Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Faces in the crowded V & A

We had a wonderful lazy morning trying to sleep off the jet lag before heading out to see Laura and Peter's new flat in Little Venice, which is the area of London with canals. (who knew? canals in London!) It was a very cute area, with houseboats lining the canals and cafes on most of the corners. The apartment has a garden in the back, with a gap in the hedges that leads onto a massive park that is hidden from view of the streets and only accessible through the apartments that line it. Amazing little niches in this city.

Afterward, we headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A), which is one of those stunningly massive, twisting museums one can get lost in quite easily and happily. The museum seems to focus on melding the antiquated with the modern (which seems to me to be a London thing) and the melting is quite beautiful. The picture opposite is in the lobby where a 40-foot twisting glass sculpture hangs over the information desk, in front of a large ornate wooden panel you can see in the background. The mix of old and new happens in the juxtaposition of the artwork as well as in the architecture of the building, which is a mash up of a number of styles. As we headed towards the costumes exhibit, (a favorite of Sarah's) we walked by this amazing room with absolutely massive Greek carved columns. It was difficult to capture the scale but as you can see from the picture, Sarah and I were on the balcony and it extended from the ground floor to well above our heads. Off the other side of the balcony we could see into the restoration room, which was quite fascinating as well.

When we finally arrived in the costume exhibit, a number of the pieces were not on display, but the remaining ones were quite stunning. The one on the left is a funny one - Elton John's bicycle outfit, complete with a bell, reflectors, and streamers. Impressive. I do not think I could pull that outfit off, but then again it was the 60s, maybe that was just what everyone was wearing then.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My daddy was a miller, and I'm a miller's son...

For the union song-lovers of the world, you know those aren't the actual lyrics to the song, "Which side are you on?" but having spent a large chunk of yesterday at the Bale Grist Mill in St. Helena, CA, the song comes to mind.  We set out with several family members on a hike and outing to check out the old mill that dates back to 1846.  After a lovely walk through hanging vines and token Napa forests (photo below), we arrived just in time for a tour hosted by a retired 2nd grade teacher.  He told us all about the story of the the old mill and how it changed hands from the original owner (Dr. E.T. Bale) to his wife after he passed away, leaving her in a bit of a debt mess and a beautifully-functioning piece of amazing machinery.  With perseverance and a little help from some published guides dating back to the 18th century (which are still referred to!), she kept it up and running making it one of the gathering spots of the town.

I enjoyed this part of the story, as it gave you a real sense of what the old Napa-ites (Napanions?) experienced as a community.  After collecting corn and wheat for a couple of weeks, the residents in the area would gather to share a meal, catch-up with neighbors, and wait patiently for their chance to grind their goods into flour and the like.
Our guide was wonderful (with children, for sure, including Sophie as his assistant in many of his explanations [see below]), while sharing a real passion for the mill.  He took us step-by-step through the process of grinding as well as the parts of the machine that made it possible to turn corn and wheat in flour or meal.  From pointing out the different paths that the water must take to make its way to the large wheel that turned the whole system (below)... the gears and cogs (and various materials there of) to use as the inner-workings (below with Soph)... the technicolor explanation of how a grindstone works and why a miller must keep his (or her!) "nose to the grindstone."  As you can see from the photo at the right, the black and red lines represent the groves in the quartzite grindstone that work together to grind up the corn or wheat.  If the grindstones fall off balance or larger pieces of grain are stuck in there, a smell of rubbing rocks will be emitted instead of the rich aroma of the flour.  It is for this reason that the miller must keep a close watch (and nose) on how the grindstones are working so that the grindstone does not wear down too much (I imagine), but also so that the whole complex machine runs as efficiently as possible.
It was a wonderful day with family, new discoveries, a kid-friendly outing, all ending with pizza and wine and games (see photo of chef Sophie)! We're off to Londontown this evening - sadly leaving the California family with promises of "see you real soon, right?", but before reaching SFO airport, there will be some crucial stop-offs in the city to show Sophie the sights (more blogging to come, I'm sure.)
If you're ever in St. Helena, CA (smack in the mid-to-north end of the Napa Valley) and are in need of a non-oenophile experience, head on over to the Bale Grist Mill...
...they might even let you take the kernels off of some ears of corn!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cali Adventures - Mount Diablo

After a long painful delay in Vancouver and a 2am arrival in Cali, Sarah, Sophie and I have arrived in sunny California. On our first day, we did one of my favorite California activities - driving to the top of Mount Diablo. As 3849' its the highest point in the Bay Area and from the summit you can see the Sierra Nevada peaks (Hi Gabe and Megan!). That 150-mile stretch is the second farthest distance you can see from anywhere in the world, shorter than only the view from the top of Kilimanjaro.
The drive up to the summit winds through rolling hills and oak trees, and we had to take it a little slowly so as not to make a certain nine-year-old in the back seat car sick. It was nice to take our time though, winding up the hairpin turns and rocky outcroppings. We stopped a couple of times along the way to take some shots and enjoy the view.
Mount Diablo was actually named based on a mistranslation from an old Spanish story. In 1805, a Spanish military expedition visited the area searching for a group of Native Americans who had run away from one of the local missions. They surrounded them in a thicket, but as night fell, all of the Native Americans were able to escape undetected. The military group called the thicket "Monte del Diablo" of "Thicket of the Devil." Later, English-speaking newcomers mistook the name "Monte" on the map for meaning mountain and thus the mountain became Mount Diablo.
Along the way up, we ran into a few Cultus Pines, which are one of the few indigenous species that only live on Mount Diablo.

Though it was quite mild and warm on the way up, the wind picked way up around the summit so we broke out the coats and braced ourselves against the wind to climb the tower to the observation post. It had rained recently and was clear so the view was incredibly clear. We could see  San Francisco, the extent of the bay, the Delta, Mount Tamalpais, and the Sierra Nevada range with the naked eye and Sophie got a few more details with a couple of quarters into the telescope.
A great start to vacation, up to Napa tomorrow to continue the tour! Happy holidays everyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Featured in Travelogged!

Travel the Long Way Round was featured in this month's edition of Travelogged, an online-publication highlighting travel writing from around the web!

Great to hear from Travelogged right before we head of to California and London. Gives us a bit of a kick to keep writing and keep exploring.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Choices, choices, choices

Last night Sarah and I had dinner with our friends Rob and Gloria who had some friends in from Australia (Roger and Kylie). They were starting a West Coast roadtrip to SF and LA then are catching a flight to New York (very jealous!) so we had lots of fun circling our favorites in their guidebook, suggesting good restaurants or scenic vistas. They had a couple of guidebooks, including a Lonely Planet USA West Coast, which got me to thinking about my experiences with guidebooks. Here is our random collection of guides that we have picked up over the years for different trips, at used book stores or garage sales, and ones that have been graciously gifted to us. So here's my question - which brands are the best? I'm going to run through my impressions of some brands I've used and hopefully people will let us know if you agree or have better suggestions.

Lonely Planet - - Roger and Kylie's guidebook for the West Coast seemed to have a lot of quirky spots (cafes, interesting restaurants, etc) as well as lots of detail on the low- mid-range options for housing/travel. It had Fig Cafe in Healdsburg, a favorite of my dad's, as well as Ikeda's in Auburn, a favorite of mine. They also have an option to build your own custom book out of chapters from other books, which Sarah and I are thinking of doing for the world trip, as well as a travel forum called Thorntree where I've gotten some helpful advice from in the past.

Will, Gabe and I used the Iceland Lonely Planet (brought by Will I think) when we were there a few years ago and I remember the same type of focus in that book. Lonely Planet seems to capture the age 20-40 traveler well, with a focus on authentic experiences over tourist traps. One particular adventure left me enamored with Lonely Planet. We were driving around the Ring Road that circles the island (there are no roads throught the middle) and on the northwest coast, started exploring the fjord north of the town of Hofstadhir. The book noted a natural hot spring called Gudrun´s Bath and we decided to take the couple hours to get up there. We had to open and close many fences so farmer's herds wouldn't escape and just when the road was about to peter out and we were convinced we were hopelessly lost, we found this tiny geothermal hot spring on the edge of the fjord overlooking the ocean towards the North Pole. As the book explained, the tiny island off the coast was where Gudrun, one of the heroes of the Icelandic Sagas, swam out to steal fire from a hermit (god? maybe? I'm dim on the details). When he finally managed to make it back to shore he found this spring and it saved him from hypothermia and allowed him to bring fire to the people. Will read it out loud as we sat in the spring and looked out over the wind-ravaged stone island sticking out the water. It's moments like that when I appreciate guide books the most, when they can connect you to the history of a place.

Fodors Travel Guides - But then again, there are lots of others that I have used over the years, including Fodors. Sarah and I used Fodors when we did our Southwest trip a couple years back, but it struck us as generally filled with activities and places that were out of our price range. It's recommendations seemed to favor exclusivity and cushyness to authenticity and experience. Though we did find a hike up Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, which ranks as one of my five top hikes. That's Sarah about to traverse the pencil thin ridge line and scramble to the final plateau.

Moon Travel Guides - I don't have much experience with Moon, but I hear they are from Australia and take a similar tack to Lonely Planet. On their website, they "ensure that travelers have an uncommon and entirely satisfying experience." Wonder if anyone has found them useful, I might try to pick up one at some point and give it a go. Maybe when we get to London next week.

Frommers Travel Guides - Frommers seems to walk the line between the upscale Fodors and the cash-conscious but experience-minded Lonely Planet. Though in my opinion it basically tried to do Fodors but cheap, without focusing on experience and instead just looking for getting the most bang for your buck.

Well, that's all I got for now, I'm interested to see if anyone has any thoughts on guide books, stories to share, etc. Or are we just better reading a history book to get a sense of place and winging the rest? I'm sure Sarah and I will be doing plenty of that as the trip unfolds. So bon voyage for now, it's off to California tomorrow then London on the 27th. It's tough to leave the new place overlooking the mountains so soon after moving in, but we look forward to filling you in about our adventures with the the nine-year old as they progress.

Have a great trip Roger and Kylie!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Leaving on a jet plane part duex

Steve here - I heard from a number of people requesting more how, why, and wheres concerning round-the-world-ticket techniques from our previous posting. So I'm back to fill in a few of the details and  practicalities of booking. If you're here to read about the travel adventures, we'll be back to that soon, this is going to be a nitty-gritty article.

Step #1 - Figure out where you want to go. And be flexible.

It's a big place, the world that is, so when planning to see it you must make a list. Sarah and I started years ago cutting articles out of magazines, saving links to a Google Group, emailing them to each other and tagging the emails for future reference. One of our best resources has been the advice of friends who have been to many various locales and can recommend some great spots.

Dream wide and far but when you put your list together though, don't let yourself be fixated on too many locations. Pick three or four that are absolutes and put the rest in the awesome-if-we-can-make-it-happen category. You might find out that Bali costs 600 RT to get to while Bangkok costs 75. If you're planning on spending 5-7 days in each area, this is a huge price difference. A lot of adventures can happen for those $525 extra dollars.

Step #2 - Find a travel agent you trust.

Going into the trip, I figured I could do this all myself, book the flights, find some deals, etc. I mean how hard can it seriously be with expedia, travelocity, and the rest of the internet to help? I was thinking this right up until halfway through our meeting with Allison when she was able to pull up airline hubs, detail variable pricing through different partner airlines and destinations, and let us know she was already holding flights through her contacts at different airlines in some of our key locations for prices that were far lower than those I'd researched. Wow. Travel agents have the inside edge and the 35-50 they are gonna charge you per flight - extremely worth it. If you're going to NY for the weekend, listen to William Shatner and book your own flight. If you're traveling around the world, go with the experts. If you are in Vancouver, we recommend Allison Reshef from Travelmasters.

Step #3 Think circles, not straight lines

As we found out, the cheapest way to travel is to locate a hub of a major airline that is roughly in the geographical center of your travels in one area, then fly in and out of that city. In our case it is Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific has flights to Sydney, Bali, Thailand, Katmandu, and India, then off to Rome) and Istanbul (Turkish Airways flies to Rome, Cairo, Tel-Aviv, Greece, Casablanca). Because the airline doesn't have to deal with partners, they can give you quite low fares. In our case, the round trips ranged from $75 to $600, which each RT dumping us in a new locale. A few hints for picking your hubs:
- Look at the most difficult places to get to on your trip. For us it was Katmandu and Tel-aviv.
- Find the airlines that fly there.
- Go on that airline's website and look at the other places they fly. See how many destinations match up with where you want to go.
- Create a short list which you can go to your travel agent, who will be able to tell you the hubs and price out different options for you.

The shortest distance between two points is a line, but the cheapest is most definitely not.

Step #4 - Be creative about your traveling methods

For the most part, a plane is a plane is a plane. Some have smoking in the back, some have chickens, but mostly they are just big metal tubes. The real traveling is what we do outside of the tube. There are lots of inventive ways to get around besides the plane and I highly recommend researching some of these options, or, just leaving it up to what you find along the way. We decided for instance, that we'd like to visit Tunisia, but we looked at it on the map and decided it would be much easier to take a boat across the Mediterranean then it would be to fly. And the boat you don't have to book in advance, you just show up with a backpack, hop on, and all the sudden you're in Northern Africa. At least in my experience growing up on the west coast of the US, the distances were so large that planes were the only way to go, so I have to try hard to keep distances in mind and remind myself to get out of the metal tube whenever possible.

That's it for now, happy traveling!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

O.P.T. #7

I have another o.p.t. tip for thinking about other places when you'  (For a long-winded explanation of what the hell I mean by "o.p.t", as well as 6 other triggers, read this blog post.) I promise to post more photos of Steve soon, but this sweeping shot of me in Vancouver's first snow (which became rain, of course) was too positive to pass up, especially considering this o.p.t. tip.

(Note to self - catch Steve doing something blog-worthy and photograph it.)                       
O.P.T. #7  Now that the Vancouver weather has gone from crisp and lovely to just plain shitty (pardon me, Mom, for writing "shitty" in a blog), in searching through our very unorganized bathroom cabinets, the only body cream I could find to combat the dry-skin-from-heat-being-on-all-day was the post-sunburn stuff from Burt's Bees.  The smell alone brought me back to this past summer, lying in parks, coming home pinker than I should be, and slathering on the good stuff.  I loved the feeling so much that I even put on some actual sunscreen to enhance the smelly sensation (despite the fact that the sun has officially gone into hibernation until March).  So, my tip for pretending you're in the sun when you're in the rain - put on some sunscreen, smell your arm, and let your imagination run wild.  This afternoon, with another dose of SPF 45, I'm heading to Guadeloupe with a stop off in Cozumel - anyone care to join me?

Leaving on a jet plane...

We haven't done a collaborative posting yet, so here goes our first shot:

  Steve: We finally had some snow in Vancouver! It was falling fast and heavy as Sarah and I headed over to Travel Masters in Vancouver to get moving on the round-the-world tickets. As it turns out, the airlines are crafty and have figured out that people were buying round the world tickets in order to travel on the cheap, so over the past five years, they jacked up the prices. Star Alliance (which is Air Canada, United, and others) wanted to charge us $12K...a piece. Crafty and completely not happening. Fortunately, our friend Joanna's older sister, Allison, is a superstealth travel agent with crafty skills all her own.

Sarah: It's an amazing feeling to escape from life for a couple of hours and chat about every possible way to make an amazing trip happen.  Whereas mine and Steve's decision-making conversations err on the side of "what do you want for dinner?" or "do you think it's a better idea to pay the BC Hydro bill with a credit card or through the bank?" our conversations this past weekend (in Allison's patient presence) were more along the lines of "How about checking out the pyramids since we'll be in that pocket of the world anyway?" or "I saw some gorgeous photos of Bali on a blog the other day - can we go there?"  Daydreams take on a whole new meaning when the possibilities and $40 r/t plane tickets are literally at yours (or your travel angel, Allison's) fingertips. 

Steve: As it turns out, when you are talking world travel, the shortest distance between two points may be the shortest, but it is definitely not the cheapest. The ideal flight pattern for cheapness is, as Allison describes, "the flower pattern." You choose a hub of a single airline (the center of the flower) and each flight transfers you through the hub to the next location, using only that airline. After much stealthy computer work, Allison worked out that our two hubs should be Hong Kong (via Cathay Pacific) and Istanbul (via Turkish Airways). This was very exciting (see Sarah's reaction above). So, the flights will look like this:
SFO- Hong Kong - Sydney (Cathay)
Sydney - Hong Kong - Thailand (Cathay)
Thailand - Hong Kong - Bali (Cathay)                                                           
Bali - Hong Kong - India (Cathay)                                                             
India - Hong Kong - Rome (Cathay)
Both Cathay and Turkish fly to Rome, so then the second flower begins:
Rome - Istanbul - Tel Aviv (Turkish)
Tel Aviv - Istanbul - Cairo (Turkish)
Cairo - Istanbul - Greece (Turkish)
Greece - Istanbul - Casablanca (Turkish).

Then we find a floating vehicle of some type (I'm thinking rowboat) to cross over the Gibraltar Straight to Spain and begin our 6-week Eurorail pass journey with the only set in stone destinations being France to connect with Sarah's family and London from whence we'll sadly take the flight home.  (Side note: when we returned home in an excited state our new, wonderful neighbor, Drew, said, "How do you fly home after that?"  Good point Drew, talk to us again in May 2011 and we may be setting up shop in Switzerland.)

Sarah: So, the ball is finally rolling.  In a new direction, that is.  We're unable to book anything now (though with mine and Steve's trigger fingers when it comes to booking things in advance, it was a real exercise in restraining oneself) because we need to wait until 330 days prior to departure.  Who knows why that magic number is preventing plane tickets from burning holes in our underwear drawers, but we must wait regardless.  Allison seems to think that we can start booking things in March 2010.  Until then, we're supposed to "spend as much as humanly possible" on our credit cards where we earn aeroplan points.  I don't think we'll do that, but it's good to know that we may be able to use some of our points toward the trip.  Incidentally, back in March of this year, I made some phone calls to Air Canada to find out about round-the-world tickets (because like novices, we thought that was the way to go...until this past Sunday), and they said that we wouldn't have enough to buy a ticket so, essentially, we shouldn't bother.  With that advice, we booked ourselves flights (with the thousands of miles) to California for Christmas and then to London to be with the Haynes famiglia (Hi Haynes family!  See you soon!) into the new year.  Moral of the story?  You can use miles to fly you around the world cheaply, but using miles to be with family is just as wonderful. :) Speaking of which, stay tuned for some blogging from the Bay Area and Londontown....

So, Steve?  How do you think this joint-posting thing went?  Okay?  Think we're going to confuse the masses?

Steve: I think it went fine. However, we need more shoutouts. Everyone loves shoutouts. Gabe! Noah! Rob! See - instant crowdpleasers.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Other place triggers (o.p.t.)

So, my roomie gave me a blog assignment, with the proper amount of buttering up of my ego ("we got so many clicks on our blog when you wrote about counting pennies!") - although, I'm going to put that writing assignment off until later.  Now, I'm going to make a list of things that make me think of being other places other than here (other place triggers are herein called o.p.t.):

1.)  Our various jars, bowls, and platters of sea glass, shells, and driftwood.  Come on by sometime and see the sea debris around our pad.  Call me a thief if you will, but I love it and will forever make my walking more difficult every time I stroll along the ocean by weighing down my pockets.

2.)  Our lifetime spply of New Yorkers, thanks to one of the best gifts from Jolie and Jack (Steve's mom and stepdad) a few years back after we left the big fruit'd city.  We love these mags so much that for Steve's birthday (ahem...yesterday), I gave him a New Yorker cover from the day he was born (December 8, 1980 for the curious ones).  It took a year+ of hunting on eBay, Union Square vendors, craigslist, etc., but I got it, darnit.  Now it's going to be added to our bedroom wall and my o.p.t. list because these rags make me think of, well, home.

3.)  The new super-smelly ayurvedic soap I just bought for cheap at the new Whole Foods down the street from us.  The first 24 hours, I schemed to throw it away and buy something around the $3 mark (this soap was $1.50), but the smell started to bring on dreams of higher mountains, old bookstores, and savasana states.  If I could put a scratch and sniff on the screen, I would, but the Willy Wonka factory hasn't created that yet.  So, another reason why you'll have to come by and wash your hands.

4.)  Great blogs like this one called The Hermitage by an artist and her partner who live in a truck and drive around the UK documenting their amazing lifestyle and adventures.  Steve introduced me to this one and I spent one great 3am-awake session pouring over its posts.  Have a look.  I'm a huge fan.

5.)  Good wine and olive oil.  I'm not sure if the above photo (of Root:1 wine and Round Pond olive oil and vinegar) infringe on any copyright laws, but partaking in a glass of this stuff (the wine, silly people - although, we did drink the olive oil when we went tasting a couple years back at Round Pond, the winery where Lloyd, Steve's dad, spends his working days) or sprinkling some of this monounsaturated goodness in a fine dish make everything okay and officially o.p.t.'ed.  [Photo at right is our olive oil-tasting adventure with several Vancouver friends and (pictured) the delicious Cleveland-based duo, Katie and Dan.]

6.)  And, of course, music is a trigger as well.  I wouldn't call myself a mix-taper if I wasn't sent to other places by a song or two or three.  For instance...

"Takk" by Sigur Ros (shown here with photos from a home in Ontario...not Iceland, but whatever)

"Via con me" by Paolo Conte (romantic chick flick, anyone?)

"Both Hands" by Ani Difranco (poof! an o.p.t. that toooootally puts you back in high school!)

And that, for now, gentle people and bloggers, are all the o.p.t. you'll be getting from me for one evening.  I'm off the grand land of ultimate o.p.t., in other words...I'm going to sleep now.  Sweet dreams.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


So this is not travel related, but today was my birthday and I had an awesome day. My very cool boss gave me the day off and fortunately Sarah didn't have to work so we spent the day arraigning the apartment, eating great food, and seeing some wonderful friends. But, perhaps the pinnacle of the day was this blog post by Andy and not-Andy. Check it out if you have a chance:

Back with the travel details soon.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Time to take the plunge...

Up until this point, Sarah and I have done many things to prep for this trip. We have researched, planned, hoped, asked for advice (and funds), saved, blogged, etc etc. But as of yet, we have yet to actually buy anything. That is about to change. In nine days time we head over to see Allison, our friend Joanna's sister who is a travel agent, and we book our round the world flights. FYI - they cost way more than my first car. Granted it was a bit of a beater and blew up on the freeway one day, but that's a story for another day.

In preparation for the meeting, Allison has asked us to prep a preliminary itinerary. It is copied below:
Leaving December 23ish, 2010
(fly) Vancouver to San Francisco

Leaving January 1ish, 2010
(fly) San Francisco to Sydney
Stay approx. 14 days (Aus)

(fly) Sydney to Thailand
Stay approx. 10 days (Thai)

(fly) Thailand to Nepal
Stay approx. 10 days (Nep)

(fly) Nepal to India
Stay approx. 21 days (India)

(fly) India to Israel
Stay approx. 10 days (Isr)

(fly) Israel to Turkey
Stay approx. 7 days (Tur)

(fly) Turkey to Morocco
Stay approx. 7 days (Mor)

(fly) Morocco to Tunisia
Stay approx. 7 days (Tun)

(boat) Tunisia to Greece
Stay approx. 7 days (Gre)

(boat) Greece to Italy
Stay approx. 14 days (Italy)
 (Eurorail passes) Stay approx. 28 days (Europe)

(fly) Paris to San Francisco
Stay approx. 3 days (SF)

(fly) San Francisco to Vancouver (arrive end of May)
home again, home again, giggity gig.

As you'll see, we've reversed the original order of the trip. We did this as we'll be chasing the summertime weather around the globe. In January, when we head out to Australia, it will be the middle of their summer time and hopefully we'll get to hang out with Tanja and Joel as they make their yearly sojorn back to the land of Russell Crowe and the wonderful movie Australia (just kidding Joel).

Anyway, very excited to get this booked and have tickets in hand!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Toronto. Gray, dismal, and packed with hidden treasures.

I headed out to Toronto on the early early 7am flight out of Vancouver. I slept a bit, watched Taking Woodstock (sadly terrible), and landed in the afternoon in Toronto. I suppose I've gotten used to living in a city that is tucked up against a mountain range on one side and the ocean on the other because I found the flatness of the land unsettling. It made the high gray clouds and clinging low fog feel as if it expanded on forever. The airport is quite a long drive from the city itself and along the way, you skirt the edge of Lake Ontario on one side and occasional row houses on the other. Eventually this gives way to isolated gray apartment towers, clustered in groups of three or four, some with boarded up shops at the bottom. The closer you get to the city, the more towers appear in each cluster and the newer they look. The glass becomes clean, Jamba Juices and Starbucks begin to pepper their street levels and finally you reach the city, which as it turns out is just a massive cluster of these tall gray buildings. And this was my overarching impression of Toronto - gray. Granted it's November and was lightly or heavily raining the whole time, but still, the buildings, the artwork, the parks, all seem gray.

Here is a good example - Toronto City Hall. I suppose it looks a bit like a bird, with two wings curved around a central body. But why oh why, would the entire back of the building be concrete with no windows?? The interior curves are all windows facing towards the center pavilion, but the outside curve, facing the city and the expanse of the lake beyond is a striated face of solid concrete.

Below is another example from out front of City Hall. It's an ice skating rink with - you guessed it - gray concrete pillars and decorations.
My room was on the 23rd floor of the Metropolitan Hotel, which if you do happen to end up in Toronto, I highly recommend. I found a great deal on Expedia. Anyway, from the 23rd floor I was right under the cloud layer and could see quite a bit of the expanse of the city as it rolled out towards the massive lake. It was in the elevator of the hotel that I first started to get a glimpse of the other side of Toronto. There were five elevators, each of which was decorated with intricate Chinese woodblock prints. The paintings covered the walls from floor to ceiling and were covered in glass to protect the beautiful details.

Each elevator has a unique scene, each as remarkable as the last. (I must have been impressed as I promptly forgot my computer bag in the elevator and had to ride up and down many times trying to locate it)                                                                                                  The next morning, I headed out into the rain to walk the 5 or 6 blocks to my meeting at St. Micheal's Hospital. Apparently when it rains in Toronto, it really rains. I made it only a few blocks before I sought refuge in one of the malls that line the downtown area around Queens Street. As you can see from the picture, I was not a dry, or happy, camper at that point.

After I dried off as best I could in the entryway, (there's nothing like showing up to a meeting soaking wet) I walked into the main thoroughfare of the mall. Those of you that know me well know I am not a mall goer. I once got trapped in an IKEA at Christmas time and couldn't find the exit and that was it for me. Holiday shopping consists of me, the internet, and a bracing drink. But this mall, I have to say was remarkable.

The arched windows over the top cast a remarkable amount of light into the open atriums and wide corridors. The model geese hanging from the ceiling by what looks like thick fishing line give a sense of motion to the space, and being able to see up and down to all of the cheerily lit spaces creates an open, inviting feel. If you look closely you can see the windows rising four or five levels above the shops. I was shocked to see that those are apartments, some of which have balconies overlooking the mall. On one of them, I saw an older couple enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and reading the paper. Being a bit of a sci-fi enthusiast, it reminded me of some of the descriptions from Blue Mars, part of the Mars Trilogy written by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I managed to walk nearly the rest of the way to the hospital through this mall, which connects underground to the buildings on all sides of it and as it turns out, right back to the building next to my hotel. And this was my realization about Toronto - it's a city whose gray exterior matches the Midwestern clouds and expansive skyline, but as devoid of color as the exterior is, the underground is as far to the opposite side of the color scale as possible. The city has dug down into the ground and created a spiderweb of interconnected tunnels, bright colors, and atmosphere that take a rainstorm to discover.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What's in a (blog) name?

A couple of years ago, we rented Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's several-DVD set of their motorcycle ride around the world, traveling from London through Europe into Russia, Mongolia, flying to Alaska, down through Canada, and arriving in New York.  Where it sure looked like hard work (motorcycling through mud and stuff), we were constantly reminded that they had a caravan of fellow travelers and video equipment and, I'm sure, an "abort ship" lifeline at their fingertips at all times.  They did not need to make that call, and in turn made some very cool DVDs.  We're bogarting their concept, sort of, at least for the title of the blog (no motorcycles, though - but maybe a moped in Greece).  That being said - and giving credit where credit it due - here's a homemade YouTube video with the theme song for the series, "Long Way Round" by the Stereophonics.  It's a catchy tune and every time I (Sarah) glance at the blog title, I hum to myself, "ba da da da, ba da da da..."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The pause before...

Now if only that big button had racing lights, the sound of a thumping heart, and a fanfare blaring...that would be the kind of feeling I (Sarah) tend to get before booking a flight, buying a train ticket, renting a car, etc.  Without fail, there's a huge race up to the act of purchasing something on line and then the pause before saying, "oh, okay, I'll do it!"  When it comes to travel - unlike my usually realistic trepidation prior to a big choice/decision - I always err on the side of "book now, ponder later."  I suppose that's a good thing.  Not that my usual thoroughly-thinking-through-things thwarts me from doing anything, I'm just someone who likes to talk things through, see all sides, obsess a bit, and then decide.  There's often a very good reason if I decide against something - but, as I mentioned above, the anticipation of travel brings out that competitive nature in me that tends to lie dormant every other moment of the day.

Part of that heart-thumping feeling may come from my gullible nature when it comes to the power of the interwebs: if the interwebs tells me I'm getting a deal, I tend to believe it.  Not to the point that I'll buy buy buy a service that will find all of my long lost high schools friends at the click of a button (and a swipe of my Visa), but if a reputable site (such as an airline) tells me I'm getting a great deal - I can't pass it up!

This brings me to the moment that just passed about 20 minutes ago.  Here I am, at home, having slept poorly last night due to upcoming move-related stuff (I'm sad to say, my periodic excitement-induced insomnia has rubbed off on Steve who now occasionally suffers from the same thing...hey, misery loves company), and I got word from my Aunt Laur in London who said that we may be better off finding a cheap flight up to Edinburgh from London over New Years rather than driving like we'd planned.  That's all I needed to get the ball rolling...AND SHE'S OFF!

(Please read the following aloud in a quick horse race announcer voice)
sarah reads an email from her aunt and IMs steve to see if he's received the forwarded email from her aunt about how it would make a lot more sense for them to fly instead of drive because of the traffic gas prices UK drivers, sarah waits impatiently for steve's google IM to respond (steve is typing...), as sarah waits for steve's IM to pop up, she's on ryan air easy jet and kayak all at the same time searching for the best price, lest we forget the frantic switching back and forth to a currency converter site because sarah has no concept of how much a pound is versus a canuckian dollar...steve finally responds with a "sure, sounds good to me" which gives sarah the ultimate go ahead to zoom in on the cheap flight that awaits her on easy jet, but wait - if she doesn't book it this very minute maybe some brit over yonder across the atlantic sea is about to book a quick flight home to edinburgh to see his mum, thus taking sarah and steve's cheap flight!  how dare he?! she must book it now!  she goes through all the rigmorale to register for the website (though she'll get annoyed by their email promotions in the future and send them maliciously into her spam folder) when finally the moment comes to purchase her tickets and she pauses...

heart thumping....
should she "click here"...?
what about the brit who needs to visit his mum...?
what about figuring out how to get to gatwick airport from her relative's home in london...?
what about that hot cup of water I left in the microwave...?
the crowd has gone quiet...


There's a hush as Sarah waits for the email confirmation to come through.  She takes a deep breath and IMs Steve, "booked." to which he eloquently responds, "cool."

And that, my friends, is how every flight, camel ride, boat tour, hotel booking, and on-line reservation for a show with dancing girls will take place when we're on our world trip.  If you hear cheering crowds and whinnying blaring from our living room window as we approach our departure time - you'll know why.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Home base....Found!

The ongoing plan there for a while was that when we left Vancouver to head the long way round, we'd give up our apartment, store our stuff, and find a new place when we landed back at the end of the trip. But then, we got to discussing the feeling of being away from home for a while, of sleeping in random motels, hostels, kind people's couches, etc and how amazing it feels to return to your own bed after all that. How it feels to wake up in the morning and know exactly where the coffee maker is, where the towels for the shower are, and that you are finally home. So, we decided it was time to go find the apartment that would be home when we returned. It took us a couple of months and some stressful nights of indecision, but we got it done. Lease signed last night. Home Base Found.

It's the top two stories of the house, funky space, great view of the city, very excited. And our friends Amanda and Drew rented the downstairs apartment! For you Vancouverites, its on 10th and Ontario, just west of Main St. Housewarming party details to come.

Thinking about the feeling of having a home base has also made us realize we'll need to have at least a week in the middle of the trip where are able to just sit and relax, do our laundry, and keep the running around to a minimum. Our initial thought is to rent a little condo on an island in Greece for a week, but we are up for suggestions! Other thoughts were the French countryside, the Spanish coast, or Turkey. The trick I suppose is finding a place you are with not running all over trying to experience, to have the experience be just sitting at home, going to the market for lunch, and taking a long breath. But which of this places embodies that feeling the most? Opinions?

We're looking forward to leaving on the upcoming trip so in the end, we can return to our little Vancouver home.