A bit of Bavaria in the most unusual spot

A town must be some kind of special if one is willing to spend six hours on a Sunday drive to get there and back home again. And Leavenworth, the Bavarian-style village in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, is worth the visit, even if only because it’s so kitschy. 

On the ‘plane somewhere between Germany and South Africa I eventually got around to editing my photos from our day-trip to Leavenworth the weekend prior. And I thought how appropriate it was that this would be my final blog post of my 5-month-long trip to Canuckistan and the upper left corner of the USA, via Germany. 

I assumed the town had been founded by German immigrants but, with a bit of research, discovered that it was just a regular timber community and key rail junction for its first six or seven decades. In the 1960s, with the sawmill struggling, and the railway headquarters having moved, a project was birthed by two businessmen to try to revitalize the moribund town. Taking their lead from the Danish-themed town of Solvang in California, the duo developed a plan to transform Leavenworth into a Bavarian hamlet. The first building to be remodelled was the Chikamin Hotel, which was renamed the Edelweiss after the state flower of Bavaria.

Leavenworth is now a popular tourist destination, for its outdoor activities like hiking, skiing and kayaking, and then for its events like the Icefest, the Autumn Leaf Festival, Oktoberfest and several Christmas lighting ceremonies.  It is also home to the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, which opened in 1995 and contains more than 5,000 nutcrackers.  We missed all of the festivals as well as the museum but still enjoyed a stroll around town and a glass of glühwein to warm up as dusk settled. 

Seattle (still) on my mind

Yes, I already wrote a blogpost about my all-too-brief visit to Seattle last week, but still had a few more photos to share. So, here we go again.  I really did enjoy the city’s “unfinished,” grungy vibe and know that I barely scratched the surface of its awesomeness. I’m sure I will need to visit again some day. And next time for longer than a few hours!

About a jalopy’s amazing journey through Canuckistan

What feels like way way way back in June, I arrived in Canuckistan. I stayed down on the lower mainland for a week or so and then flew up to Quesnel in the Cariboo area, where a generous friend (let’s call him “Dave” for the purpose of this blogpost) lent me a car to use for the duration of my stay. On the day I picked it up someone backed his vehicle into the passenger door. I drove it like that, with a bashed in door, for the rest of my time here. The tyres were bald and the hybrid battery was iffy, but it served me well. 

In total I drove approximately 18,700km in the jalopy without an oil change, exploring the gorgeous Canuckistan – on a day-trip to the unremarkable Burns Lake to deliver some truck parts for a friend, to the hillbillies outside town and the elderly lady who has run a holiday resort for several decades in the heart of the Cariboo. I drove back down to the lower mainland to a wedding and enjoyed several hikes with friends to lakes and waterfalls and god-awfully-high viewpoints over the ocean. From there I drove to friends in Edmonton, and to people I didn’t know in northern Alberta. I shot the northern lights and a couple of goose hunts, went on a day-trip to the North West Territories to find waterfalls, and undertook several excursions to look for bears to shoot (with my camera). Much of the driving was done around Quesnel itself to discover and photograph many of its most beautiful spots and people. I visited a (semi) random farm in the Okanagan and then, as my journey was coming to an end, I found myself back on the lower mainland, where I had started. (In total, I’m sure I travelled way over 20,000km in 5 months, including in other people’s vehicles, side-by side off-road vehicles and on a motorbike that caught fire.)

My final three weeks in the Pacific Northwest, I stayed with friends in the States, which necessitated a few trips across the border. 

Just before I departed for the U.S.A. I Googled to see if I needed a letter from Dave giving me permission to take the vehicle across the border. But I couldn’t find anything that said I needed to. And for the first dozen or so times that I crossed between Canuckistan and the US I wasn’t asked about the car. 

But last Friday that all changed.  Last Friday the tetchy woman in the booth decided to question whether I had permission from Dave to drive his car. I told her I did but she wasn’t taking my word for it, sending me into the customs office to deal with it further. 

Up until then, I had been amazed at how friendly the border control guards were (on the American side especially) but on that fateful Friday everything changed, scarring me for good. On Friday I was forced to deal with a border control guy of whom Heinrich Himmler would have been proud. I’m amazed he didn’t strap me to a chair with a bare lightbulb trained on my face.

It seems that he had decided I was guilty of something at first glance. I’ve always said I have “one of those faces”. He barked out questions, none of which had anything to do with the borrowed car: was I married, did I have children, what work did I do, how had I been travelling for so long, had I been working in Canuckistan or the States, why did I have so many friends to visit in Canuckistan and had I ever watched “Corner Gas” set in Dog River, Saskatchewan? Well, that last one wasn’t true, but he then proceeded to empty my wallet. The goon studied every grocery and fuel receipt, examined my drivers’ licence at such length that I suspected he had fallen into a profound trance, and dug things out of the tiny pockets that I had forgotten were there. He rifled through my phone; through my entire web browsing history and all my photos; he read my messages and emails. I felt violated.

I’m convinced that border control employees are required to have their senses of humour surgically removed after accepting the job. And so I have learned not to try joking or being light-hearted with them.  It’s like trying to be cute with a Doberman guard dog. Not at all wise. My mouth was dry. I was sweating. 

But perhaps I’m just overly sensitive. 

My two phones, one of which I use purely for music, were a massive (combined) red flag for him. If I were the joking type I would have told him one was my burner for all things nefarious. But I didn’t. Life is boring when you don’t get to make up fantastic stories for border guards.  

Eventually he actually asked me for Dave’s cellphone number.  

“He doesn’t have one,” I answered.  

“Who doesn’t have a cellphone?” asked he, while studying both of mine. 

Again, I could have responded with one of so many snide remarks, but I held myself back and rather just said, “Dave.”

“Dave doesn’t.”

Dave’s in his 70s, you see, and is so busy at work, that he doesn’t want one. So I Googled his work phone number, which the SS goon wasn’t interested in. 

“Is this a business-owned car or his personal car,” he asked. “If it’s registered to him personally, why are you giving me his work number?” 

Apparently they removed his brain at the same time as his sense of humour, because I had to explain (very calmly) that that was the only place we could get hold of Dave on a weekday. Because he doesn’t have a cellphone. (I’m sure I had mentioned that before.) 

So, the Nazi called Dave. And, amazingly, managed to get him on the phone. Because anyone who knows Dave knows that you only get to speak to him around 12.63% of the time when calling him at work.

I heard the one side of the conversation from the awkward bench to which I had been banished. All seemed just fine. Fortunately, Dave did not use his dry sense of humour on Hitler’s friend, who, seemingly satisfied, typed something on his computer and then called me over to the counter. Dreaming of a strong cup of coffee, satisfied that I was almost on my way, I sauntered over confidently. 

“Give me your keys,” he demanded. “And go and sit down again. I need to search the vehicle.” 

I hoped that he would enjoy all the touristy photos on my two DSLRs, which were on the back seat. But he never mentioned them. He was apparently too fixated on the cash he had found in my man-bag. You see, I don’t tend to use credit cards when travelling – it just gets too confusing what with wildly fluctuating exchange rates and all. 

“And where did you get this money?” he asked. 

“Africa,” I answered obtusely. “I brought it with me from home.” I considered getting just a teeny bit feisty: “Is it illegal to travel with cash now,” I almost asked. Because one is allowed to travel across the border with up to $10,000 in cash. And I most definitely did not have that on me! But I held my tongue.

He asked if I was hiding any more cash in the car, and I almost asked him if he would be willing to look for me. I mean, I have no idea whether Dave ever used the vehicle to stash cash. I was kind of hopeful.

But fortunately, he seemed to be getting bored at the fact that he wasn’t allowed to water board me or use shocking tools on my genitals, so he shoved all my stuff across the cold counter at me, told me to pack it up and leave. I tried asking another question but I had ceased to exist. He was already eyeing a new nervous victim across the room. 

Two days later I travelled across the border agin. This time they searched the trunk with a fine-tooth comb, stripping out the spare tyre and several car panels. Again, the guy seemed disappointed not to find anything in the jalopy. Fortunately it was relatively easy to replace the panels. Don’t tell Dave.

Yesterday I was relieved to give the car back to Dave. Of course, I blamed him for all my border trouble. 

And thus ended my trip through western Canuckistan in Dave’s jalopy. I’m headed home to safe, secure Africa, where everyone is friendly and doesn’t possess a bone of suspicion in their bodies. See you on the other side!

A day out in Seattle, the emerald city

I have dreamt of visiting Seattle ever since I was a teenager. I can’t even tell you why. It’s always just  had a strange romantic attraction. And despite the fact that I have been staying only two hours north of the emerald city, I almost didn’t make it there.

But earlier this week I drove down to Bellingham, then to Burlington, and then I figured I was half way to Seattle, and so I just kept driving. By the time I saw the Space Needle, a sticky mist was just letting go of the city. I found a parking spot, and started walking – up to the Space Needle, past Chihuly Garden and Glass and the Museum of Pop Culture. I didn’t go up the Space Needle because it was still too hazy for good views, and not misty enough to capture the city’s skyscrapers poking out of the clouds. From there I strolled down to Pike Place Market and came across the disgusting Market Theater Gum Wall – a brick wall covered in used chewing gum.

I had only paid for 2 hours of parking, and so speed-walked back to where I had left the car, and made it just in time. Then I just drove around town, including up to the Starbucks Roastery. My final stop was Kerry Park, one of the best viewpoints of the city.

I didn’t want to stay too late because I had heard Seattle’s peak-hour traffic could be bad. That was an under-statement. I loved the city’s grungy vibe but that traffic would be the death of me!

About spurned love and finding sweet rhubarb pie for my soul

Once upon a time I wrote a love letter to Canuckistan. But I have fallen out of love. I’m ready for a trial separation. Probably divorce. I’m done being treated with disdain. And I prefer the neighbour now.

Since the beginning of November I have been wandering around Washington, USA, and I have found a completely different vibe down here.  I was so jaded and tired of taking photos what with the suspicion with which I was treated in Canuckistan, that I was terrified to take out my camera in ‘merica. Because I had heard scary stories about the natives and their view on foreigners. And their guns.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, though, and so I took the risk.

But here in Canuckistan’s southern neighbour I was pleasantly surprised at how uber-friendly everyone was. Like, I have even tried to get people to say no to me taking photos of them. The other day I wandered into a barbershop full of burly men having their hair and beards coiffed. I was convinced they wouldn’t want their photos taken, but no, they were completely keen. At a farmers’ market, when I took a photo of a man who looked like a gnome, his wife jumped into the shot with a “hey, what about me?” And then, more recently I asked a family if I could take photos of them in a diner and the dad offered for all of his kids to come and pose at the milkshake “bar” for me. 

Everywhere, people speak to me like I’m a human being, not a threat. They ask me where I’m from and what camera I’m shooting with, and why I chose Nikon over Canon, and whether I’ve been up Mount Baker, and what else I’d like to see. And they tell me I should visit their hometown, or maybe come back in three weeks time when there’s snow on the ground because it’s prettier then. Every day someone surprises me with their genuine friendliness. And it’s heartwarming. 

But back to the diner. I have been looking for a typical diner experience ever since arriving in Washington. One morning last week, with no food at home, we went in search of somewhere to have breakfast. We started at a diner down the road, but the light wasn’t right for photos. And so we drove south to our favourite village, Fairhaven. But that diner only opened at lunchtime, with hamburgers and ‘shakes its speciality. Of course, Google is your friend and with its help we found another diner somewhere in between the other two. 

From the outside, “My Diner” doesn’t look like a diner you might see in the movies but inside it seems as typical as I imagined. The breakfasts were huge, my coffee mug never ran dry, and every staff member came over to chit-chat. Hey, even some of the patrons would lean over their seats and shout out something to add to the conversation. I even found space for try some of their famous strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream. And before the end of the meal I had been told about Jesus and invited to church by two different people.

These few weeks in the north-west corner of Washington State have made me feel normal again. They’ve not only swelled my stomach, but also my soul. 

Stepping way way (way) out of my comfort zone

Today I did something I practically never do: I went for stroll in a quaint, photogenic neighborhood without my Nikon, and with only my phone and a few dollars in my pocket.

The second thing taking me out of my comfort zone is that I’m trying to write and publish this blog on my phone. So, we shall see how that goes!

But on to the subject of my post: Fairhaven Village was founded in the late 1800s as a salmon canning centre but (quirky, interesting fact) its opium was at one point more popular than the salmon. The village was incorporated into the city of Bellingham to the north 20 years later, but it kept its name, minus the “village”. Fairhaven today serves as the southernmost terminus on the Alaska ferry route, but most people visit to wander through its “historical district” and to enjoy a meal at one of its many cozy eating joints.

One person on TripAdvisor described Fairhaven as “Old buildings, random statues.” I found four of the statues on my random ramble through town, Tony’s Coffee House latte in one hand and iPhone in the other.

As usual, I asked a few people if I might take photos of them and every one said yes. Some even thanked me for showing an interest in them! An elderly lady, whom I met walking down the road, told me how she had moved to Fairhaven 32 years ago for love, and then found that love had moved on. But she assured me there was hope for me yet, and that I too should not be scared to pursue love wherever it draws me.

As they say where I come from, “sy is duidelik met die helm gebore” (loosely translated, “she clearly has a freaky prophetic gift”).

But, without further ado, I bid you and this blogpost adieu, leaving behind a dizzying collection of Fairhaven images, straight out of my iPhone.

Finding colour in a taupe town

Bellingham in the upper left corner of the USA (not counting Alaska) is kind of a humdrum, mundane town. With all its old buildings, it’s pretty enough but it’s also kind of … beige. However, today I drove down every alleyway downtown (there are exactly four) to look for colour.

Because, as in most towns’ back streets, the grungy, black/brown walls and sunken doorways in Bellingham serve as blank canvasses to graffiti artists’ imagination. And, amazingly, I found very few “tags” and many works of art (along with delivery vehicles and a myriad of trash cans vomiting their offal onto the soggy pavement).

As most of you will never visit this part of the world, I did all the hard work slopping through the puddles of who knows what, parking illegally and getting stuck behind a truck with engine running but going nowhere forever.

Do you have any favourites?



Twenty refreshing reasons to visit Victorian-era Port Townsend

Actually, I don’t have twenty reasons to visit Port Townsend. I have but two: it’s a quaint town, it’s easy to get to, easy to stroll about and boasts several good little eateries. Sorry, that’s four. But at least I’m keeping you on your toes.

Port Townsend is a small seaside town on the north-east tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The town, with around 10,000 inhabitants and many visitors, dates back to Victorian times, during which time it saw most of its development as one of the busiest ports on the Puget Sound.

Unfortunately, it never grew quite as expected, with the Washington railway system never making it that far north. As a result, it lost out to towns like Tacoma and Seattle, which continued to develop, while Port Townsend saw a steady decline.

Fortunately the military base at Fort Worden north of town and a paper mill, which was built south-west of town in the 1920s, kept the town ticking over. And then, from the 1970s more artistic types and retirees moved to town, people began restoring the Victorian buildings and the town saw a bit of a revival as a tourist destination. That’s why I went for the afternoon.

Take a walk with me, why don’t you?

(Click on images for bigger versions and short descriptions.)

About cruising a Washington ferry wondering why I feel so old

Yesterday the friends I’m staying with in northern Washington State took off to Canuckistan for the day. The person with whom I was going to spend the day abandoned me to do something fun north of the border too, and so I headed south. After too many detours I eventually found myself at Fort Casey, and at the ferry bound for Port Townsend.

More about the town tomorrow.

I hadn’t booked a spot for the ferry because I didn’t know what time I would get there, and so bought my ticket on arrival, hoping there would be place on the boat (because first option is given to all those who had booked.) The youngster in the ticket booth asked if I was 65 or over, to qualify for a seniors’ fare. I decided not to take offence, despite still being a year from my 50th birthday. And as much as I love saving money, I also couldn’t bring myself to lie about my age.

I managed to answer “no, not yet,” with a straight face and handed over full fare.

The ferry, called Kennewick, has a capacity of 64 vehicles. I was the 64th loaded… For which I was very grateful, because I struggle sitting still and would have found it completely impossible to wait an hour and a half for the next ferry.

Many people just stayed in their vehicles for the 30 minute traverse of the Puget Sound into Port Townsend Bay. I, as I cannot sit staring at a stationary vehicle in front of me for half an hour, headed to the upper deck, where I roamed like a restless wraith looking for stuff to shoot.

One of the interesting things about many of the Washington State ferries is that they have jigsaw puzzles available for people to build. Many passengers head straight to a puzzle randomly placed at one of the tables on the passenger deck, foregoing the views or biting wind outside. They have the time it takes from departure to arrival on the other side to work on the puzzle, and then they leave it laid out on the table where they were sitting, as is. When the ferry heads off in the other direction someone else works on the puzzle, and so it goes until the puzzle is finished. Or not. There are 20 trips in a day. Who knows how many times the puzzles have been completed, if any.

But I watched the delight it gave several passengers (who would take photos of the puzzle before and after working on it) to be part of a bigger process; a bigger picture of many puzzle builders from who knows where.

I tried one too, and, as with the obligatory tradition, took a final photo of it.

Here then, a few snaps from my ferry trips to Port Townsend and back to Coupeville a few hours later.


Having a whale of a time in a bicycle boneyard

I’m not sure if I trespassed this afternoon. For what it’s worth, I didn’t see any “Keep Out” signs in this particular area, but the whole block had been fenced off; all the buildings boarded up, abandoned shells.

The fence to the building which used to house The Hub Community Bike Shop was open, and so I wandered in, drawn by the graffiti and twisted remains of bicycles.

The Hub is a non-profit bike shop and community resource in Bellingham, Washington. It opened in 2002 to build and refurbish custom bikes from donated parts as a service to the city. In short, people donate bikes, then The Hub‘s staff and volunteers build completely new bikes from the parts before selling them or donating them to social service organisations in town, which help put the bikes into the hands of those who need them most. They also offer full-service repairs and tune-ups, in addition to a self-repair station for people wanting  to fix their own bikes.

But at the beginning of September they were forced to move to new premises as the entire block was sold to a development company, which plans to build new housing units. Amazingly, all the parts you will see in this post were left behind when they moved.

What a treasure trove of junk!


Just meandering in ‘merica

I am clearly in the Pacific Northwest. And it is clearly Autumn (or “Fall” as they call it here) because it rains constantly. I used to joke that the sun never shone in Vancouver because I had never seen it there, but this summer the weather was actually quite nice and I managed to hike and enjoy the outdoors.

Actually, I’m currently not cruising Canuckistan, but meandering in ‘merica or wandering about Washington (to be more precise).

On Saturday the sun finally appeared for half a day, but the wind was absolutely howling. And so I jumped in my car and drove down to places with delightful names like Coupeville, Oak Harbor and Deception Pass on Whidbey Island. On my way home I picked up fish and chips for supper in Fairhaven, drove through downtown Bellingham to get back onto the Interstate 5 and then finished off the day with ice cream from Edaleen Dairy in Blaine.

Come and travel vicariously with me through this neck of the woods, why don’t you?

Back in the saddle with a grin and some flare

A few months ago this 10th-grader broke her elbow on a soft motocross course. On Monday she was back on her Kawasaki KX250F dirt bike again. Sure, maybe she didn’t get as much air as before the accident and she didn’t hit the bermed corners quite as confidently as she could have, but this was her first day back in the saddle.

Monday started as a photo shoot for the school magazine, where she and a friend planned just to pose on the local motocross track. And maybe do a few slow laps. But as we shot, so her excitement at being back on her bike grew (along with her smile).

Have you ever watched a kid just having fun? It’s infectious. A teenager’s life is not easy I’m told – trying to understand one’s alien parents; trying to keep up appearances for one’s peers; trying to control emotions that are as easy to bring in line as a herd of cats. But out there on the course she didn’t care what anyone thought – she was just having fun playing.

“Can we try this next,” she would ask, before taking off to get enough speed to make her jump, or whatever.

And when she fell, she would grin and giggle, get up and try again.

“Maybe we should do one where it looks like I’m flying over another rider,” she suggested hopefully.

And hey, whatever she was willing to try, I was willing to shoot, even if it meant lying in the dirt to get the right angle. One of my cameras wasn’t as willing and jammed as I shot her flying by. Maybe it was all the dust. Maybe it was just clapped out. So, I shrugged, transferred lenses and shot with the other camera body.

As I’ve said a few times this week, it’s been my pleasure shooting people with smiles on their faces and a sparkle in their eyes; shooting people who revel in being shot as much as I enjoy doing the shooting…



Surviving Halloween in the company of Kimmy Schmidt

I’m proud to announce that I made it through another Halloween alive and without a sugar high.

According to the National Retail Federation in the USA, an estimated $2.6 billion would be spent on candy for Halloween alone, and another $3.2 billion on costumes (including for the 23-million pets that would be dressed for the occasion.) House decorations would cost another $2.7 billion. Please just read those statistics again and tell me the world hasn’t gone insane. Well, North America anyway.

Across the border in Canuckistan, they take Halloween just as seriously, and claim Americans stole the term “trick or treat” from them.  A feisty bunch those Canucki kids, with the most common “tricks” originally being to “toilet paper” trees, or throw rotten eggs at the person’s house who refused to give them candy. Now, most kids just say the phrase and expect candy. If the home-owner chose “trick,” I’m sure the kids would be left standing with a mouth full of teeth; unsure how to respond.

Like their southern neighbours, Canuckis spend plenty on candy – $550.7 million last October. But with a population of around 11% that of the US … well, you do the math(s).

I added to the statistics by eating two chocolate bars, buying a milkshake and dishing out absolutely nothing to the kids who came to my front door. Well, to be honest, none came to the door because I turned off the lights and hid out in a back room, cackling like a witch as I binge-watched Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

I had thought of dressing like a photographer, and taking to the streets around home to shoot trick-or-treating kids, but the cops down here in the USA look a lot more serious and mean than Canuckistan’s RCMP. So I stayed home.

Talk about wisdom coming with age, eh!

As I have no Halloween photos, here are some I took at a Mexican evening the youth at our church held last weekend. ¡Olé la banda!