A Travelogue

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Airmiles

In anticipation of our upcoming trip to New Zealand, I'm booking our accommodations. We are extremely lucky that we have five (count 'em, 5!) Rotary hosts, 4 of whom invited us to stay with them for a few nights each. We are so lucky. This was a major highlight of our recent trip to Scotland, where we were hosted by two wonderful Rotary couples and invited to participate in several Rotary events during our trip.

But I digress. This is about Airmiles. For the nights that we are on our own, I decided to book us into Best Westerns as they are scatterefd all over New Zealand
and I can convert Airmiles into Best Western gift cards.

It takes an awfully long time to book any kind of travel with Airmiles. I've learned they have 350-400 agents on duty at any time but still, it's a ridiculously long wait on the phone. Last year Hans and I took turns sitting with the phone glued to our ear for over an hour.

So we bought a speaker phone.

Since we bought it, we've rarely had to use the speaker. But how hard can it be? So I'm on the speaker, number dialed and listening to their recorded messages telling me I am in the queue, but I have to wait. And wait. But I'm on the speaker so it's okay and I play Spider Solitaire to pass the time.

Eventually, a live person speaks. I pick up the receiver and turn off the speaker - and also the live person for whom I had waited for the last 30 minutes. Aargh!

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Fog

The Fog.

Oh my. This isn't the romantic fog you read about in novels, where delicate wisps curl tantalizingly around trees offering a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't peek.

No. This is a thick, heavy fog that squats sluggishly on the streets obliterating everything before and behind you. It muffles the sound of oncoming traffic. Headlights offer only a feeble glow.

I'm lucky that Hans washed my dirty headlights last night after we returned from a presentation Elvine was giving at the Lodge. My headlights were already dim, covered as they were by days of road spray. It's generally light when I leave and come back so I hadn't noticed it. But last night in the dark… well, it was still dark.

I can't wait for the clear, sunny skies of New Zealand!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Great Wall of China - an earlier trip

It is October 2003 and Hans and I just exited a tour bus at the base of the Great Wall. We're lucky, because it's only a few months after the SARS scare and foreign tourists in China are down an incredible 90%. Yet here, amidst the throngs of people, it's hard to imagine the numbers are down. I cannot fathom what this place must have looked liked a few short months - and an additinoal 90% - earlier.

The tour guide offered us an two options: we could be deposited on top of The Wall via a gondola system or, we could hoof up the traditional way. However, we had to be unanimous in our decision as the two entrances were far apart and the bus could only park in one place. I knew the group would opt for walking and I was secretly concerned. Not only is The Wall high, but the buses had to park so far down the hill that they became mere specks in the distance.

From the top of The Wall, the panorama was exquisite. As far as we could see, shrubs and grasses were ablaze with brilliant reds and yellows. Under our feet, the history of eons seeped into our soles. We began our walk.

The Wall is said to be wide enough for 6 horses to ride abreast, but they must have been small horses. The road's not very wide and it undulates to follow the crest of the mountains on which it is built. As the mountains soar, so does The Wall. At the point where The Wall makes an abrupt 90 degree turn, there's a little hut, sort of a watchtower which looks like a little chapel. I could see it in the distance, really not so far, but at a considerable elevation. I also saw many people sitting on the stairs just before it and I made it my goal.

Even as we approached the watchtower, we were holding onto the railing. The road became so steep in parts that the angle at which my foot was in relation to my leg was decidedly uncomfortable. Even as I write and flex my foot, I can't bend it up as high as I needed it on that climb. Then came the stairs to the hut where even the ancient engineers had deemed the angle too steep for walking. Oddly, the stairs aren't a uniform height. Instead, the first step was about 4" high, the next 8", then 6", then only 2". Then several steep ones each about 12" higher that the last, and narrow. More like a ladder than any stairs I had ever climbed.

"What lunatic designed this?" I wondered breathlessly. Even my thoughts had laboured breathing. I learned later that the stairs are at different heights to slow down the enemy, especially in the dark, since he can't anticipate the next step. It necessitates slow going. No problem there. Those little buggers were fit! I needed both hands on the railing just to pull myself along.

The lookout tower offered nothing in the way of comforts. There were only window openings in every direction. The Wall carried on, first dropping precipitously and then soaring to an even greater height, with hundreds more stairs! I knew I couldn't do it and told Hans I'd wait for him so he could go on unencumbered by my pace. He later told me that even he had found the going rough and that he was glad I hadn't tried it.

Meanwhile, I headed back down and those incredibly steep steps, backwards.

At the section where we originally entered The Wall there was a slightly lower railing against which I could lean, and so I waited there. Soon after, a smartly dressed young Chinese couple approached me. He didn't speak English, but had a camera and gestured to it. Smiling, I reached for it thinking he wanted me to take their picture. "No no", he motioned. Instead, he indicated he wanted his pretty young wife to stand beside me and then took MY picture! Amused, I let it happen. They bowed effusively and with broad smiles, headed off.

Five minutes later, a group of three giggling older women approached me with the same request. I was to pose with each of them in turn as they smiled, gap-toothed, with their sun bonnets jauntily perched at a rakish angle.

It happened several more times and I was beginning to enjoy myself. Then a group of men approached and stopped a little further away from me. Much talk ensued amongst them. Finally the boldest one approached me with the usual request for a photo and when I indicated my compliance, he snuggled right up and put his arm firmly around my shoulders. I laughed out loud just as his friend snapped the photo. He retreated to his friends, and more animated talk ensued. I thought he was trying to convince the others to also pose with me but they were too shy, so instead, he came back for a second photo and stood beside me. No arm around me this time. Instead, he dipped his chin and tapped his opposite shoulder indicating I should put my arm around him. Why not.

I had my picture taken many times that afternoon. No doubt I am featured in many family albums and probably introduced as the young man's Caucasian girlfriend. Who knows. But for that afternoon, I was the Siren of The Wall.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The trouble with winter is…

The trouble with winters here is that they can be incredibly brutal. This is especially true when your driveway is 400' long, oriented east-west, and invitingly open to the howling north wind.

Last night the afore-mentioned wind was an unwelcome escort on my drive home late in the evening. All the way home I contemplated whether or not I should risk driving my car down the driveway and into the garage, where it might get trapped overnight. I decided not to risk it. From the head of the driveway I phoned Hans to say I was leaving the car on the road, loaded up my stuff, wound my scarf around my head to ward off the wind, and opened the door. Like a spinnaker, it caught the wind and creaked alarmingly before I wrestled it closed again. I proceeded more cautiously.

The driveway was already starting to bulk up with mogul-like drifts and Hans had opened the gate for me – a precaution when drifts in the drive are a possibility. After a soak in the hot tub to fight the chill, we agreed that it was a good thing to have one car available outside the drift zone so that I could drive Hans to work Friday morning if the worst should happen.

It did. It was really no surprise. This morning at 5:10 I heard Hans get up and saw the lights go on outside. Then I heard the snowblower so I knew Hans was clearing the way to get his own car out so I wouldn't have to get up early to drive him. It's a cold and ugly job, working in the early morning dark with only the snowblower's spotlight for company. At 7:00, he was finished and woke me up.

"I wanted to do you a favour and drive your car into the garage. Unfortunately, the wind turned overnight so there was a drift in front and behind your car. When I finally got enough momentum to get out, it slid sideways across the road and into the ditch."

So we're still down to one car and I drove him to work. But, his was in the garage AND, it has heated seats! Now the sun's out, but my car's still in the ditch.