The road to Dildo

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Image credit: By Coach.nyta, edited by Qyd [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today was meant to be the first day of the rest of my life, the day when I joined the burgeoning ranks of the happily retired.  The trip to Newfoundland was supposed to be my rite of passage, a month of transition during which I would cast off the shackles of employment and adjust to life without the relentless demands of corporate deadlines and conflicting priorities, the daily stress of shrinking budgets and rising demands, the impossibilities of life in the public sector after years of austerity.  Only it hasn’t worked out that way.

And to be fair, it’s my own bloody fault.  Nobody’s forced me to defer, for the third time in 15 months, the opportunity to retire: I’ve volunteered, so I only have myself to blame.  We’re under enormous pressure right now, so I said I’d stay on for a few months longer, to help out while they get things sorted.  One of my bosses said I’m amazing, which is kind of nice, but I wish she’d tell that to Julie: Julie just thinks I’m a mug!

At least I still get to go to Newfoundland for a month, even though, huddled away in some badly lit corner of my brain is the thought that there’ll be a shed load of urgent emails waiting for me when I get back.  But enough of that!  What attracts us about Newfoundland is the scenery and the solitude.  Its official website boasts “there’s off the beaten path, and then there’s this place.”  Newfoundland is therefore, officially, our kind of place.

And then there’s the wildlife.  Monstrous moose lurk around every corner, ungainly tangles of legs and antlers that are only too keen to write off the cars of unwary drivers, while whales abound off the coast.  Here the website lapses into hyperbole when it says “You’d be hard-pressed to take a simple picture without some humpback spoiling it for you.  They pass through here every year, ten thousand of them.”  We’ve been up close and personal with humpbacks before, and are keen to repeat the experience.  Julie’s booked us on to several whale-watching trips, so if at least one of the ten thousand could kindly swim close to our boat we’d be jolly grateful, thank you very much.

We’re also hoping to see icebergs.  Huge, awe-inspiring chunks of ice float down from the Arctic past the coast of Newfoundland every year at this time.  Julie has been tracking their progress on the web, at www.icebergfinder.com, and it looks as if we might be in luck when we take a boat trip through Iceberg Alley in a couple of weeks from now.  And if the weather’s unseasonably warm and the icebergs have shrunk, at least I can hope to enjoy a nicely chilled scotch on the rocks.

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Image credit: By Derek Blackadder from Cobourg, ON, Canada (IMG_3532) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But of course, in Newfoundland, all roads lead to Dildo.  Yes, there really is a place in Newfoundland called Dildo.  Inevitably the name has brought it notoriety, but the town has turned this into a commercial opportunity by holding an annual festival known as Dildo Days, led by the whimsical mascot, Captain Dildo, whose image appears on the road sign to the right.  Don’t you just love the entrepreneurial spirit?

The other day at work I was telling my esteemed colleague Neil about our forthcoming trip to Newfoundland, and happened to mention Dildo.  Neil, who is a seasoned traveller in North America, nodded sagely, thought for a bit and observed “Yes, I’ve heard of it, I think.  Isn’t that the self-service capital of Canada?”  There was, however, the merest hint of a twinkle in his eye as he said it.  I suspect supermarket checkouts were the last thing on his mind.

Keep reading this blog, dear reader, and I’ll report back on just how Dildo shapes up.  Now there’s an offer you don’t get every day.

Posted in Dildo, Icebergs, Memories and stories, Moose, People, Whales, Whimsy | 1 Comment

Man, pie and crowbar save the day

St Augustine wrote “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  Of course some people will regard this as evidence of his insight and wisdom, proof positive that he was a thoroughly good egg.  I, however, think its shows he was a smug bugger who never had to contend with the trials and tribulations of international air travel.

Photo creditGeorgia About [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The good news is our aircraft left its stand at Heathrow Terminal 2 bang on time, being pushed back by one of those tug-like vehicles specially designed for this Herculean task. The bad news is that the 20 minutes later we were back on the stand.  The hydraulics had failed, leaving the tug still firmly clamped on to one of our wheels, as immoveable as an English workman standing guard over his last pie.  “Sorry folks, we’re going nowhere,” says the captain.

Enter a cheery English workman clutching an oversize crowbar.  Strengthened by his pie and keen to show the Canadians that the Empire Spirit is not yet quite dead, said workman wields his crowbar like a true pro and eventually persuades the tug to release its grip on our wheel.  Problem solved, we all think, we’ll soon be on our way.

“Sorry folks, we’re going nowhere,” our hapless Air Canada captain confesses to bemused passengers, “we’re low on fuel.”  It seems that in the 20 minutes that the tug was attached to us we used so much fuel that, should we take off now, there’s a better than even chance that we’ll be getting up close and personal with the North Atlantic.  Now this is all a bit odd.  I’m just about willing to accept that the engines were ticking over when the tug pushed us back, but surely the tug was doing all the work so our fuel consumption should have been minimal?  However none of us wants to die before finding out if Andy Murray has made it through the first round of Wimbledon, which is getting underway at this very moment, so we settle back and await developments.

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Photo credit:: By BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada (Air Canada Airbus A320-200 C-FFWN) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

How difficult can it be, at the world’s busiest airport, to top up an Airbus with a bit of aviation fuel?  Very difficult, it would seem, as we wait over an hour for Esso and Shell to argue it out between them.  Neither of them much wants to help, but who will crack first and sell us a few gallons?  You couldn’t make it up.  Eventually Shell throw in the towel and agree to give us what we need.  So, nearly two hours after the first tug let us down his younger, fitter brother squares up and pushes us off the stand.  At last, we’re on our way to Newfoundland!

When we arrive around six hours later, there’s a heatwave going on.  I complain bitterly to the girl on the hotel reception, asking how I’m supposed to cope in this heat with a suitcase full of thermals.  “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she says, “you’ll be needing them soon enough.”

“Well, that’s alright then,” I grumble, “I can hardly wait.”  Tomorrow, as they say, is another day, though hopefully we won’t be needing a crowbar.

Posted in Getting there, getting around, Weather, Whimsy | Leave a comment

Comme les Etats Unis sans Trump

So what’s the big deal with Canada?  Some would have us believe that it’s nothing more than the USA’s shy and under-achieving little brother, or comme les Etats Unis sans Trump as they might say in Quebec.  Being Trump-less is, of course, a thoroughly good thing, but Canada is better defined by what it is rather than what is not.

Writing in the latest edition of En Route, the Air Canada in flight magazine, novelist Douglas Coupland (of Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma fame) says:

when I was growing up, Canada felt like one lap dance away from being absorbed into the US.  And then by the early 2000s it all changed; it was the Internet, obviously – Canada started becoming something unique and potent.  We believe in health care, ecology, social cohesion; sometimes the group is more important than the individual ego, which to a few people seems horrifying.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation; it is, in other words, a century and a half since Canada became a country in its own right.  The national celebrations culminated just a day or two ago in a weekend of festivities and wild parties, counter-balanced by some sombre reflection on the oppression suffered by indigenous peoples at the hands of the colonisers.  Charlie-boy Windsor and the Duchess Camomile are in Canada to bring blessings from the erstwhile Mother Country, though thankfully Newfoundland is far too provincially hick for them to come here to say “hi” to the Newfies in person.

But in not gracing St John’s with their presence the royal couple have missed a trick.  The city is, we discovered today, rather delightful.  Perhaps its most famous features are the jellybean buildings, wooden clapboard houses painted in every colour under the sun.

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A terrace of Jellybean buildings, St John’s

As we walked the streets in search of the best examples locals would come up to us, or pull up alongside us in their cars, to direct us to other jellybeans we might have missed, or to suggest somewhere good for lunch, or to offer us help if we were lost, or simply to ask where we are from and if we like their city as much as they do.  These are lovely, welcoming people, and I’m pleased to be spending time in their company.

Posted in History, People, St John's, Whimsy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Having a whale of a time

Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!

Newfoundland, Carbonear, iceberg, 2017 (2)

Our first iceberg

The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose.  Yesterday, we hit the jackpot.

St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by an inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world.  Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello.  We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.

At times just a few metres off the side of the boat, they were ducking and diving through the waves, showing off massive, domed backs that sport under-sized dorsal fins. At up to 50 feet in length, and weighing-in at some 50 tons, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the scale of these animals, though the phrase “bloody big buggers” springs readily to mind.

Newfoundland, St John's, Whale, 2017 (43)

Humpback preparing to dive deep

Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water,  a clown’s battered white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans, before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.

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With a wave of his battered tail fluke, he’s gone

I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant.  But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame about mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit.  Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back.  They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them.  Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.

Posted in Getting there, getting around, Icebergs, St John's, Weather, Whales | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Dildo fails to excite

In a previous post I speculated on the charms of Canada’s most inappropriately named town. Today, dear reader, your fearless reporter tells the truth about Dildo.

Let’s not beat about the bush here, the town of Dildo simply fails to live up to expectations.  The Earth resolutely refuses to move.  The lack of phallic statuary I can forgive; after all, we can’t have the local men-folk feeling inadequate, can we?  But why no statue of JRR Tolkien, no homage to his most famous creation, that celebrated ring-chaser Dildo Baggins?  Disappointed!

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It’s all about the puffins

This isn’t a birdwatching holiday as such, but inevitably there are birds to watch.  Canada being a land of immigrants, it’s unsurprising that many of the birds are immigrants too.  The Eurasian starling is ever present, and the good old ‘cockney’ house sparrow is also in evidence; both appear to have made the trip across the Atlantic with the early European colonists.  Many of the seabirds are familiar too.  The Arctic tern, herring gull and northern gannet, for example, can be seen on either side of the Atlantic, and are common both here and at home in the UK.

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American robin – as common as muck

There are, however, some birds here that we don’t see back home. The American robin sounds as if it ought to be louder, brasher and less sophisticated version of our own ‘cock’ robin.  In fact it’s a very different bird altogether, a member of the thrush family, similar in size to our own mistle thrush and with an orangey-red breast, not at all like the scarlet/vermillion waistcoat of our own robin.  American robins are as common as muck, and we’ve seen loads already.

Bald eagles are surprisingly common. We’ve seen at least one every day since we’ve been here.  Some can be spotted circling lazily on thermals high above us, keeping a watching brief on the world below. Others dash past us, wings beating powerfully, as the bird fulfils a secret mission, probably lunch-related.  Still others sit it out on cliffs overlooking the ocean, biding their time, watching, waiting …

Newfoundland, St John's, Bald Eagle, 2017 (4)

A bald eagle contemplates lunch

So far we’ve seen just one bird that’s entirely new to us. In all out trips to North America (approaching 30, I reckon), we’ve never knowingly seen a pine grosbeak.  This one was snacking on dandelion seeds, blissfully unaware of how pleased we were to see him.

Newfoundland, Little Harbour, Pine Grosbeak, 2017 (6)

Pine grosbeak snacking on dandelion seeds

Nobody else seemed to give any of these birds a second look. Locals and visitors to Newfoundland seem united by their indifference to birds.  Except, that is, when it comes to puffins.  Everyone, it appears, is talking about puffins, everyone wants to see one.  Today, for example, while at Maberly, a visitor from Ontario saw Julie’s long lens (she was photographing Arctic terns at the time), sidled up to her and asked if she’d seen any puffins yet.  A couple of hours later, while eating pizzas at the Bonavista Social Club, we overheard other visitors comparing notes about the best places locally to see puffins.

Around here, clearly, it’s all about the puffins. With its distinctive looks and clownish demeanour it’s an avian celebrity, like Graham Norton with added feathers.  It’s always great to see other people getting into birds, though I question how many will graduate from the undoubted charms of the puffin to the less obvious attractions of the sparrow family.  There are many types of sparrow in North America; none is particularly eye-catching and they all look pretty much identical to the novice.  Here’s one that still has us scratching our heads:

Newfoundland, Green's Harbour, Doctor's House, Song Sparrow, 2017 (3)

An unidentified sparrow

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The Warhol prophecy

Andy Warhol famously remarked that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.  By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become known for something, albeit most probably something rather insignificant.

A case in point is Huntsville, Alabama. Passing through the city a few years ago we were surprised to discover that Huntsville is, according to the people who decide these things, the Watercress Capital of the World.  Now, pleasant enough as watercress is in a mixed-leaf salad, it seems rather desperate of the city elders to fly their colours from this particular mast, not least because the same city boasts an outstanding space museum, including a genuine Saturn 5 rocket.

Huntsville’s dubious claim to fame came to mind again yesterday when we drove into Elliston, which as can be seen from the signage at the side of the road, styles itself as the Root Cellar Capital of the World.

Newfoundland, Elliston, 2017 (1)

Elliston doesn’t ‘do’ modesty

For the uninitiated, and I guess that’s just about everyone other than the good burghers of Elliston, a root cellar is an underground vault in the garden in which you can keep your root vegetables, and other produce, cool and fresh.  The British aristocracy had their ice houses and, not to be outdone, Elliston folk built turnip larders that work on a broadly similar principle.  It is a must-have garden accessory around these parts; every home should have one and indeed, in days gone by, most of them did.

There were hundreds of root cellars in this area of Newfoundland at one time, and although most have fallen into ruin some are lovingly maintained. The best look as if they’ve come straight off the set of a Lord of the Rings movie, giving the impression that at any moment the door will open and a hobbit will emerge, puffing contentedly on his pipe.  ‘Hello’, he says, ‘my name’s Bilbo Baggins, pleased to meet you I’m sure.’

‘Well, hi there,’ replies Andy Warhol, ‘that’s a fine root cellar you have there. I’m pleased to tell you, Mr Baggins, that one day you’re going to be famous.  But only for 15 minutes.’

Newfoundland, Elliston, 2017 (2)

There are hundreds of root cellars dotted about the town

Posted in Buildings and places, History, Memories and stories, Whimsy | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Roads to everywhere

The locals know how to make you feel at home – they spend their days talking about the weather. To be fair there’s a lot of weather to talk about.  In the six or seven days we’ve been here we’ve experienced the highs and lows: howling gales, dismal fog, sweltering heat and torrential rain.  No snow however, apparently July is the only month when it doesn’t snow, but by all accounts the other 11 make up for that.  The roads are frost-shattered and pot-holed, courtesy of the freezing winters.  Journeys take way too long because of the need to pick a safe path through the gaping chasms in the tarmac.

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Image credit: By 四代目火影 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But at least, today, the Newfies have roads. Until quite recently Newfoundland was mostly a collection of isolated coastal settlements, accessible only by sea.  In modern parlance, most Newfoundlanders lived their lives off-grid, in villages and small towns that were sustained by, and made their living from, the ocean.

In the UK we take for granted an extensive road network that grew organically for many hundreds of years before the planners dreamt up the motorway network, and their piece de resistance, Watford Gap Services.  Because of this Brits have always had the opportunity to move around the country with relative ease, to widen their horizons and pursue their dreams.  Most Newfoundlanders, however, lived out their whole lives within just a few miles of where they were born, constrained by a road network that was underdeveloped to the point of near invisibility.

It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that roads were driven deep into the interior, joining up the isolated towns and villages, and making Newfoundland – as a single, coherent entity – a reality. Not until this mammoth task was completed did the sort of trip that we are doing now become a possibility.  Looked at from this perspective I guess that roads with pot-holes, even big ones, are a good deal better than no roads at all.

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Edwina Currie vindicated at last

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Image credit: By Matthew O’Connor (Contact us/Photo submission) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For the last two days I’ve been laid low by food poisoning.  It was the eggs wot done it, we think.  I’ll spare you the gory details other than to say it was dramatic, even Vesuvian in its intensity.  Thankfully Mrs P was spared, and has therefore been on hand to minister to the suffering Platypus Man in his hours of need.  Florence Nightingale rides again!

Normal service will resume when I’m fully recovered.

Posted in Food'n'drink, Getting there, getting around | 2 Comments

Herod had the right idea

The venerable Platypus Man is getting on a bit, and needs his creature comforts.  So far, most of the accommodation on this trip has failed to meet his exacting standards.  It is, therefore, with great pleasure that we wash up at our ‘luxury country inn’ at Springdale in the north-central area of Newfoundland.  Our modern, tastefully furnished room leads out on to a balcony overlooking a wide, shallow river fringed with pine trees.  It’s idyllic, at least right now before the river freezes over at onset of the interminable Newfoundland winter.  Even better, the inn’s property slopes right down to the water’s edge, and every evening beavers reputedly emerge from the river to graze on the succulent grasses.

We’ve seen a few beavers over the years but have never had good views.  It seems that maybe this time we’ve struck gold.  After dinner we settle down on our balcony, waiting for the show to begin.  At last, as the light begins to fade, a beaver appears on the grass, a rotund beady-eyed bundle of wet fur, dragging behind him his distinctive flat-paddled tail.  We have a great view, and the perfect photo is just a shutter’s-click away.

Mrs P reaches for her camera and at that moment two teenage yobs, benighted offspring of other guests at the inn, explode on to the lawn and charge towards the unsuspecting beaver, howling like banshees, hurling insults and the occasional stone.  Plainly, stories of the Neanderthal extinction have been greatly exaggerated.  The beaver does a swift Risk Assessment and doesn’t like the answers it gives him.  He slips back into the safety of the water and paddles frantically upstream.

Newfoundland, Springdale, Riverwood Inn, Beaver, 2017 (4)

Terrified, the beaver swims away

Although the beaver and his mate cruise up and down the river a couple of times over the next hour, the louts are still on patrol, awaiting new opportunities for devilment.  The beavers never again emerge from the water.

We are gutted by the experience. Partly this is a natural reaction to missing out on good views and photos of a critter we’ve always found to be rather elusive.  But mostly we’re angry about the gratuitous torment of an animal that was simply minding its own business, doing no harm to anybody.

There is no excuse, ever, for ignorant loutish yobbery.  It’s on days like this that I think King Herod had the right idea.

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