Canada and Alaska: Kamloops

It seems like everyone in Canada is determined to out-nice the last person you met, so I have to tell you how I met Ron.

Halfway through our Rocky Mountaineer voyage we stop for the night at a city called Kamloops. I don’t know why, but I though it would be a tiny, one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Kamloops has around one hundred thousand people, a big university, paper mill, and a lovely city centre next to a scenic riverfront. I probably wouldn’t be writing much about it though, if I hadn’t gone for a walk in the late afternoon to keep myself awake so I could get a proper night’s sleep.

I saw a couple of people from the train walking into town (only a couple of blocks from our hotel) so I joined up with them and we walked along chatting and discussing whether dinner was really necessary after being stuffed to the gills on the train.

When we got to the edge of the big central park we fell into conversation with a guy named Ron who walked us down to the river to show us some sculptures illustrating the height of past floods. The sun was setting and turning red in the haze from the local fires. The other two wandered off after a bit but I walked around with Ron for an hour, talking about the town and our own travels.

We looked at the river, the gardens, heard a band and looked at some public art, community gardens (a picture for you here, Wendy!) and historical buildings.

Ron had lived in Kamloops for most of his life and his children and grandchild also lived there. He was great! One of the joys of travel is connecting with local people and learning things no tour guide would ever tell you, so if you’re ever in Kamloops and you see a guy who looks about 76, eating a liquorice ice cream and not getting one spot on his tan trousers, call out ‘Ron!’.

You won’t be sorry!

Next: Mum and I tick off a bucket list item and take a ride through Jasper in a Harley Davidson side-car. If you think Mum would look hilarious in leather chaps, you are correct!

Canada and Alaska: I Win a Silver Salmon

I’d read on a blog that the Rocky Mountaineer holds a poetry competition so on the second day I started writing a poem. Halfway through the day nothing had been mentioned so I asked Cleo, one of the staff, if it was happening. She said it only usually happens on the longer routes but I was welcome to get up and read mine. I was immediately filled with terror but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t, so at the end of the day I got up and read it for our carriage. I got a few laughs for mentioning the things that had been annoying us, like the trees always blocking the view. When I finished they gave me a silver salmon pin and said that if I ever saw anyone wearing one I had to give them the secret salmon handshake, which I will demonstrate for you if I ever see you in person!

There were many stops along the route on the second day to let goods trains pass, so we also had a little quiz sheet that Mum and I also finished first so we really scooped the pool. I never win anything so it was quite thrilling for me!

Here’s the poem I wrote. As you can see, it’s nothing special but I do quite like the way it ends.

Oh Canada, oh Canada

Your home and native land

Is filled with trees, so we ask please,

A chainsaw we demand.

Don’t cut them all, just make them small,

So better views we’ll see,

My camera’s filled with blurs of green,

It looks quite like the sea.

T’wixt train and mountain,

Track and shore,

they block all sight of land

Fine far away, but close I pray

For gaps a camera’s span.

I don’t like to moan, you’ll send me home,

Everything else is grand.

Your food, your smiles, your bear-filled wilds,

Smoked salmon on demand.

Cleo and crew know what to do,

To keep us all well-fed and happy.

Giving us facts and plentiful snacks

Their service is anything but crappy.

We’ve laughed, we’ve snoozed

We’ve barely boozed,

We’ve travelled, young and old,

We’ll come again, just tell us when

On your Rocky Mountain gold

USA: The Desert Eagle

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, the Desert Eagle is the train we caught from St Louis to Milwaukee.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from trains in the US. We’d been warned against buses and I’m rather partial to train travel so when Josh suggested catching the train I was keen. I looked at the website and the only thing the train promised was ‘Texas’ sized seats. I think we all know what that means.

We could also check baggage and have it transferred to the Hiawatha – the train that we’d change to in Chicago that continued the journey to Milwaukee. Convenient!

We boarded the train at about 8am and the first thing we noticed was that it was two storey… there’s probably a term for that on trains… double decker? So we sat up the top. The seats were indeed large, and we had a huge amount of legroom. The seats also reclined to an impressive degree and had footrests that popped out and meant that the seats were almost as comfortable as beds. Nice!

I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the seats fully extended.

The train also had a viewing car with windows that wrapped up over the ceiling, a dining car with booths and a kiosk for when the dining car wasn’t open. The selection at both wasn’t large but it was nice to have two options. I got a veggie burger from the kiosk as I hadn’t had breakfast… it was probably the worst meal I’ve had all year and I ended up just eating the bun and a Twix.

The observation car – and as a treat, Luke’s arm!

The train ran on time, and as we got into Chicago it started to snow – the first time Luke had seen falling snow. He was very excited. We had about 90 minutes before the Hiawatha so we ate some food and I tried a bun from Cinnabon, which our friend Megan had recommended. It was a delightfully warm, gooey mess.

The Hiawatha wasn’t as fancy as the Desert Eagle but it was also only a short trip. We arrived in Milwaukee very excited to see my friend Josh and maybe get a chance to play in the snow!

It’s hard to get a photo of snow from a moving train so here’s some of the scenic beauty you can expect around Chicago.

I should add that the whole trip was $50 for each of us – not a bad deal at all for about 8 hours travel in much more comfort that you’d get on a plane.

Portugal: Lagos and Porto (pt 1)

After wasting four nights in Seville we opted for two in Lagos, leaving our options open to stay longer if we liked the place.

Lagos is on the southern coast of Portugal, about five hours by bus from Seville along a rather dull stretch of highway. It’s a little town with an old vibe – and it’s not just the buildings. This is equivalent of Noosa to Europe’s Melbourne. Retirees from England, Germany and other richer countries buy apartments here, or just descend in motorhomes to soak up the sun and bake themselves gently on the golden beaches.

Although how they manage all the stairs I have no idea.

Lagos has a reputation for being a bit of a party town too, with a few nightclubs and bars for the younger crowd but the season was ending and we weren’t really in the mood anyhow. All the restaurants have menus in English and German and there’s a long promenade along the waterfront, lined with palm trees. It’s not a place that screams ‘culture’, but it’s certainly an easy spot to spend a few days. We walked around, ate some Portuguese food but didn’t spend any time on the beach because it was raining on and off the whole time. If it wasn’t for the Portuguese bogans (chavs/rednecks) screaming outside our window each morning and night we’d have had no excitement at all.

We thought about staying longer but the lure of England after months of not speaking the local language was too strong. However, we decided on one more stop – Porto in northern Portugal.

View of Porto, taken from the south side of the river.

We caught 3 trains that took us all the way from south to north. Irritatingly, no one seemed to bother about sitting in their assigned seats. This was only an issue for us because on an overnight bus in Turkey we’d gotten on and someone had been sitting in our seats but the man at the bus terminal had said ‘don’t worry, sit anywhere’. Then we stopped at the next place (very late at night) and the new guy made everyone get up and find their own seats and sit in the right place, which was a pain but should’ve been done at the first stop. Why bother assigning seats if you don’t care where people sit? Assigned seats are much to be preferred though – we caught a Ryanair (world’s most hated airline) flight back from Porto (trust me, if it wouldn’t have cost us several hundred euros more we would’ve happily spent 24 hours training it back to the UK) and watching everyone waiting for their unassigned-seat flight was ridiculous. People are much less relaxed, the flight staff have to cajol idiots who leave spare seats in the middle of rows when it is obvious the flight is full… GAH! I can feel my blood pressure going up just thinking about that company. Don’t get me started on their hidden fees, baggage restrictions, and their sly wallet-gouging techniques. A pox on their house.

But Porto! Porto is beautiful. Really beautiful. And I can say that unequivocally because we saw it in mostly crappy weather and it still made a great impression.

From above Porto reminded me of a very large Cesky Krumlov – all those red roofs and the river flowing through.

For the uninitiated, Porto is home to the drink, port. No surprises there. We went on a tour of a  port house (ignore me calling them wineries on the video when Luke gets around to it) and learned a bit about the history of the drink and the place. Turns out that when England and France went to war several centuries ago and the English could no longer get their hands on French wine, they turned to Portugal to satisfy this need. They discovered that adding brandy to the wine kept it in good condition on its journey across the sea and also produced a much sweeter flavour that appealed very much to the English palate – hence port being a ‘fortified wine’. Only fortified wine from this part of Portugal may be called ‘port’. Many Englishmen moved to Portugal to produce this new drink, hence the fact that the port houses mostly have English names. Some port houses are still owned and run by the same families that started them in the 16th century.

Most people are familiar with ‘ruby’ and ‘tawny’ port but there are also white ports and rosès. We spent our first morning in Porto walking around the port houses and doing tastings. We tried several ruby and tawny ports, two whites and one rosè.

Pronounced “Coe-burns”.

Here’s an article on rosè port with a good description of how it should (could?) be consumed and its history.

We enjoyed all the ports we tried; the whites were comparatively drier and my favourite was the tawny, with its more caramel, rather than fruity flavours. I have tasted port before but it’s certainly not my go-to after dinner drink. This might change now I feel a little more confident and knowledgeable about it.

Some of the more interesting facts I learned on tour was that ruby and tawny ports start off as the same grapes and it is their storage methods which change their taste and appearance. Ruby is stored in large oak barrels and tawny in much smaller ones. It is the greater contact with the oak that changes the tawny into a nice amber colour and the flavours alter as well. The barrels that are used for port are then sent to places like Scotland for whisky production as whisky cannot be aged in a new barrel, it needs the flavours imparted by aged and used oak.

A note on going to Portugal and doing the tastings – we stopped at only three port houses but there are quite a number on the south side of the river, all within a fairly small area. They sit at various levels above the river on a very steep hill. The best idea is to pick whichever you intend to visit, get the cable car up from the riverside or cross the bridge to the highest point and then wander downhill with a map and use a GPS device (like google maps) to give you the best route – there are some paths which cut through blocks and will save you slogging up and down huge hills.

This bridge is most convenient – you can get from the highest point on one side to the highest point on the other side, or cross at the river level.

The tastings were mostly 3 euros for three varieties. Each glass at each house was about 100mls, which looks like a small amount but most definitely is not when you have eight of them – and port is generally around 20% alcohol. My advice is eat a big breakfast (or lunch, depending on when you go) and then you won’t end up with a mid-afternoon hangover. Or you could, y’know, not drink over a bottle of port in a few hours. With all the port houses so close to each other though, it’s very tempting to try to get to as many as possible in one outing. Plus there’s plenty of other things to do and see in Porto, so don’t spend all your time there drinking. Although it is tempting.

Before I move on to other things, here are the places we visited and a few notes.

1. Taylor’s. This port house is fairly far uphill and styles itself as very upmarket (and is – one of the bottles on sale was 2500 euros). However it was still only 3 euro per person for a basic three glass tasting. You can pay more for tastings of their more expensive ports. Their English language tour goes at 2pm and we were too early so we read their little guidebook, tried the port in their very pleasant tasting room and watched a short video on their vineyards and history.

100mls for 100 euro? I’ll have two!

2. Cockburn’s. (Don’t forget, pronounced ‘Coe-burns’.) This port house had a much more casual air than Taylors and we joined a tour that ended up being only six people and took about 20 minutes. We looked at the barrels, a map of the Duoro Valley where the grapes are grown and then tasted three ports. They were nice enough to give us a glass of white for free while we waited for the tour to start. This house also offers picnic lunches in their pretty courtyard under grapevines, but at 15 euro pp we didn’t bother. Plus it was raining so an outside picnic wasn’t all that appealing. The guy who did our tour had excellent English, encouraged questions and the whole experience was excellent value.

Luke and our guide, Sergio.

3. Quevedo. Just back from the waterfront, we weren’t actually planning on having any more port because we felt quite… jolly from the seven glasses we’d already had. However, when we bought tickets for the cable car (5 euro each) up to the bridge it came with a free tasting at this nearby house. So off we went. Quevedo has a large room with explanatory panels around it so you’ve got something to do while you binge-drink. We chose two different ports, including a rosè, and shared – something we should’ve been doing from the start. Their port was ok – the rosè was quite nice and almost strawberry-flavoured. Just a note – their website is a blog and talks about what’s going on with the current harvest, which might interest some of you.

I’m a bit sad that we only did three port houses but if we’d kept going we’d have missed out on many of the other great things Porto has to offer. Which I’ll get to in my next post!

Tawny port barrels.

Budapest to Slovakia

This morning we found our taxi driver asleep in his car outside our hotel, which was kind of funny. What wasn’t funny was being taken the long way to the station  – about 3 times as far as we’d walked the previous day to buy our tickets. Le sigh.

Early morning light at Keleti station.

Still, we found our train and, after being asked to move seats, realised that there was an allocation system that we weren’t part of so we found some unoccupied seats and got comfortable. Hungarian trains are pretty nice and the toilet was decent too. Unlike toilets on Vietnamese trains, which are full of water. Full on a train. Don’t get me started.

Anyhoo. The hostel website was full of confidently brief directions on how to get there via public transport so we didn’t do all the research we should’ve. Note to selves and other travelers: if you’re taking trains in non-English speaking countries don’t just work out where you’re getting on and off, look at the last stop on your line because that’s what the signs will say. No problem with our first train as it stopped at Kosice on the border. Unfortunately our next stop, Poprad, wasn’t the final stop on that line so in the 15 minutes we had to make the connection there was a bit of stressful hurrying about trying to work out which train we wanted. Not ideal when you’re carrying all your worldly possessions on your back.

We found the right train, though, and then got off at Poprad. About 20 minutes before Poprad the view goes from flat fields to OMG! MOUNTAINS! Big, jagged, snow covered mountains. Since this is something I can’t ever recall seeing in such magnitude and at such close proximity previously I was very impressed.

With luck and our last few euros we hopped on the bus to Zdiar and made it to our hostel, the Ginger Monkey. This place was recommended by our friend Ben, who was here a while back. Probably not at the same time of year though – it’s just us and one other guy here at the moment, with a girl arriving tomorrow. I don’t mind a bit of quiet though and it’s a stunning place to have a break.

With no restaurants open during weekdays in the off season, we walked down to the local mini mart with the hostel’s dog, Wally, and bought ingredients for tuna pasta. This will be the second from-scratch meal I’ll have made in two months.

After bringing our food back we took both dogs for a wander, hoping to find the river walk. Miraculously, in a village with two streets, we managed not to find it and lost both dogs along the way. No doubt they’re off greeting all the other dogs we passed – there’s more dogs here than people if our walk was anything to go by.

I’m saving the mountain photos for tomorrow. Tonight will be maybe a movie and then definitely and early night. Hopefully there’ll be blue skies for a nice long walk tomorrow.

Farewell Hoi An, Hello Saigon.

Our last full day in Hoi An was a busy one. I spent the morning doing a cooking course by myself, that is, without Luke but with about 10 other people – 4 English backpackers and an Indian/Malay family with a couple of little girls.

I was picked up from our hotel by taxi and then joined the rest of the group at the local Hoi An markets for a tour and to buy the food we would cook in our class. The markets were colourful and interesting but our translator and guide was a fairly young girl who hadn’t been doing the job long and could not even tell me how much a bread roll cost. She said she’d never bought one, which I found rather surprising. She had to ask the man who was with us, who was doing all the actual buying but didn’t speak English. Turns out they should cost about 3,000 dong (about 15c AUD). Interesting, considering we’d been paying between 10 and 20,000 per roll in Hanoi. It’s hard not to get the feeling that you can’t trust anyone when you’re being charged more than 3 times the proper price. The next day Luke and I tried a new strategy – walk up with the amount you’re willing to pay in your hand and ask for the amount you want and the sight of cash seems to work much better than asking ‘how much?’ and getting told an astronomical figure. It just takes a while to work out what is an appropriate amount to offer.

Anyhoo, from the market we boarded a boat that seemed to be furnished with bolted-down dining chairs and headed down the river for 45 minutes. There was a reasonable amount to see but it would’ve been nice to have some information about the industry we were passing and the history of the area. Our guide mainly played with her phone.

We got out of our boat amid a plantation of water coconuts and got into two smaller canoes and were paddled a bit further between the palms, getting a closer look at the trees and the grungy slicks of god-knows-what on the surface of the river. It was nice and peaceful though and I spotted some fish in the water. Fish in Vietnam must be the aquatic equivalents of cockroaches considering the filth they survive in.

Our next stop was a hut where we tried our hands at milling, threshing and grinding rice to produce rice milk by traditional methods. I found that pretty interesting – a lot of very hard work! We collected the rice milk to use in one of the dishes we were going to make.

Last stop was behind the hut and through some vegetable gardens. A large open air structure thatched with palm leaves but, thankfully, containing some powerful fans. It was stinking hot weather. Not so bad on the river but where we were was stifling. I’d brought my fan and got some envious looks when I pulled it out. If you’re traveling to Asia (or anywhere, I guess) in Summer I highly recommend having one on you at all times. They makes a huge difference.

Our 4 dishes:

Vietnamese spring rolls.

The emphasis here was on presentation.

Vietnamese crepes.

The crepe mix was primarily rice milk and coconut cream. It was very much like a taco shell that we filled with delicious, crunchy salad greens. Would love to make this when I get home.

Beef salad.

We made a beef stock and then added spices and poured it over the cold noodles. Delicious!

Pho Bo (beef noodle soup)

A staple of the Vietnamese diet and particularly tasty when you cook it yourself. So easy!

We watched a chef prepare each dish then had our own station to go back to for practice. We got to eat everything straight away (yay!) and there were lots of breaks to chat and drink the endless refills of passionfruit juice.

We headed home in a taxi (much faster) and I really enjoyed the whole experience. It could only have been improved with more information and better English on behalf of our guide but she was extremely friendly and positive so that makes up for a lot.

On my return to Hoi An I dashed to AoBaBa for one of my many fittings and then to Yali for my coat. I got dirty looks at Yali for being many hours later than they asked but there was nothing I could do. To cut a long story short, my coat was finished that evening and looked fantastic. Possibly a tiny bit tight (if worn with several layers) but that’s more motivation to lose the weight I’ve put on this year.

The gob-smackingly superb building that houses AoBaBa. It’s very old (over 500 years) but maintained beautifully and shows what a strong influence Chinese and Japanese culture had on the town, which was once the greatest trading port in eastern Asia. This is one of two courtyards in the building.

I had my last fitting at AoBaBa the next morning and was extremely pleased with the results. I’d taken a steampunk-ish styled pattern to them and I think they really enjoyed making it. Certainly Kathy (my fitter and sales assistant) was visibly excited about me trying on the finished product and took a photo and called all the other girls over to have a look when it was done, telling me that she had never made anything like it before. That was nice! If you’re reading this and thinking of heading to Hoi An to get clothes made do go to AoBaBa and ask for Kathy. The assistant who helped me at Yali was good but I don’t think she cracked a smile the whole time we were there. Be aware that if you go and get clothes made whoever you speak to first will probably end up working very closely with you, so wander around the store until you see someone you like the look of then go up them and ask for their help. Working with a happy person makes the process so much more enjoyable!

Kathy and I. Watching her trying to reach my shoulders to pin things together made me feel like a giant. All the Vietnamese women are incredibly dainty and elegant, especially in their traditional ao dai.

This costume comes in 3 parts, the blue coat, purple skirt and a black and white bustier. Now to figure out where to wear it!

We spent our last evening taking photos, eating at Cargo again and visiting the ‘Good and Cheap Bar’ in the hope of grabbing Phi, the owner, for an interview. Sadly we only spotted him once and the vibe was nowhere near as good as the previous visit so we had a couple of drinks then went back to the hotel.

The exterior of the ‘Good and Cheap Bar’.

The morning after (yesterday morning, in fact, although it feels like a week ago) we had our final fittings, collected our coats, left our 12kgs of clothing and excess belongings to be mailed home by Kathy (for the bargain price of $70 dollars!!! It’ll take 3 months to get home but still…. $70!) and bought some supplies for the train. We checked out of our hotel and taxi’d to Da Nang ($19 if you’re curious, get your hotel to book a driver, a taxi is about $25) where we had a bit of lunch then boarded the train.

This time we had top bunks, which I didn’t think was so bad. We read, ate chip and cheese rolls out of our laps and watched the countryside roll past. We shared the cabin with a couple who had a little boy who was quite adorable and didn’t cry too much, thankfully.

In my usual dyslexic style, I’d read the train ticket and thought we got off at 5pm the next day. No, no. Turns out we got off at 5am. So we awoke to shouting and pointing and quickly got our gear together and jumped out into the hot and sticky Saigon dawn. Footage of the train will be in the next video. I neglected to take any photos. Oops!