Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Washington State: Northern Exposure to Ginkgo Petrified Forest

Cicely's Gift Shop, Roslyn, WA

Our first official stop on our year long trip throughout the US and Canada was the town of Roslyn, WA. For fans of the hugely popular 90's TV show, Northern Exposure, the locale is a television mecca. Set in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, the show was actually filmed in Roslyn, a much more climatically hospitable place for its stars and film crew. The town transformed itself into a tiny, rustic Alaskan village for the show and wisely decided to keep the look to attract tourists. We stopped there to stretch our legs, get a coffee and chat with the locals. 

Simone & Luis in front of the Roslyn Cafe (aka Roslyn's Cafe)

Bob, who works in the gift shop, told us that, even years after the show wrapped, they still receive thousands of visitors each year from countries all over the world, where it continues to enjoy rerun popularity. It's known variously around the world as Wild North, Welcome to Alaska, Life in the North, Why Alaska?, A Doctor Among Bears, Stop Alaska, At the End of the World and The Sweet Life in Alaska and remains one of the most watched TV shows ever produced.    

    Luis at Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park, Vantage, WA

Next stop, Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park in Vantage, WA, a 7,470 acre park on the Wanapum Reservoir on the Columbia River. More than 50 species of petrified trees dating from 15.5 million years ago as well as more than 300 ancient well-preserved petroglyphs carved into the petrified wood and river rocks created by members of the Wanapum tribe are housed and protected within the park's borders. The petrified wood is so important that it was named as Washington State's official gem in 1975.  The Wanapum (meaning "river people") tribe refused ti fight European settlers and consequently never signed a peace treaty with them, meaning that today, they have no official right to their ancestors' land, although they have been rolled into the collective Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. 

   Wanapum petroglyphs, Ginkgo Petrified Forest, State Park, Vantage, WA

Next stop: Soap Lake, WA. 


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Denali or Bust! Hmmm, looks like Bust...

Car trouble, Summer 2013, Teslin, Yukon (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Our original plan was to start our 2014 year-long trip to visit the US National Parks and Canadian National Parks by taking another pass at Denali National Park in Alaska, home to the tallest mountain in North America, 20,320-ft Denali (aka Mt. McKinley). Last summer, we decided on the spur of the moment, in retrospect in a seriously deluded and misguided way, that it would be a great idea to drive our Volvo station wagon there and car camp along the way. Okay, it was actually my idea and Luis just went along with it to keep the peace as any good husband would (happy wife = happy life). All went swimmingly until we blew a head gasket in the remote town of Teslin, population 122, in the Yukon Territory, and had to be towed at 4 am to Whitehorse, two hours away. We spent a month in a soggy tent with no means of transportation and very little money waiting for repairs to be made since both Volvo mechanics and parts were hard to come by in that neck of the woods. We never did make it to Denali since the weather started to turn cold and rainy, but we did get as far as Skagway, Alaska before limping back to Seattle in our barely repaired car, $2700 lighter.

Our home in the Yukon while waiting a month for our Volvo to be repaired (photo by Simone Cannon) 

This year, not wanting to experience the same repair issues and 1/2 star travel package that we had inadvertently signed up for, we ditched the tent and decided to buy a small motorhome with a sturdy Ford engine. We set our departure date for June, but life, as it often does, reset our clock several times. Family issues for both of use pushed our escape plans out to September, too late to go north. Denali would have to wait for another year.

After several revisions to our originally planned route, we finally decided to head east to Toronto as quickly as we could, both to help my ill dad and to arrive in time for his 80th birthday, bypassing Yellowstone, Glacier Nat'l Park and the Badlands. As I stared wistfully out the RV window at the signs indicating the turnoffs to parks that I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember, Luis reminded me that they would all be there next year. Right now, our family needed us. He was right and at least we were finally on the road. When we lived in South America, we spent five years exploring as much of the continent  as we could via backpacking on cross-country buses. Now we had our own wheels and a five-star upgrade to our usual tent. It was time to explore North America...we were on our way!  

Finally on our way! (photo by Simone Cannon) 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Road Again: The Search for the Perfect Motorhome, Part Two

So many choices. A trailer? (Photo by Simone Cannon)

I kicked the rear tire on the 24th RV that we had looked at that month. “How many miles did you say it has on it?” I asked the owner.
“175,000. I've owned it for a year.”
“A year? How did you put so many miles on it? ”
“Oh, it wasn't me; it was the previous owner. He was a competitive fisherman and he used the RV to drive to all the national competitions. He cleaned and stored the fish he caught in the shower stall." 
“Well, that would explain the extensive fish odor.”
“I guess.”
I glanced at Luis, who mimicking slashing his own throat, which roughly translated to “If you think that I’m going to spend the next year in what essentially amounts to an ex-lobster tank, you’ve gone temporarily insane.”
“Um…we’ll call you.”

I sighed. Not only had we looked at every RV from Tacoma to Bellingham, we’d visited countless RV shows, followed dozens of potential, yet ultimately fruitless, leads and had an owner-by-owner crash course in RV maintenance, how to avoid potential disasters and a running narrative of the seemingly endless challenges of life on the road. We were exhausted, in a state of information overload and still no closer to finding our perfect motorhome than when we’d started the search three months earlier.

Perhaps an A-Liner? (Photo by Simone Cannon)

Nothing seemed right for us:  too small, too large, too many miles, too expensive, too old, too damaged, weirdly configured (one motorhome had the bathroom in the middle of the living area), too many crucial things missing (one had no ladder to the roof; another, no generator or refrigerator) or the owners were a tad, to put it kindly, shady. One set of fast-talking brothers swore that their motorhome had been owned by their grandfather who only drove it to church on Sundays. When we asked to test drive it and have it checked by a local RV mechanic, they balked and immediately dropped the price to less than half of the original. We later learned from an RV dealership in the neighborhood that they were known locally as “the gypsies” and were rumored to have at least 26 grandfathers who all purportedly treated their vehicles with kid gloves.

A converted bus seems a bit much... (Photo by Simone Cannon)

But just when all hope was fading, a ray of light…our friend who lives In West Seattle messaged me to tell me that her neighbors had listed a motorhome less than an hour ago that seemed exactly what we were looking for and that we should probably high-tail it over there, which we promptly did. She was right; the RV was perfect: excellent condition, 21 feet long, ten years old with only 22K miles on it, a bathroom including a separate shower stall, a kitchen with an oven, a  fridge, freezer and microwave…we made them an offer on the spot. Only one black cloud: a neighbor had already shown interest. As we drove away, we steeled ourselves for disappointment, but only a few minutes later, the owners called us to accept our offer. We beamed...luck and the kindness of the owners were on our side and we were on our way, finally!

   If all else fails, a yurt (Photo by Simone Cannon)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the Road Again...The Search for the Perfect Motorhome, Part One

We now tell everyone that we live in a Chateau :-) 

After three years of weekend-only travel, Luis & I are finally back out there! Inspired by recent at-least-year-long road trips undertaken by different friends in various areas of the world (the east coast of Africa, the west coast of North America, the entire planet), we made the decision to once again sell all of our belongings (my 4th time, Luis' 3rd...which is why we always purchase our household things at Chez Les Ventes de Garage) and hit the road. We didn't think that our marriage would survive a year of four seasons in a tent, but we also didn't want one of those honkin' 42-foot converted bus RVs with washer/dryers, dishwashers and a 60" flat screen TV either, so we decided to search for something somewhere in between. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into...

Our search started with trying to untangle the threads of the myriad choices available for traveling with our home on our back: Class A, B or C? 20 foot, 30 foot, 40 foot? Self-contained motorhome, truck camper, toy hauler, pop-up, teardrop, 5th wheel, or hybrid trailer? New, used or rental? Diesel or gasoline? Airstream or Winnebago? We started by visiting RV shows to whittle down the options,  but quickly got even more overwhelmed with the hundreds of RVs (and insistent salespeople) on display.

The Tacoma RV Show in July (photo courtesy of OT Shows)

Here's what we learned:

  • Trailer pros: good gas mileage, inexpensive, you can uncouple your vehicle and drive unencumbered around town and you have more interior space since there's no cab; cons: you may have to unhitch in the dead of night in the rain, it is necessary to buy a large SUV or truck to pull it (our Volvo could barely pull itself, much less a trailer) and because of the total length, it would be difficult to reverse or find parking/camping. 
  • Truck Camper pros: convenient & compact, inexpensive, you can leave it at the campground and drive your pickup truck around town; cons: small interior space, you have to drive a pickup around town and I would not be able to stop humming the theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies
  • Class A RV pros: a lot of space, luxurious options. cons: off-the-charts cost to buy and operate (the large ones get 1-2 miles/per gallon and campsites and ferries charge by the foot), difficult/impossible to find parking or drive on small winding roads. 

We finally decided to look for a 21-25 foot C Class: just the right size, much better gas mileage, can be parked almost anywhere. But, unfortunately, as we where soon to find out, everyone else was already clued in, making a small, used C-Class with low mileage and in good condition almost impossible to find. During the months we searched for just the right motorhome for us, we also discovered how abysmally little we knew about RV maintenance and life on the road. To be continued...

Packing our new home; no idea how we're going to get everything in there!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to Prepare for Your First Visit to a Developing Country

Simone with artist Jorge Seleron, the creator of the famous Escadaria Selaron, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Recently, I received a phone call from a friend asking me whether she should be worried about traveling to Guatemala. Although she's an experienced traveler, it would be her first trip to a developing country and she had some reservations about going. It is a humanitarian trip, one that will give her the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of many poor families by installing clean water systems, so she is understandably torn between concern for her own safety and the desire to help others. My first instinct was to downplay her concerns since so many potential travelers tend to overestimate the dangers of traveling abroad, through, in fairness, very little fault of their own. For various self-serving reasons, alarmist media outlets (you know who you are), bombard their viewers with terrifying messages of greatly exaggerated threats of terrorists, flesh-eating diseases, violent crime and rude, non-English speaking, unhelpful foreigners. After watching these shows, it's amazing that anyone ever leaves the house, much less the country, but since I love my friend like a sister and would never want any harm to come to her, I decided to provide her with some real information. After all, knowledge is power, which hopefully leads to peace of mind and the freedom to go out into the world.
  Comparing mendhi henna tattoos in Agra, India 

1) Gather as Much Pre-Trip Information as Possible: before you go, visit several advisory sites for the current political and economic status as well as any weather or health-related issues of the country you intend to visit. Check back often, especially when you are getting closer to your departure date, since developing countries tend to have swiftly changing social and political environments and unstable infrastructures. Do not rely on one site as your sole source of advice since you are looking for a balanced, wide-reaching view. The U. S. State Department Travel Advisory, for example, tends to overstate danger since the government's aim is to mitigate the risk of lawsuits brought by US citizens. Australian, Canadian and British governmental advisory sites are generally less alarmist and so should also be included in your review. Visit the official website of the country as well as reliable news and non-governmental sites such as the New York Times Travel Blogs, Lonely Planet Thorntree Forums and Trip Advisor for up-to-date comments from recent travelers. Talk to friends and family who have visited the country. The idea is to arrive at a broad spectrum view: if only one source mentions a high violent crime rate or violence directed specifically at foreigners, you will probably not have to worry too much, but if the information appears repeatedly, you may want to rethink the timing of your trip.

Our 4 x 4 Jeep and fellow passengers, Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon) 

2) Take all precautions: visit a doctor near your home that specializes in foreign travel to get all necessary immunizations and medicines before you leave. You should be able to find someone online or ask your own doctor for recommendations. Always keep emergency remedies and supplies such as anti-diarrhea pills, an all-purpose quick-acting antibiotic like Ciproflaxin, rehydration packets, toilet paper and a few bills and coins of local currency in your money belt or backpack; you never know when you will need them in a hurry. Make sure that your passport is up to date, you have all visas and you are fully aware of customs regulations so that your entry will be smooth. Make a copy of your passport, credit cards and other documents and keep it in a separate place than the originals; while you're at it, Google the international access phone numbers for your credit cards in case you have to call from a foreign country to report them stolen.

3) Do whatever you need to do to put your mind at rest: ask yourself (be brutally honest) what your greatest fears are and write them down, no matter how crazy they might seem. Air them out by talking about them with your spouse, partner, kids, friends. If fears aren't vented and sanity-checked, they tend to take on a life of their own out of all proportion to reality, creating fear and insecurity. Do practical things like buying life insurance, putting your will in order, paying off bills. Knowing that your ducks are in a row will give you greater peace of mind before you leave and also in the highly unlikely event that you do find yourself in a threatening situation later.  

Young girls celebrating a quinceañera party, Mexico City, Mexico (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

4) Learn Customs, Etiquette and Some Basic Language: the vast majority of difficult situations abroad (and at home) are due to miscommunication or misunderstood signals. Read up on the rules of society and culture of a place, including the meaning of gestures, which often have very different, often offensive, meanings in other countries. Learning what is considered to be polite and impolite behavior will often avoid landing you in trouble. Also take the time to learn a few basic words and phrases in the language of the country that you will be visiting. Knowing how to say hello, thank you, I'm sorry and excuse me can go a very long way in fostering good relations. Even if your pronunciation is not very good, most people will appreciate you for making the effort to learn. Check websites such as Kwintessential and Culture Crossing for global etiquette guides and Fodor's Language for Travelers site for a few basics.

5) Keep your faith in humanity, but trust your instincts: it's good to be prepared, but also maintain a balanced perspective. The criminal element in any society is generally a minuscule percentage of the population. Most people that you will encounter when traveling are hardworking family types who want the same things that you do: happiness, health, moderate success, to raise their family well, to keep their kids safe. In all my years of traveling, I have never found myself in a truly dangerous situation and have, in fact, been humbled by the incredible kindness of complete strangers who wanted nothing more than to show off their country and help me in any way that they could. I've been invited by complete strangers to stay in their homes, have been bought presents, had people cancel appointments to walk me 40 blocks to an internet cafe, have been invited to join others at their tables in restaurants and many other kindnesses too numerous to mention. People are basically good, but trust your instincts of course; if you feel that someone is acting suspiciously (not making eye contact, seeming distracted, making you feel generally uncomfortable), get out. Don't be polite, don't make excuses, just leave, quickly. 

Lone monk meditating, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (photo by Simone Cannon)

6) Keep a lowish profile: forget about not looking like a tourist; it is nearly impossible to blend into a place completely, even if you're actually a citizen of the country (think Nebraska natives in New York City). Everything about you, your mode of dress, your mannerisms, the way you walk, your language screams tourist, so people will immediately peg you as foreign, but you can minimize being targeted in several ways. Being cognizant of local customs and manners and using them appropriately, dressing in low-key clothing similar to what locals wear, not talking too loudly, but also not acting in a way that makes you appear too timid or tentative. In other words, act respectfully and confidently and try to get into the flow of daily life. Think of it as learning to drive in a place where the traffic has a different flow & rhythm than you are used to at home; you will have plenty of missteps initially, but will soon get the feel of the current.   
7) Remember why you're going: don't let fear rule your decision to travel. There is an element of danger in everything that you endeavor to do in life, even close to home. You have to weigh the risk against the rewards. Once you have made the decision to go and have prepared as well as you can, let it go. Sometimes you just have to take that leap: be courageous, trust yourself  to handle sticky situations if they should arise and know that the universe will provide. Have faith.