Category Archives: Travel mishaps

Whatsapp? A Tale Of Two Sleeper Cars

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June 05, 2018
Euro Night Schlafwagen Sleeper Car, somewhere between Venice and Vienna.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: Oh man oh man oh man, my love!!!!!! I am currently on the Schlafwagen – yes, you read that awesome German right – the night train to Vienna! I don’t have wifi but I am actually SO PUMPED I just had to Whatsapp you anyways and it’ll send when it sends …. this sleeper coach is freaking FANTASTIC! My mom and I are totally balling out here! Slippers, a teeny tiny sink, a crazy rope swing to keep me in my ludicrously high top bunk as the train rocks, free sparkling wine (it was on our bed and my mom being a …

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: HOLD THE PHONE. THIS BROADCAST INTERRUPTED TO INFORM YOU THAT MY MOM JUST DISCOVERED THERE’S A SHOWER IN OUR CAR. A SHOWER. I JUST SHOWERED ON THE TRAIN. No wonders of Europe can ever – EVER – compare with that.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: (Continuing on with our saga)

[06-05, 10:56 PM] Sara M.: … shameless uke and asking the porter (who btw, came to ask our BREAKFAST ORDERS), “Is the wine complimentary??” And him replying, “But of course. We just want you to enjoy your evening.”

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: Holy crap. This is what happens when josh and not sara books the overnight train 😛

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: (I said that to my mom and she replied, “I like josh.”)

June 06, 2018
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

[06-06, 2:17 PM] Joshua: Hahahahaha WOW this was an epic text-barrage to wake up to!

[06-06, 2:18 PM] Joshua: Lol I’d forgotten that I had bought that ticket! Well, you’re welcome, you’re welcome (said in my Maui voice, of course)

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June 09-10, 2018
Polrail… Sleeper car? Maybe. Definitely not Car 431 (since that was on our ticket and that would thus make too much sense). Somewhere between Budapest and Záhony.

[06-09, 11:19 PM] Sara M.: I don’t know if 2 sleeper cars could be more different than Polrail vs. The Schlafwagen.

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[06-09, 11:20 PM] Sara M.: To begin, Lviv wasn’t listed as a destination on any of the trains, and there were literally zero train employees anywhere in the station to ask. A cleaning lady told me this was the right train, but our car # was not to be found (we were car 431, and the train only had up to 405). So I’m running up and down the train and finally just heave mom and the suitcases onto a car and find some seat numbers that kind of match ours. There’s only one other lady seated in the whole car and we have a very confusing conversation in English / Hungarian, during which she just repeated “Chop? Chop!” And I repeated “Seats 11 and 15!!!”

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[06-09, 11:24 PM] Sara M.: My mom saves the day at this point by discovering lady is Ukrainian , so they immediately start chatting in Ukrainian about grandchildren, which is adorable, whilst I try to puzzle out where the heck we may be off to. FINALLY an employee comes along! I show her our tickets and she goes huffily, “Sleeper car. Dat way.” I’m trying to gesture and figure out where we’re going, when she snaps, “Or stay here, up to you, I don’t care!!”

She then descends on our lovely new friend and informs her, “Your ticket second class. Out. ”

Our lady obviously can’t understand English, so employee raises her voice and goes, “Idiot. Second class! Two!! Dva!” Then she turns back to us, “Sleeper car! Go!!”

[06-09, 11:28 PM] Sara M.: Ay yi. We go through what looks like an engine room and so I had assumed was off limits but nope, apparently just the way to first-class (Obviously. Maybe I am also an idiot). We find our berth. We’re so amazed and relieved there are actual beds (and not the non-reclining chairs we had thought were our “Sleeper car” seats!)

Suddenly, this balding unshaven man in dirty jeans and a beer t-shirt comes out and gets in our room, and is gesturing at the beds and grabbing at our sheets, and waving his finger at us. Both mom and I are both thinking the same thing, namely, “Holy #@$% is this guy sharing our berth????!”

I’m telling him that we have tickets and saying the berth number over and over again, and he then grabs our tickets and says, “I take these, give back in Lviv.”

[06-09, 11:30 PM] Sara M.: Wtf um, NO. So I try to grab them back and he’s getting all pissy and finally yells, “Yura!!!!!”

And Yura, this kindly older gentleman dressed in – imagine that! – a train uniform with an ID badge, comes in, and says yes, we’re in the right place and he’ll take our tickets now and give them back in Lviv. And then he brings Mom coffee in a beautiful silver salvar and leaves.

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Mom and I just couldn’t stop laughing and calling yelling man every bad Ukrainian name we could think of (“Snot-nosed whiney idiot flower pot!!” …it loses something in the translation). Who the heck WAS he???

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Needless to say, there was no breakfast menu or sparkling wine, so good thing we still had a bottle of prosecco from the Schlafwagen — we definitely needed it!!!

[06-09, 11:33 PM] Sara M.: Just spent a lovely few hours sitting and knitting with mom, and now it’s almost bedtime. When I wake up … I’ll be in my country!!!!

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[06-10, 12:44 AM] Sara M.: Oh jeepers. Woken up by literal banging on the door at midnight — welcome to Ukraine! Border guards on-board to examine everyone’s passports!

[06-10, 1:25 AM] Sara M.: Dear goodness. Ever since crossing the border, the train has been grinding deafeningly. It actually sounds like it doesn’t fit the tracks. Eff. Looks like there will be no sleeping in this sleeper car 😑😢😩

[06-10, 1:46 AM] Sara M.: Psych! That was actually just the Hungarian exit crossing! NOW it’s Ukraine entry time! 😣 Bwahahahaha Mom definitely found her Ukrainian sassy vibe and when there was more banging on the door, she yelled, “Що ти хочеш!?? Що ви робите?!!!?” (“What!!? What do you want???!”) in Ukrainian. Safely hiding in my top bunk, pretending I didn’t understand anything, I let her deal with the border guards!

[06-10, 1:47 AM] Sara M.: Got my passport stamps!!! Ay yi, onward ho?

[06-10, 3:05 AM] Sara M.: Update – 3AM and still no ho.

[06-10, 7:15 AM] Sara M.: Aha. So apparently a giant crane came sometime after 3AM and fixed something on our train before we could start moving again.

Even the toilet paper knows we’re in Ukraine. It is literally a roll of crepe paper streamers, the colour of every good Slavic birthday party: grey.
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First glimpse of the Motherland!!
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[06-10, 9:14 PM] Sara M.: Still more hiccups upon arrival, where seminary people [random family contact in the Ukrainian Baptist community who were graciously allowing us to stay with them during our time in Lviv] were supposed to meet us but no one was at the station and we were kind of peeved and there was no Internet and no phone number to get ahold of them… but we ended up talking to a lovely cabbie who informed us there was the UKRAINA RUN marathon today (but of course!) And so no cab could even get through to the seminary. We were about to brave public transit but stopped for some breakfast first and GOT PEROGIES and suddenly we weren’t peeved at all anymore 😊😊😊😄😄😄

[06-10, 9:15 PM] Sara M.: And then perogy place had wifi and we got the mobile # for the seminary guy who was apparently wandering the station looking for us! He (and everyone at the seminary) are so exceptionally lovely and our rooms are freaking ginormous! Except we each have our own and it’s actually really sad to be separated down the hallway!

June 10, 2018
And again, back at the ranch…

[06-10, 5:56 PM] Joshua: Wowwwwww you basically just composed a complete blog entry just through these whatsapps! That sounds absolutely crazy! Glad you guys look happy (in a just-teetering-on-insane kind of way 😝)

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West: A Farewell to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

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Uncouth ways of getting from A to B characterized our travels around Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province, from the very moment we left Baracoa… which is, incidentally, in Cuba’s easternmost province. Or, more accurately, from about two hours after we left Baracoa, at which point the bus came to a halt on the top of an idyllic mountain pass.  The driver got on and off the bus several times, finally to conclude, in a succinct announcement to the passengers, “Estamos rotos.” We are broken. Talk about an existential interruption to an otherwise relaxing travel day!

Over the next half-hour or so the lingering effects of the bus’ air-conditioning began to give way to the piercing Cuban sun, and one by one we all got off the bus. Like the cast of Lost, our isolation brought out the best in us (this was the point, after all, where Sara started penning the first Cuban installment of our trusty blog) and the worst in us (like the Italian guys who immediately stripped down to their briefs and got unpleasantly day-drunk off their souvenir rum). Regardless, though, we all let out a cheer when, six hours later, the second bus out of Baracoa came into sight. Though it carried passengers of its own, it was still able to accommodate us all, even if some of us (read: one of us in particular) had to sit on the floor. (In all honesty, once I abandoned all sense of decorum and just lay down in the aisle I was actually incredibly comfortable!)

Josh and the art of having incredibly appropriate reading material for the occasion:
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All of this to say that by the time we arrived in Viñales thirty-five hours later, we were quite excited for some alternative modes of transport. And Viñales delivered. What followed was, in the spirit of WestJet travel writing, ‘three perfect days’ of exploring this otherworldly paradise on horseback, bicycles, and cattle-trucks.

Day 1: Horseback

While the cycling culture of Viñales is what initially drew us there, it soon became apparent (though not entirely clear why) that certain trails on the map were not for biking. Instead, the local wisdom seemed to advise that horses were the best bet. Seeing as horses tend to be just as common on Cuban roads as cars (or bikes…or bicitaxis…or motorcycles with sidecars), we decided to go for it. Our very knowledgable casa hostess hooked us up with a friendly father and son, both named Eduardo, who took us out on a very comprehensive tour of the Viñales countryside. It immediately became clear why they had frowned at our idea of cycling these trails:

Viñales is one of those bizarre microclimates that gets a daily 4:00 pm thunderstorm.  As such, paths like this one are perpetually running red with iron-rich muck.
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Our faithful steeds for the day and our guide, Eddy Jr. (On the right. Obviously.) Eddy is 11 years old and more skilled working with horses than we could ever dream of ourselves. We also enjoyed swimming with him later in a beautiful lily-pad-clad lake as he challenged us to races and handstand competitions.

Father and son watch us as we descend into one of the many caves that hide in the forest.

Our trek took us to a family coffee farm, much larger than the one we had stumbled upon in the Sierra Maestras. One of the (incredibly exuberant) employees gave us a detailed tutorial on the sorting, splitting, and roasting processes. He became a recurring character in our journey when he popped up that evening as the MC at a dance club across the street from our casa.
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Sara trots past a secadora, the giant huts used to dry tobacco leaves.
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Inside the secadora, tobacco leaves dry for months after having been sorted according to where they had been on the plant (top = more sunlight and older leaves = stronger flavour, but burn much faster. The balance of top-versus-bottom leaves is what creates the exceptional smoothness and even burning quality of hand-rolled cigars). 90% of the farm’s tobacco leaves will be sold to the government to become Cuba’s signature export, while 10% remain here, hand-rolled with no filler added, to make some of the smoothest and strongest cigars in the world.
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Throughout the day (and in a few of the pictures above), we could see the legendary mogotes in the distance, giant limestone monoliths that look as though they were dropped out of the sky. I wondered if it was possible to get closer to these, to actually walk right up to the point where they rise abruptly out of an otherwise Manitobanly-flat prairie. The next day would answer my question.

Day 2: Bicycles

Our obviously-very-well-connected casa hostess somehow made two bicycles appear the next morning, pointing us down the street which would eventually turn into a highway that wound through the mogotes. We got out onto the open road and felt the familiar exhilaration of highway cycling, except that instead of the grain elevator-dotted cornfields of southern Manitoba we were surrounded by mogote-dotted tobacco fields.

Tinker Creek’s star cyclist brings her skills to Cuba.
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Yep, you can! (Walk right up to the base of a mogote and touch it, that is). Most mogotes aren’t this vibrantly coloured…this one bears the Mural de la Prehistoria, a gigantic work of art depicting the evolution of life on earth.
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Our reward for our early start was having the entire mural to ourselves to experiment with cycling selfies. And some brief respite from that piercing Cuban sun.
Mural y mogote
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As the heat was reaching its peak, we sought refuge in la Cueva del Indio, a magnificent cave that once served as a natural fortress for an entire indigenous people. Half of it is filled with water and requires a boat to navigate, giving it an eerie River Styx quality.
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Day 3: Cattle-truck

The one typical Cuban treasure that Viñales lacks is a beach, but there are plenty of taxis willing to drive you the 2ish hours to nearby Cayo Jutías for a fairly significant price. When we asked our casa hostess (who by this point was starting to seem less well-connected and more positively magical) if there was a less expensive way she said yes, and that she would arrange it for the next morning. We just had to be at the door by 8:00.

While there were no cattle on the truck, it certainly could have served that purpose. About 15 of us cozied up on the bench that ran along the inside edge, and Sara was given the noble task of pulling the door shut as it swung open on every bump.
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Sara and I enjoy the Cuban tradition of bringing a drink with you into the ocean.
Jutías drinks!

Who needs a resort when, as you lie on the deserted end of a remote beach, a friendly fisherman approaches you and asks if you’d like to buy the lobster he just caught? We went out for a quick pre-lunch dip, and five minutes later heard him shout to us, “I have your lobster! I’ll just leave it on your towel!”
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The aforementioned 4:00pm daily thunderstorm, combined with some washed-up driftwood, provided a perfectly ominous photo-op.
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While our days were filled with nature at its most gorgeous, our nights were filled with fascinating people, like our hostess’ husband Eddy (yes, there are apparently a LOT of Eduardos in this part of the world!) who worked at the local cigar shop, and two lovely German travellers with whom we spent the evenings eating, dancing, debating the complexities of Cuban politics, and sharing stories from the days’ adventures. ¡Muchas gracias a todos de ustedes para compartir estos dias lindisimos con nosotros!

Eddy instructs us on the finer points of cigar-smoking. “Don’t use the lighter, it’s too direct. Light this stick of cedar paper, and then rotate it gently.” “Ah, like roasting a marshmallow,” I say. He doesn’t respond. I should have known…marshmallows are quite an enigma in Latin America. (But seriously, it’s like roasting a marshmallow.)
 

Our Deutsche travel buddies, Steffi and Marta, inspired us with their own travel stories and the incredible work they do back in Germany, before a game of Dutch Blitz that lasted well past midnight.
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¡Hasta próximo, Viñales!

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There’s (yet another) adventure…

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When I received the email from my exchange coordinator informing me that my accommodations had been changed from a private student apartment to living with a host family, I felt like things were finally falling into place for this trip. As evidenced by our adventures through Europe, I have found that the absolute best way to travel is to plan your travels around people, rather than places. Therefore, getting to live with a family during my time in Mexico promised to make this opportunity into something even more amazing than I had originally thought!

Happy FB news

But before getting acquainted with my new Mexican family, I first had to actually make it to Mexico… resulting, like all good trips should, in a travel adventure!

Josh and I rolled into Fargo around midnight, giving us plenty of time to hit up Buffalo Wild Wings before crashing into bed with the alarm set for 4AM in order to catch my 6AM flight out of Fargo. After an unreal goodbye with mi Josué in the airport, I was attempting to nap on the plane when I was suddenly awoken by cries of, “He’s collapsed! Somebody help! There is a medical emergency!”

An elderly gentleman had collapsed in the aisle of the plane right behind me, and the flight attendants came running with oxygen. They then made that announcement I truly thought occurred only in movies, “Is there any medical personnel aboard the aircraft?” I underwent a brief panicked ethical dilemma trying to figure out if I was responsible to try to do something if there was nobody else on board, but thankfully a very capable-looking doctor came bustling down the aisle of the plane. The attendants informed the plane that the pilot was on standby waiting for confirmation from the doctor about whether an emergency landing would be required. After a very confusing many minutes, the announcement was made that an emergency landing would not be required, but upon landing in Atlanta, paramedics still immediately boarded our plane and escorted the gentleman off.

After all that excitement, I was thankful for my long and relaxing layover in Atlanta, where I ate some very salty and fried things for breakfast before boarding my flight to Mexico City. Now, generally airports don’t fluster me, not even renowned massively huge airports like D.F. What flustered me was seeing that I had exactly one hour to both clear Customs and make my connecting flight to Tuxtla… and what panicked me was walking off the plane and into what I originally thought was the ground floor arena for a sold-out U2 concert, but was actually the “line” for Customs.

I stood in this line (read: at the back of a massive room filled with a massive amount of people, with the tiny Customs officials barely visible at the far other end) and anxiously chewed my nails to bits until finally asking the gentleman next to me if this was the only “line” to be in. I got the feeling that he had been stewing over things for awhile, because he immediately launched into a tirade against inefficient Mexican airport authorities who make tax-paying residents still stand in this line because they aren’t officially Mexican citizens, even though citizens barely ever fly so having a separate line for them is a horrific waste of resources… and then told me to try just getting into the Diplomats line. I had literally nothing to lose but a possible flight connection, so into the Diplomats line I went, behind a gaggle of Aerolíneas Mexicanas flight personnel and many dignified señoras in wheelchairs.

And I confess: upon arriving at the front of the line and being sternly confronted by the Customs official, who demanded to know what I thought I was doing in this line without proper paperwork, I shamelessly took full advantage of my confused-single-white-girl status and stammered many things about flights and information given to me and -insert pleading eyes here- … and was impatiently waved through Customs with time to spare.

(You get the idea)

Except for the small fact that my flight to Tuxtla was not listed on a single departure board. The first airport personnel I asked about my flight gave me a disgusted look and told me I was already at the gate (FYI, when I asked her this, I was definitely standing in front of a bank machine). The second person I asked pointed me towards the opposite end of the airport and said it would be posted there. Upon speed-walking the 20 minutes to the other end of the airport, the third person I asked informed me that obviously, it was Gate E2… which happened to be back where I had started from. Although, since my flight was still not on any Departures board, I consider it sheer magic that this person at least knew what I was talking about.

If at this point I wasn’t yet sufficiently aware of the fact that I was in truly in Mexico, I boarded the plane to Tuxtla only to have the man in front of me turn on his iPod speakers to blast the entire plane with marimba music. When the smiling flight attendant asked if he had headphones, he replied, “Well, I do… but then nobody else would be able to hear it!”

Bienvenidos a Mexico… the fun has just begun!

Bienvenidos a Chiapas!

This Adventure Made Possible By…

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Anna Maria Esposita for finding us on the side of the road in Salerno, putting up with our feeble attempts at Italian, and magically making our luggage appear out of nowhere.  Maya, for introducing us to AirBnB in the first place…our travels will never be the same.  Our barista in Vietri Sul Mare (thank you for the doughnuts, we hope you made it to Australia!), and our wildly flirtatious maitre d’ (that wine was impressively strong!).  Fernando, for the ride to the Tiber (we’re sorry if we gave the impression that we wanted to boat back to Rome).  Pope Francis for instilling humanity into our visit to the Vatican.  University of Manitoba College of Medicine for changing the direction of our lives while sitting in a Roman burlap tent!  Jamie Pierce, for pointing us in the direction of Cinque Terre in the first place.  Kaya and Aeden for being the best roommates we could have asked for, and Sarah, Alicia, and Stacey for getting lost with us in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  And for the calamari cones.  Genius.  The Lemon Man, for delicious homemade wine with a side of really disgusting jokes, and the Pizza Man for abusing/believing in your employees (either way, you made a pizza in record time, well done!).  Pak Kashmir Doner Kebab for starting a 3-month-long love affair with kebab…and for not judging us when we came back twice in one day.  The Sprachcaffe receptionist for helping two confused travelers find a place to sleep in a language school.  Pietro for being a (very charming) walking encyclopedia of Florentine espionage.  All’antico Vinaio for your legendary sandwiches and free wine refills (no, seriously, it’s for real!).  The lovely couple who shared coffee with us on the train to Venice.  Archie & sons…your front hall will forever evoke in us a sense of oriental mystery.  The kiosco girl (and all of Vienna, for that matter) for your patience as we realized we knew literally NO Deutsch (“Card!…48?”).  The Musikverien Usher for engaging us in a Viennese musical intrigue and, therefore, much better seats!  Our Bulgarian/Brazillian (Bulgrillian?) cellist hostel roommate.  We tried to find you on iTunes but alas we were…so far…but…so close.  The Heinrich and Kress families for welcoming us so generously into your homes (and travel snacks that nearly broke the bus tables!).  Artur & Irina, we feel like we have a real home in Germany thanks to you.  Robert, Christian, and Erwin, we hope we can jam and play Dutch Blitz again one day!  Johannes for an unexpected evening of German tango (we’ll bring our dancing shoes next time).  Julia & your roommate for making us feel so at home in Köln.  Viel Glück to both of you in your new jobs!  Oma for always talking about your home country and inspiring us to retrace your Sunday walks down the Rhine.  Maybe one day we can go back with you!  Linda, dankjewel for your bikes, your lovely attic, and taking a chance on us as your first AirBnBers!  Edwin and Farah, for taking the time to hang out with us even with your wedding being a week away.  Once a WOOFer, always a WOOFer (ps come to Manitoba, we’ll take you to the snake pits!)  The stars, for aligning so perfectly as to allow us to have a lovely lunch with Dorien.  The Alma Dixons for getting us to and from Europe in the first place (Mom, your axiom of ‘would you rather have stuff or memories?’ has successfully stuck with me into adulthood) and for showing us all the places you always talk about.  The Farnham Dixons for a lovely afternoon and some authentically British fish’n’chips (sans mushy peas, thank-you!).  Wendy for taking this whole motley crew into your home and showing us around Glastonbury. Elly for introducing us to your family (I cannot imagine a more adorable kid to blow bubbles with than your granddaughter) and an evening of reminiscing about icebergs and penguins.  Pete & Patricia for the most incredible Welsh hospitality, and for driving us all over the country at all hours of the night.  Mark Hanford for keeping us simultaneously amused and not dead as we threw ourselves off cliffs into the sea (still waiting for those carpets!).  The disembodied Welsh couple whose voices helped us find our way out of the mist and back to the path somewhere on Mount Snowdon.  Jack Johnson, for being you, and for entirely coincidentally being in Paris at the same time as us.  Andréanne, for showing us around your beautiful new Swiss home.  Irene and Martin for sharing so many things with us: your inspiring work and outlook on life and faith, the truly breathtaking landscapes, and yes, the little bears :P.  Andreas and Simone, also for sharing so many things with us (like mother like son, eh?): your friends, your family, your food, your car, your bike…. That night with the giant map (and the many road trips that ensued) is still a memory that we talk about regularly!  Aric and Gabriel, for being as excited about the high-ropes garden as we were and never judging us on our (lack of) Swiss German. Joël for sharing your beautiful pays et famille. Yannick for the best duck I’ve ever tasted, and Hélène for showing us the work you’re doing to help new immigrants become self-sufficient in Toulouse.  Ron, Nicole, Aimée, Sean (and yes, Cougar) for making us recognize the name Carcassonne, even if we’ll never pronounce it properly.  Les Cabys des Taillades (et oui, de Paris aussi!) for sharing your passion for history, many hours of games (we now have our own Möllky set!), French puns, and more wine and cheese than any North American could comprehend.  Mami Caby, for a beautiful afternoon in St. Jean du Gard, and the silk scarf that’s currently on display in our living room.  Isaac and Sylvia of JUCUM Barcelona for the generous hospitality, the 2AM tour of your majestic city, and showing us what we truly believe is the best beach in Europe.  Hind, Nour, and Adam for helping us finish off the bag of snails and confirming everything we’d heard about the welcoming nature of Moroccans.  Nour, of Sahara Desert Crew, for an unforgettable few days of sights and culture unlike anything else we’ve ever seen (also, your mad photography skills. ‘Nuff said.).  Cafe Restaurant Nora, for providing a literal oasis in the desert (Nothing tastes as good as Berber pizza and Berber whiskey at +50C!) The Samnoun family for taking us in when our hostel was suddenly infested with bedbugs, and Bousha for introducing us to the madness of the Medina (and many, many friends ;)…)

And of course, contributions from VIEWERS LIKE YOU!

There’s an adventure…

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When we last left our hero (hereafter referred to as Joshua Tree), he was adrift in a sea of permafrost and Cree pysanky, slowly making his way back home. Our heroine (hereafter referred to as Sara) now rejoins the scene, emerging from the mire of second year Nursing exams and her final weeks as a health interviewer. After nearly three months apart due to Josh’s Northern adventures, we were reunited in a flurry of unpacking, repacking, saying hello to friends, saying goodbye to friends, and preparing to do what saratree does best: travel!

A bit of backstory: Almost as soon as we arrived home from Argentina, we started plotting our next grand voyage. While we have loved setting up our little apartment in Osborne Village and working towards ‘real’ jobs, we have also loved realizing how essential travel has become to our life and worldview.

In true Josh & Sara fashion, it wasn’t enough to merely plan a 3 1/2 month backpacking trip across Europe. No, in the week before we left, we also had to finish exams, go to Ottawa, finish practicum, drive 13 hours home from Gillam, celebrate Josh’s graduation with his Bachelor of Education, pack up our apartment, and, in the hour before leaving for the airport, record a CD to give to our European hosts.

And then the fun really began! I’m sure so many of you heard us bragging about how perfect our Winnipeg-Chicago-Munich-Naples flights were. “At such reasonable times of day! With such comfortable amounts of layover time!” Saratree Travel Rule #1: When travel plans seem too good to be true, they probably are. We tearfully hugged my mom goodbye at the Winnipeg airport and proceeded to stand in line.

And then we stood in line.

Yep, an hour later, still just standing in line.

When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told cryptically by the most helpful United staff that the flight to Chicago was delayed.

“Why?” we asked.

No answer from helpful Ms. United.

“How long a delay?” we questioned.

Ms. United remained mysteriously silent.

“Will we miss our connecting flight?” we queried.

Ms. United was mute.

We sat in Winnipeg for 3 hours, with no United staff even present at the gate.

Finally, at 8 pm, when we should have been finishing our chocolate malts at Johnny Rockets in the Chicago airport, we finally boarded our first plane.

The flight attendant, while still unapologetic and uninformative, was at least concerned about us missing our connecting flight, so made an announcement to the rest of the passengers that there were “two customers on board who needed to meet their family in Munich” (?? I’m not really sure where she got this information, but it won us sympathy, so we let it slide!) so to please let us off first.

Our poor family in Munich must still be waiting for us, because we missed that flight (although we literally ran through the airport to try and catch it, which was exciting!) We ended up in a Chicago hotel for the night, with $7 each for dinner (United apparently missed the memo regarding inflation).

Which brings us to Saratree Travel Rule #2: Mishaps are always adventures, just sometimes cleverly disguised 🙂

Enjoying local beers with our $7 vouchers:
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Not enjoying the irony of the hotel restaurant’s advertising:
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The adventure continued when our flight out of Chicago was delayed yet again (we’ve still got some angry emails to send!). We insisted, we cajoled, we got out our firm voices, we even broke out in Spanish. In the end, we were put on stand-by and made it on a flight to Washington, which got us to Munich in time to finally catch a flight to Naples, only 24 hours later than planned!

Except that our bags forgot to catch the flight.

Our bags eventually made it (only 60 hours in the same clothes, not too bad!) But what this ridiculous beginning to our trip proved yet again is that no matter how chaotic life gets, no matter how stressful or uncertain situations may be, the most important thing is to have someone you can count on by your side. Whether you’re in Italy, in Winnipeg, across the pond, or down the road, I hope this summer is a time of discovering new friendships and strengthening existing ones. We’ll keep you posted on how that’s going for us over here!

Arrivederci, amici… 🙂

Granjas #5 – 5 1/2: Just your average, everyday WWOOF farm (yeah, right!)

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Finally back home in Argentina, we arrived at what was supposed to be our fifth farm after several email exchanges and one very successful confirmation phone call with the host (using telephones in this country is like doing a rubiks cube blindfolded, so trust me, this was a significant accomplishment!) However, when we arrived, we were greeted by a girl only a little older than ourselves who looked at us as if we’d just arrived from another planet. Apparently, her compañero (our supposed host) had left to who-knows-where for a week without telling her that two Canadians were coming to stay (so much for all that great communication, sigh), and she had two baby girls to take care of as well. She was friendly, but it was pretty clear she was in no state to have visitors (she said this directly, but the fact that she and her children were all running around in various states of undress implied it as well). It was late, so we set up our tent in the middle of a bush, waited out a mad thunderstorm, and took off the next morning.

Fortunately we had contacted another farm in the Mendoza area as well, so we sent them an SOS email and they replied (quite miraculously!!!), that same day, welcoming us with open arms. And so we hopped a bus that would take us to Tunuyan, Mendoza and found our new home at the end of a dirt road lined with beautiful weeping willows. We approached with well-warranted apprehension, but as soon as we entered we were shocked by the one thing we absolutely never expected…

It was… normal.

No high sabbath folk dancing, no anarchist protests, no army of other WWOOFers descending on our tent. Not that these are BAD things…it was just a very pleasant surprise to be greeted by a goofy dad, a brusque but sweet mom, and four high school/college age kids who are happy to share their lives with us but still fight about things like chores and who used whose bike last and messed with the gears.

In other words, a really normal family farm.

¡Bienvenidos a La Stalla!
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Bathroom facilities (nothing like a frigid shower outside to wake you up!)
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And so, we have spent two weeks tilling soil, building structures for various viney-type plants to crawl up, watching sheep get antibiotic injections, spreading manure, clearing brush (it was originally called “weeding pea plants,” but see pictures below to see why this description is more accurate), and feeding baby bunnies, who are adorable, even though we all know they’re only going to be eaten. All the while we listen to the hilarious antics of the dad, Luis, who has an elaborate story going in his head about this mennonite from Canada who lives in a colony wearing a little black hat and making cheese all day along with his vampire wife (something about Sara’s job testing blood in a laboratory was the inspiration behind this). It’s very entertaining.

The field: before clearing
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The field: after clearing
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Caña construction with our French WWOOFer friends
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Lunch with the fam and fellow WWOOFers in La Stalla’s galleria
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Laura’s incredible pizza al horno (aka clay oven pizza)
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A brief tour of the animals we got to know:

We thought we’d seen all the baby animals Argentina had to offer…until the pig surprised us by giving birth while we were weeding!
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Momma pig trying to sleep (I’m sure all you mothers out there can sympathize…)
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Baby bunnies (aka dinner – but let’s not think of that!!)
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Chicho: The sheep who thought he was a puppy
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Fido & Mimi decide to make Josh into a dog-person
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This farm and family are so entertaining, in fact, that we actually decided to stay for an extra week, which means that, after six months, we will finally be in the right place at the right time for one of Argentina’s many festivals.

And good timing too: Vendimia, Mendoza’s wine festival, is one of the country’s biggest and best. According to the family, there are apparently parades all weekend in which the festival beauty queens, elected from each region of Argentina, ride on elaborate floats wearing prom dresses and tossing everything from wine bottles to watermelons out to all the cheering people lining the streets.

But more to come on that later, assuming we haven’t been knocked out by flying watermelons…

It just wouldn’t be a long-term voyage in South America without…

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…a purse theft!

Of course, this wasn’t exactly what Sara was thinking when she realized it was no longer in the bag on her lap where it was supposed to be, nor was it what I was thinking as I waited impatiently with our bags in the bus depot while Sara ran back to see if there was any possibility it had been left in the hostel. It wasn’t, in fact, until we had two armed officers solemnly stuff our backpacks into their armoured van and cart us off to the police station to give a report, looking to all the curious spectators like we were about to be deported, that we realized we were having an essential foreign travel experience.

Our plans underwent a few changes at this point. Practically speaking, this happened at a time of epic inconvenience: we had been literally on our way to the bus depot to leave Chile when all of a sudden Sara was passportless and unable to cross any borders, and it happened to be a Saturday night, and the office that would give her a duplicate of her Chilean visa would not be open until Monday morning. BUT this just meant that we had another couple days to enjoy in beautiful Valparaiso, and that is what we did. We got a midnight ride in the armoured car, driven by a couple of 18-year-old junior officers who definitely thought this was all a big fun adventure, back to our beloved Doña Elena, who greeted us in her usual warm-but-stern manner.

Now, we knew the most pressing matter in such cases is to cancel one’s credit cards as soon as possible, but Chile is a strange country in that literally NONE of their phones can make international calls. Not landlines, not cellphones, not even the police chief’s office phone (apparently international crime hasn’t yet made it to Valparaiso). The only option was to use a telecabina, a sort of privately owned payphone, but these are only open during business hours. So, at the crack of dawn we got up and found one that happened to be open and, very fortunately, were able to cancel all cards without a hassle.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the vibrant streets of Valpo once more, buying churros from little old men and watching still more sunsets over the Pacific ocean. All in all, not a bad way to be stranded in a foreign country.
(Note from Sara: Melnyk clan, you are going to love this – we found an ENTIRE STREET lined with nothing but secondhand shops. I had to keep reminding myself that I would have to carry whatever I bought in my backpack!)

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Secondhand paradise…
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The next day, however, we got down to business (it was Monday, after all). We got Sara’s duplicate Chilean visa without a hitch and caught a bus to Santiago, the capital, where we were to apply for a new passport from the Canadian embassy. The embassy was exciting, with all the marble floors and high-tech security you’d expect, but not as exciting as the mad marathon we then had to run to get Sara to the photographer six blocks away so she could have her new photos taken and be back to the embassy before it closed at 5:30 (Needless to say, of all the haggard passport photos in the world, hers may have the most legit excuse).
(Another note from Sara: While my white hoodie is getting so wretched it won’t make it back to Canada, how lovely that it is now immortalized in my passport picture!! :P)

That evening, however, was the reason why this crazy travel mishap will forever hold a dear place in our hearts. After leaving the embassy and eating a much-needed dinner in Santiago’s business district, we set off to find somewhere to stay for the night. We had an address of a hostel, which was supposedly surrounded by a dozen other hostels in case there wasn’t room. When we got off the last metro of the night and emerged into what seemed to be not the best area of town, however, no one we spoke to had ever heard of it. All we found was a sign that said ‘hostel’ on a building that, we were told, had been condemned after an earthquake a few years ago. We wandered, following terrible instructions after terrible instructions, until we literally collapsed under the weight of our backpacks. We sat despondently on the side of the road, both of us at our wit’s end.

And that’s when the friendliest couple in the world appeared. “We know this is strange, and if you’re not comfortable with it we understand, but if you need a place to stay we have an extra room in our apartment,” said the respectable man in his early 30s, his cheerful-looking compañera smiling welcomingly at us. Now, we know that accepting invitations from total strangers in a foreign city is a pretty major traveling faux-pas, especially after having your purse stolen three days before, but after 2.5 hours of taking sketchy directions from even sketchier people, these guys were hard to resist. We followed them home and were eagerly welcomed into a shockingly normal little apartment, and told to relax on an already-made bed in the spare room.

Turns out our amazing new hosts were on their first day of summer holidays and were heading out on vacation the next day, and yet still somehow found time to offer ridiculously generous help to a couple of total strangers. They told us they had seen us sitting for awhile, and were worried about us because the area was dangerous after midnight (which it now was). They then invited us to join them for tea, which turned into a sampling of Chileno wines, lessons in local slang, and just an all around fun evening (read: night. We didn’t get to bed until almost 4am) with what seemed to be friends we had known for years. And as if that wasn’t enough, the next morning we had a breakfast of scrambled eggs (absolutely unheard-of in South America!) while our new friends found hostels for us and escorted us there themselves, giving us their cell phone number in case we had any other troubles. Needless to say, we were incredibly moved by this huge, absolutely random act of kindness. Muchisimas gracias, Claudio y Pepa!

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Alas, the tale is almost told. The only hitch left was for our friendly embassy lady to contact four references to confirm Sara’s existence/lack of criminal activity. These could NOT include relatives, and we had to know their work and home phone numbers, as well as their home address off-hand there in the embassy. We managed to scrounge up four friends for whom we knew this information, but unfortunately they were all students and therefore not home during embassy hours. The next day was therefore spent frantically searching Canada411, Facebook, and old emails for ANYONE who might be accessible during the daytime. (We kicked ourselves for getting married at this point, since even ‘grandma-in-law’ is apparently too close a relative to use. Sigh…)

And so, after many hours of searching (and two hours of staying late at the office for our heroic embassy lady), we managed to snag a friend from camp (although the embassy lady at first could only get ahold of her mom, who apparently talked so glowingly of their friendship that our embassy contact was ready to just use the mom as a reference), an old coworker, and Pastor Matt, whom we said, for lack of more accurate information, lived in the church. The fourth, however, is still a mystery to us, so wherever you are, if you received a phone call from the Canadian embassy in Santiago, we thank you dearly!
Yet more notes from Sara: Seriously, THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH. Once we’re home, I will spoil you with dulce de leche!! 🙂

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