Monday, 11 September 2017

LOST SHORES GRAN FONDO

I’m not sure that I’d have chosen to brand the region “Lost Shores”, but as we drove along Route 16 from Tracadie to Guysborough, I could see how the barren countryside could give you that impression.  “God-forsaken piece of ground, if you ask me”, one of us remarked.  Things lightened up a bit as we drove past the turnoff to Rear Monastery.  Now, just imagine the theories on the origins of that poor community’s name conjured up by a group of seven guys away for a weekend in backwoods Nova Scotia.  I offered that it may be a translation from the French: “Cul-du-Monastère”.  That didn’t help at all!

We arrived in the pretty village of Guysborough (population 900) late afternoon and checked in at the Gran Fondo registration desk.  Our next stop was Big G’s Pizza and Restaurant on Main Street for the obligatory pre-ride dinner.  There wasn’t much to do in the village, except maybe pick up a few bottles of local beer at the NSLCC store.  Comfortably ensconced in our five-star accommodations, the Coastal Inn near Antigonish, we watched Canadian Michael Woods ride with the best cyclists in the world in La Vuelta a Espana.
Coach Ira rousted us at the ungodly hour of 5:45 and herded us into the van for the foggy drive to the Fondo.  Our orders for the day: Food! Coffee! Dump! Ride!

We stopped at the Days Gone By Bakery, the only place open for breakfast in downtown Guysborough.  Katie and her staff welcomed us with open arms and we were pampered by our server, the lively and good-humoured Lucina, who served us platefuls of delicious rib-sticking pancakes.  How could your spirits not be lifted by a person that cheerful at 7:00 in the morning?  We even got our picture on their website!  Things were definitely looking up!
The Chedabucto Education Centre, Lost Shores Gran Fondo HQ, was abuzz as we parked the van and reassembled our trusty two-wheelers.  We linked up with the eighth member of the Over The Hill Gang, Kent, who’d driven over with Miguel Arsenault, co-owner of Atlantic Chip Sport Timing.

By the time the horn sounded for the 120-km group, the fog had lifted, and 100 or so cyclists barrelled down Route 16 toward the turnoff to Larry’s River Road.  The three young bucks in our group, Kent, Ian and Mark, were off the front before we reached the bottom of the first incline, leaving Ira, Russ, Richard, John and me in their dust.
The ride profile showed a three-kilometre climb at the 5-km. mark, just what we needed to wake up the old legs.  John and I lost track of the other three, thinking they may have had a mechanical, but expecting them to catch up at the top of the hill.  As it turned out, both Richard and Ira had had to stop briefly to sort out minor bike problems.
John and I latched onto a group of half a dozen riders and pace-lined with them for about 40 kilometres, as far as Port Felix.  Riding through the coastal community of Larry’s River, I was struck by the number of Acadian flags waved by the locals.  Made me feel right at home!  While the scenery was quite stunning, we had to be very careful of the rough pavement.
We lost the other riders in our group when they pulled off at the rest stop in Port Felix, so John and I rode alone from there to the turnoff where we rejoined Route 16.  We both remarked that it was one of the nicer courses we’d ridden in a long time.  Three other riders hooked on to the back and rode with us into Canso, along what Fondo organizers labelled the “Tickle Loop”.  And how could you not chuckle at a sign like this one!
We got off the bikes for a quick bite and some fluids at the rest stop near Canso wharf, greeted by a couple of smiling and able volunteers, eager to please and anxious to know what we thought of the event so far.  A half-dozen riders lined up with us for the last 50 kilometres and we pedalled around the Canso loop and back onto Route 16.

By the time we reached Half Island Cove, the group was down to four and my legs were starting to feel a little rubbery.  It turned out to be a long, hilly 30 kilometres from there to Guysborough: down to sea level; up over a headland; down to sea level; up over yet another headland.  We rolled through Philips Harbour, Queensport, Peas Brook, Halfway Cove, Dorts Cove and Cooks Cove.  The striking beauty of the coastline along this stretch, reminiscent of the Cabot Trail and the Gaspé Peninsula, was lost on me unfortunately as I began to suffer.
I followed a strong rider from Fredericton up a three-kilometre climb at Halfway Cove, and John fell off the back.  The two of us rode the last 16 km. to the finish line, taking turns on the front, although his pulls were longer than mine.  I stayed on his wheel until partway up the last hill, and then bonked.  My odometer showed about 3 hours and 50 minutes as I crossed the finish line, totally spent.  Not bad for a pensioner!  The young bucks, long since arrived, looked fresh as daisies as I crawled over to greet them.  I couldn’t wait to pour a bottle of cold water over my poor old head, thankful the day hadn’t been any warmer.

The rest of our gang crossed the finish line shortly after.  We piled the bikes into the van and took our places in the food line, desperate to fill 3,500-calorie sinkholes.  I dined on barbecued ribs, courtesy of the Days Gone By Bakery.  They were some good!  We listened to the live music for a while, talked to riders and volunteers, took on needed refreshments at the Authentic Seacoast Brewing Company, drove back across the barrens to the motel, and hit the showers.

We motored into Antigonish and settled in at the Townhouse Restaurant, an eatery popular with the Saint FX college crowd.  One of the guys got a text from his better half: “I’m cooking chicken breasts for supper.  How will I know when they’re done?”  We marvelled at this example of how gender roles have evolved over time.  In a positive way, of course!  Ever the devoted problem-solvers, and following an intense group think, we decided on the following response: “You’ll know they’re done when the nipples are tender”.  The text he received in reply was, not surprisingly, adult-rated!

We learned that Guysborough is a brave little community, its residents eager to please and to make you feel welcome.  Chedabucto might be the Mi’kmaq word for “Place of Great Two-Wheeled Suffering” after what we went through, but we all had a great time.  The ride was well organized, the route was challenging, and the volunteers were terrific.  The Over The Hill Gang found the Lost Shores, and we’re glad we did.  We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the event to avid cyclists like ourselves.

In the end, it’s all about the ride!
Over The Hill Gang – September 9, 2017

L to R: John MacQuarrie, Jean-Paul Arsenault, Kent Wood, Ira Birt, Mark Grimmett, Russ Melanson, Ian MacIntyre, Richard Birt

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

EXPO 67

Mom must have saved for a long time for our special trip.  When the day finally came, we loaded our suitcases into the trunk and drove to the “Port”, Canadian Forces Base Summerside.  I’d been there for Air Force Day but never to get on a real airplane.  Others in my school would go to Expo later on a class trip but I was going with my mother.  Just the two of us, for a whole week.  How special was that?

It may be hard to believe today, but Eastern Provincial Airways offered a commercial flight from Summerside to Moncton in 1967.  Mom had decided we’d fly to Montréal and take the train back.  That way, I’d be able to experience both.  I could hardly contain my excitement as we walked across the tarmac from the tiny terminal to the plane.  I had the presence of mind to snap this photo on my $2 camera.  In Moncton, we changed to a bigger Air Canada plane and eventually landed at Dorval airport in Montréal.
There to pick us up were the Thibeaults, Claire and Philippe, and their two sons, Richard and Serge, friends of the family who would act as our hosts.  I remember the drive to their home in the east end, rue Baldwin, Tétraultville.  A city this big was beyond my imagination.  The pace of things was intense and the stink of heavy industry stung my tender nostrils.  A snot-nosed kid from the backroads of Prince Edward Island, I was totally out of my comfort zone.

Serge and Richard took me for a tour of the neighbourhood and to meet their friends.  I remember riding bikes and playing a bit of baseball.  They were street kids, at home in an urban environment.  I was an alien.  Their accented Québécois was barely understandable to me.  They must have thought I was speaking a different language.  Their parents would surely have warned them: “Ils ne parlent pas comme nous autres”.

My notion of Expo 67 was very rudimentary although evidence of the centennial celebrations was everywhere, even in tiny Wellington.  I’d visited the Confederation Caravan when it set up on the soccer field at École Évangéline.  Prince Edward Island was deemed too small to host the Confederation Train that toured the country that summer, so we’d had to satisfy ourselves with a couple of semi trailers stuffed with patriotic images, texts and displays.  The only one to catch my eye was the prospector, probably because the mannequin actually moved and because he reminded me of a real prospector, my cousin, Spud Arsenault.
And then the big day finally came.  We’re going to see Expo!  The boys had explained to me that we’d take the bus to the Métro station and hop on the subway that would take us directly to the site.  It was all Greek to me.  I’d never seen a subway train and the only bus I knew was Ken MacDougall’s SMT clunker that dropped off the Journal-Pioneers for my paper route in front of Arsenault & Gaudet’s store in Wellington. 

For some people, it’s olfactory stimuli that conjure up the strongest memories.  I’m one of those.  Blindfold me and stand me at the entrance of a Montréal Metro station and I’ll know exactly where I am by the smell.  The bus dropped us off at Honoré-Beaugrand and we rode the escalator — the first one I’d ever been on — down into the subway station.  The train’s rubber tires fascinated me; the strange noise they made as the the cars stopped alongside the platform.  I stepped across the threshold and into another alien environment, underground mass transit. 

A few stops later, we pulled into the transfer station, Berri-de-Montigny, and took the yellow line to Île-Notre-Dame.  What I saw when we emerged from the subway station near the United States pavilion blew my mind.  This was it!  Expo 67!  Man and His World!  The World’s Fair!  It was beyond imagining.
The first thing we did was buy our seven-day Expo Passports for access to the pavilions and to travel from place to place on the Minirail.  I don’t remember which pavilion we visited first but it was likely the massive Katimavik, Canada’s showpiece.  I made it my mission to visit as many of the 90-plus pavilions as possible; my final count, at least 70.  I had my passport stamped at each one.  My one great regret is that, somewhere along the way, I lost this important record of my visits.  But the memories remain.  The photo below shows Serge Thibeault and Mom in front of one of my favourite pavilions, Iran.
This one is of a very shy thirteen-year-old standing in the fountain in front of the British pavilion.
Serge and Richard had told me about La Ronde, Expo’s amusement park.  I thought the Summerside Lobster Carnival was big.  Was I in for a surprise!  Our first time there, we headed for the Gyrotron, a one-of-a-kind ride built specially for Expo 67.  Inside, we climbed into a giant pyramid where the conditions of outer space were simulated.  Next, we plunged into the bowels of the earth, into the heart of a volcano where a giant, mechanical monster scared the living shit out of us.
Each of my visits to Expo included time at La Ronde.  One day, we watched an amazing water-skiing show with teams of skiiers doing acrobatics and a tow boat so powerful it could stand straight up on its stern.
Mom didn’t come every time we travelled to the Expo site.  Serge was my sole companion on at least a couple of days.  I was met with terrible news one day when we arrived home at the Thibeault’s.  Our neighbour, Edward (à José) Arsenault had been killed by an explosion aboard his boat at the Abram-Village wharf.  He was a prominent citizen of Wellington and one of my childhood heroes.  On April 7, 1967, he’d been part of a crew that crossed the Northumberland Strait on an ice boat.  He slept on the frozen Ellis River to be the first to wet a line on opening day of trout season.  Walking beside him along the road to the Barachois, I watched him drop a grouse from a tree branch shooting from his hip with a .410 pistol.  I hadn’t even seen it!  In my mind, he could do anything.  Mom cried that day.  I might have too.  He was only 33. 

This picture of Edward beside the ice boat (rear left) was taken at the Wellington Centennial Day parade on July 8, 1967, one month to the day before his death.  It might well be the last photo image of him.
That Sunday, we attended Mass.  I tried to think of what I might say to Edward’s sons, my friends, Léonce and Marcel, and his wife, Corinne, when we’d visit back home.  As my mind wandered, a dog, the spitting image of Edward’s German shepherd, Rover, walked through the open door of the church and straight up the aisle before turning on his heel to exit the way he’d come.  I felt Edward’s presence at that moment and a warm feeling came over me.

There was a sub-text to our visit to Montréal: my estranged father’s presence somewhere in the background.  He’d stayed with the Thibeaults for awhile when he’d moved to Montréal ten years previously.  We hadn’t heard from him and didn’t know where he was.  No one did.  I secretly hoped we’d connect even though Mom had convinced me it wouldn’t happen.  She must have been troubled by the thought that they were in the same city at the same time, but she never said anything.

We spent an enjoyable afternoon visiting former Wellington residents, Millie, Zelica and Jacqueline, daughters of Fidèle (Thaddée) Poirier who had once owned the village hotel.  The Poiriers never wavered in their attachment to the Island and had several familly reunions there.
I never tired of going to the Expo site as the week wore on.  Serge and Richard, on the other hand, had seen enough.  So, on our last day in Montréal, Mom let me go by myself.  I’d convinced her that I could navigate the bus and subway system by myself.  Off I went, with my passport and $5 in my pocket, intending to spend the whole day at La Ronde.  I did; went on every ride I could and had my last taste of heavenly Belgian waffles.  And I came home with the $5 I’d found lying on the ground at the amusement park, exhausted after a full day but no poorer.

The trip back was anticlimactic.  I’d ridden the train from Wellington to Summerside once but had never experienced a real passenger service like Via Rail.  We ate in the dining car and the porter came to prepare our beds in the sleeper.  I was impressed.  The clickety-clack of heavy wheels on steel rails put me to sleep right away and, before I knew it, we were at the train station in Moncton.  Uncle Cliff and Aunt Tina had come to pick us up and take us across the ferry home.

I had lots of stories to share with my friends when I got back to tiny Wellington.  I remember feeling very lucky and wishing my time with Mom, just the two of us, could have lasted longer.  Expo 67 kindled in me a spirit of adventure and wonderment.  It made all of Canada proud and put Montréal on the world stage.  And it made me want to see more.  I’d been bitten by the travel bug!

Elva and I have visited 61 countries and many of the world’s great cities.  Only one of our destinations comes close to reminding me of Expo.  It’s not Dubai and it’s definitely not Las Vegas.  On first seeing Singapore in 2015 and after spending a week there earlier this year, I was overcome by the same sense of wonderment at what a truly cosmopolitan city can feel like.  The creators of Expo 67 were ahead of their time.


Saturday, 3 June 2017

LIFE CHANGES

A couple of years ago, while Elva and I rolled through the Florida Panhandle, taking the long way home to our beloved Island, I reflected that our compact Mazda 3 Sport hatchback contained everything we needed to survive: clothes, our bicycles and, most importantly, my beloved Cuisinart coffee maker.  “We could live like this”, I said.  “Just travel from place to place, park the car when we want to fly or cruise somewhere, and go home for the summer.”  She looked at me like I had two heads!

Truth is, since I retired four years ago, we’ve been away from home at least five months out of twelve.  Since we love to travel — and travel well together — it’s likely that pattern will continue for as many years as we enjoy good health and until the money runs out.  And so the question: Why do we need to “own” a place for the seven months we live on this Island?

In my case, the life change has been gradual, and based on existential reflections.  It started in my 50s when experiences began to mean more than material things.  Then, since I retired and caught the travel bug, my definition of “home” has been flipped on its edge.  Whereas only a few years ago, I couldn’t imagine not owning a home, today I no longer need the assurance of ownership.  And I don’t want to be tied down.

Much of my grandparent’s furniture, lovingly cared for by me as a sacred trust, is now considered outdated by the younger generation.  Some will stay in the family, no doubt.  But, fundamentally, it’s still just “stuff”.  I’ve done my duty.

Anyone who has contemplated this kind of life change knows it’s not an easy decision.  Two people are involved, and they don’t travel from Point A to Point B on the decision-making highway at the same speed.  While I started thinking about the transition from ownership to rental a couple of years ago, Elva was not there.  She had good reason to resist the change: we both loved our condo in downtown Charlottetown.  So did our three children.  Two weeks ago, I again asked her if she was ready to sell.  This time, she said: “Oui”.

And so the adventure began.  Share our decision with the children; speak with a realtor; decide on a price; and list the property for sale.  Fate intervened.  Our daughter-in-law Julia’s parents, Barb and Gordon Campbell, expressed interest in the condo and, in very short order, an agreement of purchase and sale was signed by all parties.  Private sale!  The best kind.  As of August 31, we’ll be officially homeless.

Friends and family — those in the know — have a dozen questions: “Why did you sell that beautiful condo?”  “Where will you stay?”  “What will you do with all your lovely furniture and antiques?”  We have no trouble explaining why we sold.  As for the other questions, we don’t have answers.  Some think we’re crazy while others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, may even envy us for making such a brave life decision.

Life changes.  “Home” is wherever Elva and I happen to be on any given day.  It may be a cabin on the cruise ship Rotterdam VI, a rented condo in Fort Myers, FL, a Super 8 in Fishkill, NY (yes, such a place really exists and we did stay there once), or a swag in the Australian Outback.  Technology makes it so much easier to stay in touch with children, grandchildren and good friends.

It’s a big world.  There are so many places and things to see, and so much to learn along the way.  We don’t know how much time we have to do the many things we still want to do together.  Nobody does.  But we relish the freedom of being able to come and go as we please and we work hard to stay healthy and active so that we can. 

We’ll miss 55 Hillsborough when we move out on August 31.  We’ll be homeless before leaving on our European adventure in late September, and homeless again when we come home for three weeks in December.  We hope to have an apartment lined up for April 2018.  There, we look forward to many visits from family and friends.  It might not be the space of our dreams but it’ll be in the one place we love best on this earth: downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

It could always be worse.  One fateful evening last March, we found ourselves in desperate straights — lost in downtown Beijing without a hotel room.  After being turned away by six hotels because we weren’t Chinese, our tuk-tuk driver, who didn’t speak a word of English, was running out of options.  My faithful travelling companion, the best any man could ask for, broke the tension: “On est comme Marie et Joseph à Bethléem la veille de Noël!  Pas de place à coucher.” (“Just like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve!  No place to sleep.”)

Monday, 3 April 2017

FAR EAST – PART 3

I’m finding big cities less intimidating.  Having successfully navigated the Yokohama-Tokyo train and subway system shown on the diagram below, I guess we’re qualified to go anywhere now!  While we’d been cautioned about the crowds, as I’ve written in an earlier blog, the Japanese are unfailingly polite, quiet and calm.  Subway rules even require riders to silence ringers on their cellphones and refrain from talking on them.  Damn civilized!  While we’d never survive in such a congested environment, we learned to cope.  And our theme for this cruise became: “Figure it out!”

Another thing struck us about the Japanese, and it hit home in Shimizu, a small industrial city.  They’re glad to see us!  As soon as the gangway was lowered, we were treated to a concert by a local drum band.  In the cruise terminal, we found everything we needed: wifi, money exchange, and ample tourism information for independent travellers like us.  We took a municipal bus to a seaside area for views of 13,000-foot Mt. Fuji and, back in the terminal, were coaxed into authentic Japanese costumes for a photo shoot.  All courtesy of volunteer local women.  The old samurai looks half decent next to his much younger and prettier geisha, n’est-ce pas?

Next stop was Osaka, a city of 1.5 million, medium-sized by Japanese standards.  We’d read up on the area and decided our time would be better spent in the nearby city of Kyoto, capital city during the Shogun period from about 400 years ago until 1867 when power was ceded to the Emperor.

Four subway lines and a bullet train ride later, we arrived at Nojo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site notable for its large wooden palace complex and impressive fortifications.  While the blossoming cherry trees signaled the coming of spring, my infected sinuses reminded me that it was a cold, damp day.
We hopped on the subway again and made our way to the next stop on our Kyoto agenda, the magnificent Kiyomizudera, a revered seventh-century Buddhist temple and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We walked up a steep shop-lined street, meeting many young Japanese men and women, like the ones shown below, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, obviously very proud of their heritage.


Not every port of call is worth the stop.  And so it was with Hasoshima, kind of like expecting to find something in Portage on your way from Charlottetown to Tignish.  Disappointing to say the least!  But we gave it a shot, taking the shuttle to downtown Hyuga.  It didn’t take us long to figure out that a U-turn was our best option.

After a day at sea, we awoke dockside in the Huangpu River, surrounded by the wonders of Shanghai.  We’d decided to split the cost of a local guide with Josie and John, an American couple, experienced independent travellers.  Caroline proved to be friendly, knowledgeable and competent, although her English was halting.  She led us through the subway maze and took us to the places we wanted to see, Tianzifang and Yuyuan and, clearly her favourite, the site of the 1921 China People’s Congress meeting.  While my knowledge of Chinese history is very limited, this historic gathering marked the birth of the Communist Party and the genesis of the economic superpower that is today’s China.  Caroline chose lunch for us at an amazing buffet-style eatery featuring every kind of dumpling you can imagine.  It was the highlight of our day.



Unfortunately, the weather worsened as the day wore on - cold and rainy.  On our second day in Shanghai, we braved the rain just long enough to do the wifi thing as freeloading squatters in the luxurious lobby of the Fairmont Hotel before heading back to the welcoming confines of the ship.

We’d been in China long enough.  We found the impatience of the mainland Chinese quite tiresome.  Some of their habits go beyond anything I’ve seen in the snake pit at the Wellington Legion!  And if queue-jumping were an Olympic sport, the Chinese would be hard to beat.  I can even imagine a medal ceremony where the Chinese competitor in the queue-jumping event, having failed to win the gold, jumps ahead of the poor Canadian who did and pushes his way onto the top step of the Olympic podium!

Because of forecast bad weather, the Volendam had to skip its planned visit to Okinawa.  Instead, we sailed directly to Keelung, the port city that serves Taiwan’s capital, Taipei.  We spent the morning of our first full day riding the train and subway to the city’s attractions, starting with the impressive National Palace Museum.  Its collections are equal to those of the Shanghai Museum, if not better.
Since it was a clear day, we rode the elevator to the top of Tiapei 101, the country’s tallest building, and got great views of the city.  Then we walked across the massive square below Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, flanked on both sides by the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre.  I’ve not seen a nicer square anywhere in our travels and, as for the founding father’s memorial, it’s every bit as impressive as the Washington Mall’s Lincoln Memorial.
Our next two stops in Taiwan were at Hualien and Kaohsiung.  At the first, we took a Holland America excursion, our first land tour with the company on this cruise, and enjoyed magnificent views of Taroko Gorge in the national park of the same name.  In Kaohsiung, we pick up a city map from the tourist office and planned our itinerary.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d been given the world’s worst city guide, or at least the worst I’ve ever had to decipher.  Taiwan’s second-largest city is not that impressive compared to other cities we’ve visited on this trip.  But the in-progress Pier 2 development will transform Kaohsiung’s waterfront, making it a far more interesting place to visit in five years’ time.
My lasting impression of Taiwan is of a country seeking to establish itself as a regional economic player.  Admittedly, its relationship with mainland China is complicated.  Since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek led his defeated troops to the island, Taiwan has steadfastly maintained its claim to sovereignty, calling itself the Republic of China.  However, it’s recognized as a country by only 21 other sovereign states, all of them small.  Bigger countries are too afraid to offend the Peoples Republic of China by challenging its “One China” policy.  Not even Donald Trump would be that stupid!  But Taiwan is a democratic society, unlike mainland China, and I can’t see its people surrendering their freedoms without a fight.  So, while Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, I choose to add it to the list of countries we’ve visited, just as I’ve counted Palestine.

Our evening arrival in Hong Kong gave us a chance to spend time with friends Donna and Dave Crocker of Alberton before they boarded the Volendam for a cruise that would eventually take them to Vancouver.  We flew to Singapore the next evening and settled into our hotel after a very long day. 

Of the many cities we visited during our seven-week Far East Adventure, four qualify as world class: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Singapore.  But Singapore is our hands-down favourite.  It has all the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, the amazing modern infrastructure of Dubai, and the beauty of Barcelona.  All it’s missing is the history one finds in cities like Rome, London and Paris.  Imagine a place where the world’s best engineers, architects and planners came together and were allowed to do their very best work, with public support and without corruption and political interference, and you’ve got Singapore.

Seven days there proved an excellent way to cap off our winter sojourn.  We even ran into Jean-Paul Poirier, our École Évangéline classmate, and his wife, Galena Shelestova.  Her Facebook post alerted me to the fact we were in the same city at the same time, and we spent a lovely day together at Bay Gardens and Marina Bay.  The Gardens are world-class, as is the Singapore Zoo.  My personal favourite was the night safari, a unique experience, an opportunity to get up close and personal with nocturnal animals I’d never seen before.  And watching my first panda, Jia Jia, devour bamboo shoots was unforgettable.

Singapore the country is barely fifty years old, yet it ranks fourth in the world in terms of per capita GDP, behind only Qatar, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein.  The US stands at number 17 and Canada at number 31.  If Prince Edward Island were a country, we’d be number 60, behind Trinidad and Tobago, with Slovakia gaining fast.  But much of our wealth is in the form of transfer payments we receive from Ottawa.  Without this, we’d be a poor country indeed.  That Singaporeans are wealthy is quite obvious.  You just have to walk through a mall and look at the cars they drive.

And that leads to another subject that interests me: sovereignty.  How is it achieved, what does it mean, and what are the keys to success?  Were Prince Edward Island, by far Canada’s smallest province at only 5,560 square kilometres, to become a sovereign country, it would rank 166th in the list of United Nations member countries, just behind Brunei and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.  Thirty countries are smaller than our tiny province.  Not all are successful economically, but some are very wealthy, including Singapore.  With but few exceptions, their wealth comes exclusively from brainpower, not natural resources.  On my Island, we have many things to learn.

As we say a reluctant goodbye to Singapore, these pictures are better than words.  And after seeing the National Orchid Garden, we just ran out of superlatives.  






Tuesday, 14 March 2017

FAR EAST – PART 2

I find big cities intimidating.  Our ship sails into an unfamiliar harbour like Hong Kong’s and I wonder how the hell I’m going to find my way around.  Many cruise passengers opt for the easy way out: a guided Holland America excursion.  But Elva and I have gotten braver in our dotage and prefer to set out on our own.  This means gathering as much information as you can in advance and, when the time comes, taking the plunge into the unknown.

Hong Kong is like Halifax on steroids, a fine natural harbour straddled on two sides by the city proper: Hong Kong Island to the south and mainland Kowloon to the north.  We came off the ship early in the morning, did the wifi thing, and made our way to the money exchange.  Hong Kong dollars in hand and hoping for a friendly face, we approached the tourist information desk.  Thankfully, the guide’s English was excellent, and she explained how to get to all the places we wanted to see using public transit.  She couldn’t have been more helpful.  Such a contrast from what we’d experienced in Thailand and Vietnam.

We took a shuttle to the nearest subway station, bought tickets and made our way across the harbour to Hong Kong Island.  A bus took us to the top of Victoria Peak where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city below.  We even FaceTimed with our son and daughter-in-law, Clément and Julia, while enjoying the view from the Skydeck.  The century-old tram took us back down the mountain, and we walked to the Star Ferry terminal to cross the harbour to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.  After taking in the sights along the seawall, we made our way to popular Nathan Rd.  We walked past the high-end stores in the rich part of town and made a stop at Starbucks.  From there, we took the subway and shuttle back to the ship, satisfied with our day.  For $45 US - including lunch, attractions and transportaion - we had ourselves a really good overview of Hong Kong.  Best of all, we didn’t get lost.  And we did it ourselves!

Shanghai is a city of superlatives.  Home to some 23 million, it is the world’s third-largest city by population.  We’d seen images of the city skyline, but it’s hard to imagine the scale of things until you’re up close. 

Hong Kong, a British colony until 1999, was sheltered for 50 years from the strong Communist influence that marked life in the rest of China.  Vehicles there drive on the left; many people speak English; the currency is the Hong Kong Dollar, etc.  In Shanghai, things are quite different: security is much tighter; traffic runs on the right; very few residents speak English; and social media websites like FaceBook are blocked.  (On the bright side, this means the Chinese are spared from Trump’s twisted tweets!)

Shanghai is one of the cleanest, most orderly cities we’ve ever visited.  There’s a sense of space on sidewalks and public spaces.  The subway system, while somewhat intimidating with its fourteen lines, is clean, cheap, efficient, and easy to use.  In the two days we spent there, we took in as much as we could.  We rode the Maglev (magnetic levitation) Train to the airport and back, hitting a top speed of 301 kph. 

We took the world’s fastest elevator (top speed 75 kph) on a 55-second ride to the 118th floor of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city from a height of 546 metres.  One of the photos shows the skyscraper known as the “bottle opener” (for obvious reasons) far below.
 

We strolled the Nanjing Rd. pedestrian mall, visited People’s Park, and took in the magnificent Shanghai Museum, home of impressive collections of jade, coinage, porcelain, furniture, and paintings.  We learned that the Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest.  Judging by what we saw in Shanghai it’s going to be around for a while yet.

We had to make do with one too-short day in South Korea, barely enough time to make our way on the train from the port city of Incheon to the capital city of Seoul.  Over 90 million South Koreans occupy a country smaller than the combined area of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  The area between the port city of Incheon and Seoul is one continuous urban zone.  In fact, half the country’s population lives in greater Seoul.

We got off the train at the Geongbok Palace stop and wandered around the huge complex before strolling along a broad boulevard, taking a detour along a stream that runs through the centre of the city.  It was a bone-chilling -2 degrees C.  We spent most of our three hours exploring the very modern city centre before making our way to Seoul Station and the trip back to the ship.


South Korea is home to some of the world’s largest conglomerates, Hyundai, LG, and Samsung being the best known.  But the country is going through a difficult period.  The day we were there, North Korea fired off four ballistic missiles; the unpredictable and trigger-happy neighbour, Kim Jong-un, flexing his muscles again.  The country’s president is on the verge of being impeached, the CEO of Samsung has been charged with corruption, and relations are not good with China, South Korea’s principle trading partner.  People are understandably anxious and concerned about the future,  such a shame considering how far they’ve come since World War II and the Korean conflict.

We crossed the Yellow Sea again, headed for the gateway port to China’s capital city, Beijing.  There’s no easy way to experience the major attractions found in and around Beijing.  Two one-day Holland America tours would have cost $940 US; an overnight tour to Beijing would have set us back $1,700 US!

Elva and I decided to get to the Great Wall on our own.  From dockside, we set out by taxi bound for Yujiapu Station and the bullet train that would take us into the city.  At Beijing South Station, we entered the maze that is the Beijing Metro.  The plan was to go from Beijing North Station to Badaling Station, within walking distance of the Great Wall.  Guess what?  Beijing North Station was closed!  With no Plan B, we had to ask people who didn’t speak English how to get to the Great Wall.

Long story short, we ended up in a small van with five Chinese people, hoping the driver wasn’t going to rip us off or rob us blind.  Then, our luck took a turn for the better.  Sitting next to us in the van was a couple from Hong Kong, Frank and Sarah, fellow Holland Americans.  Their Mandarin was a hell of a lot better than ours, so we tagged along.  The Great Wall is truly a wonder to behold; everything I’d imagined, and more.  What an incredible experience!  It took us seven hours to get there, but it was worth it.  The weather was perfect and the crowds were light.  We walked for a full two hours, all of it on steep grades.


We’d decided to spend the night in Beijing rather than return to the ship.  Up bright and early the next morning, we arrived at the gate just as the site was opening and managed to beat the worst of the crowds.  Words cannot do justice to the Forbidden City (or to the hordes of people who visit the place).  It’s huge, and is easily the most impressive walled city we’ve seen in all our travels.  Successive Chinese emperors called this fortified place home for more than four centuries, and it’s lovingly cared for and preserved.  We’d hoped to visit Mao’s Mausoleum, just across Tiananmen Square, but security was just too tight.  The People’s Congress was in session while we were in Beijing, there were soldiers everywhere, and everyone was on high alert.


Beijing is an impressive city.  Clear skies and crisp spring air held the smog at bay for the two days we spent there; not even a hint of haze.  At 22 million souls, it’s about as big as Shanghai.  The two-hour train trip from the cruise port to the city and back was an eye-opener.  The pace of development and urbanization is staggering.  China’s approach to planning is the exact opposite of ours.  In our country, infrastructure follows population growth.  In China, it’s the reverse.  Whole cities are built before people occupy them: highways, arrow-straight boulevards, high-speed railway lines, schools, shopping malls, office towers, and forests of 20-30-story apartment complexes.  Completed communities lie empty, just waiting.

Then, it was back across the Yellow Sea again, bound for Japan and the port city of Nagasaki, known in recent history as the target of the second atomic bomb, the one that finally brought an end to World War II.  On August 9, 1945, a B29 bomber named Bockscar dropped a plutonium warhead that exploded just above the port city, killing 75,000 people instantly and injuring 72,000, many of whom died soon after from burns and the horrible effects of radiation sickness.  An area of 6.7 square kilometres was completely levelled.  The International Peace Park features many impressive sculptures and statues commemorating the event, and is a lovely place to visit.  We’d decided to spend time there instead of visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum that contains images and relics of the event.

Nagasaki is a small city by Japanese standards, only 500,000.  It’s clean and orderly, the people are polite, and you get a sense that they enjoy having visitors, quite a contrast from Beijing.  We visited a shrine commemorating the martyrdom of 26 Catholics, all put to death in 1597 because of their religious beliefs, and strolled through beautiful Glover Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Next stop in Japan was Kagoshima.  Never heard of it?  Neither had we.  But, we enjoyed our day there and there was lots to see.  We started by taking the ferry to the island of Sakurajima, one of the largest active volcanoes on earth, and rode the island-view tour bus.  Back in the city, we took the tram to Sengan-en, the former estate of a rich Japanese merchant family, featuring beautiful gardens and views of the Sakurajima volcano across Kinko Bay.
 

Yokohama is the port city closest to Japan’s capital.  In fact, it’s now considered part of greater Tokyo, the world’s most populous city at 32 million or so!  Imagine almost the whole population of Canada stuffed into one metropolitan area.  And speaking of stuffed, we sometimes felt like taking the subway and train into the city centre.  But, unlike the Chinese who have no problem pushing one another to make room, the Japanese are by nature too polite.


With only one day to visit, we focused on the top two attractions in Tokyo: the Imperial Palace Gardens and the Senso-ji Temple.  Both were well worth a visit.  We also went to Shibuya Crossing and climbed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office for a nice view of the skyline.  We found the people of Tokyo to be very polite and helpful; they don’t rush and they don’t push.  On the subways, no talking on the phone is allowed!  Except for Shibuya Crossing where five streets meet, we didn’t find the place as crowded as we’d expected.