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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

A survey conducted post-apocalyptic debt ceiling kerfuffle indicates 82%  of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Congress. In Canada, it appears many people think at least that many Americans are off their rockers.

I’ve just returned from eleven days on the road, traveling by car with my  sister throughout Canada’s Maritime province, Nova Scotia. It’s a place of  breathtaking scenery, moderate climate, pockets of poverty, and smaller pockets of wealth. The locals are dependent on tourists who may not show up and crops and catches that may not materialize. On the other hand, lobster is plentiful.

The Nova Scotians–Acadians, Fundians and residents of the Eastern and Southern shores–are friendly and forthcoming, with little of the anxiety that permeates our current culture. Perhaps they’ve become more adjusted to an unpredictable life, along with the unpredictable weather that produced an unprecedented amount of rain this summer. They seem to like Americans on an individual basis, at least the far fewer number they’ve apparently seen this summer. Blame our economy or our aforementioned anxiety or maybe the lousy weather—or maybe the fact that ferry service from Portland, Maine to Halifax was suspended two years ago—but we state-siders are on the endangered list this year.

My sister, who habitually rises with the dawn, went searching for coffee every morning at Tim Horton’s, Canada’s ubiquitous version of Dunkin’ Donuts, where she sat amongst and eavesdropped on the local fishermen, loggers, long haulers and itinerant workers. I was frequently chatted up by shop clerks and desk clerks eager for conversation during the slow summer. The most common topic, aside from the weather was politics: not politics as practiced in Halifax or Toronto, but further south, in Washington, DC.

There’s plenty to talk about at home, mind you. Toronto, Canada’s largest and presumably most liberal city, just last year overwhelmingly elected a mayor who in both girth and taste for  political bullying has it all over our own Chris Christie. Rob Ford is a member of the Progressive Conservative party (is there really such a thing?) and is virulently anti-tax and anti-waste.  Among the wasteful programs he’s targeted are anything having to do with the environment or mass transit. He voted to close several prominent bike lanes, calling cyclists “a pain in the ass to motorists” and claims he respects the environment because he turns out the lights.

Nova Scotia has experienced its own political scandals. The province where bribes have for years been a way of life has seen a number of its legislators indicted over the past year. Furthermore, the province has, according to a recent economic report, lost 4,000 jobs over the past year.

Up in Cape Breton, I saw much in the way of single issue signage in support of the unborn and little in the way of diversity—ethnic, political or religious. More than 80% of the residents trace their origins wholly or partly to Great Britain (including Scotland and Ireland), with ancestral ties to France accounting for another 18% of the population. A fair number in this tourist-heavy community take seasonal unemployment in stride by drinking, sleeping and “jumping on the dole” during the winter, according to my Chéticamp guide.

Why are these people so interested in U.S politics, eh?

What struck me about our northern brethren’s questions and observations was that they came with an undercurrent of concern–about the bitterness and pessimism that seems to define our national mood these days. “Does anyone in your country feel hopeful about anything?” one woman queried after asking me to rate Obama’s job performance. “I used to think of Americans as optimistic types,” ventured a traveler from British Columbia, “but no more.”

It’s not surprising to realize we still matter to people outside our country. In fact, those candidates who aren’t suggesting we pull up the moat will insist that America must regain its “super-power status” without, of course, suggesting a viable plan for making that happen.

I don’t know that most of the citizens of the world expect us (or want us) to flex our military, economic or even philanthropic muscles as we once did. They know we’re on the same austerity diet they are. But what I’ve noticed, and others have as well, is that the US is suffering from a character deficit. The mix of optimism, courage, generosity and determination that used to define America has deserted us. True, we have often overstated the argument pertaining to American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, questing American spirit is exceptional. It’s the one resource we can’t afford to lose.

It’s been a long time since we were number one—in education, affordable health care; in several other measures pertaining to well-being and quality of life. We should be focused on making gains in those areas, even as we get used to our slipped position in terms of economic clout. Whether we need to maintain some semblance of superiority in matters of warfare is something we have to reassess. But we shouldn’t, we needn’t surrender our spirit. That’s something Americans have always been able to count on. It turns out to be something the rest of the world counts on as well.

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This is the summer of my discontent, at least when it comes to where I live. It’s a nice enough development, convenient to transportation and just outside the tony town of Princeton. But the twenty-something-year-old townhouses are showing signs of wear and tear. I’ve been having my cracking popcorn ceilings removed room by painful, messy and costly room, only to discover that the popcorn was hiding the contractor’s original sheet-rock handiwork, which is lousy. The new hospital to be built across the increasingly noisy highway my development abuts isn’t thrilling me either; it just means I can listen to the wail of an ambulance fighting its way through Route 1 traffic along with the constant squeal of trucks braking.

What’s got me even more crabby is the state I’m in – not my emotion or physical state but the state of New Jersey. It’sis the most densely populated state in the union with the sorriest excuse for a transportation system you can imagine. The property taxes have long been outrageous. We can’t even manage a world-class public university on the order of University of Pennsylvania or Michigan or Massachusetts. We have all these autonomous little towns, townships and school districts, each with its own library and fire department and school and well-paid administrators located maybe two miles from another fully outfitted township. Total waste of resources and taxes but you know that no one’s going to consider consolidating and letting go of his, her or their piece of the pie. Anyway, in New Jersey, the surest way to lose an election is to remove well-connected people from their comfortable jobs. Thus we have a whopping 38 or 40 or 42 – I’m losing track – billion dollar deficit to go along with the tanking economy. I’m also losing track of the number of politicians and so-called civic leaders who’ve been indicted or will be indicted or should be indicted. Try reading a book by reporters Bob Ingel and Sandy McClure called “The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Corruption.” It’s funny and infuriating, especially if you live here, which I find I’m too embarrassed to admit. I hate when people ask me where I’m from when I’m traveling; I tell them I was born in Wisconsin and New Jersey is so not my fault.

Not that I’m doing much traveling, because this is also the summer of the day trip and the “staycation” which means we’re all hanging out where we are.  Which is why I was so unaccountably moved by an essay in the New Jersey section of the NY Times,  a review of a Springsteen concert turned into a love song about New Jersey. Physically, not to mention culturally, we sport enough  diversity to mirror the entire country. You can travel from the shore to the Delaware River, from the mountains to the marshes and reach the greatest city in the world, New York and its not too shabby cousin, Philadelphia, all on less than a tank of gas.

So while I dream of a warm and welcoming community someplace more afforable and less tainted, where I can live with pride in my small, sustainably green house, well, I’m here. The popcorn ceiling is gone in the kitchen and I’m ignoring the crack in the living room. I’m an hour from the shore and a half hour from the river. It’s summer in Jersey and if it’s good enough for the Boss, it’s good enough for me.

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I am just returning from a trip to Alaska which, unless you happen to live there, sounds exotic. And it is. Alaska is a rare commodity in our country, a land of truly wide-open spaces. That doesn’t mean you can’t find the chains and outlets that populate our land; it’s just that instead of dominating, they defer big-time to the majesty of the wilderness. McDonald’s is no match for Mount Roberts.

 

My mind and my body frequently part company despite my best efforts, so traveling presents a challenge for me. On one hand, I love to see, smell, learn and experience what is new and unusual. On the other hand, travel invariably means little or no sleep, an unhappy stomach and aches and pains in places I don’t normally think about. The hope is that the mind takes over during special moments…and there were some very special moments in Alaska. I found myself in a kayak for the first time in years, more than holding my own with people who I figured as more, well, outdoorsy. The weather was showery and cool but when you come from 90 degrees and steamy, showery and cool is pleasant. Instead of cars, smog and noise, we were in the company of eagles, whales, dolphins and a very large sea lion. 

 

Another day found me in a helicopter over a series of glaciers. At the top of one, we landed in a sleet storm at a dog sled training camp. I never pictured myself balanced on the runners of a sled in June (or at any other time) but there I was, leaning left and right as if I’d been doing it all my life. I’ve heard people worry about how sled dogs are treated. Well, I love dogs and I’m here to report that these dogs love running sleds. They are happiest when on the move and the noise from the teams when they’re getting ready to go out is deafening, kind of like being at a rock concert if the audience was all canine. The dogs come to the camp young, where they are coddled and cuddled to get acclimated to humans. A real bonus for visitors (unless you’re a crabby sort) is getting to hold a bunch of squirming 6-week-old puppies. The dogs have constant company, plenty of food, lots of attention and affection, and a routine. Not a half bad life.

 

The dogs weren’t the only happy campers; almost everyone I met in Alaska liked what they were doing and how they were doing it. We met a woman who serves as the camp’s cook in the summer and works as a Head Start teacher in a tiny town called Haines the rest of the year. She radiated cheerfulness and good will. I envied her.

 

Being less than the intrepid traveler, I took one of the big, established cruise lines for the first time. Cruise ships are a different sort of trip and I would plan carefully and research more thoroughly before choosing one again. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of sea travel but I don’t need the floating casino, the gift shops or even the turndown service. I must admit that the stormy day at sea made me appreciate the stability of the big ships.

 

Since I don’t vacation much, I always like to ask myself how a particular trip affected me. I know, a vacation can just be a vacation but I’m a restless sort and I spend so much time in front of a computer or at a desk, I want to try and stretch my wings whenever possible. So – Alaska: I recalled my physical strengths. I pushed past my social limitations to try my hand at karaoke (I won) and the one-armed bandit (I lost). I read and thought and watched out for Northern Lights and black bears. I bonded even more closely with my sister and returned refreshed and ready for anything, even 90 degrees and steamy.

 

 

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