No rush, no rush

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
– Lao Tzu

It’s the strangest thing: all the time in Saint John, and most of the time just about anywhere else, keeping within the speed limit is an act of will. Not having to worry about speeding on the highway makes cruise control the one optional (assuming it IS optional anymore) feature that I cannot do without. I don’t think of myself as having a “heavy foot” but 50 kms at all times seems just about impossible to maintain.

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Now consider Hawai’I or, more specifically, the main byway that runs from Keauhou Bay down to the Kona pier. It’s quite long – probably close to 8 kilometres end-to-end. The posted limit is never any higher than 30 mph and falls as far as 15 mph depending on where you are. And repeatedly, I find myself having to speed up.

It seems a kind of spell falls over you, a spell that so relaxes the muscles in your feet that, without noticing, your foot stops putting pressure on the gas pedal and you begin to coast ever slower. A quick glance down at your speedometer hovering around 20-25 reminds you to pick it up a bit. Call it habit but it is hard for me to imagine that the cars behind me aren’t wondering what’s wrong with the guy in front.

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That being said, I suspect that’s more about a habit of mind than reality. I think colder climates can encourage speed. We need to get there faster to get out of the cold; if we walk faster, it will heat us up a bit; the more frantic the movement in general, the more we’ll begin to generate heat. It’s been noted before that northern climates tend to encourage greater productivity, something, if truth be told, that probably results from dealing with the need to work to stay warm during a good portion of the year.

Some years ago now, when I was in Ghana with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, a colleague and I observed one day when we were out tearing through the neighbourhood where we were staying (and sweating like crazy as a result) that we were outpacing literally everyone else walking on the road. It hadn’t occurred to us to notice that the Ghanaians around us uniformly took their time, sauntering along without a care in the world, or so it seemed to we hyperactive Canadians.

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That’s when we realized that there was method in this particular madness. Ghanaians moved slowly because it was so damned HOT. One way to avoid drowning in perspiration was to walk a little more slowly. Truly, this was a revelation for us and from that moment, as difficult as it was, we slowed down and ultimately rejoiced in the benefits.

Now Hawai’I isn’t Ghana. It certainly isn’t as humid although at times the actual temperature might be comparable. But it does seem to have something of that same slow pace that we noted in Ghana, although perhaps for its own reasons.

Needless to say, I think, tourists are far more prevalent on the Big Island of Hawai’i than they are in Accra, Ghana’s capital. And there is no denying that the same consumer drive is evident in Hawai’i as anywhere else in North America: Costco is just up the road, the big malls are bustling and commerce is evident in everything from restaurants, to souvenir shops, to all the opportunities for “adventure” advertised in every publication and on a great many street corners.

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Still, for all that, the urgency that feels so much a part of everyday life in my “real world” seems lessened here. I’ve been here for over a week now and been on the road every day, and I have yet to hear even a single horn honk. As I’ve meandered slower than the speed limit – unintentionally every time – I haven’t had a single impatient tailgater, finger-flipper or even an exasperated and impatient look from anywhere. Instead, people routinely slow down to allow others into traffic (commonly more than just one vehicle) and wait patiently while the guy up ahead slows down even more to see something or other.

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When natural beauty is an easily recognized constant, maybe relaxing doesn’t require work. We in the frozen north know a blizzard has an undeniable allure but its beauty is easy to forget when you are shoveling snow and dealing with the many consequences of “after the storm”.

So yes, Hawai’i has signs indicating tsunami evacuation areas, and earthquakes happen here but somehow both seem very far away. “Paradise” can seem overused when describing tropical climes but I can’t think of a better characterization for the west coast of the Big Island. The climate, the pace, the people (universally friendly, it seems) all fit what I imagine such a place should be. It’s my last day here amidst the undeniable beauty of this place. I’ll take the ease of the moment – for the moment – because the blizzard’s terrible beauty and its aftermath is waiting for me. No need to hurry.

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1300 feet is a long way down . . . and up!

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My first full day on the Big Island of Hawai’i and I had a plan. I was going to get up early so I could hit the road and make my way down the highway some 90-100 miles to the volcanoes. My thinking was “I’ve been there before but it was some time ago and a visit was on my to-do list so I might as well get it over with”. As so often happens with travel – if you’re open to possibilities – my plans changed.

After I was on the highway for 5 minutes or so I saw a sign for a Sunday farmer’s market. It opened at 9 and it was just after 8 so, if I wanted to go, I would have to forego the volcanoes unless I wanted to arrive at Volcanoes National Park much later than I had hoped. Now, a ¼ mile or so before the market, I saw a sign for Kealakekua Bay some four miles down a road to the right so I decided that would be a good way to kill some time before the market opened. It turned out to be a fateful choice.

Narrow and twisting the whole way, the road took me down the side of the mountain (everything seems mountainous around here) to a beautiful bay where the surf was breaking against a beach composed entirely of lava boulders. That didn’t stop some intrepid snorkelers who had found their way out into the water. I envied them but I wasn’t comfortable snorkeling alone in a place with such obviously turbulent waters. It got me thinking though.

So I checked my Lonely Planet guide and, sure enough, it identified the northern end of Kealakekua Bay as a primo snorkeling spot, although it wasn’t exactly easy to access. The choices were being transported there by one of the tour companies or hiking for an hour down the Captain Cook Monument walking trail, a path that drops some 1300 feet from the trailhead to the bay. I was quite pleased actually: I could kill two birds with one hike – get my exercise in and have my first chance to snorkel.

Having come up with a plan, I retraced my route in time to be there when the market opened. I’m glad I went. A great selection of local crafts complemented some produce and a food vendor or two. It was small but worth the time.

From there it was back to the hotel to change and pick up my snorkel gear, all of which put me back at the trailhead at around 10. I parked on the shoulder and headed out.

Just for the record, I am not a hiker, if being one means that everywhere you go you seek out opportunities for hiking. I like a hike every once in a while but I don’t live and breathe it. This, as it turns out, would have to qualify as the toughest hike I’ve ever taken.

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The trail begins as a path through rather long grasses. Immediately apparent is the fact that this is a descent. It didn’t take very long for me to realize that no straight and level portions were about to appear. This was going DOWN. 1300 feet, it turns out, is a long drop and the path made that evident. Adding to the adventure was a varied and sometimes treacherous trailbed of loose lava, large boulders, and lava faces with both smooth and jagged surfaces. In some ways, the trip down was harder than the trip back, at least as far as footing went.

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Water and the coastline appear after you’ve traveled about halfway. On either side of the trail itself are vast fields of lava. I can’t help calling it a scene of devastation. It’s what I might imagine some alien landscape would look like. Far below is the water and cliffs but, by now, I’m halfway there.

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When I finally arrive at my destination, it does not disappoint. The monument to Captain Cook is there, placed by the government of Australia, and the waters are, indeed, calm enough for some good snorkeling. It’s my first time using my underwater camera so that is an extra thrill, but the fish and the coral are the attractions.

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Eventually, the time comes to steel myself for the journey back to the top. As it turns out, it is as gruelling as I had feared it might be but I have plenty of water and I stop many times along the way. That may very well be the longest climb I have ever made without any level places to provide relief. It was all downhill on the way and it was very much all uphill going back.

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Flying the friendly skies

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Imagine how proud I was to hear that Air Canada has held on to its title as best airline in North America. I keep promising myself that I’m going to find the source of this particular award because it’s puzzling to me. I can’t help wondering what the criteria might be. Is it like the non-competitive athletics now played in some schools? Does everyone win? What is it, exactly, that so sets Air Canada apart that it deserves an award, not just for one year, but for five years in a row? Granted I don’t fly every week on business so I’m probably not the expert to depend on for an evaluation, but I’m out enough, and have flown on sufficient airlines over the years, to be able to have some sense of what goes on when flying.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I’m really even complaining. As I wrote on this blog yesterday, I don’t really ask much of airline travel. I don’t even mind flying economy on the really long flights, the ones to or from Asia, for example, that can run some 12 to 15 hours, depending on where you’re departing from and where you’re going. I’m with R. L. Stevenson on this one: travel is its own reward. I decided some time ago I wasn’t going to turn this marvel of our age – being able to arrive virtually anywhere on the planet inside of a couple of days – into a burden.

As for Air Canada, since I still haven’t been able to get it together and find out who is presenting this award or what the critieria are, I can’t help trying to guess. I’m over the Pacific Ocean at the moment on a United flight that offers the washroom free of charge and that’s about it. I’ve been aware of the many ways in which airlines are working to make ends meet but an absolute lack of free onboard entertainment surprised me. Now, to be fair, you can watch a series of infomercials on the little screen in the seat-back in front of you but, all of my natural good-nature and optimism notwithstanding, even I am hard-pressed to think of that as being anything other than stingy. If this were a quick flight such as the Saint John-Toronto leg where they don’t have the onboard equipment to provide anything anyway, I could understand. But this is almost six hours in the air with not so much as an option to listen to elevator music. Maybe United is in even worse shape than other carriers.

So score one for Air Canada there. From Toronto to Los Angeles, a solid selection of music and other forms of entertainment is available. If you need headphones, there’s a charge but the product itself is free. So what else might separate Canada’s national airline from the competition?

Friendly flight attendants? Exceptional and thoughtful service? Careful baggage handlers? Never mind that last one since most of us wouldn’t have much sense of how good or bad our baggage is handled until after the fact. As for the first two, I can’t say I’ve seen much difference among airlines in North America. As is so often the case with such folks, it’s hit and miss. Overall I find those working in airports and on planes about as competent and friendly as the general mix found in just about every service industry. I’m sure most of us can think of the exceptional server in a restaurant – both the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad – but the vast majority falls into that forgettable category of the “ordinary” where so much of our lives are lived.

And that’s a pretty good place to live, especially when so many people’s ordinary, in so many of those parts of the world I’ve visited (or hope to visit some day), can be so fraught with difficulties that I can read about but have little expectation of ever experiencing.

So congratulations Air Canada on a job well done. Someone out there thinks you are doing a great job and who am I to disagree. Until it matters enough to me that I take the time to look into it, the specific reasons will have to remain a mystery. And that’s really okay. As I said, I’m just amazed that I live in a time when the world is just waiting to be discovered. I may be stuck in economy for a long time to come but I don’t mind. I’m flying 34,000 feet above the earth at the moment. Not a bad place to be.

On the road again

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

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I’m a guest at the Maple Leaf Lounge, Pearson International Airport, Toronto, for the moment. I have a 6 hour layover between flights, just shy of being enough to justify a quick escape from the airport, especially when your next flight is to the U.S. Getting through security these days always has the potential to be a chore but getting to the States takes the cake (although I’ve heard Israel is the toughest).

Before I even have the chance to start taking everything out of my pockets and divesting myself of everything including my boots, my boarding pass has been checked three times. It will be checked once more just before the scanner. Today, at that juncture, I thought I had lost my passport for a moment and I – the guy who prides himself on the adopted motto for travel, “go with the flow” – actually started to freak out just a little bit. Fortunately, I held it together long enough to find my missing passport in the deepest recesses of a shirt I commonly wear when I’m flying. It has pockets galore, all sealable, and I do my best to decide clearly beforehand where everything will go. I can hear my Aunt Fran intoning the old adage “a place for everything and everything in its place.” She left out the part about how too many things and too many places to hide them can lead to confusion.

I’m very deliberate about such things. I’ve traveled enough to believe that solid organization is at least one important factor in how much enjoyment I can expect to have doing what many find a chore. Bottom line for me: not only do I love the destinations; I enjoy the getting there as well, as long as I have everything in hand in preparation. iPad? Check. eReader? Check. iPod and headphones? Charged and ready to go. Snacks? Itinerary? Any paperwork I might need? If I’ve made sure all of that is in place before I leave the house, I am pretty confident things from that point will be all good.

Especially before I retired, opportunities to spend time in airports were welcomed and a source of pleasant anticipation. An airport is one place where, when I choose to “go with the flow”, I can truly relax. Nothing will bring you any closer to departure time, and the time you do have at your disposal is entirely without responsibility. It has an effect similar to that which a golf course has on me. After I hit (or mishit) that first tee shot and head down the fairway, the real world fades behind me and a silence of sorts descends. All of the concerns and distractions of the world park themselves for a time. It feels good.

So the Maple Leaf Lounge is a bonus. It’s not because I’m so well traveled; rather, I happen to have the right credit card at the moment so I’m granted free access. I haven’t been to airport lounges all that often but, this one, I must say, is especially nice. For one thing, it is large yet divided in such a way that you don’t feel like one of the huddled masses. And the food is pretty good. Soups, an excellent hummus, salads, good bread: overall, plenty to make for a reasonable lunch.

And comfort. Granted, no daybeds or other options for getting horizontal but the chairs are people-friendly and varied and the overall atmosphere is relaxed. The contrast to the seating at departure gates is pronounced. The seating at the gates seem designed, by virtue of wafer-thin padding, to discourage settling in. Kicking back in the lounge can’t help feeling a bit luxurious. I always say that I’m not one to actively seek luxury. That being said, if it presents itself and I’m available, it would be impolite to say no.

The sun is setting over Toronto now and the lights of the city in the distance are beginning to assert themselves. Departure approaches and I need to get some exercise so it’s time to leave and go for a stroll. Next stop Los Angeles for a few hours rest and time adjustment. Tomorrow, Kona International and the Big Island of Hawai’i. I’m looking forward to my arrival but, for me, getting there is always part of the fun.