Category Archives: Travel

Siberia and Lake Baikal – Sleeping Land

I’m sitting just inside the doorway, feet propped on the windowsill. The glass door is open to cool down the unseasonably hot room. The hotel chair foiled my attempts to shove it onto the balcony, so I’m six feet from the balcony edge, which is 500m from the shore of Lake Baikal, which is the deepest lake in the world. It’s also the largest freshwater lake by volume (topping the combined total of North America’s Great Lakes), the oldest lake (25 million years old) and one of the world’s clearest (I miss Jeopardy). You’d think with all that deepensity it would be round but it is as long and narrow as a red hot chili pepper. The food, I mean.

The buzz of a lawn mower makes me glance up since the ground is a mix of snow and mud in this area. A motorized something is moving quickly from left to right across the frozen lake. The vehicle looks like a snowmobile from this distance but as I track its progress, it continues straight onto and over a fully thawed section of the lake. It’s a hovercraft.

We’re in Listvyanka, a tiny tourist outpost on the shore of this massive lake. Before leaving us briefly unsupervised, our guide cautioned that the test of safe ice thickness on the lake was to check if there were cars on it. We dismissed the idea of any intra-lakal stroll that relies on a thickness test performed by tourists. Just as we passed on trekking through the woods when he said to search our bodies for ticks post-hike. They come mean over here, he told us, causing paralysis and other awfulness containing words like hemorrhagic and encephalitic. And so I’m sitting just inside my room, gazing in silence at what must be the largest outdoor skating rink in the world.

While my trainmate was doing her 8000km trek from Western Ukraine to Vladivostok in one unbroken run, we’ve been getting off every couple of days to sleep in a real bed, shower and take in some towns along the way.

The “tour” is only three of us. The Aussie couple with me are lovely. Warm, friendly, easy-going and have an incredible aptitude for turning the stern-faced train attendants into smiling, laughing marshmallows. It takes me an extra day or two to get the same women to even crack a smile. I asked the Aussies their trick: they bribe the attendants with packets of flavoured hot chocolate or cigarettes, but I suspect it is as much their engaging manner. 

A guide and driver meet us at each stop and shepherd us around the sights for a day or two before returning us to the train for the next leg. We break in a new driver-guide pair each time as no one accompanies us on the trains. It’s stress-free travel, without the cruise-like insulation from the places we are visiting.

In Moscow, we saw the Kremlin and metros and cathedrals and memorials to the Great Patriotic War (WWII) with Galina – who also reminded me Russians believe that foreigners who smile for no reason are insane. She wasn’t making the point to me specifically, I don’t think, just mentioning it in passing.

Ekaterinburg was more death-focused with Evgenys I and II, as we called our guide-driver combo. We walked around an open-air military collection of helicopters and planes and tanks and cannons belonging to the director of the adjoining industrial plant, an oligarch who is forgiven his oligarchiness since he employs a large workforce and donates to every local program and cause.

We stood silent at the memorial to Stalin’s repression – the site of the mass grave of 18,000 local people killed during the purges of the 1930s and uncovered during the construction of the new highway. Stalin implemented an execution quota system that meant when the town fell short of dissidents, they rounded up the intellectuals and people of religion and added them to the lists.

And we looked solemnly at the photos of the obliterated, stained wall against which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot then finished off by bayonet when the bullets ricocheted off jewels sewn into the ladies’ dresses for safe-keeping. 

Irkutsk lightened up with Mark and Alexei. They took us along a river walk to listen to a church-bell-ringing virtuoso, into a cathedral that included a fresco of Bolsheviks shooting the Tsar and family (now canonized), and past the beginning of a pro-government demonstration to counter the rash of anti-government protests that swept Russia a few weeks ago. 

And that brings us to Listvyanka and the hovercraft.

Unlike Ekaterinburg, where a van drove us across the train station’s parking lot to our hotel, Mark dispenses with Alexei and walks us up to the ski hill for a panoramic lookout then down into the town – a 9 km trek and 125 fitbit floors of elevation.

Mark leads us through the market with stalls of giant-eyed seal plush toys, Mongolian slippers, Baikal gemstones and pungent smoked omul, a whitefish cousin of the salmon.

“I can help you buy something,” Mark says.

“I’m good,” I say, “Will we have time for the hovercraft?”

We pass a large, submarine-shaped structure built of what looks like unseaworthy aluminum siding. “Do you want to visit the nerpanarium?” he says.

As much as an arium devoted to nerpas sounds intriguing, “No thanks,” I pass, “Hovercraft?” glancing hopefully to the lake.

People are doing things you don’t associate with lake fun: building ice fortresses, riding ATVs, driving a car, and cutting human-sized holes in the ice so a scuba man can pull the cigarette out of his mouth, put on his mask and drop into the depths to dive under an ice cap one- to three-feet thick. Besides, nerpa is Russian for seal and a seal aquarium in a shanty fake submarine is depressing. 

I think Mark is getting fed up with us but he doesn’t seem to grasp how cool a hovercraft is. We finally convince him we can manage on our own and walk onto the ice. The warning he gave us earlier was unnecessary as he clarified that the ice at this point can hold 10 tonnes of weight.

The hovercraft is a cross between those swamp boats in the Florida Everglades or Louisiana bayous, the ones with the big fans on the back, and a large rubber raft. We climb on the pontoon and bend in half to step into the cabin. The hovercraft starts up, buzzing and vibrating, and fishtails its way onto the ice. And then we are speeding along, slipping a bit to one side, barely brushing the ice.

The hovercraft edges closer and closer to the line where thick lake ice meets the mouth of the unfrozen river. Then it’s ice-water-ice in quick succession to make us gasp. We stop and the driver, who has been texting the whole way, signals us to step out onto the solid surface to our left, away from the river’s edge.

Lake Baikal might be long and thin on a map but looking across its 40km span to the crumpled blue-white mountain range in the distance it seems round enough. And immense. 

Siberia means “sleeping land” and away from the tourist activities and market sellers and tour guides cramming facts into our heads I can feel it – a silence as thick as the ice beneath my feet. Ice covering the oldest, largest, deepest, clearest lake in the world. Ice on which I jump up and down with an insane foreigner’s grin on my face.

Trans-Siberian Railway – Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk – It’s not the culture

Taking the Trans-Siberian is like being in jail. But in a good way. Because you are on a train.

Each train car has a long corridor that runs the length of the carriage with cabins opening up like cells along one side. Glancing in, people sprawl out on narrow bunks, reading or sleeping or playing cards on the little table. They look up at you unsmiling as you pass on to your assigned bunk.

As the new kid, you step into your cabin with clean clothes and shiny hair and hope for an unintimidating roommate. The woman in the top bunk of cabin 9 doesn’t stir when you walk in. You’ve heard tell of models riding trains but this one is older, has short hair and is wearing a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, with one leg stretched out and propped on the ceiling.

The four bunks of the blue and grey cabin are arranged two up, two down with a shoe-width three-rung ladder that pulls out from the wall for the top bunkers. You dump your day bag on the bottom, number 21, and quickly stow your luggage – a fat duffel or skinny suitcase – in the small open space under the bunk. The other half is taken up by a storage bin for your pillow and pallet, that you get to by raising the bench.

Your roomie has stored her bag in an upper crawl space over the door that is built out into the ceiling of the corridor. But she has also made herself at home with a mini-grocery of food on the central table: six eggs, a loaf of rye, a bottle of water, and some of those wafer cookies that taste like paper that your mom used to hand out at Halloween. 

The sliding cell door is open, but the light is blocked by the female Russian attendant in full warden-style uniform. All the attendants are women on this and most trains. The idea of the male attendant is thought to be a myth. She tosses a set of sheet, pillow case, towel and cover on the bunk and moves on. Underneath those you find another pack with paper slippers, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste thinner than your pinkie. 

An hour later, another attendant comes by and you grab your translation app. But she barks “Chicken? Meat?” at you and waits, tapping her foot. When you say “chicken?,” she responds with “Fore!” You say yes to everything, and keep silent when your bunkie gets her lunch at 2pm and you have to wait till 4pm.

Lunch is a TV dinner: short-grain white rice, 1oz of meat called chicken, a splash of sauce, and a stale bun that you eat anyway as this is your one free meal per trip, whether a 25hr leg as previously, or the 72hr stint you are in for now.

There is one shared toilet stall per 36-bunk carriage, seat- and lidless until you realize they are simply securely fastened in the up position. You wrestle them free with some difficulty, resulting in the need for a band aid and some desperate decontamination hand washing, plus a tube of Polysporin on standby. The toilet paper is industrial-grey one-ply. The water unpotable and cold. Your typical train bathroom.

The trip continues into the evening. Quiet, apart from the incoming-bomb sound just before a train rushes by in the opposite direction. Lights go out early and everyone settles in. The thick metal door clangs shut. The rocking is stronger than normal but sleep comes quickly if not deeply. Another person has joined your cabin during the afternoon and she gets woken up by the attendant in the middle of the night, then vanishes. 

But in the morning, everything changes. 


For one thing, I’ve joined a gang. My stoic roommate thaws with two new arrivals that show up mid-morning and we all introduce ourselves. Lyra and Natasha are smiley, with an impressive determination to chat even though we can’t understand each other. Natasha is missing an eye (literally) which you don’t notice at first since her hair covers that side of her face.

Maria comes down from the top bunk and the three of them pull out container after Ziploc bag after carton of food that they urge me to eat. We have a picnic, huddled hip to hip around our little table where they feed me tea, cheese, meat and cucumber sandwiches on dense black bread, and show me the technique of the hand salad – dry sprigs of arugula and cilantro that we munch like goats. They adamantly refuse my contribution of the box of chocolates my guide bought me on my birthday before I got on the train. I am the guest and not allowed to contribute. Besides, they have lots of chocolate that they press on me whenever I stop eating. We have a great confusing chat but I gather Natasha and Lyra are mother and daughter-in-law from Kazakhstan. Maria is from the Ukraine. They have various kids of indeterminate age and sex.

Now there is English-speaking in the corridors as other travelers from London, Australia, Minnesota and Denmark appear to get some air. A little Russian kid runs up and down squeaking and beeping like a reversing truck. He trips and falls flat on his face in front of our cabin repeatedly so we stop looking up. 

I make my way to the dining car with my sole tour mates, an amiable Australian retired couple in their 60s. We trade funny travel stories seated on space-age vinyl seats while we study the 25-page menu with all the usual comic translation errors. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You plays on a loop.

Back in my room, Natasha asks me a question about why I travel. I say, though translation, that I like to experience the different cultures. She smiles and says, “No, Mary, not the culture, it’s the people.” Lyra and Maria nod. I smile back at her. Maybe it’s not like jail after all. 

Trans-Siberian Railway – Moscow to Ekaterinburg – Flooring the Laundry

My cabin mate on this first 25hr train from Moscow to Ekaterinburg is a Russian model-type dressed in a fur-lined jacket, black shirt and stylish jeans, who travels with two designer shopping bags but no luggage.

She doesn’t speak English and neither do the train attendants so when a young uniformed man shows up in our open doorway and starts an official spiel, I try to hand him my passport and train ticket. He waves them away, embarrassed. He glances to the model for help but she shrugs. He peeks at me and tries his spiel again looking down at the floor and over to the wall to avoid my blank incomprehension. He’s determined to get through it and I feel bad so I throw out random words to guess what he is after. This creates more confusion but then I remember my verbal translation app and his face lights up as I grab my phone. He comes closer, clears his throat and pivots at the waist to speak into my palm….pinwheel of death. He thinks a moment and signals me to try again. This time it works.

“The cost of our service is the reason food let us anew,” he says. Apparently this app translates in riddles. I latch on to the key word and say, “Food?” as I act out eating soup. He lets out a relieved sigh and even the stony-faced model cracks a smile. The app gains confidence and tells me I have the choice of kebab with rice or turkey with buckwheat baked potatoes and vegetables, before losing the thread. Kebab it is.

He returns an hour later, his own phone app in hand, “Can I help the flooring of the laundry?” I regret my “uh, ok” when he disappears for a few minutes and returns in a lab coat.

He makes the bench up into a bed with a thin, lumpy, futon-like mattress which he wraps in a crisp white sheet, and finishes off the narrow duvet by turning the cover inside out and putting it on like it’s come fresh out of the dryer. 

The model is too tired of life by 5:30pm and with door open, lights on, and people walking by, she unselfconsciously slips off her jeans and slithers thong-first under her duvet. I look down at the floor and over to the wall.

The train movement feels like a combination of a five-year old kicking my seat and never-ending air turbulence. But it’s funny how what scares people on a plane works so well on a train. Even the low murmur of voices from the cabin next door is soothing because I can’t understand the language even if I could make out the words. I am annoyed by them banging on the wall between us until I realize that it is the coach doors closing and I’m suddenly fine with it. Makes me think I should adopt a train attitude to all life’s irritations.

The cabin has two facing red vinyl booths with a small faux-granite table between them. Each bench could seat four adults, shoulder to shoulder, which gives ample room for the model to stretch out on the opposite bunk. She floored her own laundry. 

The curtains in the window frame the flashing view of snow and birch trees. Those, as the two main ingredients occasionally livened with pine or fir, combine and transform as the train moves on. Sometimes we’re hemmed in by birches that form a thin barrier between the tracks and wide fields broken up by farms or industrial buildings. Sometimes we are skiing through dunes, massive undulating waves of snow. The skies change from grey to bright blue to blizzard-white within an hour or two and every once in a while the view opens up to a still lake or a winding river as we go over a bridge.

The train doesn’t smell of anything as we are hermetically sealed in, although I gather that may change after 24 hrs. 

The train attendant has bonded with me. He comes by frequently to try some English but scurries away if I answer with more than one word. His latest visit is an offer to bring me more tea, which comes in a thin glass with an ornate silver or pewter base and handle. He remembers from an earlier time that I take one sugar. I mention lemon to make conversation (this is what passes for conversation when you are desperate) but that scares him and he takes off. 

On his next visit he asks if I’m from Canada. Once we get past yes, we’re both at a loss as to what to say. I make a trite comment that Canada is far away but he is perplexed. So I shape my hands into a plane taking off and make a whooshing sound. He mimics both gravely then says “Dohn unnerstand,” and runs away. 

This is how I spend the train ride while the model sleeps. This and reading and writing these posts and gazing at the birch and snow and binge-listening the full season of a twisty-turny podcast. And as much as I appreciate my undemanding Russian model trainmate, I begin to wonder if she is real. In the 12 hrs we’ve been on the train, she hasn’t spoken or eaten or drunk anything or used the washroom. But then I hear it, she’s human after all. She snores.

Moscow – More than ballet and rockets

I can’t afford to have this become a thing but I had dinner at another of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, this one coming in at #18 – White Rabbit in Moscow. I blame Netflix.

White Rabbit is highlighted on an episode of Chef’s Table, a popular series that covers a different restaurant each show. The premise of this restaurant is that Chef Vladimir – inspired by a 17th century cookbook – modernizes traditional Russian food to reconnect people with their culinary roots. 

In one scene the chef’s staff, or maybe family, milks a mystery animal that the camera pans out to reveal a moose. In another, Chef Vladimir himself bottle feeds a mooselet that jumps around him playfully. So when he gets to a recipe in his ancient cookbook that calls for moose lips, his voiceover expressed shock. Cut to the next scene where Vlad cheerfully impales a plate of mouse snouts from his sous chef and breaks them down in gruesome detail while I watch, cringing on my couch. What would you do if someone served you moose lips? My answer apparently is eat them stuffed in a baked black dumpling with a morel mushroom sauce.

The staff at White Rabbit was confused that I was eating alone. The hostess tried to make sense of the situation: Was I waiting for someone? Maybe your friends are here? They are coming later, perhaps? Forcing me to simplify my explanation each time from, I’m visiting Moscow alone to, no, just me alone, to, no, no friends, alone alone alone. 

Seated at a four-top, it took a similar round to convince the server to take to my order instead of waiting for the rest of the party, and another for me to order the tasting menu as, waiter pointing regretfully to the empty chairs, everyone at the table must order it. I explained that technically everyone at the table was ordering it since I WAS EATING ALONE. He conceded graciously.

The room itself is on the 16th floor and looks out through a Wonderland-esque semi-circle window like half a clock, three stories high. It was raining snow which gave the feeling of dining in a cloud. The looming Stalinist skyscraper, one of the Seven Sisters housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made it feel a tiny bit sinister.

The tasting menu started with a large bottle of firewater. I was nervous I’d be asked to down it but instead the waiter produced an eye dropper and dripped it onto my palms. He told me to rub my hands together until they ignited, then to take in the odor… of baking bread. It was a test of what the liquor could be used for. Or was used for. I wasn’t completely clear on the concept.

Each course, and there were 15, came with specific details like that on the key ingredient’s historical significance or the traditional cooking method – although at such a rate that I couldn’t always catch the gist. My poached pear and caviar came with a honey mead liqueur that had to do with babies being buried in the backyard till they were 17. I don’t think I fully understood.

It was followed by a chestnut honey meringue with pieces of duck liver terrine over top. Delicate, umami finger food. Each dish followed the pattern of careful placement, story and instructions on how to eat it.

The parade of dishes over the next two hours came rapid fire, one landing soon after I’d taken the last preceding bite:

  • Gouda cheese mousse: airy
  • Swan livers with toasted marshmallow: melt in your mouth
  • Birch bread and herring milt with carved birch knife: result of olden time bad quality flour mixed with tree (?) to improve it
  • Sour shchi (cabbage, cucumber and gel) with king crab on a cracker: my first sighting of the single Russian letter “shch” pronounced like “freSH CHeese”
  • Sea urchin and white chocolate mousse in a baked onion skin: I’m losing track of the different tastes now
  • Crab, carrots and egg yolk in Wednesday salt (“Do you know this?” he says. “I’ve heard of Tuesday salt,” I say, thinking back to the Chef’s Table episode. “Oh yes, that’s right,” he says, inwardly cursing Netflix for showing him up)
  • Moose lips and tongue dumplings in a morel mushroom sauce: yes, I did it. Gamey.
  • Cod, sour malt and sour spelt: I can’t eat any more
  • Medlar fruit sorbet: now mushing my food around to make it look like I’m eating
  • Beef ribs cooked in kvass: cutting it up into small pieces to hide it under the green vegetable hair and onion spaghetti so it looks like I’m still eating it, while fake-sipping a full glass of kvass as I admitted I didn’t know what it was
  • Black bread, boiled milk and garlic sea water: dessert, this is almost done, still with me? 
  • Willow herb and honey, with tea: delicious

And finally, five ceramic noses presented on a wooden box. Yes, that’s right. Ceramic holds scent like human skin, I’m told. The waiter held up each ceramic nose to my nose, Groucho Marx-style, and I took a whiff: gingerbread, black bread, marijuana, something and something. Then he doused my wrist with a little spray bottle of perfume I got to keep as a gift.

I don’t believe the White Rabbit name is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but it isn’t a bad comparison. It was surreal but still enjoyable: the waiter friendly, the food inventive, and the overall experience a little quirky. On Chef’s Table, the chef’s business partner says they want people to know Russia isn’t just ballet and rockets. It isn’t. But more importantly, it isn’t just dumplings and cabbage.

Moscow – Hi Vaggash, it’s me, Mary

As I walk out into the Arrivals area, I spot my driver holding up my name, and bound up to him with a hearty Hola. Spanish seems to be my foreign language reflex, even when arriving in Moscow.

The driver holds out his hand and says, Vaggash. I’m surprised by the handshake but I obediently seize his hand, pump it, and respond, Mary

He blinks, spreads both hands to mimic how big my luggage might be if I had any and tries again. Vaggash

Oh. I turn to show him my backpack. His eyebrows lift in what I take as grudging approval but I’m still down points with the whole Spanish greeting, unsolicited physical contact and puppy-like enthusiastism, plus thinking his name is Baggage. I do win an involuntary laugh out of him on the long walk to the car when he asks OK? for the third time and I finally remember to say Da, instead of Si.

I’m in Moscow for the start of a Trans-Siberian Railway journey because what else do you do after a cold, snowy winter than vacation in Siberia? 

I joined a tour this time, remembering how challenging it was in Russia 7 years ago trying to buy a train ticket to Catherine the Great’s Palace. Choo-choo got us directions to the train station but once there we were defeated by our inability to act out Catherine the Great and slunk away ticketless.

There are some changes since 2010. The pedestrian underpasses are still the only way to cross busy roads but the subterranean kiosks no longer predominantly sell bras. The metro signs are still all Cyrillic on the platforms but on the train a British recorded voice now helpfully tells you are going the wrong way.

What hasn’t changed is the fun of asking for directions on the street. I learned that “Kremlin” even in my best Russian accent gets me about as far as asking for a glass of wadder (instead of warter) in England. The Kremlin equivalent is apparently Kreemel. I tried to learn Russian for I’m sorry but Google Translate wants me to say what sounds like prostitute and that seems like a bad idea. I’ll stick to Eezveeneetyeh (apology).

So tour it is. It starts tomorrow and after another day in Moscow, we hop the first of many trains to make our way east across six of Russia’s 11 time zones through Mongolia to Beijing. And I already know the Chinese word for baggage — Sing-lee. 

New York: A lot of song and dance

Two servers came to the table. One stood holding a tray; the other placed a small pot, leveled off with a rich, cream-coloured filling, precisely right of centre on the tablecloth. In silence, he twisted back, then straightened with a larger ramekin in his right hand while his left spooned an half-inch of crumble onto the small pot. Both spoon and ramekin settled back on the tray. He turned back once again holding a paper envelope tied up with string which he placed table centre with both hands. I blurted out, “Very mysterious!” and both men laughed. The main guy said in a normal voice, “This is just a lot of song and dance. It’s bread and butter.”

But of course it wasn’t just bread and butter. Not at Eleven Madison Park, a 3-star Michelin restaurant voted the third-best in the world — for which I had woken up at 6am and slept on hold for 36 minutes to get one of the last reservations for 5:30 pm exactly 28 days later.

Three stars in Michelin-speak means “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” In 1900, when the Michelin brothers started the guide in France, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in the country and they figured starting a travel guide would encourage people to buy more cars and hence more tires. They added restaurants in 1926, and then critics to review the restaurants. Fast forward 90 years and there was me, making a special journey to NY to spend $200 more on one dinner than I got for selling the first car I ever owned. Completely worth it.

There’s the food, of course. A parade of “exquisite, tiny courses” as one friend put it although I was thankful for their petiteness by the time we got to the 10th course. And that isn’t counting the amuse bouche or the fact that the first course alone comprised four little dishes. These kind of fancy restaurants typically offer a tasting menu where you might choose Flora vs Fauna, or Sea vs Land, but mostly you eat what you are given. 11Mad provided options at almost each course, and sub options within those. “Would you like the foie gras or [something else as I’d stopped listening at foie gras]? … Foie gras? In terrine or pan seared?” We jumped at the chance to add wine pairings (old world, local region or reserve), neither of us willing to tackle the 195pp wine list. I found myself throwing back the 4oz glasses (8 in all) like I was doing shots, just to keep up. As a kind of party favour, 11Mad presents you at the end with a caviar-sized tin with an round paper accordion customized to list all your menu choices paired with the wine you drank. I was thankful since my hastily scribbled notes got more incoherent as the dinner progressed, with phrases like “rice-crackery-thing” and “tarty-bits.”

But it isn’t just the food, which is creative and flavourful and artfully presented. The maitre d’ emailed me a friendly note a few days before, asking how he could make the evening even more special than just getting in. My words, not his. I took Maitre D’ Matthew (Matt to me by the end of our correspondence) at his word and explained it was my friend’s milestone birthday and she’d love a surprise champagne cocktail made and named for her.

We walked in at 5:30 pm on the dot having squandered our lead time by an inability to find the restaurant despite the its name also being its address. Matt welcomed me and turned to my friend, greeting her by name and wishing her a happy birthday, much to her delight. His best wishes were echoed by those of the server who led us to the table, the sommelier who explained every wine in great detail and the guy who walked by periodically to put down course-specific cutlery. All done with class and no singing, but enough attention that a few courses in, one of the guys sitting at the adjoining table leaned over and also wished her a happy birthday. And after he and his buddy had downed four bottles of wine, he leaned over and passed us each a bite of his whole trout on a fork. 

A whole team of servers is assigned to you but the handoff is so smoothly done that you suspect a dossier has been compiled. We asked if there were a chance to go into the kitchen, as our table buddies had done. The woman in charge of checking on us towards the end let us down gently. She’d love to but everyone had asked and most, weeks ago. We shrugged good naturedly and after we’d signed the papers mortgaging our places to pay for the meal, we got up to leave, completely satisfied. Our chairs barely pushed back, and she was at my elbow, leading us to the kitchen. It was like the final edible flower placed with tweezers in the negative space of nouvelle cuisine well-plated. That’s the song and dance way of saying the cherry on top of the sundae.

Land of the smelly onion

Welcome to the land of the smelly onion: Shikaakwa, Illinois. Chicago, as it is now known, no longer smells like the onion-garlic ramps it was named for, it smells like chocolate.
The Chicago River flickers from rich teal to Rio-diving-pool green. Edged by buildings of varying architectural styles, it floats boat after boat to show them off. The cruises pass under 23 stubby iron bridges that look solid but crack open like a seesaw snapped in the middle when tall sailboats pass.

Our cruise of choice, by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, was narrated by a volunteer docent named Shelley, Shirley? Sheila? who could project personality through the mike like a Pixar voice actor. She squealed in surprise halfway down the river, attention caught by a wildly-waving group on the bank – her family. Our narration took a backseat briefly to Shirley’s increasingly high-pitched and still-miked conversation directed at her little granddaughter who’d come to see Nana at work. The boat collectively grinned in appreciation. We were close to the Blommer Chocolate Company factory at this point, the largest cocoa processor/chocolate supplier in North America, responsible for the mouthwatering smell in the air. I guessed the little girl had picked the ambush spot for that reason, although I once lived upstairs from a bakery and smell is torture when not followed by something you can eat.

Sheila had a natural patter, describing alternate buildings, then filling in the blanks as the boat turned down different spurs and circled back home. 

We learned how some buildings are contextualized, with a wide curving front following the sweep of the river, or shiny two-toned green glass mimicking its colour and reflecting the towers around it. Others, traditional modernist buildings, stand soldier-straight and perfectly rectangular, with exoskeletons to optimize internal division of space while wasting no effort on outside decoration. One has a truss on top that somehow holds up half the building, “like your arm does for your leg,” an explanation that brought me no clarity. Another neo gothic building is top-and-tail’d with lacy stonework that merges at its middle into art deco with dark recessed windows and flat ornamentation. There are nods to Greek columns and temples, and the Jewelers Building has an impressive cupola that back in the day was Capone’s private speakeasy. It also boasted a car elevator to provide jewelers a fighting chance of moving merchandise from car trunk to office without getting hijacked. The buildings go on and on: one with windows pinched at the corners into little pillows, two circular ones petaled to look like sunflowers from above but to my eye look like a spirograph drawing. My favourite is named Aqua, a residential/office/hotel tower with balconies that wave in and out from 2 to 12ft, and shiny glass windows that create the illusion of water streaming and puddling down the side.

Shelley didn’t only talk architecture. After she covered the whole garlic/leek origin story, she explained the Chicago River flows backwards away from Lake Michigan. This was an engineering feat designed in 1900 to reduce the outbreaks of cholera and typhoid from having a heavily polluted river flow into the main source of drinking water. It reversed to flow south past St Louis into the Mississippi and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Presumably Missourians suggested at some point that cleaning it up might have been another way to go.

Starting with the river cruise meant the rest of the weekend I exposed my tourist status by walking around, eyes to the sky, staring at towers that disappear into the afternoon fog. Oh, and also by taking the Chicago Crime Tour.

The Crime Tour was a “bus-limousine” (which means bus) that drives around to sites related to mobsters, various serial killers or other criminal stories about Chicago. The guide’s enthusiasm was well intentioned if a bit off-putting, ranging from jokes he laughed at himself to prove they were funny, to putting on voices and doing a full-body reenactment of the capture/assassination of John Dillinger. But while we blinked at the empty lot that was once the site of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, he also added some more unusual facts:

– Chicago was established in 1837 and had built its international reputation for crime by 1840.

– John Dillinger acid-washed his fingerprints and got plastic surgery to evade police in 1934. The surgery was limited to removing some moles and filling in his chin dimple, which was apparently enough to foil the cops.

– There is a group called The John Dillinger Died for You Society that recreates his last few seconds once a year on July 22. They live by the slogan “Lie down on the floor and keep calm,” which doesn’t seem as universal as you might hope for as scriptures go.

– Al Capone opened up soup kitchens and ran school programs before that whole unfortunate Feb 14th massacre thing. At his peak, Al was making $123k/yr, or about $1.5m. Between that, the syphilis, and going crazy from the mercury treatment, he had a rough go of crime.

– It was four times easier to get a drink during prohibition in Chicago than it is today.

The most unexpected sites we passed included the Walgreens of the 1982 Tylenol scare that caused 7 deaths from cyanide-laced pills + 270 copycat cases, and the McDonald’s where three workers sold crack from the drive thru if you said the magic phrase. They were caught when police inadvertently ordered more coke than expected.

But there is so much more to Chicago than architecture and gangsters. There are neighborhoods like Hyde Park, with ivy-covered brownstones on tree-lined avenues, and bookshops that are like the best kind of maze you could get lost in forever. There are top places to eat, like Alinea, and Girl and the Goat, and Grace that we couldn’t get into, and just as great restaurants like Roister and Wildfire Chicago and STK that we could. Plus Navy Pier with its Centennial Wheel and Millennium Park with its Millennium Bean. And theatre and comedy and museums and art galleries. And best of all, rivers that smell like chocolate. 

Panama City: Stay on the Cobblestones

People should go back to yelling “Fire!” in panic. I think I would have reacted to “Fuego!” Instead, K and I calmly continued our meal as someone shouted and all other patrons rushed to the door. I was matter of fact, “Looks like that tour group overstayed their dinner time.” Then one kind woman ran back for us, clearly realizing we didn’t understand Spanish and explained the building was on fire. We grabbed fistfuls of McNuggets and fries and ran.

For all our precautions in Colombia and Venezuela, Panama City provided our sketchier moments. A planned 5:30am departure the following morning sent us in search of a grocery store to pack snacks for breakfast. We passed the McDonald’s on our way back and walked in to make up for the run of mediocre to awful meals in Caracas. Our guide/wrangler had given specific directions to the store, “Go two blocks down and four blocks over. That’s safe. Don’t go three blocks down!” While we stayed obediently within that radius, the fire forced us off our planned path, and along unlit streets with crumbling edges past a cluster of feral cats (incidentally called a destruction collectively), a trio of hookers and a man who popped out at us from behind the car he was fixing in the dark.

That was our first night in Panama. Our last night we ate at a restaurant in Casco Viejo, the historic centre of the city. The directions here were a firm, “Stay on the cobblestone streets.” We had driven through the neighbourhood that afternoon on the way from the airport to our hotel, a 15-minute drive that took an hour due to Carnival road closures. The streets were flanked by run-down buildings and people lounging in doorways staring stonily at our little white minivan as we crept past in traffic. One guy ran at us from a car parked crookedly in the street waving a US bill but we didn’t stop to find out his motive. But then the neighbourhood transformed from aggressive to attractive within a block. The buildings got older and more stately, people were peacefully strolling and cobblestones appeared underfoot. Casco Viejo proper is charming with narrow streets, churches, a kind of waterfront, stone boardwalk-sea wall, and lots of restaurants. My final dinner of octopus and faux risotto made of Israeli couscous was followed by group drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking the lit-up city. We planned a pretty waterfront walk back to the hotel but were detoured by security through the edges of a Carnival concert and city streets made safer by the sheer number of people and cops on every corner. Our guide made good use of them by confirming the safety of our new route periodically. It’s stuff like that that paradoxically makes me feel less safe. But we laughed as we turned a corner we’d driven by earlier in the day, one about which our guide had said, “Well I wouldn’t walk around there!”

We could have spent another day in Panama City if only to take a boat cruise through the canal. Instead, we watched it from an observation deck and tried to absorb facts and rumours:

Panama is almost exactly a horizontal “s”, not a comma on the end of Central America as I expected.

The canal is in the middle of the country and runs northwest to southeast. It starts with a bay off the Atlantic, goes through a narrow set of locks which open into a large lagoon and artificial lakes before constricting again into two more sets of locks, the last of which is Miraflores, just outside Panama City. The canal has two lanes and all ship traffic moves in one direction in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There is a project underway for a third wider and deeper lane to accommodate the ships of today.

Two little electric machines run on rails on either side of the canal like those rabbits at racetracks and tow the ships through.

Although the average toll is $14k US (a gamillion Canadian), some ships pay as much as $300k for the 10-hr crossing, still a deal compared to the 15-day long way round that costs (rumoured) $3m in fuel and operating costs. An American is credited with the cheapest toll at $0.36 for swimming the canal in 1928.

And so we reached the end of our trip, a slightly different style of travel for us, with more guides and drivers and people taking care of us than usual but with our standard keep moving and see more philosophy that had me on 10 flights over 12 days. I’m back now and people ask me what I thought. I’m not sure what to say because I enjoyed it very much and feel lucky for the opportunity to have gone but also realize clearly the difference for me between travel and vacation. Both are great but Caracas, Bogota and Panama City fall into the travel category, learning more about the culture, about daily life and ancient or recent history. The middle part of the trip to Bocas and Boquete was very much vacation, relaxing and focused on activities like swimming, snorkeling or hiking (not me personally, of course). In spite of all the worry before leaving, Caracas and Bogota were the highlights by far and it is to Colombia that I’d return to see more. I guess when it comes to travel, I prefer not to stay on the cobblestones.



Boquete: I Give Myself a Week

I walked the two kilometres uphill along the highway, admiring mountain views and enveloped by the tonal music of grinding gears and a madrigal of horns blaring at any car with the temerity to slow down before turning off. The brilliant sun lasered a part through my scalp as I passed empty Italian and Argentinean restaurants, an art cafe and the mandatory nightclub called Taboo. This is Boquete, Panama.

Boquete is a town of approximately 22k people, the capital of the Chiriqui province that together with Bocas del Toro above it, fill in Panama’s western border with Costa Rica. It is described as a quaint mountain village and I might have agreed if not for the highway that runs through it. But move off the main drag and some of it’s charm appears. There is a river, a central square with a grandstand, and flowers set off against the backdrop of the Baru Volcano, the highest peak in Panama from which you can see both oceans at once.

The expat community in Boquete is a thriving 15-20% of the population and is actively involved in local business, including producing tasty fish tacos at Big Daddy’s, a Trip Advisor favourite. We met Big Daddy himself, nice guy. Tall. Boquete has been named the fourth best place to retire in the world and takes the number one spot for Latin America, according to the American Association of Retired Persons magazine. I’m not a subscriber, just checking my facts. 

Most of the others in our group chose the three-in-one activity combo of coffee tour, cliff jumping and blanching themselves between hot and cold springs. I designed my own mini Feria de las Flores y del Café (Flower and Coffee Festival) that Boquete is famous for, one we missed by a few weeks. Part one was visiting Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin (My garden is your garden) and I had the highway-adjacent flowerful expanse to myself. 

While K was off hiking to the “Lost Waterfalls of Boquete” on the side of the volcano, I admired my own modest example, water flowing down a channel of wide, shallow steps into a goldfish pond. No Latin signs explained the phylum or genus of plants; just trees and bushes filled with pink, purple and yellow blooms with a few blue or white flowers thrown in as counterpoint. The architects did, however, include wildlife so I surprised a cutout of a moose and dolphin and an oversized plastic flamingo hiding among the greenery. I hopped and sprinted around the gardens, playing double dutch with the ubiquitous sprinklers, which were often hidden so that it felt like someone was throwing a bucket of water at me from behind the bushes.

Part two of my self-created flower/coffee festival was the tour with K of an organic coffee farm, a Franken-farm with pulpers and coffee bean roasters made out of used car engines and drive shafts, and implements soldered together from screwdrivers and spoons. We spent an hour learning to identify seven types of trees the owner uses to make high quality Arabica coffee. All of the coffee on this farm is exported, some under the Royal brand name, a contraction of the owner’s parents’ names: ROsa Y ALfredo. It reminded me of the South African winery I visited that was commissioned by Prince Albert and Charlene to make a wedding wine and call it Chalbert, much to the mortification of the winemaker.

What we learned on our coffee tour:

  • Coffee beans are actually green seeds, living two by two inside plump red and yellow berries or cherries, and growing on trees
  • There are a myriad of ways to tell coffee trees apart but they all looked the same to us after an hour of trudging through the coffee forest in 30-degree heat
  • The farm was organic “because the owner reuses car parts” challenging K and me to refrain from reuniting the guide with the definition of organic

Coffee facts we wished we’d learned from the tour:

  • It only takes ten minutes to feel the effects of caffeine from a sip of coffee (
  • Coffee is the second most traded commodity on earth after oil (
  • Coffee growing regions around the world are contained within the “Coffee Belt” (, a kind coffee cummerbund around the world’s waist if it were dressed in black tie
  • The practice of paying for an extra coffee so that a future stranger gets theirs free is believed to have started over 100 years ago in Naples by people who had had good fortune and wanted to pass it on. It was called ordering a suspended coffee or caffè sospeso (uh,

I’m not sure how I feel about Boquete. A little too touristy for me but looking back at my pictures, all I have are gorgeous views and beautiful flowers. Every meal we had was great, although not especially cheap. But I didn’t take pictures of the traffic or audio of the honking. You can’t feel the humid air or see my lobster-red face peeling off like a mask in a Mission Impossible movie. And we narrowly managed to avoid the room temperature, e-coli-breeding buffet our friends got trapped into. If Boquete is a metaphor for its all in how you see it, I want to take a little of that back home into my real life, overlooking small frustrations in favour of the larger I-have-it-pretty-good picture.

I give myself a week.  





Bocas del Toro: Bursting into Flame

You couldn’t find two less likely people to have a beach vacation than me and K. One of the people in our group said over a few drinks that he was sure I’d burst into flame the minute the sun got a good look at me. 

After braving Caracas, with the dubious distinction of being the world’s most dangerous city outside a war zone according to Business Insider, Panama is a welcome downshift. But a bit like walking into a Costco after spending anytime anywhere outside of North America. Consumer goods abound and a quick trip to the supermarket in Panama City had us fretting the hour-long wait in line, clutching our three items behind people each with multiple overloaded shopping carts until a nice couple let us bud in front of them.

Panama was the main destination of our trip and wanting it to be low maintenance, planning-wise, we signed up for an adventure tour, which means you are one of 10-16 people who generally aren’t new to travel and willing to carry their own bags and brave a cold shower or two. There are no tour buses, only minivans or public transport, no guides with umbrellas and no lollipop signs with the leader cloyingly asking, “How are we all this morning?” In fact the guide isn’t a guide at all, just a type of personal concierge who travels with us doing glorious things like arranging for the water taxi to drop us at the hotel dock instead of having us lug our bags up, hot and sweaty, from the wharf in town.

We’d both used this particular company, G Adventures, before on separate occasions and enjoyed it as an economical, hassle-free way to see more of a place in a short time than going it on your own. I’d forgotten that it is also a Canadian company which means out of 16 there are only two couples, from New Zealand and Germany, and a solo Russian traveler based in the States vs 11 Canadians. I was momentarily dismayed not to have more cultures represented but am now painfully aware that Canadians are not a homogenous people. Or maybe more accurately that personality quirks are not limited by nationality.

We have a few who talk like they are giving performances, including the way oldest of the group who described in three acts the various sizes of socks her son uses. But she also had the best line the other day when climbing from bench to bench in our tippy boat, a bridge of hands raised to help her along. At one point she spread-eagled slightly when her foot slipped and we all gasped and asked if she was alright. She hopped the final bench and said, in her blunt, crotchety voice, “Well, at least I didn’t go into labour.” 

The first test of our flexibility was turning the entire schedule on its head and doing the trip backwards to adjust for Carnival, the large festival that takes over most of Latin America in the week leading up to Mardi Gras. We took that in stride as a group but the reminder of the per bag weight restriction on domestic flights sent the others into a tailspin. K and I sat smugly in the knowledge of our compact duffel bags while the guide calmed everyone else down. Of course we are paying for it now, rotating the same crumpled t-shirts and shorts while everyone else changes for dinner.

Bocas del Toro is the Panamanian province that borders Costa Rica and a number of our group compare it endlessly to that country. I like it as it is, kinda grubby in places, with bright macaron-coloured houses that have their edges chewed off. We’re staying in Bocas Town, the provincial capital on Isla Colón, one of the islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Colón is Spanish for Columbus and much is named after him in this area based on his 1502 visit, although a local told us he is not well liked here because he was mean to the indigenous people.

Still unspoilt by large resorts but with a serious lack of waste management, the nearest beach to our hotel was a disappointing sludge of seaweed soup, not flowing up gracefully from the sea floor but marauding in large hairy packs that wrap around you, transforming you into a swamp thing as you cringe back up the beach from the “water.” That made our day out among the islands that much more paradisiacal (look it up). The water is a bright turquoise and glints in the sun. The sand, fine and pale beige. The island trees, dark green with broad leaves hiding a large lump that turned into a sloth called Pépé. The mangrove forests, low and root-tangled in the sea water. And the snorkeling, something you had to wait out with Zen-like patience as K pointed out, but then were rewarded with deep purple and orange coral, striped fish of many colour combinations and unidentified plant life that looked like the pottery vase Demi Moore was trying to build in Ghost before, well, you know. We’d resigned ourselves to a lone fin or two in Dolphin Bay but were treated to a mini-pod that stealthily stalked us, breaking out of the water near our boat when we’d been tracking them in the distance. As we left the other boats behind to move on, our captain revved the engine and cut a wide circle that had the dolphins leaping through our wake and us laughing and whooping with excitement.

For our free time (aka non-mandatory-group interaction), we donned crumpled t-shirts sticky with aloe vera gel (there is no shade on these beaches), lathered up with sunscreen in the tradition of barn doors and horses, and behatted, rented bikes at $1.50 an hour, touring the blissfully flat island, and enjoying the picturesque palm tree views, the new construction, the old buildings for sale, and the posted signs of Vecinos Vigilantes which sound so much more ominous than Neighbourhood Watch.

We survived our dicey Caracas weekend and two and a half days in the sun (toss up on which is scarier for us) and flee tomorrow cross country to coffee plantations and waterfalls and most importantly, shade.