an overnight bag -- I tried to take up as little room as possible by standing my duffel in a corner and putting my pack on my bunk. With my “check in” complete, I set off to explore the ship and figure out what is what. In brief, the “common areas” deck has a cafe in the bow and a bar/disco in the stern, a self-serve cafeteria amidship and countless sitting areas everywhere else. I had my first coffee of the morning in the cafe then went back to my room where I met one of my roommates, a Spanish man in his mid-sixties named Guillermo. I was able to convey to him my limited fluency in Spanish, but we hit it off well enough in pidgen to agree that it was time for more coffee and went back to the cafe. It turns out he is a retired chief engineer of a freighter that used to take oranges to Boston and bring bananas back from the Caribbean... or maybe vice versa. I don’t remember, but we had a pleasant visit.

After that I went to the cinema to see “The DaVinci Code” -- subtitled in English -- then went to the cafeteria for lunch. Ugh. Without a doubt the worst food I have had yet on The Voyage -- some kind of greasy pasta, a previously frozen breaded chicken thing and a pale white lettuce salad. I guess when you are the only game in town you don’t really have to compete on quality. After another little walk around I went back to the room to get my Mac pack and met my other two roomies: Juan, another sixty-ish Spaniard, and Jose, who grunted from beneath the blanket on his cot. Juan is a very outgoing and talkative man whom I was unable to convince of my linguistic handicap. Then again, perhaps my Spanish was just good enough to convince him that I was deaf, because he started talking at me in a much louder voice. After a few moments of nodding and smiling, I grabbed my pack and got the hell out of there. In the cafe, I spent the entire afternoon and early evening in iLife before going for dinner at about 8 pm. A culinary debacle of epic proportions is how I would describe that meal. Between a cheesy white dish that I couldn’t even vaguely recognize and baked chicken with chips, I chose the latter, Thankfully I was able to grab an apple for dessert because I could barely wash down the chicken with the half-liter bottle of water. Oh, I forgot to mention that the meals are included in the price of the ticket. Such a deal! I did some reading while I had a vino tinto night cap in the bar/disco then decided to hit the rack.

Upon opening the door to my darkened room, I could barely see three lumps in the other bunks. Guillermo was sawing logs in his bunk, Jose was still buried under the blanket on his and Juan started shouting in the dark, something about not being able to find his card key. I threw my pack on my bunk, quickly put in my earplugs and climbed on my bunk fully clothed, hoping this would somehow convey to Juan that I had an urgent need for sleep. Either my ploy worked or the earplugs did their job, because I was soon asleep and was awakened only briefly a couple of times in the night by bathroom door action before waking up at about 5:30 this morning. I figured that was about as good as it was going to get, so I grabbed my pack and sneaked out of the room in the dark. The hall was deserted, as was the entire rest of the ship. I didn’t see anybody, anywhere as I walked around, and decided to go out on deck to enjoy the sea air and the sunrise.

Although I faithfully adhere to the “one hand for the ship” rule, I nevertheless lost traction on the slippery aft gangway and proceeded to land on my ass and bump down one deck. I’m okay, though my tail bone occasionally reminds me of my adventure and my left ankle is complaining a little bit about its misuse. Seriously, I’m fine... It is a little funny though: I’ve made four trips across the infamous Drake Passage in a tiny ship with no problems yet I bust my ass riding a behemoth on the calm Atlantic. Go figure. Anyway, I found a comfy chair then did some reading and napping until the PA announced it was time for breakfast. With no small sense of dread, I proceeded to the cafeteria and was not disappointed: For your “no additional charge” breakfast, you get a package of toast crackers, a pack of processed sweet cakes, a roll, a slice of ham, a slice of cheese, a glass of juice and a cup of coffee. Yummy!

For the rest of the morning I read one of the crummy novels I picked up in Tenerife. I won’t bother to tell you how bad lunch was. Now, I am back in the cafe spending some quality time with my Mac. The trip hasn’t been as bad as I may have made it sound, but I will be quite happy to arrive in Cadiz in a few hours and have another memorable segment of “surface” travel behind me on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lost In Translation: La Gomera, Canary Islands

GomeraparkPark Information Sign

Garajonay National Park

La Gomera, Canary Islands

April 2007

Those damn kids, even their noisy instrument are high... and I guess that means no "talk" radio...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Logbook: Canary Islands

Canaryislands1Arriving in Las Palmas, Canary Islands early Saturday morning had the feeling of arriving in a proper port, with all manner and size of ships at anchor and a pretty densely packed city of office buildings, hotels and the like. Polar Star took its place at the dock and I had the morning to leisurely eat breakfast, do my final packing and make one more round of farewells to my friends among the crew. At about noon we disembarked and I grabbed the photo inset above which shows -- ironically to me -- our trusty little ice breaker in the company of a palm tree. Maybe you had to be there. From the dock, a bus took us across the north end of Gran Canaria to the ferry boat dock to catch our ride to Tenerife -- one of the mid-sized Canary Islands. The inter-island ferries are not to be believed. They are large and very, very fast at speeds of about 75 kph (45 mph). They are also comfortable, clean and run on time. If you visit the Canary Islands, the ferries are your best friend for inter-island transport. After a transit of only about 40 minutes, we reached Tenerife then transferred to a bus which took us to the south end of the island and dropped us off as our hotel.

The second you arrive in the resort area, you are almost overwhelmed by the density of hotels and condos which dominate the area. Interspersed throughout are an endless number of restaurants, shops, hair salons, tattoo parlors, etc. Think of Daytona Beach on steroids and you have some idea of Tenerife. After checking in and dumping my bag in my room, I went in search of internet and found a pretty good connection -- in what I have become familiar with as a pretty typical joint -- which I used for a considerable amount of time to check email, post a massive website update and download some podcasts, then had a late dinner in the “no additional charge” hotel buffet and called it a night. On Sunday, the group went on a bus tour of Tenerife which I skipped. After my last experience in Cape Verde, I just didn’t trust that it was going to be any good. Besides, I had a ton of stuff to do on the web and needed all the time I could get to catch up after six weeks of practically no online time. Thus, I spent the entire day back at the internet joint. I think the attendant was surprised at the length of time I was there because he kept giving me pained expressions and saying “mucho trabaho!” Its interesting to have people feel sorry for you when you are actually having fun. After a productive day, I treated myself to dinner at one of the many street side restaurants which I chose, I must admit, because of the fairly attractive young woman who was singing -- on key! -- some songs I could recognize. The food turned out to be pretty mediocre, but it was nice to have some live entertainment for a change.

Canaryislands2On Monday I walked around until I found a fairly large, reputable looking travel agency and enlisted the help of Vini -- a nice young woman of Indian ancestry -- to make arrangements for my transit to and across Spain. From there it was back to the internet joint for a few more hours of online time, then back to the hotel for the night. Although Tenerife is a beach resort, I never actually went to the beach! For me, it was just a another crazy place with internet. Yesterday, because I had gotten pretty well caught up on Voyage stuff, I decided to re-join the group for a day trip to the small island of La Gomera. A bus ride to the port and a short ferry ride later, we boarded another bus for our day tour which, of course, consisted mostly of driving up into the hills, stopping for viewpoints and a brief visit inside the national park. The island is actually quite pretty and I can imagine spending some time there to walk some of the many trails inside the park. On the other hand, it looks like the trails all go through the same kind of terrain so it could get pretty boring. In other words, if you ever decide to visit the Canary Islands you would probably do well to spend a day or two on Gomera as a chance to stretch your legs while getting away from the resort milieu... But that’s about it. We had lunch at a tourist restaurant which featured a pretty bland meal that was made somewhat more satisfactory by the side show of “Gomera Whistling” -- of which I got some decent video that I will edit into a Report soon. From there, it took a few more roadside viewpoint stops to make our way back to the port for the ferry ride back to Tenerife. All in all, the bus tour was about as usual, but I enjoyed it more than I would have spending another day in Tenerife.

This morning I went back to see Vini to pick up a train ticket we had ordered, only to find that it had not been delivered from the office that handles train tickets. She said she was very sorry and would go get it, promising to be back in a few minutes. I asked if I could go with her and, after a moment of obvious surprise that I would want to spend my time running an errand, we got her car and went to the other office. There was some confusion about my ticket, but in due course it was sorted out and I ended up with all the proper documentation for my upcoming sprint to Barcelona. Thanks, Vini for all your help! After that, I stopped at the internet joint for a few minutes then made my way back to the hotel where I recycled a couple of books at the “guest bookshelf.” I traded in two pretty good novels for two pretty bad ones -- it’s amazing the crap people read on vacation -- but I at least have new stuff to read at no additional cost! At noon I gathered up my stuff and checked out then met the rest of the group for the bus/ferry/bus ride here to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria.

After checking in to the Hotel Parque, I met up with Betty -- who skipped the Tenerife tour in favor of staying on board Polar Star -- to retrieve my duffel bag which she was kind enough to bring over from the ship. I went for a brief walk around town then me Betty, Ross and Regula -- two other “good people” from the crossing cruise -- for dinner. In a moment I will go downstairs and try out the hotel’s internet to post this Logbook entry. I have tomorrow on my own here in Las Palmas, then Friday I take a day/night/day ferry to Cadiz, Spain where I will stay for two nights before catching an overnight train to Barcelona. Obviously, I have opted to blow right through Spain in favor of getting to the South of France as soon as possible. This is because, frankly, I have previously spent plenty of time in Spain and don’t particularly care for it. Besides, I have now been in Hispanic countries for about six months and, well, I’m ready for a change. Looking back at how I have spent the past five days in the Canary Islands I could say I haven’t really given them a fair shake. Then again, I could say I’ve given them what they deserve. I’m going with Option B on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Report: Gomera Whistling

During my tour of La Gomera in the Canary Islands, we stopped at Las Rosas restaurant for lunch and a demonstration of Gomera Whistling -- a communications system that was developed and used on the island prior to the introduction of the telephone. This was easily the highlight of the tour and a little something different that I think you will find very interesting from The Voyage of Macgellan!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Logbook: Cape Verde

Capeverde1I had my Wednesday morning coffee as we cruised into the small archipelago that is Cape Verde. My first impression of the dry, barren islands was not very positive and I said to myself, “I don’t think this is a place for me.” Looking at the hot, dusty landscape and the poor, ramshackle collection of half-built dwellings, I was tempted to skip the half-day tour on our itinerary, stay on board to hang out with the crew and join them in whatever spontaneous fun they would create. As it turned out, I should have -- as always -- followed my instincts, but I decided to be a dutiful explorer and give the tour -- and the islands -- a chance. Here is what happened: We took the Zodiacs ashore and landed at the dock in Porto Novo then boarded three mini-vans to begin our tour. The main road on the island is a two-lane, cobblestone monument to what you can build in ten years when you have plenty of human labor and no other available work. No kidding! The road goes for miles and miles, winding up and around the mountainous landscape, at times traversing the ridge line between peaks.

Capeverde2After driving at breakneck speed for about a half hour, we stopped to look from the heights down onto the clouds which covered the other side of the island. Ten minutes later we were back in the vans and screaming along the road for another half hour until we stopped again to view an agricultural area -- and one of only a very few sources of drinking water on the island -- in the basin of what appeared to me to be a volcanic caldera. Again, ten minutes later we were back in the vans and racing down hill to a small town where -- twenty minutes later -- we made a ten minute rest stop. I tried to buy a cold drink at the mini-mart but was unable to use dollars (or euros!) and didn’t have time to change money at the bank. So, back in the van again we drove a few miles down the coast to stop at a “grog factory” which was supposedly one of the highlights of our tour. I half laughed, half groaned when we entered the factory and saw nothing but a couple of cows yoked to a beam that turned a press that squeezed the juice from sugar cane into a concrete cistern in the ground. Oh, and there was a woman standing at a table with bottles of every conceivable shape, size, condition and product trademark full of foul looking liquor. No thanks. Ten minutes later we were back in the vans and racing non-stop, all the way back across the island to the port where we had thirty minutes to “walk around” in a dead-zone of the aforementioned “poor, ramshackle collection of half-built dwellings.” Oh, and let me add that during the entire tour there was only one half-English-speaking guide who changed vans at every stop and explained nothing of interest or value about the island.

My frustration about spending half of the four hour tour riding in a van and the other half making short, dumb stops was compounded when I got back to the ship and asked the crew what they did: “Oh, we went ashore and walked around until we found a market, goofed around with some locals, got some beer and snacks then went to the beach for a swim, some sun and silly water games.” Macgellan is an idiot. I know better than to go along on “tours” and I was mad at myself for not following my instincts. Really mad at myself. So mad, in fact, that I had to give myself a little talking to and get my head straight again.

With that accomplished, I settled back into my onboard routine and spent the evening enjoying life at sea. Yesterday and today have been days at sea en route to the Canary Islands, my last aboard MV Polar Star and probably my last for the next few months. I have packed up my gear, said my farewells to the crew and other friends on board, and generally gotten myself ready to get moving again. Oh, I also had a brief meeting with Gary to let him know that although I will be along for the pre-paid ferry ride and hotel stay in Tenerife, I will most likely not be going on any of the group tours over the next three days. Wise man that he is, he was not at all surprised. The learning curve continues on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Logbook: Equator Crossing

Equatorcrossing2Saturday was a day at sea, highlighted by an equator crossing ceremony that almost defies description. The staff and some of the crew went all out, dressing up to play parts as King Neptune, Queen Neptuna, the Royal Daughter, pirates, mermaids and others. In true sea going tradition, the captain was seized by pirates and forced to kneel before King Neptune to beg permission to cross the equator and to have “polywogs” -- anyone who has not sailed across the equator before -- initiated into the ranks of “shellbacks.” In due course, permission was granted then a half dozen polywogs were brought before the King and Queen, anointed with raw eggs, made to drink a foul potion and splashed with a nasty yellow concoction of the chef’s creation. When the passengers had been initiated, it came to our attention that Chef Paul -- who was doing an excellent job as a mermaid in drag -- had never been initiated! He begged forgiveness for trying to “slip by” and then got completely hammered by everybody with double doses of everything.

As often happens in these kinds of things, chaos ensued and the ceremony degenerated into a cross between a food fight and a mud wrestling match. When ammo and energy had been depleted, the ABs hosed everybody down, the deck was cleaned and a barbecue commenced. It was an excellent ceremony and proof that small ships have big fun. Because I had already been initiated, I did my part to dress up as a pirate extra by letting my beard grow, donning a bandana over my head, and wearing a pair of big, pirate-style hoop earrings that I borrowed from one of the girls. Because all of the staff was in the production, I volunteered to be the photographer and did my best to catch as much as I could in the fast moving free for all. When it was over, I did a quick mash-up of a movie which I showed on the big screen after the barbecue. Even though it was a pretty rough edit, everyone enjoyed it and more than one person was surprised how quickly I was able to put it together. All I could say, as always, was “Macs Rule!”

Equatorcrossing1Sunday morning we awoke to the sight of St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, a tiny cluster of rocks -- actually the tips of mid-ocean mountains -- in the middle of the Atlantic. Our itinerary listed the possibility of a Zodiac landing, but sea conditions made that impossible. So, the captain made several circuits around the formation to view fishing boats, spinner dolphins and waves crashing against the rocks. It was a brief but very worthwhile little excursion, and the Photos pretty much tell the story. From there we set sail on a northeasterly course and have spent the past two days steaming into higher latitudes and -- thankfully -- cooler climates. I have spent most of my time at sea in the usual way, doing some iLife, editing a couple of Reports, etc.

Because my time on Polar Star will be coming to an end this weekend, I have also begun the process of sorting and packing my gear. It’s funny how even my small amount of stuff has gotten spread out and chaotic in my little cabin! This is by far the longest I have been in any one place for the past eight months and I have taken advantage of it by being decadent in my disarray. As I have packed up my cold weather and storm gear, organized my Mac stuff and begun to put it in order, I have a sense of movement. It is a good feeling and -- although my time on Polar Star has been very good in almost every way -- I will be ready to “go solo” again. We will make a stop in Cape Verde tomorrow then have two more days at sea before we reach the Canary Islands and make a three day excursion by bus and ferry to various islands there. After that, I will need to spend some quality time figuring out the next phase of The Voyage because I will have completely run out of planning, arrangements, etc. With any luck, there will be good internet in the Canaries... See what I mean? My mind is getting back into “go mode” on The Voyage of Macgellan!