Monday, August 31, 2009

"Uncle!"

When I was younger I learned that you are supposed to say “uncle!” when you are roughhousing with your friend, brother, or dad, and you find yourself in a position where either you:
  • A. can't seem to get yourself freed
  • B. are so uncomfortable that its no longer fun
  • C. don't feel like playing/trying/struggling anymore
  • D. all of the above

I'm not sure of the history of this, but somewhere along the line, “uncle” became the universal safe word for “ok, that's it! I'm done!”. This past week I called “uncle”, but in my case it was “hotel!” because I was d. all of the above.

As of last week I had been living on a farm for a month, then I drove 8 hours, camped in the mountains, drove 8 more hours, then slept at a friend of a friend's house. The farm was fantastic, the camping was beautiful, and Tau's friend was the best possible hostess anyone could ask for. But I was just tired. The day after the friend's house we were supposed to maybe move on to the next town, but also maybe go back into the mountains to camp and catch up on work and it became a domino row of a day continuing to tumble downward by the minute. There was rushing and planning and rushing to plan and planning to rush and just when we pulled back into yet another gigantic grocery store (which themselves seem overwhelming lately), I was done. We needed camping food and supplies for several days and a storm was rolling in and it was getting late and I needed to run some errands in town and on and on and on and I got out of my car and yelled “HOTEL!”.

I've been traveling for just over 3 months and besides one night in Virginia for a family wedding I have not once stayed in a hotel. I've been in lovely guest rooms, cozy campsites, open air loft spaces, and even had my own cabin on the Vermont farm. Sometimes though, you just need a bit of space, your own space, and its even better if that space comes with a hot shower, non-inflatable bed and light that doesn't require batteries.

I'm not the most hardcore traveler by any means, I have a car full of amenities; but I'm certainly not a princess traveler either as I did perfect the art of washing my hair in a bathtub instead of a shower for 4 weeks. I've met travelers along the way who travel with no money (although some consider stealing an acceptable means of food shopping) and others who require a 27 foot RV, so I feel pretty comfortable in my middle of the road traveling needs. Regardless of any pre-made plans though, happiness is an absolute priority, and its good to know when to say when and to ask for and seek out what you need. I needed a hotel and a great shower (the big fluffy bed was an added bonus that I also thoroughly enjoyed).

The next night after the hotel I was happily camping in the Adirondacks and with the sky filled with stars and the pines swaying overhead, I wouldn't change it for the Microtel at all. At the time though, it was just what I needed and its always great to be able to have just what you need to keep on smiling along the way.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Feature: Email Updates!

Hi there loyal blog readers,

First of all, thank you so much for reading! This adventure has been fantastic so far and I love being able to share it with all of you and hear your thoughts and comments.

By popular demand, I just added a fun new feature to the site - you can now enter your email address below on the left and you'll receive an email when I've posted a new blog. I know my postings have been a bit infrequent lately and I'm sure you can understand that its hard to keep up between harvesting brocoli 3 times a week and swinging from the tree tops in Vermont. I'm trying to catch up though, so there will be lots of new posts and photos in the next few days!

With the new Email Updates feature you don't have to worry about checking the blog, you will automatically get an update in your email box instead! If you use a Reader, you can also do a subscription through that by using the "Subscribe to me in your Reader" link to the left.

Thanks again for reading and let me know if there are any other features that you think I should add...

Thanks,
Monica

Tree Climbing in Vermont

I'm lucky enough to be traveling with someone who when seeing a brochure that says “Learn How to Tree Climb”, he grabs it and says, “Oh yea! We are definitely doing this!” Less than a week later I found myself sixty feet up, enjoying the view from my self-made seat of ropes and carabiners.

Let me first introduce you to our host, Allen Manning. Allen is Canadian by birth, American by dual
citizenship, and all around crazy ass fun guy by self-made retirement. He and his wife Brenda lived in Montreal for many years, both working in the corporate IT world. You would never guess that he was city born and raised though, as he's standing in front of you with his “2007 Tree Climbing Competition” shirt on. If you would've asked him 10 years ago what his retirement plan was, he would've said “a condo in Montreal will be just right” with all certainty. Thankfully, some friends talked Allen into buying some land in Danville, a small town in Northern Vermont. The land was heavily treed, had lots of uneven ground and would take a lot of work to turn into a home. But it did have a trout creek running through it, and just when he was about to decline, he visited one last time and literally heard a voice tell him that this is where he and Brenda were meant to be.

Fast forward to today and the Manning's house is like a retirement playground, and I'm sure his grandkids feel the same way! They built a beautiful home in the middle of the land, with a gorgeous view of the valley below. Surrounding the home though are still acres of trees, with miles of trails cut out for exploring. Allen has also built an awesome tree house, complete with wood burning stove, quick escape fire pole and fully functioning bathroom! This, the big house, and multiple barns and buildings on the property are all made from trees from his land. There are piles of lumber everywhere, just waiting for whatever his imagination is going to think of next. My favorite thing though is the 230ft zip line. Allen will laugh when he reads that this is my favorite, remembering that I had to count to 10, not 3, before I jumped off; but as I was screaming like I was going to die, I was having the time of my life! We all should zip line more often.

Allen picked up tree climbing as a hobby when he was clearing his land. He uses all types of techniques, but all of them respect the trees (no spikes) and are very safe (there are safety knots upon knots upon knots). We learned what is known as the Double Rope Technique which in a nutshell means you take one piece of rope, throw one end up over a tree branch and then pull that end down so you have both ends at the bottom with you. (This makes it sound much easier as it is, as it sometimes takes hours to set up the rope, and can require the use of the massive slingshot) This technique is an extremely safe way to climb since you never have to take the rope out of your harness. Ok, enough with the technicalities, here is the important stuff that I learned:

  1. No one feels sexy in a tree climbing harness. Regardless of gender or size, its just a funny contraption that pulls up where things shouldn't pull up. However, I would gladly wear one everyday if it means you get to climb trees and fly down zip lines!
  2. Cool knots are really useful, but you have to practice them at least daily to remember how to tie a “B53” or “Prusik”.
  3. Before climbing, always remember to do your B.A.C.K Safety Check:

    - Belt: is this thing tight enough so that I won't die?
    - Anchor: is this branch strong enough so that I won't die?
    - Carabiner: is this tiny piece of metal correctly clicking so that I won't die?
    - Knots: is this tied correctly so that I won't die?

The Double Rope Technique is easy to learn and a good way to climb a tree if you were ever so inclined. It doesn't require massive upper body strength, you just push down with one leg, and up with the other arm. (Again, I'm simplifying a bit, the next day I had sore muscles where I didn't even know I had muscles, but you get the idea that this is possible for us average folk) Tree Climbing was amazingly fun and I'd encourage everyone to try it if you have the opportunity. It may not be the most useful of all the technical skills to know, but its a good workout and a a great time!

Photos

Vermont Tree Climbing

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just Keep Driving, Just Keep Driving

After the whole border ordeal, Sherbrooke ended up being a lame city. Its industrial looking and feeling, its full of closed up businesses and really, its just plain ugly. Yes, there is a big cathedral in the middle, and a few mildly interesting buildings, but interesting just because they are really old. Eh, not good enough. Apparently there are some pretty gardens, but when you are currently living amongst the trees, you didn't drive an hour and go through that whole ordeal to see a garden! And I like gardens! I took over 400 photos of flowers in Quito when I had been stuck in the city just for a few days.

After a few hours of fruitless wandering, I got back on the highway to head south. I was debating whether I should just write Canada off and head home, or stop somewhere else to try to find something interesting. Thankfully, I followed my adventurous gut and drove on to Magog, a much smaller dot on the map and one that I was planning on passing over when I had originally thought the bigger dot of Sherbrooke would produce a fun filled day. (Sherbrooke wasn't a total loss, I did find a yummy quiche at a farmer's market and took a nap under a tree; could've been worse.) Anyway, I exited at Magog wondering if I was going to find anything fun, but then I passed a Wal-Mart. Damnit, another shitastic town?! “No”, said my gut, “just keep driving, just keep driving”. (This message was of course set to Dora's famously optimistic tune of “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” as an Nemo fan would know.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a decorative light post with a planter full of flowers hanging from it. As most travelers know, cute light posts with hanging plants typically mean one thing: fun downtown area! By time I had thought that thought I was already in it - Rue Principale - a long street with not only restaurants and shops, but also droves of people enjoying the gorgeous day. When I had first arrived in Sherbrooke, that was one of the signs that it was going to be a bust, there was hardly anyone walking around the entire city. This was the exact opposite, there were so many people that I wondered where they had all come from, and for what? I instantly parked the car and began exploring. I wandered in and out of several shops filled with a variety of things – nice smelling soaps, colorful Indian clothing, and handmade trinkets from around the world. I've grown pretty good at not collecting things that I don't need (and can't fit in the car), even if they are beautiful, however, I have several loved ones' birthdays coming up, so I always have an eye out for fun presents to mail south.

It was interesting to be surrounded by a crowd of people and not really hearing anything, they were all speaking of course, surely interesting conversations of all sorts were going on around me, but it was all in French. Magog is located right in the heart of Quebec, so although I heard some Fren-glish from time to time, it mostly undecipherable. I find that when you are surrounded by a foreign language, at first all you hear is noise and then that eventually just turns to white noise and you just hear nothing. If you are around it for long enough you go backwards and start recognizing words, but I don't know a word of French, so it was just buzzing everywhere that eventually just became quietness.

I walked down to the end of Principale and ended up on Rue Merry, “How could this not also be a fun street?” the adventurous gut said quite simply. As I looked around I discovered that the droves of people were coming from a fairly wooded area close to a riverbank. There were a few small white tents peaking out through the green. Just like pretty light posts mean cute downtown, white tents usually mean street festival. Score! I happily walked over, thanking my adventurous gut for telling me to continue on and thinking about what a lucky wanderer I was to find not only an entertaining first street, but also some kind of outdoor entertainment on the second street. I was so excited that I was practically skipping; Canada was no longer a waste of a gorgeous day.

There were tents full of paintings, crafts, jewelry and gourmet foods. There was music playing on two different stages, games for kids and frozen drinks for adults. For awhile I had no idea where I was or what this was all about, I just continued to contently wander. There were official looking signs everywhere that said “Traverse” and a logo of a swimmer, so I looked for a cute, possibly English-speaking, guy to ask. (If you're going to ask for information, it might as well be coming from a good looking Quebecian). The bleachers full of cheering fans next to the river helped solve the puzzle though; apparently I was at some sort of swimming competition that Magog was hosting in conjunction with the festival for the fans and locals. Sounds good to me! A loud speaker suddenly came on announcing “french, french, french, Gabrielle!, french, french!” and I joined everyone applauding and cheering for a Micheal Phelps look-alike coming down the home stretch in the water.

The rest of my evening in Magog was definitely enjoyable. I wandered through the festival, watched some swimmers, wandered down other interesting streets, had dinner watching the sun set behind the mountains on the riverside and even snuck in a load of laundry at a local laundromat (when in the city one must appreciate such luxuries!).

The festival ended with a U2 cover band and they closed by belting out the lyrics to “Beautiful Day”:

It was a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Beautiful day
Touch me
Take me to that other place
Reach me I know I'm not a hopeless case
What you don't have you don't need it now
What you don't know you can feel it somehow
What you don't have you don't need it now
Don't need it now
Was a beautiful day

...and I danced along thinking that I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Welcome to Canada!"

Since I'm living about 30 minutes from the Canadian border, I decided to head north to cross over and check it out. There are two towns that are fairly close, Magog and Sherbrooke, so it seemed like a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday.

The morning was really misty and I couldn't see more than a few feet in front of my car, at one point I couldn't see anything but cloud on either side of the road either. I wasn't sure if there were trees there and the mist was just to dense to see them or if I was going over some huge bridge so there wasn't land on either side of the road to see. It was like driving trough the heavens.

It wasn't too long before I saw the border crossing, all big and official, just like in the movies, kinda like a toll booth on steroids. The Canadian flag flew overhead as I waited in the line of cars, and I was suddenly excited, Canada here I come! I've never driven across an American border, but looked simple enough from watching the line of cars in front of me: wait your turn, present your passport, "Welcome to Canada!" Well, it was simple enough...for them.

I pulled up to the window and a nice girl with insane looking teeth (socialized healthcare, eh? just kiiiiiiidding) said “Bon Jour!”(oh, how I love accents!). Then she asked me a few simple questions:
"How long was I planning on staying in Canada?"
"Just the day”
Where exactly are you going?"
“Sherbrooke and Magog"
"Were do you live?"
“Vermont, er, Florida, well, ya, Florida, but currently staying in Vermont”. Hmm, maybe that wasn't the best answer for the border patrol. Even regular people don't think like it when you cant answer “where do you live?”so the border patrol must really not like it, even when you follow it up with, “well I live in Florida, but I'm traveling right now, so I'm in Vermont for a few weeks working on a farm”.
“I see...and all these things I see in your car...?”, motioning to the mass amounts of crap piled in my backseat.
“Well, like I said, I'm traveling right now, so I have lots of things, but my main luggage is in Vermont on the farm”.
“ I see... Any firearms? Guns? Pepper spray? Knives? Weapons?”
“Actually, I do have some pepper spray in here soooomewhere,” I said looking around the car.
“Ok, here is your pasport, please take this piece of paper and pull over and come inside”.
Hmm, none of the other cars had pulled over and came inside. Greeeeeat.

Suddenly I was having flashbacks of a few months ago when May and I traveled to Ecuador to visit the Galapagos Islands. When we arrived in Panama City to change planes, they wouldn't let me back on the plane because Ecuador requires that all American passports be valid 6 months after you enter the country. Mine was going to expire in a month so no "Welcome to Ecuador!" for us. We had watched our plane take off to Quito as we headed to the American embassy to get a new “emergency issued” passport. It was a big hassle that all worked out in the end, but still the thought of more immigration officials is never a good one.

I get another friendly “Bon Jour!” as I approached the counter, but then the questions start again:
“Where are you from?”
“I live in Florida, but am currently traveling and staying in Vermont (I'm working on my succinctness)
“Why does your passport look so funny?”
“It was issued in Panama”
“Oh...thats why its only valid for one year”, as she examines, twists and turns the page with my photo.
“Yes”, (so thaaats the problem, weird passport!, I think to myself) “I needed to get a new one in Panama in order to travel to Ecuador in March”
“So...you travel often?”
“Yes”
“Do you own a home in Florida?”
“No, I was living at an apartment before I started traveling”
“How much cash do you have on you?”
I open my purse, get out my wallet and look, “$17.”
“And what about credit or debit cards?”
“Yes, I have one of each”
“And how much money can you access with your debit card?”
Well, thats kinda personal! I told them a few thousand dollars.
“Hmm. Ok, welllllll, we need to confiscate your pepper spray. You can pick it up when you come back.”
"Really? Pepper spray is illegal in Canada? Man! That is so great!” I thought back to Michael Moore's movies about how the US has a million guns and Canada has none, and apparently they don't even have pepper spray! I was genuinely impressed and amazed, but I don't think they knew what to make of my reaction.
“I just got it actually, its still in the package! My friends kept telling me that since I was traveling I should have some sort of defense thing, so I bought some in Vermont, I'll go get it.” I'm laughing to myself as I walk over to get the pepper spray out of my car. I can't wait to thank Tau for suggesting that I buy some! I come back in and happily hand over my vacuum sealed defense mechanism.
“Ok, we also need to search your vehicle.”
I handed over the key thinking how insane my car is right now. I keep trying to keep it clean, but there still is bags upon bags of all kinds of stuff.
“What can we expect to find in your car?”
I thought of the blog post with the photo with the bags and try to remember the labels – “first aid kit, air mattress, bag of books, bag of sweaters, cooler that I have no idea what's in at this point, clothes, boxes from recently purchased electronics, some trash, a sleeping bag, etc.”
“anything that can hurt us? Needles?”
“I think I have a sewing kit somewhere...”
The Canadian just frowned and walked outside.

I took a seat and watched the guy take everything out one by one by one by one, I would love to know whats going through his head! He came back in not too much later and was gathering my things and giving me a receipt for the pepper spray.

“Bring this back to us and we'll give you back your spray”
I smiled, “Thanks. Sorry its so crazy in there, I haven't reorganized in awhile, find anything fun?
“Well, the two plastic bags of dried leaves made me jump a bit, but then I saw the labels and figured out it was 'tea', something called “nettles, eh?”
"Oh, yaaaaaaah. It was a present from farmer in North Carolina!"
He handed over my key and passport, and finally, after everything said, “Welcome to Canada!”


Writing note: So I wrote the above while waiting for laundry to be done during my Canadian afternoon. I'll get into what actually went on during my day in next post tomorrow, but now that its the next morning, the above needed to be modified with the addition of the following:

Border Crossing Part 2: “Welcome Home!”
It was about 9:30pm when I headed south back “home” to Vermont. I had had a full Canadian day and was ready to be back on US soil. Again I saw the border patrol in the distance, this time I wasn't quite as excited since I knew I would have to go back and get my pepper spray from the Canadians and then go through the American side, but surely that would be simpler, after all, I have my Screaming Eagle passport, and I'm an Amerrrrican!

The Canadian check point is a few hundred yards north of the American one so I past that one first but I didn't see anywhere to pull over, so I ended up at the American gate figuring I could just pull over there and walk back to get my pepper spray. (This visual detail of location is important later). Thankfully there was no line of cars and a kind looking mustached man greeted me with an “Evenin' ma'am” when I pulled up. Yay for southern charm in northern Vermont.
“Hmm”, he said as he twisted and turned my passport. “Why is this so funny lookin'”
Oh shit, not again! “its an emergency passport, it was issued in Panama when I needed a new one a few months ago”
“Hmmm”, and then the all too familiar glance to the piles of stuff in the back seat.

I'd take you through the questions again, but you can just reread the list from the morning routine as it was basically identical. Eventually we got to the “could you please pull your car over and come inside” and the whole routine happened again: “how much money do you have, where did you go, where do you live”, the searching of the car, the finding of the tea, etc. This side of the border also did not understand the amount of stuff you need when traveling the country. Apparently this time I was thought to be Canadian in disguise trying to move to the States as opposed to in the morning when I was surely trying to move to Canada. There were a few new "American" questions:
"I don't understand, you only took $17 to Canada?"
"Yes sir. I don't spend much, I even have some change left" I said as I dropped a few Canadian dimes out of my wallet."
"You don't get paid to work on the farm? I don't understand! Why do you work there?"
"Because I want to learn about farming and they let me stay there in exchange for helping"
"Why? I don't understand."

(As these questions continued to get more ridiculous and "hard to understand", there was a kind looking man sitting at the back desk smiling at me. As Sergent Genius continued to ask about my travels, the man quietly said, almost to himself, "sounds amazing, are you having a great time?". He was so genuine and sincere. Sergent ignored him and kept on furiously typing, but I said, "absolutely, its a great country to see." We chatted in between absurd questions, and I told him about North Carolina and New York City. He suggested going to see the Amish in Ohio instead of Pennsyvania. I wrote down the name of the town and thanked him for the advice. I hope I never forget him, I don't know how he ended up in Border Patrol, he had the kindest smile.)

Finally after about 45 minutes I was released and welcomed “home”! But I still needed to pick up the stupid pepper spray! “You'll have to drive around and go through Canadian border patrol for that ma'am” said a different mustached man inside the building. Damnit! I rounded the American gate and u-turned to head back north to Canada.
"Bon Jour!" (Back at Canadian border patrol window)
“Yes 'Bon Jour', listen, I know my passport and car look funny, but I'm just here to pick up my pepper spray, here is the receipt from this morning.”
"Hmm" (twist and turn of the passport, review of the evil massively destructive pepper spray receipt.)
“Please come inside”
UGH! I drove around...
“Hello again, here is my passport, could I please have my pepper spray”
“Sure, please sign these 5 documents indicating that you are aware of the dangers”
“No problem!”
“Here ya go! Careful with that stuff!”

I got back in the car to go through US customs again, hoping for the same guy and sure enough, Mr. Mustache, now laughing at/with me greets me with a smile.
“Evening ma'am. I know we just did this, but I'm going to have to see that funny passport again”
“Shit! Shit!” I said as I was searching my bag. “The Canadian took it when I was getting my pepper spray and didn't give it back!”
“Are you kidding, ma'am?”
“Oh. My. God.”
“Back around you go ma'am, here, why don't I hold that spray for ya. Wouldn't want you get caught up again”

Yet another u-turn...

“Bon Jour! " ...again. (The accent had lost its charm at this point)
"I was just here picking up my pepper spray and the girl inside didn't give me my passport back.”
“Are you suuure?” suspiciously glancing at the backseat.
“Yes I'm (@#%$ sure!” (I didn't actually say "(@#%$", but in my head it was defintely there!)
“Ohhhh, actually, yep, here is it! Why is it so funny looking.........?"
"IT'S FROM PANANMA! Actually, while I'm here, could you stamp that damn thing! I was wondering why I didn't get a stamp this morning."
"We don't ususally stamp US passports"
"Well, I'd like a stamp if you don't mind, I really need an official souvenir of this border crossing"
The Canadian looked at me like I was asking him for a piece of the Crown Jewels, but said "Alrighty" *stamp* "Welcome to Canada!"
"Ya, ya, thanks a bunch."
I u-turned to America, got handed over my vacuum sealed evil spray from smiling Mr. Mustache and finally crossed the border close to midnight!
I drove back to the farm at such crazy speeds that I'm still surprised I made it at all.