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Traveling in India: Transportation Travails

I think there are many great tales that often take place around transportation: planes, cars, trains, buses, elephants, camels, bikes, rickshaws, etc. Especially if you’re traveling (obviously) there are more tales than the everyday commute, but even living in one’s own city will afford you adventures.

India was probably the most diverse in terms of transportation and terror. I already wrote about flying in “Frightful Flights” but the rest was its own adventure. I never did ride an elephant and though I saw one being ridden it was definitely not the most common form of transportation in India. That would be feet, as most people are too poor to afford more.

I took a few buses from town to town. Many of these were Greyhound size buses and usually without incident But a few trips were driven by kamikaze drivers on winding hills through treacherous roadways. These buses tended to be more like school buses with a picture of one or several Hindu deities up from as well as bright color trims or other decoration. The bus could be one where everyone had a seat and was a mixture of tourists and locals, or one that was a reservation only, air-conditioned, elite tourist only bus. Reservations certainly didn’t guarantee the type of bus or a seat.

On one supposedly reserved bus it was jam-packed full of locals with live chickens and other produce. We knew that we’d paid extra for the privilege of riding locally. It was a bumpy, dusty and long ride and we were packed close enough to examine the weave of each other’s clothes. After someone managed to puke on the bus, the answer being to put paper over the acrid mess and continue onward, several of us opted to ride on the roof of the bus. The tourist luggage was up there anyways and this was a good way to keep an eye on our goods and get some fresh nonvomit-ridden air. Of course this is illegal and had we been stopped some baksheesh would have changed hands, probably from tourist hands to police hands.

As it was, it was a fun way to see the country, and not experience the claustrophobia of the overcrowded bus. I had a couple of bus rides in Nepal too but they were calmer and cleaner. Busing to the next town wasn’t that far but the seats were narrow and metal. Metal is fine in a warm climate but at 5’4″ I was nearly too tall to sit in the seats. I would have stood but I was hit so badly with dysentery I nearly fainted and had to sit, thanks to the Nepalese who noticed my state and motioned for me to sit. Three of them can fit on a bench but I could barely jam my knees down and they were pressed against the seat in front of me. I also took up the room of 1.5 Nepalis. And anyone taller than me had to stand because they just wouldn’t fit. Imagine a 6’2″ man standing next to a tiny Nepalese woman.

Perhaps the most terrifying ride of my life took place in a jeep. The Himalayan hill tribes in the state of Meghalaya tended to drive mostly jeeps, which makes a lot of sense when you see the winding, curving roads with nothing but the foothills of the Himalayas framing them (those foothills equal some of our mountain ranges). One day we went out to Cherapunjee with Hanocia’s brother driving us in the jeep. I had tried to the drive the jeeps there but with the handling of a jeep which is somehow different and tippier, and the right-hand steering, left-hand gear shifting, I just couldn’t get it to work. (Oddly in Ireland with the same type of driving but a car instead, I had no problem.)

So we drove up and took the day looking around. We were there in Oct./Nov. and the days get shorter sooner. We ended up driving back in full darkness. There is no light pollution from distant cities in the foothills of Meghalaya. And the roads are narrow hairpins. As we found common and strange in India, cars would drive with their lights off and only turn them on when they encountered another vehicle. Imagine how terrifying this is as we wind through a hairpin, get to the outside curve and then there is a truck barreling at us, and they both turn their lights on to blind each other.

Hanocia’s brother swore he had to do this to save his lights and that the battery was going. Usually driving regenerates the battery but needless to say we were nearly breathless with fright. After a few encounters with oncoming trucks on the narrow roads we insisted he turn the lights on or we were going to get out and walk. We were miles and miles from Shillong but a long walk in the dark was preferable to dying in the dark.

Since this post has gone long enough I’ll leave off the train rides for a another time, but I can say this: after all these years I still vividly remember the transportation and the tales attached with traveling in India.

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Airport Security: A Make-Believe Tale

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but you’re going to have to get rid of the water bottle.”

“What? Why? I just bought it at the airport kiosk. They said it would be okay.”

“Nevertheless…” The guard checks her watch. “Regulations changed, again, ten minutes ago. No water.”

“But it’s a long flight.”

“You can buy some water on the plane. Next.”

The guard looks at the man’s passport and runs it through a computer. She pulls out plastic tie downs. “Put your hands behind your back.”

The man does. “But why?”

The guard ties his hands together. “It says you have a black belt in Judo. We can’t be too careful. You’ll have to ride the flight like this.”

“But–”

“Take it or leave it. We could just cut your hands off.” The man swallows and walks through, trying to grab his shoes and briefcase best he can. “Next.”

The guard holds up her hand. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but your baby must go through alone.”

“But he’s three months old. He can’t walk or even crawl.”

“Sorry, regulations.”

“How do you suggest he’s going to move forward?”

“Just put him in one of these bins and send him along the conveyor belt. The process is painless.”

The baby screams as it disappears into the dark bowels fo the X-ray machine. The mother looks distressed and tries to go through the detector. It whoops.

“You’ll have to go through again and remove your shoes.” The woman does.

“Oh and no liquids. You’ll have to get rid of that.” The guard points to the woman’s chest.

“What?”

“No liquids are allowed on board.”

“Are you talking about my breasts?”

“You’re breastfeeding. No liquids.”

“You want me to get rid of my breast milk?” People are beginning to murmur.

“We can’t be too careful. You can go behind that screen and collect your baby once you’re through.” The baby is screaming, lying in a bin by the guards scanning laptops. One runs his explosives detector over the distressed baby as the woman runs behind the screen. The guard’s earphone beeps. She listens and tells the rest of the guards something. They bring out a box of latex gloves.

The next man has already removed his shoes, watch and ring and steps through. The guard motions him back. “Please remove your tie, belt and socks.”

“My tie and socks? Why?”

“New, updated regulations. Oh and roll your pants up above the knees.”

The man does so and steps through. The guards gets out a magnifying glass and inspects his feet, running the explosives detector up and down his legs. “You should trim your nails. I just have to take a sample from…under…here.”

“Ow!” The man yells and hops up and down holding his toe as the guard takes the gouged out bit of flesh from under his toe nail and drops it in an analyser.

“Okay, open your mouth.”

“Open my wha–”

The guards sticks a tongue depressor in the man’s mouth, shines a light around and swabs the teeth.

“What the fu–”

“Regulations.”

“Look, how long is this going to take? I’m going to miss my flight.”

“About another twenty minutes to analyse these swabs.”

“But I’ll miss my flight!”

“It’s for everyone’s safety, sir. Why are you getting so upset? Do you have something to hide? You should have come four hours before your flight.”

“Four hours!”

“Now please go behind this screen and drop your pants.” Another guard snaps on fresh gloves and grabs the lube.

“What! I’m not carrying anything! You’re metal detector hasn’t beeped once.”

“Nevertheless, we must check everyone now. No liquids, shoes off, pants rolled up, teeth examine and all cavities checked.”

“But why?”

“Someone tried to smuggle in a bomb in their anus. We can’t be too careful.”

“Forget it. I’m not flying.”

“You’ll still have to go through the search.”

Six months later someone swallows a bomb and tries to smuggle it on board.

The guard stops the first person and hands her a hospital gown. “You’ll need to change into this prior to surgery.”

“Surgery? Are you crazy? I’m trying to get on a flight.”

“Regulations. We must inspect everyone before they get on. You should be ready to fly in a day or two…”

Six months later fifteen airlines go out of business and airport kiosks close down. US congress listens to concerns but thinks security still isn’t tight enough. Welcome to the brave new world of enhanced airport security. Of course, we’ll all feel far more protected now.

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Solo Travels in Mexico

Many years ago, on a whim I decided to go to Mexico because it was cheap. So up I went and flew to Mexico City for a week. This was the first time I had travelled on my own and I figured it would be a safer country to try my solo travel in than farther away in Asia.

I knew pretty much no Spanish and had a little phrase book at the time with your essentials. I arrived in Mexico City, finding a hotel to stay at that was also a residence for some people. I don’t even remember if I had a guidebook but somehow I got around. Mexico City was huge, at something like 25 million people, and the pollution was so bad I could taste it. Still I went to the Zocalo (the city center or public square) to see some of the buildings. And of course to a few churches as well.

The first night I went down to a local restaurant to order something to eat. I wanted to avoid the Zona Rosa, the tourist zone, as much as possible. After all, tourist areas tend to be pricy and don’t give you a real slice of the local haunts. As I sat in the restaurant with my tiny phrase book, I looked at the menu in bewilderment. Another customer must have seen my consternation. He came over and talked to me and told me what the food was so I could order something.

I was only in Mexico a week and even before I tasted the water my stomach started to suffer from Montezuma’s revenge. The airport had actually had people giving out pamphlets saying you could be affected from the altitude and so it was with me. I also had tummy troubles in India and Nepal (from dysentery) curtailing some of my gastronomic adventures. So I don’t remember much about Mexican food but there were a few highlights.

One day I asked a street vendor for naranja–orange juice. He asked, con huevos? And I said si, not knowing what it was. I received an orange juice with a raw egg floating in it. Gah! I drank around it and left the huevo behind. I also wandered into one market in the city that had various vegetables and tortillas and cactus. I never did try cactus. But at one booth there was a basket of white nuts. When I looked closer I realized it was grubs. Thankfully I never ordered those by mistake. I did get to try pulque (pullkay) which is a fermented cactus juice, very thick but tasty. It was considered to be a drink of the gods and I guess the old kings used to imbibe.

At that time my hair was nearly to my waist, blonde and brunette. As I walked through the city of brown-skinned Mexicans I stood out with my white skin and lighter hair. The men would hiss at me and call out, “Muy buenita.” I didn’t know what this meant and I found it disconcerting. It turns out that in certain countries they don’t whistle, or wolf whistle as we call it when men whistle at women. Instead they hiss their appreciation.  And muy buenita meant very beautiful. I began to realize how latin lovers got their names.

In fact, every day some man hit on me. There was the guy living at the hotel who tried to tell me he had met me at a party in Vancouver. It didn’t work but what he had done was ask the desk manager what my name was and where I was from. There was the hotel owner in Taxco who wanted me to accompany him on his holiday to a town that had a church for every day of the year, and another young guy looking for someone to buy him dinner. There were the guys at the restaurant in Cuernavaca, and a guy at a cantina who wanted me to go to Puerta Vallarta with him, but I wasn’t about to embark on trips with strangers.

My second last night, no one hit on me except to rob me on the train as I returned from Chapultepec Park which houses the world-class anthropology museum. It was the least invasive robbery, my bag being slit with a knife and my wallet taken. Lucky for me, my passport was tucked behind my camera lenses and the wallet held only about ten dollars and my Visa card. Even my traveller’s cheques were back at the hotel. No Mexican would look like an Anderson but I cancelled the card. I ended up not eating that night as it was a Sunday and I had no cash left for dinner. Most of the places wouldn’t take the traveller’s cheques.

Then on my last night I did go for drinks at a cantina with a Mexican man, named Fernando. He tried to get me into bed, pretty much like all the other guys, except the thieves. I wouldn’t give in and he proclaimed I wasn’t like all the other American women, many of them teachers who came down for a good time with the Mexican lads. But he did give me a ride back to my hotel. Before we got there though, the cops stopped him though he wasn’t speeding.

It seems they wanted a little bribe. So Fernando came back to the car, passed me money below the view of the window and then had me hand it to him visibly in view so the cops would think we had given all our money. Then we were free to go.

Fernando and I did exchange addresses and continued to write each other for years. Now we both have email and Fernando and I still keep contact. Some day one of us might actually travel to the other’s country again. There’s a lot of Mexico I never saw.

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Glasgow and the End of the Journey

Today is Canada Day and I’m off travelling out of town. So here is the last of my journey to Ireland and Scotland from Fall 2007.

Our last day in Glasgow started with the museum and then we went off to St. Mungo’s religious museum. Housed in the oldest standing building in Glasgow, it was a fairly bland exhibition and the building wasn’t that interesting. So we walked up the street and over to the Glasgow Cathedral, but it was late in the day and it turned out it closed at 4:00. The guy was really just locking up so he said you have five minutes.

I zoomed around taking pictures, without actually really looking at the place. The Cathedral is supposed to be one of the few gothic cathedrals in Scotland, especially one that is whole and still used. It was built in 1471 and really is a fine example of gothic architecture. I wished I’d had more time to actually look.

Ireland 2007–Glasgow

After that we tried to find our way back to Will and Erin’s. Unfortunately I’d forgotten their phone number. We also got lost because a helpful lady had told us what bus to catch back but it turned out there were two buses with the same name and a different ending, thus splitting and going varying routes. Which meant backtracking.

My sister was done. We had to walk about three blocks to catch another bus, after doing a partial return route. She thought we’d been walking for hours when it was less than ten minutes. 🙂 A very drunk Scotsman chatted with us (we had to catch a bus outside a pub, of course) and it turned out it was the other bus stop across the street from the pub. So he was a very drunk, yet helpful Scotsman.

So we finally made it back, with Will and Erin wondering what had happened to us. The next morning we flew out on Air Transat but not without issues. My sister had called them several times before she’d left and confirmed how many bags she could take on the plane, and on carry-on. She confirmed with the person on the phone and asked about leaving from Scotland. He confirmed with his supervisor that yes, she could take a bag and her camera bag as well.

Well, it turns out they have their own rules. My sister ended up paying overweight baggage because of it and was rightfully furious because she had to pack one bag into everything else. My recommendations: don’t fly Air Transat if you’re flying more than two hours. The seats are small even for someone 5’4″. If you need a special diet, they’ll lose it or muck it up badly. And someone travelling with you will probably get a special diet they didn’t order, as I did. They’ll tell you one thing and do another and not be the least helpful or apologetic for it. The seat selection (if you want to sit with the person you’re flying with) cost extra so that super cheap flight turns out not that cheap in the end.

Europe and Great Britain especially have tighter baggage allowances and the airline won’t always know what it is or get the info confused. The attendants on Air Transat were very nice and helpful but everything else convinced me I won’t be flying with them again.

At least the return trip was more pleasant. The plane wasn’t completely full so I went and chatted with this Scotsman, Ian MacIntosh who lived in Calgary. That way, my sister and I both had extra room.

Over all, Ireland was a great trip. The trip was from Sept. 26-Oct. 16. I want to go back and explore more of western Ireland and some of the south. I think I’d fly into Wales and then from Wales to the west of Ireland. Of course I’ll have to buy a camera again, but that’s a tale for tomorrow…

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Dublin and Keating’s Bar

This is the last day in Ireland, before we flew back to Glasgow, in October 2007.

Sunday October 14, nearing the end of our trip and our last night in Ireland. We had come back to Dublin a day earlier hoping to have some time to see a few more sights but what with getting lost over and over again, we really had time only to pack, drop off the car and get something to eat. Driving into Dublin after two weeks of driving, you think would be easier. But there were multiple lanes, the signs were unclear and once we got off the highway, we proceeded to meander with the streets.

I think we stopped twice to ask for directions and finally found the same B&B where we had stayed before, the Charleville. Whereas this place had very nice rooms when we arrived we were given one in the basement this time. It smelled moldy in the corridor, the light didn’t work right, the door knob was loose and the water cool. It wasn’t as impressive but we were only there for the one night. (So if you’re planning on staying there, don’t let them put you in the basement.)

So after wasting part of the day getting into Dublin we decided it was wise to drop of the car first, knowing how signage just doesn’t match reality. We got lost, typical by now, went the wrong direction, finally got directions that took us to the Liffey (river) where the dropoff for the car was. The guy who gave us the best directions said, take the last road before the Liffey and turn left, then go one block and turn up. Not only were the names of the streets wrong but we couldn’t turn left on the street he said we could, nor go up the street that was next (because it was one way the other direction). It seems even the Irish don’t know their city that well.

After driving in large circles for about an hour, we finally found the entrance, not marked in any discernible way to say it was the right place. And then we were hungry. We were downtown on a Sunday and couldn’t find much. Many things were closed, or looked very cheesy. So we ate at a diner with unremarkable food.

We then caught a taxi to Keating’s Bar because my friend Will in Glasgow had said check it out. We could have walked as it was only a few blocks away but we didn’t know that after our long adventures in Dublin. It turns out to be an old church that fell into disrepair. Eventually it was bought by a local restaurateur and restored, keeping both the history of the place preserved. Part of the deal was to keep in in good repair and it has more parishioners of food than anything else. The crypt in the basement (with tombs in the floor) is the wine bar, which was closed that night. The large open-space bathrooms are on that level, where you walk in and go right if you’re a man and left if you’re a woman. When you’re at the sinks you can see men and women equally. Very Euro trendy.

The main floor has a long oval bar down the middle, and the top floor, overlooking the main floor is the dining area. If we had known there’d be food we would have eaten there and had a better meal. There are plaques and tombs in the walls to different personages. I wonder if people from two hundred years ago would roll in their graves to know a church had been turned into a bar, but then I thought, it’s the Irish. They tend to be more relaxed about drinking as part of life and religion.

We had an early flight the next day so we caught a taxi back to the B&B (not risking getting lost again) and that was that. Although there were a few things I didn’t see in Dublin I would probably skip it the next time. At the least I wouldn’t rent a car in the city and would the very least take a bus to a neighboring town and rent there to save on the confusion.

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Traveling in India: Removing the Mask

Years ago, I traveled in India for two months. The first month was in Meghalaya, a Himalayan tribal state in the northeast corner of India. I was there with my friend, a native Khasi of Meghalaya. (I’ll talk about Meghalaya some other time.) The second month I set out on my own, traveling to India and Nepal.

The hard journey began almost immediately. Because the Meghalayans were fighting with the Assamese (and because the plane out of Meghalaya, Vayudoot Airlines, was too scary to fly again) I had to take a bus into neighboring Assam. It was a very long, hot bus ride where we passed a crowd on the road standing near the stiffening corpse of man who had been hit by a car (I presume) and was bloating in the hot sun.

Hours later I arrived at the airport where of course the plane ran on Indian time and was over three-hours late. I had left in the morning but by the time I got into Calcutta, not that far really, it was early evening. I had a Lonely Planet guide and used it to find quality and affordable hotels. Except they were all full. I tried several places, each less reputable than the last, until I finally found a place. It was dirty, there were so many cockroaches that I slept with the lights on and the water sprayed from the tap at a 45 degree angle. I was completely dehydrated by the time I got into this hotel and asked the staff for some boiled water. They brought it and it was suspiciously lukewarm. I added iodine (this was before they had perfected cheap and easy to carry water purification kits or tablets) but I had to drink it.

Sure enough, three days later began the fall into dysentery and three weeks of traveling to go. Skipping forward, I was back in Delhi and sick as a dog, puking or hanging my butt over a toilet. I spent a lot of my time laying in bed in the hostel, too sick to eat and tired. But I decided one day to go to the Red Fort I believe. It’s been a while and it may have been some other edifice.

Having now been in India long enough to know you had to ask specific questions and bargain, I made a deal with a motorized rickshaw driver (there were bicycle and foot rickshaws as well). We agreed on the price and I said, “That’s for both ways, right?”  He agreed, but when he dropped me off at the fort he asked, “How long are you going to be?” I shrugged lethargically and said maybe a couple of hours or so. And off I went.

You walk a gamut of merchants at the entry of the place and I was looking in this one shop when this merchant reached out and grabbed my breast. I was too sick and shocked to do more than look and walk away. I should have slugged him. But I saw the fort, took pictures and left a couple of hours later. When I get outside there is my rickshaw driver and he starts yelling at me about the length of time. We argued as I said this is what we had agreed to. I had told him I didn’t know for sure how long I would be, etc. etc. However, there were about another ten drivers standing around all staring at me, arguing in both languages. I felt intimidated by the pressure so pulled out half the fee for the one-way trip and threw it at the guy, stalking off to find a bicycle rickshaw driver.

I agreed to a price with him and got in, completely dissolute by the experience. I didn’t look at anything and just sat there in a distant haze. Only motorized vehicles were allowed around Connaught Place, the giant traffic circle (with many lanes from many directions) in New Delhi.  Around the outer circle were stations for the other rickshaw drivers to drop off their clients. I paid and despondently got  out of the rickshaw. As I trudged away I heard, “Mems’ib, mems’ib.” I turned back and there was the original rickshaw driver with the police.

At that point I didn’t think about the corrupt Indian system and paying baksheesh or about the lies this guy had told. I freaked out. I started screaming at all three of them, walking up with my wrists together saying, go ahead take me away. You’re trying to keep me here and who knows what other delirium was going on. Keep in mind that I was very sick and had been traveling with an overloaded backpack and a bag and a carpet (another long story) for three weeks. I was way beyond my normal comfort zone. I cried and screamed and then pulled all of the cash out of my wallet, threw it at the men and then went and sat on a wall and cried. Actually I bawled.

At one point the rickshaw driver came back and put my change beside me. I don’t know if he had an attack of conscience or if the police kept him honest. I didn’t care. I cried and cried and have no idea how long I sat there. At one point I heard a timid, “Mems’ib,” again. When I looked up there were about six men looking at me, concerned. One asked, “What is wrong?”

I cried out something like, “nothing,you’re country is trying to keep me here,” etc. I was at the end of two months and heartily tired of trying to fend on my own which had not been easy in many ways. Eventually, I wandered back to the hostel where I was staying. Before I got there a beggar came up and touched my arm, looking up at me with wide eyes. This was a child of maybe 12. Now I had already been told by my friend, and observed, that no one touches another in public in India. Actually no man will touch a woman and strangers do not touch. She had said if someone touches you, it’s a sign of disrespect. After the illness, the breast grabbing, the fight with the rickshaw driver, the police and my general lack of coping by this point, I sobbed at this poor beggar, “Oh just go die, it’s easier.”

Yes, I told a beggar to die, because at that point it’s what I wanted to do. It was perhaps the ugliest aspect of my personality and was one aspect of a life-changing journey. Before I went to India, I had this group of friends and that group of friends. I had the calm me, the conservative me, the partying me, the studious me, etc., and very few saw all of me. Like many people in our culture, I had my masques for different occasions.

Between the dysentery, the overloaded packs and the very different culture of India and their way of  dealing with time and communication, I ran out of coping mechanisms. I was stripped down to my essential self. When I returned to Canada and was at some point telling  a friend about my journey, she said, “Yeah, you’re more accessible now.” After that, everyone pretty much got the same me, amalgamated for good or ill, with fewer masques.

India was a very hard journey into my self, where I learned many valuable lessons about culture, environment, people and life. The biggest lesson was about me. I would still recommend that everyone travel to a third world country if the can. It is an eye opener and truly shows many of us how privileged we are where even conservation can be a luxury. But those are tales for another time.

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Swine Flu? When Pigs Fly

Okay, that’s a little joke but I think we need to keep a few things in perspective when it comes to the spreading fear of swine flu. Fear is spreading faster than the flu and though it is a serious enough illness, it should be treated with level headedness, not paranoia. Panic can be a demon that brings on an epidemic of hysteria.

If the media had existed in its current form in the 14th century when the Black Plague first reared its deadly head, probably more people would have died from fear, from fear mongering, from ostracization than those already-high numbers. The Black Death killed an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population, decimating society and economy for many years to come. Some 75 million people are believed to have died from the bubonic plague.

These days, we may not get to those numbers because medical care is better. Yet we might get to higher numbers because there are far more people than Europe in the Middle Ages. And many cities are overcrowded, not to mention that many nations still have poor levels of sanitation and health. An estimated 500,000 people die yearly from seasonal flus. Mexico City has 22 million people but the flu has shown in a few other areas of Mexico as well as in Texas. Still, there are only 7 confirmed deaths by the WHO as of yesterday.

That’s not many yet. In fact, 150 people out of a population of 110 million is a pretty small percentage. However, every death is a rent, a loss of life and grief for loved ones; that should matter. We do have to be cautious but not crazed. People aren’t getting these from pigs, no matter what the name indicates. Eating pork won’t make a difference. However, one thing that humans learned over the centuries that cut down on the spread of disease and infection was that cleanliness makes a difference.

We’ve moved out of the polite era, when everyone was taught manners, coughed and sneezed into handkerchiefs, washed behind their ears and washed their hands because parents instilled it into their kids. We’ve become lackadaisical in this modern, free age, but what you can’t see can indeed hurt you. When it comes to hygiene we must still be diligent.

Here’s the best thing to do to avoid swine flu, any flu or illness in general: wash your hands well, often, and with soap and water. Cover your mouth with your arm or a tissue if you cough. Use tissues for your nose. Wipe down surfaces with disinfectant. If you cough or sneeze, don’t do it on others. Wash your hands often. Don’t kiss pigs.

Usually influenzas hit the very young and the very old. So far, this flu has killed men in the 25-40 (or 50) age range for some reason. Tomorrow I fly to LA. I’m not worried. After all, I’m healthy. I don’t have a compromised immune system or any illness that weakens me. My lungs (the area to worry about most) are very strong. I’m not flying to Mexico. Even all the people that the flu infects each year do not die from it. Planes are very good incubators of infections/colds in general. A closed space with a lot of people. It’s best to be vigilant about hygiene whenever flying.

There have been questions why the mortality rate would be higher in Mexico than elsewhere. If it’s Mexico City, well, there are 22 million people, as I said. When I was in Mexico in the late 80s, the smog was so bad that birds were dropping out of the air and you could taste it. Add that on top of other respiratory problems and a flu that attacks the same area and it’s not surprising that more people may die in Mexico City (and any other overpopulated, polluted city center) than in other cities.

Flu shots have been given for quite a few years now, optional but encouraged for the young and old. I predict we’ll see more people getting flu shots this year in general. However, a viable vaccine for this current flu would take a few months to work out and perfect. If this doesn’t turn pandemic, then it will have abated by then.

Symptoms are similar to other flu symptoms, fever, runny nose, coughing, sore throat, nausea, possible vomiting and diarrhea, lack of energy and appetite. (More severe cases may deal with respiratory problems and death.) Don’t jump to conclusions if you develop some of these. If you have been to Mexico or in contact with someone who has, watch your symptoms, call  your doctor’s office if you’re worried, or if it is a child or elderly person who is ill. If the fever goes beyond a few degrees or you have trouble breathing, then you will probably want to get checked out. Children and the elderly are always at risk. Eating healthily, drinking plenty of water and getting adequate sleep will keep your immune system strong.

Becoming crazed with fear is a more likely way to get sick than just taking sensible precautions. And when the latest scare is over, continue following good hygenic habits. After all, in many ways we don’t want to go back to, or repeat the Middle Ages.

Update as of 10/15/09: There is an awful lot of hype about this flu and to this date there are fewer people who have died from it than from other flus. However, the high-risk group does seem to be 20-year-olds and early 30s. Each person will have to decide if they need a flu shot or not but as a healthy female, who isn’t pregnant nor in that age group, I’ll forego the shot and take my chances.

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Joe the Pigeon

I’m not sure why I remembered Joe the other day. Maybe it was because of the raucous calls of crows, the saucy toks of ravens and the black murders that fly over every day at dusk. But Joe was a bird of a different color.

Joe was a pigeon, not a stool pigeon but a fellow most fowl. We named him Joe, really not knowing his sex. I mean, really, how do you figure what a bird is, look under their tails? It’s all hidden away anyways.

Joe was a tenacious pigeon who lived in a nest in the eaves of the house next door to my roommate’s and mine. From the kitchen window over our sink we could see the pigeons come and go. Pretty much they were an indistinct lot of cooers, doing what birds do, fluttering into the nest, leaving for work, napping out during the day, making eggs. I’m not sure how many were in that nest but Joe hung around a lot.

So much so that he always seemed to be there, sitting on the wooden strut above the nest and watching, and watching. He watched so much with that beady eye that we began to wonder. In fact, it soon became apparent that Joe hadn’t moved in weeks, which became months. The other pigeons obliviously came and went so Louise and I would carry out their birdbrained conversations, done in a slow deep voice:

“Hey, what’s wrong with Joe?”

“Dunno, maybe he’s mad at us?”

“You think? Maybe he’s depressed?”

“Yeah, he just sits and stares at us.”

“Downright creepy, if you ask me.”

“Hey, Joe! Joe?”

And there Joe sat for most of a year, never moving, protected from rain and snow and wind. It wasn’t until a big guster blew through one day, pushing its icy fingers between the narrow space between two houses. Joe took his final flight that day, literally, now as light as a feather. The wind tossed his body down to the sidewalk where it exploded into dessicated bones and feathers. There was very little to find because it almost instantly vaporized after that length of time.

I did find Joe’s skull, sans beak as it had dropped off too. I kept his skull with other prized bones for quite a while. Until the new kitten found it and thought it a great toy to bat around and chomp on. We remember Joe though for his vigilance, where even in death he watched over the nest.

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Hot Air Balloons

I grew up in Calgary and went to art college there, majoring in photography. Calgary can be a windy city and sitting in the foothills of Alberta, it gets good currents. In Vancouver, you never see a hot air balloon but Calgary is rife with them. With all the political debates, there is a lot of hot air that could be used more effectively to float those balloons.

Calgary’s skyline was often festooned with balloons, and I took one picture that had six balloons at sunset. A friend of mine still has that picture. Through the summer and fall it’s a common sight. I presume it still is. I was lucky enough at one time to run into the hot air balloon club as they were getting their balloons in the air. The balloons are massive, large enough to have a party of a 100 in some of them (a cozy party). The gondolas range in size but most would only hold four people max.

The rides can be fairly expensive but I made a deal and traded photos of the members working on their balloons for a ride. It’s was a spring morning in Calgary, which means there was still some snow on the ground. I was wearing runners and carrying my gear.

As we rose over the city I was amazed to feel…nothing. This was no sense of rising and falling and the ride was like standing in a building. I suppose if there had been too much wind, the ride might have been bumpier. Like looking out a plane window you get a sense of the birds-eye view of the world, but this is closer because you don’t rise as high. Great detail and a languid sale over the city and out of town.

The farmers’ fields outside the city held far more snow than the streets. The city was nearly bare with just a few wet patches. As we slowly moved over the fields, watching cows and cars, we came down in a farmer’s field. Hot air balloons are very much at the whim of the air currents and it’s one thing that people have to check before they plan their flights. We landed in a good two feet of snow and had to wait for the truck to come to bail out the balloon and us. And that’s when I frostbit my toes, standing in snow, in runners for a couple of hours.

I still have pictures of the balloon ride though shots of the balloon are far more interesting to me. If you ever get a chance, go for a ride.

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Things to Know About Traveling

Here are my posts (originally on blogspot) about my trip to Ireland last fall. One of my most popular posts on this site is the two-part “Stones of Ireland.” I decided people searching those out might enjoy my other posts on Ireland. The first four were what I managed in two weeks while traveling. After that I’ll post the entries with pictures. This was first posted 9/27/07

Well we made it. Just slept like the dead in Dublin and we’re off to a slow start.

Backing up, it was a bit of a whirlwind beginning. My friend Lorna picked me up around 7 and my flight was leaving at 10:10 pm. Plenty of time, right? Well originally this flight had been leaving at that time and going straight to Glasgow, but along the way Air Transat changed it to Vancouver, via Calgary onto Glasgow. I looked at all the changes when my sister first sent them and thought the only change was Calgary, after initialing thinking they had shortened our flight by a day.

So here we are at the airport and there is hardly anyone there. I naively said, geez they say get here three hours early and there’s no lineup. We walk up to the counter and I tell them the flight. They say no it’s gone already. But then these guys (more airport security than the ticket people) say they don’t work that counter; go over to the Air Transat counter. We do and the woman says it’s too late, it’s gone, it leaves at 8:00!

At this point my stupidity is dawning on me. I misread numerous times 20:10 at 10:10. I know the 24 hour clock but my brain had been stuck on the previous time. This woman calls upstairs as I’m breaking into a sweat (literally) and finds that they can get me on the plane but not my suitcase because the plane is packed. I’m going, what can I do and she says nothing because it’s a charter flight and only goes out once a week with not agreement with the other airlines.

But somehow, bless their hearts, a guy comes down, checks my baggage, almost forgetst to give me the boarding pass and then I have to take my luggage to the xray machine. The guy there jokes that I have to wait a half hour. Then I speed through security, luckily without any additional searches and jump on the golf cart they have waiting, lacing up my boots as we go, thanking them profusely. I got on the plane but if we had been 5 minutes later I would have been hooped and my sister would have thought I was dead when she got on in Calgary. I was lucky and the plane was not late in taking off.

So then my sister gets on in Calgary and she’s put on 50 pounds in 6 months from thyroid issues. Let’s just say the small Air Transat seats are more crowded now. We got into Glasgow and went through the cattle gates for the passports with the customs guy joking that he wasn’t happy because we were going on to Dublin.

A note to people travelling to Ireland: you can’t very easily get a direct flight from the West Coast so it’s Gatwick or Glasgow for joining up a new flight. Glasgow really has two airports, which we didn’t know at first. Glasgow International only has Aer Lingus that flies to Dublin (about $150 CDN) and Glasgow Prestwick (about an hour away by bus and train) has Ryanair (only) and is cheaper. But if people tell you (even those that supposedly live there or are Irish and go all the time) that you can just book when you arrive from all of these different airlines, they’re mistaken. There are only those two and though we could have made it to Prestwick in time for the late night flight, there were no seats left.

So we had to take Aer Lingus, but first we met up my friend Erin who is doing her PhD in Viking archaeology in Glasgow. She fed us and let us freshen up (and we saw these lovely foxes, the local vermin, in their back yard). Then we caught a taxi back to the airport and caught our flight, an hour late because the plane malfunctioned and they had to get a different one. So we left at 11:20 pm instead of 10:15. We finally got to our lodge and into bed at 2 am.

Scary things: a phone call requires constant money put into the machine. A call of a few minutes cost about 2.5£. Yikes. About 5 bucks. Glasgow is pounds. Ireland is Euros until you get to the Northern parts. And now, it’s off to see what we can of Dublin after our late start.

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