In Search of Folk Music: Port Gamble WA

Spanaway Bay performs at the 2019 Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival

Are you familiar with the famous “blanket run” that opens the Vancouver Folk Music Festival each year? When the official gate barriers come down, thousands of crazed music fans race to the main stage area to lay down blankets and claim a prime spot for the evening concert. Within minutes, every patch of grass within a hundred metres of the stage is guarded by tarps, towels, hampers, coolers, sleeping bags, beach chairs. I haven’t yet seen razor wire go up or chained hounds employed, but the possibility exists.

The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival in Washington State does not have a blanket run. To be honest, it does not have a gate or barriers, because it is free. The festival music starts at noon and when we arrived at 11:55, there were two people in camp chairs lording it over the entire site, a small, grassy hillside tucked between two historic buildings.

We considered our options. The Camp Chair People were clearly canny veterans, having chosen the best spot on a tiny level area halfway up the hill. We had to settle for second-best, about ten metres directly in front of the stage and higher up the hill.

By showtime, another dozen people had added themselves to the throng. At mid-afternoon, I counted about 40 audience members. Passersby, hearing the music, wandered in and stayed. It was, shall we say, an intimate festival.

I loved it.

Historic building beside festival site.

We did not need binoculars to see the performers. We did not need to stand in a half-hour line to use a smelly port-a-potty. When nature called, we ambled across the street (which was inevitably free of traffic) to the post office to use the restroom. If we wanted a hot or cold drink or ice cream, one of the buildings flanking the site sold those things. If further nourishment was required, a few steps down was the town’s restaurant. Apparently, organizers had a contingency plan to move indoors to the local theatre (also across the street) in case of inclement weather. Fortunately, despite continuous rain throughout the morning, promptly at 11:00, the showers ceased, the clouds began to dissipate, and blue skies prevailed.

It was a bit of a festival miracle and just one more thing that made the day a delight.

Admittedly, getting to Port Gamble is a challenge. Unless you live on the Kitsap Peninsula, you will likely have to take a ferry. Coming down from British Columbia, we stayed overnight in Lynnwood to facilitate an early start on festival Saturday. Next morning, we lined up for the Edmonds-Kingston ferry just as the 7:55 am sailing chugged off. By the next sailing at 8:50, the line-up behind us was impressive.

The Northshore Ramblers.

Once you make it to Kingston, however, it’s only a 12-minute drive to Port Gamble, and—Be still, my beating heart!—there’s lots of free parking in town.

Wiki tells us that: “The Port Gamble Historic District, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, covers one of the nation’s best-preserved western lumber towns.”  As we sauntered around that morning, we noted the many historic plaques on buildings dating from the mid- to late nineteenth century. We dropped in on the friendly quilting shop, where I managed to resist the urge to buy a quilt pattern simply to maintain the pleasant fiction that I might actually sew one someday. We ate a late breakfast at the Scratch Kitchen, by a window overlooking the bay, then walked the few metres back to the festival site.

The music runs from noon until 5 pm, with four feature acts plus presentation of the songwriting contest winners and a grand finale that brings all the performers back on stage leading singalong sea shanties. Oh, the harmonies! It appeared that all the performers were more or less local and most seemed to know each other, judging by the joking and camaraderie during the finale. I was impressed that all the performers stayed 99% on the maritime theme, albeit with occasional dashes of Bluegrass and pop styles to keep things lively.

From our perch on the hillside, we looked down past the stage to the sparkling water of the ocean and the serene forests of the opposite shore. A variety of birds put on an aerial show: gulls soaring, kingfishers diving, eagles hunting, Canada geese arriving en flock to rest on the beach below.

As the final strains of the last shanty—“It’s time for us to leave her”—were carried away by a fresh breeze, we headed for the ferry. Luck stayed with us and we were one of the last cars to make that sailing, arriving back at our snug anchorage in Lynnwood in time for a tasty Japanese dinner at Wild Wasabi.

Verdict: Live, local, accessible folk music FOUND in Port Gamble. Thanks, folks!

The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival takes place in August. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. This year’s performers included Spanaway Bay, the Northshore Ramblers, the Whateverly Brothers, and Curlew’s Call.

Ruby chocolate revisited

Brief follow-up to my post on the new ruby chocolate….

I finally laid my greedy hands on some ruby chocolate. At $9 for a large bar, it’s about twice the price of decent Belgian chocolate. I imagine that’s the novelty factor and the price will come down over time.

It was a beautiful, deep pink colour, pretty close to the photo (that’s my own photo). Light fruity fragrance, nice snap and bite to the bar. Mouth feel was similar to good quality white chocolate.

The taste was very distinctive: not at all “chocolaty,” but, rather, like tangy berries or perhaps a bit of citrus. As such, to me, it was more like candy than my beloved chocolate. I could only take a small amount at a time. Maybe that’s a good thing!

In any case, well worth trying out. It’s not my new favourite, but it might be yours.

Knot Spots: The dilemma of California’s Salton Sea

Image source: https://polizeros.com/2019/02/01/salton-sea-problematic-in-colorado-river-drought-plan/

Spotted: fishbio.com

The Salton Sea is a strange and disquieting place located in the arid Colorado Desert of southern California. It is a lake, not a sea, and its surface currently lies about 71.9 m (236.0 ft) below sea level. The “sea” was formed in 1905 when engineers mucking around with the Colorado River and irrigation issues made a boo-boo that resulted in the river flowing into the Salton Basin for two years. Since there was no outflow, a large freshwater lake formed.

Lying in the midst of a desert climate with warmth and sunshine much of the year, the Salton Sea, as it came to be known, became a magnet for funseekers. Resort towns popped up along its shores, hitting their heyday in the 1950s.

Over the years, however, as the lake evaporated, turned more and more salty, and became increasingly polluted from agricultural runoff, the resorts faded away.

“Many of the species of fish that lived in the sea have been killed off by the combination of pollutants, salt levels, and algal blooms. Dead fish have been known to wash up in mass quantities on the beaches. The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea.” (Wikipedia)

Yuck.

Today, the area is scattered with the remnants of abandoned settlements. It is the closest thing to an apocalyptic landscape that I’ve ever seen.

Recently, the US House of Representatives passed a bill in support of allotting $30 million “for projects that would address the environmental and health crisis at the Salton Sea.”

The question is, what are they going to do with that money? I wonder if they even have a clue.

It’s a tricky situation. Technically, the lake doesn’t belong there at all. It’s the result of an environmental catastrophe. However, it has now been there for over a hundred years and nature abhors a vacuum, so it has become a vital resource for birds in an otherwise waterless landscape. Amazingly, birds can survive in this bleak habitat; so much so that the Salton Sea is internationally recognized as an  Important Bird Area (IBA). Which is how I came to be there, checking out the burrowing owls and other intriguing species. People also continue to live around the lake.

If the powers that be allow things to continue as they are going—“let nature take its course”—the lake will eventually become so poisonous that nothing will be able to live there. Millions of birds will lose their resting, feeding, and breeding grounds. After that, it will dry up completely, forming a toxic dust bowl that could sicken anything that stills lives in the vicinity, animal or human.

If, on the other hand, they decide to preserve the lake, it would be a massive undertaking. California already has chronic water shortages. Where would the water to save the lake come from? And if they somehow found that water, how would they solve the problem of pollution from agricultural runoff?

What would be the ultimate goal? To recreate the Salton Sea’s glory days, when tourists water skied and swam, and a commercial fishery existed? Or to maintain the area as a nature park, inhospitable to humans, but a haven for wildlife? Do they turn the clock back 10 years? 20? 60?

What should be done for the people who live there? Relocation? Welfare? Publicly funded communities?

How do you “fix” something when you know it’s definitely “wrong,” but you don’t know what “right” is?

There are several documentaries on the Salton Sea but I’ve only seen one of them: Bombay Beach (2011), an experimental style film heavy on the bizarre ambience of the place. 

Panama Hats and Other Misnomers

In the category of Who knew?! I offer this tidbit: Panama hats are not from Panama. The materials used to make them do not come from Panama. They are not made in Panama. They are, in fact, made in Ecuador.

“A Panama hat, also known as an Ecuadorian hat or a toquilla straw hat, is a traditional brimmed straw hat of Ecuadorian origin.” (Wikipedia)

The art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat is unique and important enough to be included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of the world.

My Fodor’s Panama guidebook reads: “Any such headwear you do find for sale here [in Panama] should be labeled ‘Genuine Panama Hat Made in Ecuador.’” I’m glad that’s clear.

How did the straw hats wind up with a false identity?

“Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations [worldwide], subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale—‘Panama hats’—rather than their place of domestic origin.” (Wikipedia)

In 1906, when celebrity president Teddy Roosevelt made a stopover at the construction site of the Panama Canal, he was photographed wearing one of the hats, cementing its connection—in the buying public’s mind—with the Central American country.

All this must drive Ecuadorians to distraction. (I recall one of our guides ranting about how Ecuador gets no credit for all its accomplishments. “Who do you think of when you think bananas? Costa Rica! But Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world.* Who do you think of for roses? Holland? Ecuador grows the most and best roses,** but no one knows!” I had never thought of where roses come from, so I couldn’t argue.)

Perhaps it’s time for nations to trademark their names to avoid this kind of confusion.

For example, how often in my travels have I heard people refer to Canadian bacon, which has nothing to do with Canada? In the United States, they mean “a form of back bacon that is cured, smoked and fully cooked, trimmed into cylindrical medallions, and thickly sliced.” (Wikipedia)

Huh? Having been born in Canada and lived my entire life here, I’ve never eaten such a thing.

You could be forgiven for assuming the Australian shepherd dog came from the land down under, but the breed was actually developed on American ranches in the 19th century. No one knows how the Aussie got its name. One theory is that Basque sheep herders from Europe took their dogs to Australia and later, when they moved on to California, again, with faithful dogs in tow, Americans assumed the dogs were an Australian breed.

The devastating 1918 influenza pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide was often called the “Spanish flu,” although it almost certainly did not originate in Spain. Current hypotheses favour the United States, France, or China as the culprit.

So why “Spanish flu”? When the new and deadly influenza strain first appeared in January 1918, it was what would be final year of the First World War. The United States and much of Europe were under censorship, neither side wanting to show signs of weakness, so reports of the flu were suppressed. In Spain, which was neutral in the war, there was no such censorship, so the horrifying reality of the sickness was widely published both locally and internationally, especially after the Spanish king fell ill. Because of this, people outside of Spain thought of it as the “Spanish” flu, while the Spanish themselves sometimes referred to it as the “French flu.”

With Irish stew and Danish pastries, we can at least say the foods did originate in those countries, but what do they mean today? Danish pastries can be the sorriest, soggiest, amalgams of cardboard-like dough and gooey-sweet fruit-flavoured glop found in the bake section of many grocery stores, while Irish stew might be any bland, chewy, mash-up of meat and tubers a restaurant chooses to slap the name on. Can Danes be proud of their pastries now? Can the Irish hold up their heads in the international culinary arena based on the “Irish” stew of today?

I say it is time for a moratorium on inauthentic, inaccurate, nation-based nomenclature. Let the Ecuadorians reclaim the brimmed hats that pair so fashionably with light-coloured and linen suits. Give the Basques back their bob-tailed sheepdogs. Relieve the Spaniards of the burden of one of the deadliest viruses known to humanity. Require restaurants to rename their dish as “a meat and veg stew of indeterminate origin and ingredients” and demand that stores sell “round, fake-fruit pastries” without blaming the Danes.

America, we Canadians give you back your bacon. Please rename it after your local pigs, who richly deserve the credit.

*”Banana Exports by Country” (2018)

**”2018: A challenging year for the cut rose industry” Floral Daily

Ghirar-disappointment

Mine was not as nice as this.

I don’t generally use this blog to slag products or businesses. My mother’s angelic form tends to be perched on my shoulder, reminding me “If you can’t say something nice….” And I know a bad review can hurt a small business, so I try to be kind—or, at least, silent.

But when it comes to a giant like famous chocolate maker Ghirardelli, the gloves come off.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I visited Ghirardelli­­ Square, the 1893 headquarters of the chocolate company. It’s a pleasant place that is, according their website, “considered the first successful adaptive reuse project in the country.” It’s on the National Historic Register. There are pricey shops and places to sit and play. All good.

It’s also home to the original Ghirardelli ice cream and chocolate shop, where they scoop notoriously decadent hot fudge sundaes. Yum. For a chocolate worshipper such as myself, a pilgrimage was definitely called for.

Sadly, the experience was a disappointment from beginning to end. You start by standing in line to order and pay at a busy and indifferent cashier. No smile or greeting sets the tone for your visit. State your choice, hand over the cash (ka-ching: Cdn$18!) and move on through, clutching a number.

Now you must find a place to sit. Although it is a weekday afternoon, the cafe is jammed with people. All tables in sight are claimed and there is no one to help you locate a seat. Hmm…perhaps if one knew that before ordering, one would demur. But, of course, now you’ve paid, you’re on the hook.

My companion and I wander through into what appears to be the party room, as it’s a screaming, chaotic space of bouncing children at a ratio of ten to each harassed adult guardian. Ah, but there’s a table! Grab it with relief.

As we wait for our order, I am reminded of the stanza in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

All the Who girls and boys
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

The sound level is deafening. I watch the servers moving between the tables, searching for those identifying numbers, carrying ice cream creations that are supposed to be finely balanced combinations of hot and cold ingredients. But the longer it takes for them to find you, the slushier your sundae will be. I knew America prides itself on being a melting pot, but this is ridiculous.

I observe that about 95% of the diners are white, while 95% of the servers are not. I wonder if the white kids will grow up thinking brown people serve.

At last! My sundae has arrived, somewhat liquidy. Another literary tidbit leaps to mind, referring to Boxer the horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: “His answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’”

Or, as in the current crisis: “I will eat faster!”

Within a few bites, the hot fudge is exhausted, leaving a naked mound of plain vanilla ice cream to finish. After all that I’ve gone through—not to mention the $18 price tag—I expected a superlative treat. This was a true letdown.

I know, I know: first-world problems, right?

My excuse for whining is that I want to save others from what I see as a ripoff. Personally, I won’t be buying another Ghirardelli sundae. And I don’t think their chocolate is so special, either.

So there.

PS If you want a better hot fudge sundae, try this time-tested recipe from our kitchen:

250 ml half-and-half (about 10% milk fat) cream
300 g semi-sweet pure chocolate chips (we use Chipits)
1 tbsp corn syrup (optional; we use white corn syrup)

Place all ingredients in the top part of a double boiler with an inch of lightly simmering water in the bottom. Slowly melt and stir until sauce is smooth and thick. Do not overheat or the sauce will seize.

Pour over good-quality vanilla ice cream; add peanuts, bananas, whipped cream, and a cherry, if desired.

Tired of blogs about chocolate? I’ll try to find another topic. Meanwhile, let me know what you think about Ghirardelli’s products. Do you stand with me or agin me?

Knot Spots: Ruby Chocolate

Spotted: Website of Barry Callebaut chocolate company

It’s obviously time for this dedicated traveller-journalist to return to Ecuador for an on-the-spot, in-the-field report on a breaking story of massive international importance: a new type of chocolate has been developed.

This is not just a flavoured, coloured chocolate derivative. Apparently, the rosy confection actually originates with a new type of cocoa bean, which, from the photos, is also pretty in pink.

According to the Callebaut website: “Ruby offers an intense sensorial delight, a totally new taste experience: neither bitter, milky or sweet, but a tension of fresh berry fruitiness and luscious smoothness….Ruby chocolate contains no berries, berry flavor or colorings.”

The special beans are currently being grown in Ivory Coast, Brazil, and Ecuador. Sounds like a good excuse for a trip.

Joust for Fun

Arizona Renaissance Festival 2019 Photo by Marian Buechert.

Years ago, I stumbled across something online called the Renaissance Festival Podcast. This was in the very early days of podcasts and I had never heard of them. How cool to have a whole bunch of music in a genre you liked instantly accessible! While I was already very keen on folk music of all types, the podcasts were my introduction to “Ren Faire” music, which is a mix of serious, beautifully performed ballads and tunes along with a lot of rollicking, frequently bawdy, sometimes downright dirty songs.

The podcasts were also my first window into the quirky world of Renaissance festivals. I was astonished to discover that there are over fifty regular Ren events across North America and more in Europe and Australia. Ye innocents, take heed: this is happening all around you—your neighbours and co-workers are dressing up in corsets and codpieces and congregating in places where they can kowtow to a monarch, drink mead, and shout “huzzah!” for knights and clowns alike. My kind of people.

Hence, I was excited when I found that the Arizona Renaissance Festival would be happening while we were down south, and not too far from Phoenix, one of our stopovers.

The Arizona festival has 32 years under its belt and it shows: this is no fly-by-night, two-days-per-year event. They run every weekend in February and March and they have a permanent site, complete with buildings, streets, 14 stages, and, most impressively, a jousting stadium. It’s extremely well organized, from food to entertainment, and things seem to run like clockwork. If you bring even a modicum of willingness, you will be jollied, cajoled, and nudged into having a good time, as the cast rouses up the audience at every performance to “ooooo!” when something dangerous is attempted, “ahhhhhhh!” when it succeeds, and applaud at every possible opportunity. Spectators at the jousts are expected to take sides and cheer “their” knights while booing the opposing team.

You may see a gaggle of Harry Potter characters sporting robes and wands and Star Wars stormtroopers in white armour, all rubbing shoulders with the Queen of England in full Elizabethan glory. Historically accurate, it ain’t, but the time-tested joy of “dressing up” carries the day. One could even argue that, when you get right down to it, what we’re really doing is finding different ways of portraying archetypes. Fantasy people get that Darth Vader is just a tech-savvy Black Knight, and that the Wise Mentor can choose to put on his Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore robes at will.

The rides at the faire are simple, old-fashioned, and entirely human-powered, usually some variation on being swung, twirled, rocked, or bounced. I don’t know how genuinely medieval these are, but I certainly enjoyed the sight of small children perched in wooden dragons, screaming in excitement while a couple of burly guys in peasant shirts worked the cranks to make them “fly.”

There are streets full of stores that sell costume clothing, armour, drinking vessels, metalwork, leatherwork, woodwork, blown glass, dragon masks, fairy wings, and anything else your historical/fantastical heart might desire. You can hire the village insulter to recite your own personal insult, written on the spot, or buy a blossom for your lady love from a flowerseller.

The jousting is impressive, featuring knights in shiny metal armour tilting at each other on horseback with ridiculously long wooden lances. Between rounds, the knights parade before their fans (preassigned by seating section) to preen and boast. Colourful pennants stream in the wind, a member of the royal family presides from a high box, and you find yourself wedged between a steampunk pirate on one side and a Dr Who (4th incarnation, of course) on the other. You can even get married at the faire, afterward feasting in medieval style and viewing the joust from a seat of honour.

Onstage, the comedy is broad and often raunchy and the songs are full of double-entendres. Acrobats, fire jugglers, and storytellers pull patrons from the audience to add spontaneity and entertaining awkwardness to their shows, then pass the hat. There is falconry and “live mermaids,” roasted turkey legs for lunch and a bullwhip-cracking adept to watch while eating them.

An excursion into the Renaissance festival world is a day of delight where, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to play, all ages can enjoy themselves—without clicking buttons or staring into a screen.

Books That Found Me

Compulsive reader: n. A person who cannot refrain from reading.

Situation: We pull into a gas station in Mexico to use the restroom. I jog across the tarmac to the ablution block only to pull up short in dismay at the large sandwich board sign displayed outside: Baños cerrados. Even with my tiny bit of Spanish, I get this: Toilets closed.

I slink back to the car and sit with legs crossed while Mark pays for the gas, contemplating the baños with resentment and some anxiety. Who knows how far to the next place of relief?

I see another driver stride purposefully toward the baños door. Any moment now, I think (somewhat smugly), he’ll see the sign and turn back. But no, he simply pushes past it and continues on. Is the door locked to thwart non-signreaders such as this brash fellow? No, it opens easily and he disappears inside. A second man follows the same path.

Clearly, the baños are not closed. Had I simply not read the sign or ignored it, I would have been blissfully employing papel higienico at that very minute.

My compulsive need to read every bit of text I see has often gotten me into similarly inconvenient circumstances.

On the other hand, being ready, willing, and able to read anything can be a blessing when travelling. I used to leave home with three or four novels stashed in my suitcase, irrationally worried that I would run out of things to read on the road. God forbid I should have to endure a moment at the airport or a rainy day confined to the hotel without reading matter.

However, as we stayed less often in big chain hotels where available text is inevitably restricted to the New Testament and the room service menu, I discovered a world of reading possibilities.

Many smaller hotels, inns, and hostels keep a shelf of books under the rule of “Take a book, leave a book.” Often, the selection will include many tempting choices in languages that you cannot even identify, much less decipher. There will also be dog-eared travel guides that predate the Internet and provide essential information for visits to the U.S.S.R., West Germany, or the Ottoman Empire on $5 a day.

But hidden among the flotsam, there will be jewels.

On the shelf of a nature lodge in the jungles of Mexico, I discovered a novel—The Name of the Wind—that I was actually planning to read anyway, as it had been recommended to me by a friend. Curiously, it was clearly brand new, and appeared unread. It was such an odd coincidence that I felt the book was meant for me, that it had somehow found its way to me.

In Ecuador, I browsed an inn’s bookshelf that stretched from floor to ceiling, covering an entire wall. Out of several hundred books, I pulled one called The Year of Pleasures, scanned the back cover and knew instantly this story about a woman trying to find a new life after losing her husband would go straight to my own grieving heart. I almost put it back, not sure I could handle it, but I promised myself I could put it aside it if it took me in the wrong direction. I galloped through it in three days, cried many times, and marvelled at passages that made me ask “How does she know?”

One of the best things about found books is that they challenge and tease you to read things you might never otherwise choose. Sometimes that means you are condemned to the only English-language volume available, which is usually a thriller by the uber-popular hack writer of the day, the one you never read. But other times you may be led to an unexpected place. Like the slim hardcover sporting a photo of a man wearing a dress and purse and the quirky title Kennense Noch Blümchenkaffee? Die Online-Omi erklärt die Welt. With my rudimentary German I puzzled this out to be: Do you still know flower coffee? The online grandmother explains the world. I guessed that the reference to flower coffee hearkened back to the war, when luxuries like coffee were in short supply and inventive Germans turned to making hot beverages from a variety of sources such as flowers. This is one of those almost-forgotten facts that has passed or is passing from common knowledge.

I still don’t know if my guess was accurate, but it intrigued me enough to flip through the pages. The book turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek “dictionary” of outdated terms and concepts that only an “omi” (affectionate term for grandmother) would still be able to explain–with a generous dash of humour and some social commentary. Example (rough translation): “In olden times, we already had ebay. Only it was without computer and it was called the church bazaar.” Reading this in German and then struggling through to a lightbulb moment when I finally got the joke was so much more fun than reading it in English, and a perfect way for me to stretch my foreign vocabulary.

There have been many other books that found me along the road. I must confess, however, that I have occasionally been known to take a book without leaving one, rationalizing such inexcusable behaviour with the thought that the universe seeks equilibrium and if I am caught without a book to leave, then somewhere there must be someone who has reason to leave a book without picking one up.

Even worse, while I usually conscientiously leave the books behind on another traveller’s shelf once I’m done, sometimes a volume begins to possess me and I take it home to hoard, pawing it lasciviously and mumbling My Preciousssssss! This is a bad habit. I need to remind myself that books need freedom to find new readers who will flatter and appreciate them. To paraphrase Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!:

“Books are like manure: They’re no good unless they’re spread around, helping things to grow.”

Swoop for Less: Yes or No to Cheap Flights?

Fares on ultra-low-cost airlines can be mighty tempting. I spotted return flights from Abbotsford to Las Vegas for C$150, taxes included. Wow! But having watched the classic video “Cheap Flights” numerous times on Youtube, I was cautious. Was this deal actually bookable? Would extra charges suddenly pop up? What would Swoop be like? Would we have to pedal to keep the plane airborne? Would they tie the doors closed with twine? (I witnessed this on Yemen Airlines back in the ‘70s.) Would there be bathrooms on board? Seatbelts???

I’m happy to report that overall, Swoop—Westjet’s ultra-low-cost line—was perfectly fine. No, you don’t get free beverages or food aboard. Yes, you pay for every piece of luggage, including carry-on. You are allowed one “personal item” about the size of a laptop bag and that’s it. We opted to pay for one large checked bag and stuffed everything else into our “personal items” to avoid paying for carry-on.

There were friendly cabin personnel, there were seatbelts, there were even bathrooms. There was no entertainment system unless you paid, but that didn’t bother us, as the flight was short anyway. Booking the flights was easy and prices were as advertised, other than the charge for baggage, which I expected, and the usual urging to pay extra in order to get two seats together. I ignored that.

Some of the issues I did run into during online check-in:

1/ When I tried to check in using Internet Explorer, the first question was “which airport?” No options were given and clicking produced nothing. You couldn’t write in the box or choose an option. Total fail.

I tried again on Chrome and—wow—amazing! Now it works.

Okay, I’ve been warned and threatened online many times that my Internet Explorer is “no longer supported” and will soon be completely defunct. Bleah. But I strongly suspect that I’m being “encouraged” to switch to Chrome by The Powers That Be through them deliberately undermining IE. I don’t like it, so I’m docking Swoop marks for having a site that doesn’t work in IE. So there.

2/ Filled in all the tedious info over several pages and finally got to the end. It asks do you want to download, email, or print your boarding passes? I choose email. It gives me a message that says to ask a Swoop agent at the airport for my boarding pass. I try choosing “download” instead. Gives me the same message. So obviously, YOU CAN’T GET YOUR BOARDING PASS ONLINE. Why don’t they just tell you that? Or better yet, forget about forcing us to check in online, since you can’t get your boarding pass anyway?

On the up side, after I ignored yet more encouragement to pay extra for seat selection, I did get assigned two seats together, despite refusing to pay for the privilege. I have heard that some airlines will deliberately separate travellers to punish them for not choosing paid seat selection, so Swoop earns a thumbs up by not doing that—at least in our case.

Processing at the airport was par for the course. Once we settled in to wait, however, we glanced at the Departures board only to be plunged into the traveller’s nightmare: Flight delayed. The first few flakes of snow began to drift down. This did not look good. Apparently, although our plane was sitting by the terminal, our flight was delayed because other flights coming in were late due to bad weather elsewhere. One of those mysteries of airline travel.

We sat in the terminal for about an extra hour, watching the snow get thicker and thicker. At last, we were permitted to board. Remember those quaint old days of flying when you had to walk across the tarmac and then clamber up a rickety mobile staircase to the plane? Well, folks, you can live those days again at Abbotsford Airport. Slithering along on the slushy ground while a howling wind hurls snowflakes the size of toy poodles at your face will give you a whole new appreciation of why they invented the skybridges that, in the twenty-first century, usually allow you to stroll in climate-controlled oblivion from lounge to plane.

But I digress. Neither the weather nor the boarding setup can be held against Swoop.

So we wedge ourselves in our seats. And wait some more. About two hours we sat on the ground. With my window seat, I had a lovely view of the white stuff accumulating on the runway. At least the pilot came on the intercom periodically, letting us know what was happening and expressing his own frustration at the situation. I’m not sure there was anything else the crew or airline could have done, so I’m not blaming them. The story was that there is only ONE de-icing crew at Abbotsford, and all those other flights that were late needed to be de-iced and sent on their way before we could go. Of course.

Long story short, we did eventually arrive in Vegas, three hours late.

In contrast, our return was almost a breeze. Flight boarded on time, departed on time, and arrived on time. Just as we came in for our final approach to the runway, some heavy winds hit us and the plane was thrown around in a manner that made me flash through my Ready to Die list: Will prepared and filed somewhere safe. Check. Executors know where to find it. Check. Power of Attorney created. Check. Clean underwear. Check. Bed made. Dammit.

Fortunately, the Swoop pilot brought us in safely, we “deplaned” (what an annoying idiom that is!), zipped through a shortish customs line, and were in a taxi on our way home in less than an hour.

For $150 return, I figured I did okay. I had low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. I’ve paid high prices on regular airlines and had worse service. The truth is that flying today on most airlines is such a frustrating, uncomfortable endurance test that it’s hard to see what distinguishes an ultra-low-cost airline from the others.

In the song “Cheap Flights,” the hapless passenger attempting to leave the plane discovers “If you haven’t paid to use the stairs, you’ll have to fecking jump.” We were relieved that this was not the case on Swoop. Not yet.

Knot Spots: Update on Vigia Chico Road for Birders

Spotted: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Although it’s now 20 years old, Steve Howell’s Where to Watch Birds in Mexico is still the go-to guide for travelling birders in that country, but with the information that dated, readers need to take it with a grain of salt and a spirit of adventure.

Setting out to find the well-known Vigia Chico road that Howell profiles in his book, we consulted a more recent online source for updates and managed to find the location. The paved road goes a bit farther now, but it still turns into rutted hardpan/mud pretty quickly.

We didn’t see a lot of birds, but I put that down to arriving mid-morning.

However, two things birders should note about this famous spot:

1. The road is nearly impassable to regular cars with normal clearance. There are almost continuous deep gullies and holes with large rocks sticking up. We bottomed out over and over until we gave up at around km 4. So either bring a high-clearance vehicle or plan to walk.

2. I was standing at roadside, camera in hand, when a local came chugging up on a motorcycle. I called out Buenos dios as I do to everyone who passes, but instead of answering with a smile and going on, he stopped and approached us.

He let out a torrent of Spanish, from which I gathered he was saying photography on the road was prohibited. But somehow, if I paid a “fee” I could take my photos.

Knowing it is a public road, but not wanting to argue, I just said, Photographs are prohibited? Okay, no photographs. And I put my camera away. Of course, I got another flood of Spanish explaining about the fee, but I simply stuck to I understand, no photographs.

After seeing we were not going to pay, he climbed on his bike and roared away.

So I just wanted to warn other birders that this con artist has gotten wise to birders who want to use that road.

I’d also be very curious to know if anyone else has run into this?