Misadventures in Mexico

We’re in Mexico, enjoying a relaxing vacation at an all-inclusive resort. I’ve been doing some writing, and it’s been very quiet. Perhaps too quiet: at breakfast today, Caroline remarked that we never did anything anymore.

C: You said you might go skin-diving.

T: I thought about it, but I remembered that time in Puerto Vallarta when I tried to shoot out of the water onto the boat like a porpoise. I could do it when I was a teenager. But I barely got my hips out of the water for a moment, and I cracked my ribs on the swim platform. Sank into the water before I started screaming, so at least no-one heard me. Except the dolphins, maybe. I think I heard them laughing.

C: Boogie-board?

T: Fun until that time I let a wave carry me up to the crest as it broke. Dropped four feet onto the sand. The board cushioned me a little, but I broke my glasses and almost my nose.

C: You rented that Honda trike in Mazatlan…

T: Yeah, I stalled it on a steep hill, and every time I restarted it, it would stall again when I put it in gear. I put my feet on the road, started it, then revved it and popped the clutch. It tried to climb my legs. Laid rubber all up my calves and halfway up my thighs.

T: Then there was the time I took sailboarding lessons in Spanish. I couldn’t understand half of what Miguel told me. I dropped the sail and fell forward onto it. I didn’t think it would hurt, but the boom got me right in the shins.

C: We rented cars…

T: Mmhmm. There was that VW we almost hit a cow with, back when Bucerias was just a pedestrian crossing with a fruit juice stand. I never knew drum brakes could fade out so fast. My foot was on the floorboards.

C: That was the end of renting VW’s.

T: Or the Nissan Tsuru with the cracked windshield and the hood that wouldn’t open. The rental guy only agreed to replace it when we showed him that the horn didn’t work. That’s when he substituted the one that got a flat tire and had no spare; remember how we borrowed a can of fix-a-flat from that restaurant guy in old PV?

C: Is that why we switched to big-name rental companies with newer vehicles?

T: Like the brand new Canadian-built jeep that stranded us in Tepic when the clutch gave out in the mountains halfway between Mazatlan and Vallarta? We found those shady mechanics that wanted to take us to Guadalajara for a new transmission…

C: We did get to spend the night in Tepic.

T: Which was lovely, except we didn’t sleep because I was afraid the mechanics would be back after dark to steal the jeep. In the morning, we found out the iron gates to the parking lot had been locked all night, so we’d been fine. I figured out how to ask for hydraulic fluid in Spanish (apparently) and walked to a truck stop to get some so we could top up the clutch reservoir and turn back. But the clutch would only last for about an hour at a time between top-ups, so we had to lurch through an agricultural checkpoint without stopping because I couldn’t get into neutral and I didn’t dare stall: “¡No Frutas! ¡No Vegetales!”

C: Well the bus trips were okay…

T: Remember when we took one of the old buses in Maz, and the driver had customized it with exhaust stacks at the back? They were so loud the vibration had shattered the rear windows, and he hadn’t got around to replacing the glass, so the bus’s backdraft drew in dizzying gusts of exhaust gases. We just had to hope the driver had breathable air at the front.

But that time we took “La Flecha” out of Zihuatanejo was cool. We got off at the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere and transferred to that one-ton truck with the canvas top to go down the side-road to the beach. I liked that until all those soldiers came in trucks.

C: They were just there for security.

T: Not our security! They were there for that politico on the yacht that moored off the beach. But all those machine guns made me nervous. The officer was nice though. I think he just wanted to practice his English.

C: So no adventuring today?

T: Let’s just go for a walk on the beach.

C: I’ll try not to step on a bee this time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner Debriefing: Three dinners and a breakfast in Ottawa.

We flew to Ottawa for Can-Con, a convention about speculative fiction in Canada. That means we spent some time apart. Meals were the centerpiece of our time together.

Friday we returned to a place we knew we liked: Play Food and Wine. We made a reservation this time.

This is a small plate restaurant, much like a tapas bar. The food is superb, starting with the sourdough bread and butter. Although we ordered a variety of dishes, we chose a bottle of Pinot Noir because this wine can be very versatile. There was a fine selection of wines by the glass, if you prefer to match more thoughtfully. Here’s the menu we ordered from. We chose the salmon tartare, the gnocchi, the trout and the hangar steak. If we were disappointed by the gnocchi, it was only because there were so few compared to the accompanying vegetables. The other dishes, we would order again in a heartbeat. The tasty hangar steak is one of their top sellers, by the way. We finished with a selection of cheeses, choosing three of the harder ones. Service was excellent.

Saturday we started with breakfast at Wilf & Ada’s, another repeat visit from last year. We knew to arrive three minutes before they unlocked the door, as this small restaurant fills up minutes after they open. Caroline had the eggs in purgatory, a skillet of eggs poached in a hot sauce. I had the blackstone, a variation on eggs benny with locally sourced bacon and the addition of fresh ripe tomato slices. Food here is locally sourced and they cook nearly everything from scratch. You can tell.

Saturday evening we wanted to see how the renovations in the Novotel’s Albion Rooms turned out. Last year, this was a small alcove of butcher-block tables tucked away behind the lobby bar. The food was good, and they’ve expanded beautifully. As I write this, the website doesn’t yet show the larger, more gracious room. You’ll have to take my word for it that there are paneled walls, sconce lighted art and graceful clusters of curved banquettes as well as tables with chairs. This sample menu is close to the one we ordered from, but not identical. For instance, Caroline’s Mariposa Duck included both breast and confit. My main course was a Lamb Curry that came in a deep dish with sauce and lentils. Caroline’s starter was the Blueberry Lavender Gravlax from the Charcuterie section of the menu, while mine was a Trout Crudo that does not appear on the sample menu at all. It was crispy on the outside, delicate in the middle. Caroline rated her duck dish among the best she’s had. I liked my lamb curry well enough, but wouldn’t choose it again. We had the James Mitchell Cabernet from Lodi, California. No dessert as I wanted to get back to the conference.

Sunday we branched out and ate somewhere completely new to us: Sur Lie. With the conference over, we had plenty of time to linger over a dinner of modern French cuisine. There were a lot of interesting choices, and we peppered our server with questions. In keeping with my run on seafood starters, I ordered the salmon crudo, while Caroline went with the rabbit loin. We ended up half trading with each other. I found the salmon rather overpowered by the beet preparation. Caroline loves beets, and thought it was wonderful. We both thought the flaky little rabbit rounds were amazing. Caroline ordered the perfect halibut dish:20171015_175856

I tried it, and it tasted every  bit as good as it looks. I thought about having the scallops, but I wanted to do a wine flight that ended with a red, so I chose the beef tenderloin instead.20171015_175921

I wasn’t disappointed. The duck fat fingerling potatoes were lovely.

As to the wine, Caroline paired the Casa Dea wines from nearby Prince Edward County: Pinot Noir with the rabbit and Chardonnay with the halibut. She much preferred the red, which recently won an award. The Chardonnay was flinty, which I like, but she doesn’t. She was hoping for a bigger, leggier wine. I chose a flight of four 2oz. glasses. Sur Lie offers several different flights, and I went with the Big & Bold one because I liked the idea of starting with Gewurztraminer and finishing with Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, I got to try wines I would hesitate to buy a whole bottle of: a French Cabernet Franc, a Portuguese red blend, and a South African Cabernet Sauvignon. I enjoyed each of them, but I think the variety added to the fun. Our server was very knowledgeable.

We splurged on dessert, both ordering carrot cake even though there were some other tempting options. It’s a good thing we ordered two, there would have been a vicious fork-fight over one, because it was delightful.

Arras, France

Ethel and Caroline had an amazing trip to Arras, France. Their principal purpose was to lay to rest Ethel’s uncle, Private Reginald Johnston, a Canadian soldier who died one hundred years ago at the Battle of Hill 70 in World War One. His remains were discovered in 2011, and identification confirmed in time for the 100th anniversary of the battle.

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Grave of Private Reginald Johnston, with Maple Leaf, Metis Federation flag and multiple wreaths.

Ethel and Caroline had an amazing amount of support from Veteran’s Affairs, from the Highland Regiment, and from various people such as a historian at Vimy Ridge, a scientist who ran the DNA tests that confirmed Reginald’s identity, and an owner of a private museum in Loos.

They were also helped by several complete strangers, such as a man who walked them to a restaurant, and airline staff who helped by taking wheelchairs beyond their assigned areas.

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Ethel and Caroline with soldiers of the Highland Regiment

My favourite little story from the expedition was that when they arrived at what was once the front line at the battlefield, Ethel was told that she could stay on the minibus rather than struggle down into the ditch that was once a trench. She said she didn’t come all that way to sit in the bus.

There was a CBC crew tagging along, so there will be some coverage and probably a documentary piece. Hill 70 has never been a very well known battle, having been long overshadowed by the famous Vimy Ridge, but now a new monument has been erected to commemorate those who were lost there.

The schedule was pretty grueling, with back to back twelve hour days, and even longer days of travel from Canada to France and back again, but everyone made it home in good shape and with the afterglow of something well done.

100 Years Ago

A century ago, a man was killed in a battle that almost no-one remembers. In France, during World War I, Private Reginald Johnston died in the Battle of Hill 70. The battle began on August 15th, 1917, and Reginald died that day or the next. He wasn’t alone. By the time the battle ended on August 25th, some nine thousand Canadian troops were killed or wounded, and German casualties amounted to some twenty-five thousand.

Reginald was my great uncle by marriage. He was 22, had not married, and had no children. However, his brothers did have children, and one nephew and one niece survive. The niece is my mother-in-law, Ethel. So Ethel is off to France this week to lay her uncle to rest, and my wife Caroline is travelling with her. Caroline is the family’s genealogy buff, and one of the more experienced at international travel.

The remains of some soldiers were uncovered in 2011, when foundations were being dug for a new hospital and a new prison. It took time, but Private Johnston’s identity was confirmed by a tribunal: a military historian, a forensic specialist and a DNA expert agreed that it’s him. His Manitoba Métis ancestry made it easier to get a clear match through mitochondrial DNA. He will be laid to rest this week, and a new memorial to the battle will be unveiled.

For more background on Private Johnston, see this CBC article. For an overview of the Battle of Hill 70 and its significance, try this BBC piece.

On a personal level, Ethel and Caroline’s trip is proceeding more or less according to plan. More, in the sense that they got to Toronto, then Paris, and then Arras okay. Less, in the sense that Caroline’s cousin Carol was supposed to be escorting Uncle Dale, but as dates and travel arrangements changed, no one noticed that her passport was going to expire 83 days after she came home, rather than 90. Until she went through security at the Winnipeg airport, and was denied boarding. Ethel, Dale and Caroline set off for Toronto while Carol paid a frantic visit to the Winnipeg passport office. Miraculously, she was back at the airport within hours, and the same agent who had turned her away before was still on duty. He greeted her with a hug and rushed her through. She got on a later flight and arrived in Toronto with just forty minutes to travel the length of Pearson International, but was able to board the plane to France with everyone else.

Last I heard, the whole group was going for lunch, then taking a nap to try and cope with jet lag. Caroline is keen to try some French food and wine, but the schedule is quite busy after today. There’s a visit to Vimy Ridge with a ceremony for an unknown soldier, a talk with a historian, a meeting with some military brass and a reception, then a tour of the battlefield at Hill 70, the interment of Reginald Johnston, and probably some interviews with a CBC crew. Then the return trip.

I have it easy. I just have to look after two cats and a dog for a few days.

 

Seattle to Kelowna

Federal Way is south of Seattle, so our clever plan was to wait until the morning rush-hour was dying down, and then get going in time for a late lunch in Merritt, BC, where Caroline has family.

It worked, mostly. With two of us in the car, we could use the HOV lane, which had lighter traffic and sometimes higher speed limits, and we got past the city in an hour or so.

Border crossing was okay. Advance signs said five minutes for customs, which was like the trip south: no line at all. Well, no. It was twenty-five minutes, but aside from the line, no hassle. Apart from three bottles of wine, which are duty-free, we spent just five dollars in the US on things that we brought home. To wit, some stainless steel coffee filters for my Keurig. I have one, and it lets me to use my own coffee beans, but it allows grounds into the mug. My exciting new five dollar filters have lids. We’ll see.

Side note. Drive-through espresso shacks have the best names/worst puns in America. Case in point: Brewed Awakenings. My favourite from this trip.

Nice lunch in Merritt, at Lynda’s Cafe. Full disclosure: I am related by marriage to owners. Still, good burgers, soup and fries.

Pulled in at hotel just before 17:00, so the drive was a full day’s work. Now laundry, then late supper.

Portland to Seattle

We’re retracing our steps now, heading north towards Canada. Portland to Seattle (actually Federal Way, between Tacoma and Seattle) is supposed to be a two-hour cruise.

We decided to pop in to the Mount Saint Helens Visitor Center to kill an hour so that we wouldn’t arrive too early for check-in. That was well worth while, even though we chickened out on doing a hike there because 17°C felt so cold!

Construction on the I-5 added another half hour to our trip, and we were still too early to get into our room, so we went for lunch.

Tonight we’ll return to Los Bigotes de Villa for Mexican food, and tomorrow, we’ll drive to Kelowna to catch Tuesday’s plane to Winnipeg.

Drive: Portland

No need to travel today, so we took a scenic drive and visited a winery we know.

Plan A was to visit Multnomah Falls, but the signs were not auspicious. The digital signs on the interstate, that is. They were advising the overflow parking lot and shuttle at 11:00 this morning. Weekend, hot, holiday.

When we dithered over the time required to shuttle both ways with half-hour waits, a helpful park staffer recommended taking the old Columbia River Highway and visiting some of the other, less popular waterfalls. We did. It was lovely.

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We caught up to bumper to bumper traffic at the Multnomah Falls area. Cars were parked all over the shoulder, and police were towing those that infringed on the white line at the side of the road. There were lots of these, as the shoulders are narrow, rocky and steeply sloped. We ate sandwiches in the traffic jam while we waited for the tow-truck to haul one off.

Then up the Columbia River to to cross the toll-bridge at Hood River, to pay a quick but pleasant visit to the Jacob Williams winery. For a change, we came back towards Portland on the Washington side of the river, and crossed back at Bridge of the Gods. Love the name.

Returned for a second dinner at Bistro 23. We perplexed the staff by eating on the patio despite the heat. At least we didn’t have to worry about the pizza getting cold.

Tomorrow, back to Seattle.