Saturday, April 21, 2012


We popped into Cuba for a couple of days on our way home. People don't generally pop in and out of Cuba and it's not really advisable, especially when the Pope's also popping in for the same couple of days and planning on generally getting in your way. We weren't stalking him, honest, although he may have been stalking us.

I'd long coveted Cuba as a potential cycle touring destination so knew a few things about it including that it was full of shiny old cars from the Fifties, and considerably less full of Americans. In our brief time there it was interesting to see the reality.

We didn't meet any Americans (although we met quite a few Germans and also an English couple - we realised it had been a few weeks since we'd seen other English people so hearing the accent was unexpectedly odd!). We stayed in a casa particular, which is a private B&B - everything I've ever read about Cuba recommends staying and eating in them rather than hotels and restaurants - and it was certainly very pleasant, but more about that later...

Old Car Quite a lot of the cars (maybe a third?) still are ancient yank tanks - most of them (apart from the taxis) are not so shiny with rust patches everywhere and spewing out lots of black exhaust smoke. It's quite a sight though, and very surreal when we first arrived, especially as they were on relatively modern looking roads and not in a black and white movie.

We spent our only full day in Havana trying to get air tickets home. We weren't sure when we arrived there whether we'd be sticking around, we'd become a bit holidayed out and keen to get home, eat delicious English food (actually yes, really) and allow our poor injured wallets to recover a bit - but it quickly became clear, for various reasons, that we'd definitely had enough. So we headed over to the offices of Cubana, the national airline, to buy our tickets back to London and that was when things started getting fun.

We'd checked on the internet the previous night, on our casa's blazingly fast (and probably a bit illegal) 38kbps internet connection, so we knew the price of the tickets. When they tried to charge us an extra 200CUC each we were a bit surprised but when we questioned this it became clear that there was a credit card price and a cash price, and that if we paid in cash we'd get our tickets at close enough to the internet price. Which was where the fun began - there was a cash machine next door, and it even worked (not common in Cuba) but it would only give out 150CUC at a time in 5CUC bills. We'd have to do that about six times to get enough cash, and that many notes in my money belt would make me look super-fat.

The next hour was spent trekking around town trying to find a decent ATM. We found one that only gave out CUP (the other Cuban currency, for locals only) and one that didn't really exist, before giving up and going back to the first one. We went into the bank and tried to use our cards to get money out at the counter. They wouldn't do that without seeing our visas, which the owner of our casa had conveniently not returned to us after taking down our details. So Dgym went to the original ATM and withdrew as much money as he could in 5CUC notes, which turned out to be just enough. He then waddled back into the bank looking extremely fat and changed them for 50's. I'm sure they put the fives straight back in the cash machine. Dgym promptly received a flurry of text messages from his ever-vigilant bank, who had noticed some weird cash withdrawal activity in a foreign country and decided to block his cards. Yay! But we got our tickets. Us: 1, Cuba: 0.

It was lunchtime by then - we caught a tourist bus back to the casa to sort a few things out, then spent another couple of hours trying to get back on the tourist bus (turns out you can get off anywhere but you have to find the stops to get on, or it will whizz by and ignore you) by which time it was getting kind of late and now we were worrying about not having enough cash left to pay for our dinner and all the other stuff - the next day would be a special holiday as everybody had the morning off to watch the Pope do his thing, so the banks (and probably the ATMs too) would be closed. So we had to get off the tourist bus again at the first cash machine we saw, which fortunately worked, while I got us lots more $5 bills. By then it was about 5pm.

No, Cuba's not somewhere you just pop into. For somewhere we only spent a couple of days, there's rather a lot to be said (and if you've spoken to Dgym since we got back, you'll have heard all about what he thought of Cuba!) ... more to follow!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A trip to the rainforest

We decided to do a rainforest tour on our last day in Costa Rica, with the hope of seeing some interesting wildlife but also the extreme likelihood of seeing lots of cool trees (which are less likely to run away when they see you).

We woke at the unholy hour of 6am for pickup and driven around for a couple of hours collecting equally sleepy looking people from hotels much posher than ours - you know, the kind with fountains outside and valets and fancy luggage trolleys (We decided that somebody should do a tour where they just take you past all the hotels you can't afford, and maybe laugh at you a bit too)

Thankfully, we were allowed to stop off for an expensive but very nice breakfast of rice, beans and egg (yeah, that again) with the added excitement of a tasty grilled banana and acceptable coffee.

Anhinga The first part of the tour was a boat trip on the Sarapiqui river, where we saw quite a lot of birds (including cute little swallow-like things that circled the boat constantly), lots of iguanas, a Jesus Christ lizard (which walks on water, although we didn't see it do that), a couple of alligators, some howler monkeys and several local families going for a Sunday dip. Oh, and a squirrel.

One of the more curious creatures we encountered was the Anhinga - it was described to us as a type of duck but it's not really - there is no such thing as "like water off an Anhinga's back" because, despite being a water bird, it's not waterproof and after a dive it has to spend hours drying its wings in the sun before it can fly again. This makes for quite a photogenic display (at first we thought it was posing) but sounds like asking to be dinner - there must be very few things that want to eat it.

Extremely convincing stick insect
Next we were taken to the Selva Verde lodge for a walk around the trails, where we spotted some turtles, several tiny frogs, some orb weaver spiders and some ants carrying little red berries. By far the coolest thing we found here was a very convincing stick insect attached to a fence. I didn't notice him at all and it was only when he moved that Dgym realised it wasn't a stick.

After lunch we visited the Braulio Carillo rainforest, a vast natural park to the north east of San Jose, where it was pleasantly cool in comparison to the sticky humidity on the trail walk. There was another short guided walk where we saw tapir footprints (we weren't so optimistic as to hope to see the real thing, but it was cool to see where they'd been) and a butterfly garden, where a pretty yellow butterfly took a fancy to me and decided to take up residence on my trouser leg.

Rainforest Tram Finally we got to ride through the rainforest canopy on the aerial tram, an open air gondola running at two different levels through the reserve. We saw very little wildlife, only one bird, but it was pretty spectacular riding through the dense foliage and getting a close up view of such an incredible ecosystem. Our guide was very knowledgeable and had a lot to tell us about the different species of tree and the wildlife that can sometimes be spotted among them. We'd been particularly keen to see a sloth and, although we didn't see one on the ride, we learned that they host their own little ecosystem - there's not a lot of sloth under all that fur, which is covered in green algae which helps the sloth camouflage itself and also feeds the hundreds of beetles that live on the sloth - the beetles also help keep the sloth clean. After learning that, I'm not so sure I want to hug one any more.

After we'd got off the tram and were preparing to leave, our guide called us over as he'd just spotted a sloth asleep at the top of a tree! It was quite high up and, even with my zoom lens, you couldn't make out which bit was which, but it made our day complete!


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Costa Rica

Before we arrived in Costa Rica we only knew two things about it - it's comparatively expensive for Central America, and it has heaps of wildlife - an estimated 6% of the world's plant and animal species may live here.

Hummingbird We stayed in Tamarindo, which turned out to be quite a touristy beach town popular with Americans, especially during Spring Break which it is at the moment - and with prices to match the budgets of people on short luxury breaks, at first we were a bit put off but the room was lovely, it was really great to have a hot shower again (a rarity in Nicaragua) and the wildlife soon started to win us over - just a couple of streets back from the main buzz there are trees full of beautiful birds, large lizards roaming around and choruses of crickets. If you look up at the treetops for long enough, you can spot tiny hummingbirds going about their business, I'd never seen hummingbirds before and they're kind of lovely.

Playa Grande After a few days we realised there was a quieter beach just up the coast so we hopped (or at least stumbled) onto a water taxi and headed just a tiny bit north to Playa Grande, so close but so very far away (at least by road) and quite a mini-paradise. The beach is something quite special, it's a protected area so there's no development along the seafront, just lots of wild trees and bushes. It's part of the Las Baulas national park, an important nesting ground for leatherback turtles - unfortunately we have missed the nesting season by just a couple of weeks, but it does mean we're allowed onto the beach in the evening to watch the waves and beautiful sunsets. We took a surfing lesson, which was good fun but we ended up with raw knees (wetsuits are a great invention) and got quite a lot of the Pacific ocean up our noses.

We went ziplining for my birthday, you can do it in a rainforest but we went for a regular dry forest option with Pura Aventura since it was close by and convenient - we were picked up early and taken to a property a few miles from Tamarindo, then transported into the forest by a very bumpy truck and given helmets, harnesses and basic instructions before being sent off one by one down the first line. It's a little bit scary being so high up suspended by just a couple of metal cables and a bit of canvas, but we had safety lines, good instructions and the instructors made sure we were always attached to something when high up. We saw a tree full of monkeys at one point, and on one of the last zip lines we all went upside down with help from the instructors! It was a fun morning, and at the end of it we got to take away a DVD of pictures and videos from the session (which will be posted as soon as we have access to a DVD drive!)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Nicaraguan Grackle We spent two days on Ometepe which was very pretty, and the residents seemed very friendly, but we weren't too happy with the food and, especially on Sunday when half the stuff was shut, we struggled to eat decently and that won't do. And since Dgym took objection to the colour of the lake (too murky, not blue enough, he's very fussy) we decided to head for the real beach.

We found a tiny beach town on the Pacific coast, El Gigante. It's smaller and less “lively” than the bigger and more popular town of San Juan del Sur, a few miles further south. It's also harder to get to – you can take a bus which drops you off 7km from the town and then hike the rest of the way, or you can do as we did and take a taxi from Rivas or the ferry port.

The scenery on the way there was very pretty – lots of trees and fields and roadside piggies. At first the road was paved but then we took a left, the driver mentioned something about “tierra” and we were on stony dirt track for the next 18km, which made for a fun bumpy ride with lots of tight corners and steep bits thrown in for good measure. We were OK but were also a bit concerned that the taxi might fall apart!

We had an uneventful few days there, apart from the excitement of a helicopter landing on the beach one day (it drew quite a crowd, just stopping to ask directions) and a power cut which lasted all afternoon and well into the evening (not an uncommon occurrence in Nicaragua).

Apart from that it was all very chilled. It's a bit of a surfing hotspot and is inhabited by quite a few American surfers with quite  a lot of English spoken – we devised a little drinking game which helped us stay well hydrated, take a sip of water every time you hear the word “gnarly”.

El Gigante El Gigante has about 6 or 7 restaurants, a handful of hotels and hostels and an internet cafe. It gets some pretty strong winds so walks on the beach were accompanied by a good sandblasting of the legs, and we were mostly coated in a thin layer of grime that week. The food was very nice, the coffee is OK (we've been told, to confirm our suspicions, that Nicaraguans export all the good stuff) and the sunsets are pretty awesome. There were lots of dogs and a couple of cats wandering around the town, scrounging for scraps at dinner time, and we also met a really tiny puppy. We did lots of reading in hammocks, went for a walk up the nearby lookout point of the Giant's foot, climbed on rocks and saw lots of crabs and spiky sea urchins, and watched brown pelicans diving all day.

After a few days, we were starting to feel the smallness of the town and keen to get out for some more food variety (we really do follow our stomachs) so we headed back out to civilization and down to the border.

I got a little bit fond of Nicaragua in the couple of weeks we spent there – prices are affordable, the locals are friendly and the hammocks were awesome. Admittedly, most of the food was nothing to write home about (even if we are) - when we got back from Thailand, we just wanted to eat Thai food, but you're not going to catch us trying to smuggle a suitcase full of plantains back to the UK.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Nicaragua has a long history of cocoa consumption, so what better way to celebrate the local culture than to go on a chocolate making course? It is very important to be a polite and considerate visitor after all.

The museum in Granada is very small being just a couple of rooms with lots of information and pictures on the walls, some beans and nibs you can touch and smell, and an inner courtyard with a couple of cocoa trees. You can look around for free or stop and get something at the cafe (the chocolate milk is excellent) but the area is quite thick with midges as these are kept to fertilise the trees.

The main attraction is a chocolate making course which lasts a couple of hours and is run several times a day. There are quite a few steps involved in the processing starting with the fermentation of the beans to develop their flavour, followed by drying them. This takes up to a week so the course starts with already dried beans which we took over to a stone wok for roasting over a fire.

Roasting beans
The roasting is done at about 70 degrees C and takes 5 minutes or so, during which time the beans tend to jump around quite a bit and even out of the large wok we were using. You can tell when they are done when they start to smell all chocolatey, after which we let them cool for a few minutes before breaking the shells open by hand to extract the nibs which are already quite nice to eat.

We ground the nibs using a pestle and mortar which turns them into a thick paste called cocoa liquor which can be used directly in several drinks. We made a Mayan drink using water and cinnamon, and an Aztec drink with added vanilla and chilli which was churned until it was frothy. Finally we made a Spanish drink which is like the Aztec drink but uses milk instead of water. These were all quite delicious.

To make chocolate bars the liquor is refined (further ground) and then churned for 10 hours with sugar, before being tempered to give it a nice shine when it sets. That would have been a long wait so we took some pre-churned chocolate and added some ingredients before pouring it into molds. I added chili powder and Helen chose almond flakes. That marked the end of the course, and we were asked to come back a couple of hours later to pick up the bars once they had set in the fridge.

We had a lot of fun making the drinks and working with the cocoa, well worth doing if you ever get the chance.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Nicaragua, so far

So far Nicaragua has been pretty good to us, and considerably easier on the wallet.

We stayed in Granada for a few days, travelling from the airport at night along dimly lit roads lined with piles of coconuts and tiny busy food stands everywhere, warm air blowing in through the taxi window and we even saw a tuk tuk or two - it was clear that we'd landed in the right kind of place. It was still a bit of a shock to the system, everything seemed so dark in comparison to the bright lights of San Juan and the US and all of a sudden we were finding very little English spoken and having to resort to our extremely rusty and limited Spanish.

Still, we made it to the hotel and out to dinner that night, where we sat on the main tourist street and had fried cheese, beans, rice and other goodies. I was very happy to find that Nicaraguan fried cheese is a lot like halloumi, and you can't go too far wrong with halloumi.

Granada marketOf course it didn't seem so dimly lit the next day. Hotel breakfast was a bit confusing, we arrived towards the end of the sitting so they'd put the buffet away, and when confronted with a flurry of Spanish which was probably offering us various food items, I think I accidentally said no to breakfast. I managed to recover this a bit by asking for some desayuno and cafe con leche (yay, we know some words) and nodding when offered frutas. So we had something at least!

A short wander into town yielded some quesillos for lunch - these are tortillas with a thin slice of cheese, salsa, a little salt and a dollop of sour cream. Quite messy and only little, but very tasty and the tortillas were quite pancakey. It was nice to be getting some street food again!

We spent the next few days chilling out and enjoying the very pretty and peaceful hotel garden as well as really important stuff such as visiting Chocomuseo to make some chocolate (which really deserves a post all of its own!) It's fun to be back in the kind of place where people ride in the back of trucks, it's considered extravagant to have only one person per bicycle (unless you're carrying an enormous bottle of gas or something) and, although we haven't seen any entire families on mopeds yet, we have learned that it is possible to transport three toddlers in a single pushchair if you stash two of them side by side in the bottom section.

Concepcion We were going to visit the crater lake nearby but made a change of plan and decided to move on from Granada to visit the double-volcano island of Ometepe. So tonight we are sleeping at the foot of an active volcano - as a child I was terrified of volcanoes and, despite being quite relieved to learn that I didn't live near any, that didn't stop me having lots of scary dreams about them. As an adult I feel a bit more informed about the relative risks involved, but I'd still rather Concepcion didn't do any erupting over the next few days. Dgym, on the other hand, had bad dreams about lava last night.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

San Juan

Green My first instinct as the plane descended over the green vegetation around San Juan airport was to dive onto its lush grassiness, we were both so happy to see any kind of green stuff. Unfortunately we were still on a plane, also unfortunate was the fact that most of the green stuff turned out to be bone dry. Oh well – it was lovely to breathe in the humid tropical air – I'd picked up some kind of chest bug and was really struggling with the cold northern dryness so a change of climate was very welcome.

We chose Puerto Rico because it was in the right bit of the world, has a reputation for good street food and also maybe a little bit because San Juan and Puerto Rico are two of our favourite games. I'm pleased to report that the locations are not a lot like the board and card games: we didn't sell any coffee or tobacco, build any harbours or ship any slaves, for which I am sure the locals are thankful.

Colours Unfortunately it wasn't all we had hoped for. Whereas the island of Puerto Rico quite possibly does have very good street food, its availability is rather limited in the city of San Juan – we encountered a couple of pizza vans, hot dog stands and one van selling native savoury pastry snacks but our quest for something a bit healthier and less stodgy went unanswered outside of the restaurants, which were not particularly cheap ($10 per dish is typical) and overall we found the city to be quite a tourist trap, not entirely surprising consider the number of cruise ships stopping there.

Oh well. We had hoped to hire a car and explore the island a bit, which probably would have been hugely worthwhile, unfortunately Dgym developed the same chest bug and temperature that I'd had, only in extra virulent manly form so he was too feverish and disoriented to be driving around in Puerto Rican traffic. So we stuck with the city and made the most of it – we found a good coffee & sandwich cafe (Aromas) and the cafe over the road (Los Pinos) turned out to do nice soups, grilled meat and pina coladas. We also found a couple of small beaches and enjoyed the pleasant views from the hotel roof.

La Perla I spent an afternoon exploring the impressive forts of San Cristobal and El Morro and slightly fascinated by the brightly coloured slum area of La Perla which is sandwiched between the two, just outside the city walls. One of the first things you read in any tourist info about San Juan is that you don't go into La Perla unless you have (mostly drug-related) business there or really want trouble, and I was happy to stay inside the city walls – but it's so close to the rest of the mostly tame and civilized city and there are a lot of places where you can get quite a good view.

More changes of pace

We had certainly been kept busy in Chicago, and I'm glad we didn't have a moment to stop because being lazy is so very addictive. The unexpected highlight for me was the roller disco, I opted for roller blades as I hadn't tried them before and they are very good. It felt a lot like ice skating but the roller blades were more forgiving and it was nice to know the ground wasn't quite so hard. It was a shame I didn't get the hang of stopping though, I had to let friction take care of that in its own good time.

The worst part of the week had to be that stupid sky deck. Being on the 103rd floor was pleasant enough, you could see the city even if the never ending grid pattern was a bit unnerving. There was a gift shop with some nice minuments (Hel has added to her collection) and everything was very civilized but obviously someone wasn't happy with all of that and had had a few windows taken out to be replaced with an extra room sticking out from the building made entirely from glass. I know that industrial strength glass is extremely strong and not at all prone to shattering, a fact made abundantly clear as people jumped and down on it, but that didn't stop me from cringing every time they did. I managed to step out briefly, but standing on glass and looking 103 floors straight down with nothing to hold on to is just nasty.

After Chicago we flew to San Juan in Puerto Rico, and we finally got to kick back and relax with some good weather and some down time. Unfortunately there were a few problems. San Juan is a cruise port and tourist trap and we found it difficult to find any authentic local cuisine, most restaurants were just typical USA chains. When we did find local fare it was still at USA prices and seemed rather lacking in nutrition. Plantains feature quite a lot and are a starchy and tough form of banana that I really could not stomach. We did eventually find some nice soups but I'm still sad to say that the best place to eat was Subway as you could get some fresh vegetables and it was the only place you could feed two people for under $10.

I think that we really missed out by staying in San Juan, it probably would have been worth hiring a car and getting out of the city but unfortunately we both got a bit ill and I was in no state to drive with quite a horrible fever and suffering from dehydration. By the time I recovered it was time to leave anyway and we were both looking forward to Nicaragua as by all accounts it was more our sort of place.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


It was a long time since we'd seen our friend Nora - it's kind of silly how life keeps getting in the way and all of a sudden it's been thirteen years and there's husbands and kids and jobs and stuff. But give it a couple of days getting reacquainted and everybody's having fun like they're nineteen again!

We spent a very busy and fun week staying with Nora and her family just outside Chicago - activities including (but not limited to):
  • skating at the local roller rink on Teens night, during which I skated a bit too hard and split my trousers.
  • a trip to the bowling alley which involved bowling (of course), pizza and darts
  • indoor blacklight space-themed mini golf which just might have overtaken Thai dinosaur golf in our rankings of best mini golf ever.
  • completely rocking the keytar and drums in Rockband
  • a trip up the Willis (formerly Sears) tower and visit to the scary glass platform where you can look down on 103 storeys of nothingness beneath your feet.
  • a trip to the planetarium, since we missed out in Rochester.
  • giving tummy rubs to the two soppiest cats in the world
  • lots and lots of eating
Oh yes, the eating. We've struggled a bit with the food in America - things are sweeter, fattier, larger and with more additives. One of the things that mystified us at the BBQ places in Rochester was the serving of a sweet cornbread muffin on the side of the main courses. Now I like cornbread, maybe cheesy with a bit of jalapeno - but this was honey flavoured. It tasted good, but I can't get my head around caesar salad served with a side of cake.

However we've had some good food - the meat was very nice around Rochester, especially the pulled pork, but it was a little hard to eat healthily and even salads were soaked in dressing and/or served with a cake. We ate very well in Chicago and it was good to be with someone who is at least as enthusiastic about tasty food as we are, not afraid of the more adventurous options and knows where to find the good stuff. Highlights included:
  • Lao Sze Chuan restaurant in Chinatown, at which we tried duck tongue for the first time. Duck tongue is quite tasty and tender, although a little fiddly as it, quite surprisingly, contains a bone and a small bit of cartilage. However, it's best not to think too much about what you're eating. Thoughts may range from "it's kind of like I'm kissing a duck" (we do like ducks, but not in that way) to the realisation that each tongue belonged to one duck, and that's a lot of ducks. (I'm sure they used the rest of it too). Other highlights at Lao Sze Chuan included a beautiful plate of bright purple fried egg plant, and delicious three chilli chicken.
Duck tongueFried eggplant
  • G-in Sushi & Grill, run by a friend of Nora's in Tinley Park near where we were staying. We went here twice, it was beautifully served and was some of the best sushi Dgym and I have had anywhere.
SashimiSushi bombs
  • Triple Crown where we ate dim sum with some more friends of Nora's. We shared several plates including deep fried baby octopuses, tasty little rice pancakes, steamed buns and chicken feet. Dgym declined the feet but I feel he was deeply mistaken as they were very tasty and surprisingly succulent. The US exports about 300,000 tons of feet to China every year - American chickens are bred big and juicy for lots of breast meat, which also makes for fleshy feet: a couple of decades ago these would have gone to waste but they're extremely popular in China.
Fried baby octopusChicken foot
  • Original Triple Crown, a late night authentic Chinese restaurant. We were accompanied by Nora's Chinese-speaking friend Cindy who was able to help us choose some good dishes and also order an off-menu dish of conch salad, which is very thinly sliced snail served with bean sprouts and a dressing. The snail slices were kind of rubbery - interesting and not bad although I'm not sure I'd choose it again! We also had fried smelt fish, congee, greens and more duck tongue which were all very good.
You may have noticed a slight Asian bias, however we did also visit some very good Mexican restaurants, made ourselves slightly sick on enormous ice creams and Nora made us some very tasty homecooked meals of tacos and Sloppy Joes!

We had a really lovely week and were very sad to leave, although somewhat less sad to be leaving behind the coldness of the northern winter for the warm humidity of Puerto Rico!

Saturday, March 03, 2012


Amid all the wedding-related rush in Rochester, I managed to spend a day wandering around the city, seeing the sights. Despite being mostly car-dominated, Rochester does have a decent, cheap and punctual bus service (even if the timetable is a little sparse) so I was able to make the half hour journey from our edge-of-town hotel to "Downtown" for $1.

I wandered into the Strong Museum of Play which, in retrospect may not have been the best choice for me - the ground floor is dominated by mini supermarkets, mini trains and other fun toy stuff which might have been good if I were a couple of feet shorter. However, the upstairs was more interesting and full of toy history - doll houses, old gaming consoles and several cabinets full of freaky dolls. Killed a couple of hours but not worth the $13 entry fee for that alone.

High Falls After that I took a long and progressively freezier walk around town, visiting High Falls which is a huge waterfall in the town centre and is pretty impressive - there's a footbridge which affords an excellent view. I also passed by the Kodak HQ which is one of the more attractive buildings in the town. I was cold enough to head back to the hotel after that!

Dgym and I spent some time in the town a couple of days later - we watched a film at a tiny cinema which cost a huge $3 each and satisfied our craving for buttered popcorn. We then managed to see the planetarium, science museum and Kodak museum, but since it was so late in the day we didn't actually get to look around any of them.

We Amtrakked onwards to Chicago - having taken the luxury of business class at only a few dollars extra on our previous journey, we declined the roomettes on board the sleeper train at a $250 markup above the basic ticket price and slept in our seats. It was darker and quieter than a lot of sleeper recliners I've been on but the seats weren't a great experience - whereas they're equipped with a generous amount of recline, they're also designed to tip you right out onto the floor so it wasn't the most comfortable of nights and we were glad to get to our destination.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

And then it got busy

Trees We had to get up quite early to catch the train for Rochester but given the time difference it wasn't a problem, just a very brisk walk for a couple of blocks - we really didn't see much of Toronto at all. This was to be our last day of leisure for a few weeks and we had the foresight to make it count. The train had big seats (we had gone business class) and it was nice to spend a few hours reading and occasionally looking out of the window to see the mostly white countryside.

The border crossing was another round of intense questioning, but again proof of departure made the process easier. Welcome to America, enjoy your visit, but don't stay.

CakeAfter that we got to Rochester and the hotel and the rest is a bit of a blur. Despite months of planning there were still a few last minute wedding details to sort out. There were some typical best man duties to attend to but one of the more tense moments was on the night before the wedding - the veil had been taken out of its packet and was severely creased so I took it back to the hotel for some ironing. It didn't help that it was nylon and there was next to no chance of getting a replacement if necessary so I was somewhat nervous, but a few litters of kittens later and it was looking a lot better and had not melted, success!

Saturday morning was more relaxed until it became apparent that the little detail of getting the wedding dress to the bride had been overlooked. With that delivered I could attend to getting the groom to church which we managed a little behind schedule but before the service started so that was a relief.

The rest of the day went very well, and I am very glad we were there to share in the celebrations. It was still all a bit hazy, but with food, Shirley Temples and excellent company late into the night.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


After a year of working hard and doing various other things including buying a house, we've put our (well, actually somebody else's) backpacks back on and headed off in search of more delicious foreign food and non-wintry sunshine. Well, eventually anyway.

We were planning on getting away for a winter holiday anyway but when our friends invited us to their wedding in New York State we decided to combine the trips and also to pay a long overdue visit to an old friend in Chicago who we haven't seen in over a decade. After that we'll be heading south for some sunshine!

River The flight to Toronto was pretty awesome - we left at 4pm and were chased across the Atlantic by the world's longest sunset. We were above a blanket of fluffy cloud for most of the way but as we met land again over the northeastern tip of Canada it became more patchy and we started to realise that some of the white patches were snowy areas on deserted black mountains.

We saw icy frozen rivers winding off into the distance and eventually tiny isolated settlements as it slowly got darker and we got further south. My favourite was a tiny town at the end of a long inlet - a narrow dark line led out of the town and cut down the middle of the water , presumably where icebreakers had cut through. (I think the town was La Baie, near Chicoutimi)

The flight was pretty good, a little delayed but Air Canada give you individual screens with lots of TV and movies to choose from, and power and USB sockets for laptops and so on, so there wasn't too much chance of boredom.

We faced quite a questioning by the border guards when we landed - Canada likes to keep Canada tidy and not have scruffy English people loitering around for too long so we were quizzed quite intensively about our travel plans - the guy seemed suspicious that we'd choose to fly into Toronto and get the train to Rochester when we could just catch a connecting flight, but eventually seemed happy that we had booked our eventual return flights off the continent.

It turned out there was a very good reason to fly into Toronto airport, and that is the express walkway, which is the first (and so far the only, I think) of its kind - a moving pallet system which starts you off at 2km/h and expands to take you up to 7km/h. There are various videos of it out there but it has to be experienced to be truly appreciated - my legs were a bit shaky after we stepped off it. Who needs roller coasters?

Toronto was fortunately not too cold, a little below zero at night, a little above zero in the day, at least a bit warmer than it was at home last week. Our hotel was nice and we had some good dinner at a nearby steakhouse.