Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Canadaventure in the Rockies Part 2 - Tragedy at Sunwapta Falls

Onwards to Jasper

Our next target was Jasper National Park. Situated northwest from Banff, the park has an amazing amount of scenery and wildlife. We traveled on route 93 up to Jasper town, visiting sites along the way. The elevation in this area is in the range of 1500 meters to 3000 meters (1 to 2 miles), depending on which mountain or pass you travel through and all around us we could see tree-covered peaks and streams.

Our first stop was Johnson Canyon, an easy walk up to see the lower Johnson Falls, an nice but non-impressive waterfall. The nice thing was that you could go into a small cavern and come out nearer the water that was falling down.

Our next stop was Lake Louise, definitely a gem. The lake is at the base of a glacier that's slowly melting and filling it in. During the winter the lake freezes off completely and the glacier is replenished (though ever since global warming it's not being replenished as much). During summer the glacier melts and fills in the lake.

We kept on driving and saw one more glacier-melt lake, Lake Peyto. The amazing turqoise color is due to the melting water carrying with them pieces of the rock. As they reach the lake, the small components mix in the water and light coming in breaks in a way that green and blue light is reflected back.

Tragedy at Sunwapta Falls

Then we reached Sunwapta falls. At Sunwapta falls, water falling down some 20 meters down from a higher valley and onto a the Athabasca valley. The river has been cutting through the rocks for the past 10000 years, since the last ice age. As the river cuts more and more, it slowly moves back, leaving high canyon walls behind it.

As we stood there taking pictures of the falls, Pepper was modeling near the long fall down.

As I turned around there came a gust of wind.
And then Pepper was on his side.
And then he was bouncing off towards the precipice.
And then he went head first into the Sunwapta crevice.
This is his last known picture.

Was it an accident and the wind swept him off the ledge? Was it murder? A suicide? Was he just tired of modeling, the long hours, hard work and needing to throw up after every meal? We'll never know... All we know is that the river's flow is very strong and we're not hopeful.

A Starbucks Wasteland

As Pepper took a course down to the Athabasca valley and onto the Saskatchewan river, we continued our trip to the last stop before Jasper town - the Athabasca falls. The Athabasca falls are a massive flow of water that's been cutting into the rock for the past few thousands of years. Every once in a while, the river finds a new channel a few meters to one side or the other and leaves a dry canyon behind it.

You can cross the river and see the falls from various angles. It's amazing to see how deep the falls are and how strong the current is.

Our then drove through Jasper town and onto Hinton where we were sleeping the night. The town of Hinton, while bigger than Jasper and outside of the park, serves mostly as a truck stop. There's not much to do here except go to Wal-mart of Safeway. In the morning, we started with our now-standard ritual. We bought some bagels and stuff at Safeway, then opened up Samantha (The GPS) and asked it for a listing of Starbucks shops in the area. So far, we've been able to find a Starbucks anywhere we went but imagine our surprise when the nearest Starbucks stores were over 100km away.

We asked at Safeway and they said Starbucks hasn't made it there but if we want we can go to Tim Horton's. For the uninitiated, Tim Horton sells sandwiches and some coffee. The selection is limited to 5 types of coffee. Only 5. It's like being a kid again with only one TV channel and sometimes being able to pick up the South Lebanon television station as an added bonus. Tough.

For the next two days, we toured Jasper, checking out the local sites. We trecked Maligne Canyon, formed by a stream coming from Medicine lake. The interesting thing is that the stream is not the main way for water to leave the lake. Water flows from the bottom of the lake through the mountains and joins the main stream as side channels coming out of the canyon walls. We also saw this very cool water flow coming down the layered rock face.

More impressive, however, was the local wildlife. While not tame, the animals are not so afraid of humans and so come down to the roads. Here's a male Canadian mountain goat (I think). It stopped in the middle of the road while tour busses and cars slowly drove around it.

A couple of females were feeding nearby and omer managed to get close to one of them.

But mostly we went looking for Moose and Elk. The guide book said that the best place to see them was outside of Jasper town. They seem to like the grass there.
A local also told us that this is mating season and a few tourists had to be saved from an Elk that was going through town rounding up the local females. We didn't see it but we saw a couple of younger males doing the discovery-channel-fighting-it-out-for-control-of-the-herd dance (I'm sure it's just one word in the local Inuit language).

When they were done, one slunk away while the other raised its head and pissed all over the hill. I'm sure there's an Inuit word for that too.

This concludes part 2 of Canadventure.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Canadventure in the Rockies Part 1 - Look at that Beautiful Mountain

I'm on a 2 week trip to the Canadian Rockies. I'll start by introducing the rest of the team:

Omer (my brother), Mom, and Dad who researched the area, planned the trip, has the itinerary broken down by each hour of each day.

Also featuring:
  • Samantha - the official name of the voice my GPS uses. Samantha 1.0.3 to be exact.
  • Pepper - the trip mascot. We "found" him (we're pretty sure he's a "he") in the store of a gas station chain called Husky. His name came from a misunderstanding about which spray we should use in case wild predators attacked us - paper spray or pepper spray. We finally settled on pepper.

The Mountains

This trip will take us around the Canadian Rockies, a region on the border between Alberta and British Columbia in western Canada. The area is littered with national parks and we will be visiting a large number of them. To start with, we landed in Calgary, took our rental (a Jeep Patriot since our reserved Jeep Grand Cherokee was already given to someone else) and drove in a roundabout way to our first stop, the city of Canmore.

The road we took started out through the plains, with fields filled with hay packets and cow herds grazing nonchalantly. About 20km before Canmore, we took a 150km detour to go through a more scenic route through the mountains.

The road is amazing. At this time of year the weather is fickle. For the first day we had mostly clouds and rain, though the rain did stop towards the second part of our trip and we drove through amazing valleys with mountains surrounding us.

As we drove through we also got to know the car better. A tight SUV, it certainly wasn't the one we wanted. As the road continued and we got off the asphalt road the sun came out, we saw a large river following our course and we even got a glimpse of the local wild life.

Doing It Right The Second Time

We started our second day by driving back to Calgary to get a better car. Now that we had the Grand Cherokee, the trip could start in ernest.

We started by driving through Yoho national park. Our first stop was the Spiral Tunnels, a set of train tunnels throught the mountains that solved the problem of how to get the train through the steep elevation. The tracks used to have a slope of over 4 degrees, which made it very difficult for trains to climb them and hazardous for them to drive down. The longer trains' locomotive used to be 5 meters below the last car, pushing on the train and making it almost impossible to stop.

An engineer solved the problem by cutting two spiral tunnels through the mountains. The tunnels go into the mountain, make a whole circle then exit above the point where they started. This let the trains take the trip with a lower 2 degree elevation and much less risk.

The mountains here are completely covered in pine trees (lodgepole pine to be exact). It looks like someone took lots of green matches and stuck them standing up on the mountain. While the view is beautiful, this setup has the unfortunate side effect of hiding any train tracks or special spiral tunnels. We could clearly see one point where a tunnel starts and could kind of make out a point where a tunnel might be exiting the mountain but no train ran through so we weren't really sure.

Instead, here's Pepper modeling what the spiral tunnels look like on the mountain.

Our next stop was Takakaw Falls. Notice the Indian names that most of these creeks, valleys and falls have. A lot of them are in some local language or are the name of the trive. Takakaw means "beautiful fall" or something like it in the Cree language.

We had a very late lunch in a town called Field. It's in the middle of Yoho park, has a few houses, one restaurant and one hotel. While I don't know the history for the name, I can easily imagine how originally this used to be an open field were some Canadian railway employees used to set up tents or cabins. And the town grew and grew (alright - grew very slowly) but the field stayed "the field" until someone finally officially registered it as such.

We stopped at this wonderful natural stone bridge where the water cut a channel underneath.

(that's me in the picture, for size reference; and yes - pepper is also in the picture if you look real hard)

On the way to the hotel, we caught the sun as it was going down, angled over the valley and completely lighting up this mountain range.

And here's one of the slow freight trains across the lake from us:

The Adventures of Heckleberry Rafi and Omer Sawyer

On our third day we visited Kootenay national park. The park has everything from snow-capped peaks at the end of summer to (allegedly) cacti growing in it. We never saw the cacti but the mountain ranges we drove along were awe-inspiring. The border between parks Kootenay and Banff divides a few other things: it's the border between British Columbia and Alberta and also marks the continental divide between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Water falling on opposing sides of the marker will flow down to different oceans.

There are some more interesting waterfalls, including this one that cut quite a channel into the ground.

And some very nice viewpoints where you can see a huge part of the valley spread out before you.

We also tried out our new wildlife-telescope. We mostly managed to see trees really up close.

At the end of the park is the township of Radium Hot Springs named after the, you guessed it, hot springs in the park. From there, instead of retracing our steps, we took a detour around the park. The tourist information center at Radium gave us only a fishing map of the area. The map focused on two main features:

  • Rough sketches of the roads we can take. The word "roads" in this context means anything from a highway to an unpaved path cows walk on.
  • Lakes. Hopefully with fish in them.

We decided to try finding one of these lakes and so took ourselves off the beaten path and onto the, well, literally beaten pathway along the trees and wild vegetation of British Columbia. After half an hour of traversing dirt roads, past all farms and human habitation, we found Lake Cleland. The water looked blue and beautiful through the trees but there was one problem: there was already one car there. Way too crowded. We decided to go on to lake Jade, a few minutes down that same path.

To explain to you how secluded the lake is, when we stopped the car some 100 meters from the lake a squirrel on a nearby tree chirped menacingly at us for a few minutes. The lake was indeed Jade in color...

... and true to its fishing-lake nature had a small jetty leading out a few meters onto the water and lo-and-behold, a small hand-made raft someone left from a previous trip. Dad immediately jumped on it to test its strength, then Omer joined him and each with a stick started pushing into the lake.

Once the confusion about not pushing in different directions was cleared up, they managed to free the raft from the mud and float it into the middle of the lake. Mom looked at them shocked, while I did the oh-so-Israeli thing of yelling suggestions and instructions while being completely uncommitted - I wasn't going to get wet if they capsized. I finally managed to get them to where the bigger lake was visible behind them...

...and also managed to use some trick photography to show how they reached relativistic speeds. No photoshop used, I swear.

This concludes part 1 of Canadventure.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Careful What You Ask For...

I'm in France for a conference. This time in Provence, in a town called Bandol. The hotel is not near the airport and requires a drive through the picturesque French country side. Before leaving for France, I had a discussion with one of my colleagues about getting to Bandol. He's been here before and said that it's a nice area but if I'm getting there after a 20 hour trip, landing at night and then driving an hour or two to get to the hotel, I might want to get a hotel in Marseilles and drive the following day or at least get a GPS. I said the GPS option sound good - I've never tried that. (Thanks Ravi!)

The shuttle driver taking me to San Francisco aiport was using a GPS. I looked at how it did the cool "3D" driving instructions and liked it. Fast-forward 20 something hours later to Marseilles, France. I get to the Avis office to pick up my car. It's getting dark outside, raining a little bit and I'm pretty tired from the trip. I decide to ask if they have a GPS system. Remembering "A Good Year" I also ask if it speaks English. For the next 30 minutes, the two Avis reps try to set up the GPS to point to the hotel I'm going to. Eventually we find out that the name is not quite as in the reservation. It's "La Fregate" and not "Dolce Fregate". But the directions seem to match the ones the hotel provided and so I'm all set.

TURN AROUND, THEN BEAR RIGHT, says the GPS in a feminine, British voice. I like it. It's a cool accent and they chose a sexy voice.

I take a few minutes to adjust to the stick shift. It's been a few years since I've driven one and I need to wake up my Clutch leg and remind it that it has a job to do during the drive. I then navigate the French signs for how to leave the parking lot and BEAR RIGHT on the road.

AFTER (slight pause) 400 YARDS (slight pause) TURN RIGHT

Yards, huh? If I remember correctly, a yard is close to a meter. I keep track of the map on the GPS screen and take the right turn.

AFTER (slight pause) 300 YARDS (slight pause) BEAR LEFT

I drive some 290 yards and the GPS again goes BEAR LEFT.

There are lots of bears in France. I bear left and merge onto the highway going to Marseilles. The roads are great, the Sun has already set and the sky is mostly dark. It's a good thing I took the GPS. I don't know if I'd have found all the right turns without it.

Getting into Marseilles, I hit the first snag. There are a number of long tunnels going underground that I have to pass. I enter the first one and watch the GPS screen. For the first 30 meters or so it's fine, then suddenly the route colors go out and we have a B&W picture. GPS devices can't receive the satellites while underground. My GPS still shows progress though and I wonder whether it has some kind of dead reckoning mechanism like submarines use to figure out where they are. Dead reckoning is a fancy technical term for "we're guessing where we are".


The GPS is still in dead reckoning mode but it's assuming I've moved. The only problem is I'm already at the end of the tunnel on the right-hand side and bearing-left would require cutting across three lines of traffic and solid divider lines in less than 10 meters before the lanes split irretrievably. I miss it.


The GPS is very resilient. It readjusts the route based on my current location. Of course I hear the silent "STUPID DRIVER" at the end of the sentence. I get back on track and enter a longer tunnel. This time I'm smarter. I slow down towards the end of the tunnel until the instructions are ready again. The GPS doesn't say it but I'm supposed to PAY THE TOLL.

I'm now on the longer stretch of the route. For the next 15-20km I can drive without any instructions. I'm not sure why the GPS gives me instructions in yards when the overall trip is measured in kilometers. Weird.

20km later it starts up again. TAKE NEXT EXIT. BEAR RIGHT. LEFT TURN ACROSS THE ROUNDABOUT. GO STRAIGHT. The bossy little %@#$. It doesn't matter where I want to go. Only it counts. It's the one calling the shots. I'm so pissed off. oooooooooooooof.

It does, however, get me through the village of Saint Cyr Sur Mer which I'd never have been able to do myself. Too many small turns and residential roads without any signs. We finally get to Route Bandol, almost to the final destination. We start making turns into roads that have no names, or at least I can't find them. I'm sure I'm driving through gorgeous French countryside but it's too dark. It's a very picturesque dark though. We're very close. I make a turn onto what feels like a lower quality road. I can't see it that well but it has the texture of concrete that has been patched one too many times. There's nothing around me and it feels a bit deserted.


It's not grammatically correct English but it certainly makes me happy. I start looking for signs of the hotel. There's no light around, only the broken down road and the trees. I drive slowly through these 400 yards. I think I passed a car that was "parking" back there. I keep going. The GPS finally chimes:


And I look around. There's nothing but trees. I'm on a dirt road with a shut manual gate ahead of me. Only night owls are awake in the forest. It's certainly not the Dolce Fregate. But I've ARRIVED AT MY DESTINATION. That's so great. Just great.

I turn around and start climbing back out, hoping I'd be able to reverse engineer the path I've traveled. Since I was following the GPS I wasn't paying too much attention. The GPS keeps saying "TURN AROUND AND BEAR LEFT" in its feminine British accent. I keep replying "SHUT UP" in American.

Turns out I was pretty close. I was on the correct road before I started all these twists and turns. The GPS took me, as instructed, to the La Fregate camping ground.

Careful what you ask for...

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Brazil 101

Almost Like Spanish?

I know a little bit of Spanish, mostly from previous South American visits. I can't have any meaningful conversation but I can definitely order "cafe" con my "pan y mantequia" (bread and butter) in the morning. Actually maybe that IS meaningful conversation. And so going to Brazil I figured that Portuguese is very similar and I won't have much trouble picking it up.

Reviewing the language section of my trusty Lonely Planet guide to Brazil I noticed that its "so-you've-got-the-shits" section lists five commonly used phrases for the sick traveler:
  • I'm Ill
  • I need a doctor (who speaks English)
  • It hurts here
  • I've been vomiting

And the always useful:

  • (I think) I'm pregnant

Now I've had the top 4 before. I guess if you consider the whole phrase, I can probably have the last one as well though it would be a very different kind of sickness in my case. I just didn't realize that Brazil was so notorious for people getting knocked up. I definitely only drank bottled water on this trip - who knows how things work here.

My next long trip will be to Brazil. But since that's not planned yet, I've jumped at the opportunity to go there on business for a few days.

The City

My first and only planned stop was Sao Paulo, 3rd largest city in the world from a population perspective. It's a strange mix of rich and poor living very close together. The city itself has very few sights, it's not a tourist attraction. Certain neighborhoods, called favelas, are collections of shacks covering local hills. The residents are extremely poor. If you go in, you're not likely to come out. Even walking around them is not recommended.

Crime is a major issue in Sao Paulo. There are weird and fantastic things that could happen to you. For example, my taxi driver explained how he had an old Volkswagen beetle that was hijacked from him when he stopped at red light one day. In fact there's a law that says that at night you don't have to stop at a red light. Just slow down to check for traffic. You could also be mugged or pick-pocketed or the ever-inventive being kidnapped for an hour or so while you use your credit cards to take out as much money as you can, at which time you're released. Business models are improving the world round!

The Beach

In order to see some of Brazil's fabled beaches, we took a taxi to a nearby coastal town called Guaruja. A beautiful ride down the mountains over bridges and through tunnels brought us to a small town on an island near the coast. It was the middle of the week and off season (as much as you can get off season when it's 22c degrees (72F) and sunny.

We had lunch at a beach-side restaurant where I found "Cervesa Rosa" or red beer. The waiter tried to dissuade me from getting it but I persevered. Afterwards we asked how it's made and found out they take good beer and mix it with some concentrated juice. Maybe it's a kids beverage.

"F#@ off, I'm full!"
(Vegeterians might want to skip ahead to the next section)

Sao Paulo has great areas where you can shop to your heart's content, drink coffee while looking at the passers-by or have great meals. My colleagues and I checked out the various food options. You can find anything from Sushi to pasta, but the most famous restaurant style in Brazil is the churrascaria, the Brazilian grill.

The churrascaria is a magical place. As you come in and sit down, the waiter brings a plate with bread and some fried things. This is distraction #1 - avoid it. Next, there's a huge salad bar with very little salady things about it. I went looking for vegetables and came back with some sliced tomatoes. The salad bar is where you get fish, some rice and cheese. This is distraction #2 - avoid it.

Behind the scenes is a kitchen with a large grill. Huge skewers hang on the grill, slowly cooking chunks of cows, pigs and lambs larger than your hand. Every once in a while, a waiter comes by, picks up one of the skewers and walks around the restaurant with it, stopping by your table and offering you pieces that he cuts off right into your plate.

We even got a little map of the cow so that we'd know what we were eating.

Strangely enough, tongue (thanks Roger!) is not on the menu.

Your only defense against the waiters is a small cardboard token with a red side and a green side. While green is up, any waiter coming by will offer you a something and instead of being able to eat in peace you'll be fending them off. Turn the token upside down and voila! they magically still keep stopping by your table and offering you portions.

They only really stop when you're lying back in your chair barely able to breath with your belt undone to let some blood circulate.

Then, they try to re-enact Monty Python's "And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint" by bringing over the desert truck for you to choose from.


Having been through a number of passover dinners where similar tactics are used, I paced myself and was able to survive dinner. As punishment I was banished the next day to a small town (only 2 mil. people) on the north shore of Brazil. I was a guest speaker at a Java User's Group (ceJUG), a very active group of Java aficionados. Since my Portuguese is only good enough to order food in Spanish, there was a simultaneous translator there to help me communicate with the crowd.

The day before, I had a chance to listen to a simultaneous translator work. While a presenter spoke in Portuguese, us foreigners had earphones on to hear the English version. The scene had something of the Japanese movies where their lips move for a long time and then someone in badly accented English says "OK". Here, as the presenter grew more and more passionate, waxing lyrical about Java in sing-song Portuguese, the translator would say "you are right" in a very even, dry tone.

And so there I was with my own personal translator and 250 people wearing headphones so that they could understand me and I just had to test the new system. So i lifted my hand up and said "anyone who can understand me lift your hands up". And some did while others quickly fumbled with their headphones. Then it dawned on me that raising my hand up gave everyone a hint of what I was saying. My next test was much better devised - I lowered my hand down explicitly while telling everyone who heard to raise their hand. They passed :)

And so I spoke for a couple of hours while the translator, Salmito, talked much more passionately than I did about the subject. He was at the back of the room in a glass box and I was the only one who was really looking at him. It was interesting to see him standing up and gesturing with his hands as he translated my words.

I find it amazing that someone can listen to what I'm saying in English, translate to Portuguese and do this at my rate of speech. There had to have been multiple threads running in his head.

In the evening, my host (Tales) took me and Fernando, the guest speaker from Rio, to have dinner. A section of the shoreline promenade was dedicated to fish sellers. A number of them were still open despite the late hour with trays of shrimp stacked on their counters. We bought half a kilo then went to a small "restaurant" right next to it where we gave our raw shrimp and got french fries, beer and garlic shrimp back. A very nice setup. We sat outside looking at the people and enjoying the meal.

Touring Fortaleza

Fortaleza has many beaches, stretching out a number kilometers. My hotel was on the promenade roughly in the middle of town. I woke up the next morning noon and decided to go tour the beaches. Wearing my tourist clothes with my tourist backpack and my very tourist camera hanging from my neck I got out and started walking along the sand line. Within 5 minutes I came upon a couple of cops walking the beach. They called me over and explained in sigh language that someone will come by and snatch my camera if I walk around like that. Once I put it in the bag, they requested in broken English some money for coffee. I thought about saying no but decided only bad things will follow. If they were nice enough to ask, I might as well comply.

Instead of walking that stretch, I found a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the better beach in the area - Foturo beach. He made the shape of a gun with his fingers and said something about someone taking my "bolsa". Not knowing the word, I tried to find a similar one in languages I understood. Bolsa is close to bolsito in Spanish which means plastic bag. Did he mean they'll mug me and take my bag? I tried to find a close word to bolsa in English and found that option even scarier.

I decided instead to go see the local market:

Album with more pics at:

Brazil April 07

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