Monday, June 7, 2010

Travel Plans at 35,000 Feet

As we disembarked from the ferry and onto the Îles de la Madeleine, we could not help but marvel at the fact that we were actually about to set foot onto a small group of islands we had spied from the window of a plane bound for New York. Amsterdam hours behind us, we gazed down through windows rimmed with frost to sandy beaches and windswept isles, hurriedly sketching their outlines onto the back of a magazine advertisement. Later, Drew spent an hour Google-Earthing every island chain between Greenland and Nantucket at greater and greater levels of zoom until eventually solving the mystery. Life sometimes is too strange and lovely to even try to predict.

Two weeks ago we found ourselves in the village of Old Town, Maine, purchasing a new canoe from the factory outlet of – well, who other than Old Town Canoes - in preparation for navigating waterways with a craft capable of managing, say, a river with rocks in it. We ended up strapping a green 16’ Penobscot to our roof, and the fact that it is riding alongside the Bell Northstar makes it look like we are serious canoe enthusiasts (commentary from roadside citizens confirming our suspicions). Our forty minutes of water time makes it too ridiculous to correct them, as that would involve fessing up to the fore-mentioned forty minutes of water time. Anyhow, we managed to make it through Canadian customs without much trouble, powered through New Brunswick with its rolling hills and forests, largest ax in the world, and peculiar pseudo-French radio stations. Arriving at the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island (PEI), we crested the middle with the sun setting on one side, the moon rising on the other, and Baba O’Reilly playing on the radio. It couldn’t have been more perfect. A night spent in Charlottetown (no Anne Shirley, but many thanks for our AAA card discount as we went super luxe at a Comfort Inn with free wireless internet), and first thing in the morning we headed to the local Canadian Tire (a sort of national Target store) to pick up Topo Canada, the topographical software we had searched for fruitlessly all over the North East. We can see all streams, mountains, campgrounds, etc. with it on our computers, and also plan to load data onto our GPS radios, which should be sweet, and somewhat safety conscious in places such as Labrador where the nearest gas station is sometimes more than a day away by gravel road.
A short drive to Souris (pronounced, we discovered, “Surrey”), and we hopped on the ferry to the Îles de la Madeleine, or the Magdalen Islands, which are part of Quebec, but located between Quebec mainland, PEI, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. We were charmed from the moment we arrived – amazing red cliffs falling into the sea, little houses painted bright colors dotting the hills, and a perfect place to park the truck with a view of the sunset. The first night the winds were crazy strong and pretty much rocked us to sleep like little babies, but the people were genuinely lovely and tried to help us overcome Drew’s rudimentary French at every opportunity.
Staying at Parc du Gros Cap, on the southern peninsula of the main island, we had a great home base from which to meander around. Unfortunately, we discovered (upon trying to make coffee the first morning) that there must be a propane leak, and using the tourist brochure set off to try and find someone on the tiny fishing archipelago to fix it. We arrived at a little propane filling shack to find a friendly man moving tanks around in the back. Drew valiantly tried to explain that there was what seemed to be a propane leak in the new camper unit, and asked if there was anyone around who could take a look, but it turned out that the man was new and needed to get his boss so that he could answer our questions. Thankfully, the boss was able to find a young office worker who had “escaped after 10 years in Montreal” to the quieter pace of island life and spoke excellent English. He not only gave us directions and the phone number to a camper repair shop on the island, but handed Chip his card, should we have any problems while visiting the islands.
Arriving at L’ami du Campeur, we encountered a guy who looked to be in his forties wandering out of the garage in a moth-eaten sweater, hair tied back in a pony-tail, sporting ripped jeans, and with several camper parts in his hand. Much to our relief, after a brief explanation of the problem he spoke back in English, and began asking questions and positing possible explanations for what he thought might be wrong. When Chip asked if he could take a look at the tank, he replied, “Well, I don’t work here. I am here for parts. I have, you see, the Westfalia,” and pointed to an old, orange, beaten up VW Westfalia that looked like it had as many good times in it as it had miles on it. Suddenly, a cheerful little man popped out from behind a large camper, and was introduced as Sonny B., the proprietor. After Pat, the chilled out Westfalia driver good-naturedly served as translator and got us off to a good start, he backed out his vehicle, expertly squeezing between the truck and a recently arrived car with about 2cm of clearance on either side, waved goodbye, and sped off. Sonny figured out that our rear hose had never been screwed in completely, our front hose had a leak, and that all of the sealing tape that had been used had been water-tight tape (white) instead of gas-tight tape (yellow). He said he would sort us out, but needed to check the inside to make sure that there weren’t any internal leaks in the range, as he didn’t think it would be safe for us to sleep inside if there were. After about half an hour of work, he said that it was time for lunch - he would do additional work to get us up and running afterwards, but for the time being he recommended two good places to eat in town, hopped off the ladder, and said to come back at one or two o’clock. He didn’t ask for money or a phone number, he simply said “bon appétit” and walked off towards the garage.
Ah, lunch at La Pas Perdus. It’s resemblance to a home where one might find Dr. Seuss living was unquestionable – crazy colors, signs hanging from the patio, and blown glass mugs in bright colors lining all the windows. The feeling only intensified as we walked through the front door and a small waiter in a red knit outfit sprang out from the hallway at us.

Bienvenue!!” he cried, excitedly dancing around and asking us whether we were in for coffee or lunch. Drew responded that we were two for lunch and at once his dancing intensified as he delightedly led us to a table, shouting unintelligible things over his shoulder.  After seating us at a table by the window, he dashed off, little red kerchief bobbing madly about, only to return moments later with menus. Upon hearing us conversing in English, our new friend switched over for our benefit.
“Ah, are you very hungry?” he asked, passionately.
“Yes,” Drew replied, “I’m starving.”
“Wonderful!! We have fantastic food here! It is the best! It is wonderful, truly!” he exclaimed, wrapping his arms around and hugging himself while he talked.
At this he seemed to lose his train of thought and pirouetted off to the other tables to check on patrons, and we used the time to decide on our meals. Chip elected to have calamari and french onion soup, while Drew was having some trouble deciding between pesto ravioli and tofu vegetables with clear noodles.
“You have decided?” a voice out of nowhere asked.
“I’m not sure whether to have the pesto ravioli or the tofu vegetables,” Drew responded, voicing her query.
“Oh! No! But the TOFU is wonderful! It is the very best! You must have it! I LOVE the tofu! Please, you must have it, it is simply fabulous. Please, please have the tofu!!!”
“I think the tofu sounds great,” Drew responded, a broad smile stretching across her face.
“Calamari and onion soup for me,” Chip said.

Later that afternoon we managed to visit the Fromagerie on the next island and buy several lovely cheeses, a herring smoking shop that has been in the same family for three generations and get a tour by the owner (where Chip bought some yummy salmon and herring), and even ran into Pat and his Westfalia on the road. Backing up to talk, he informed us that he would be playing at “some place that has Italian food on the main island – you can’t miss it”, and invited us to come by. We asked him what instruments he played, and he listed guitar, percussion, and “feet,” so with our interest piqued, we decided we would have to search out this place and see him play with “some two new girls” as “they might be okay”, though he “really didn’t know”. As for time, “six, six-thirty, seven – whenever you come will be okay.” He smiled, waved, and we drove our separate ways.
The next morning we journeyed to the end of the island chain, visiting Trinity Church in the small English speaking community, famous for possessing a stained-glass window of Jesus in a wooly jumper and boots, which was quite exciting to see. We managed some great beer and conversation at a local brewery, Á L’abri de la Tempête, at the ends of the earth (or so it seemed). The lovely Juliette served up some fantastic beer and was happy to have the opportunity to practice her English conversational skills (her Skype buddy she normally practiced with had been lying low recently). When we asked about the popularity of bluegrass music on the radio, and the numerous trucks on the island sporting “100% bluegrass” bumper stickers, and she happily informed us that it was very popular on the Îles de la Madeleine.
“Almost every family has a person that plays one instrument, to make entertainment,” she said. “You know, there is not so much things to do here on the islands, like in the winter time. We play much bluegrass and dance and sing together often.”
We talked and sipped our beers inside the brewery’s cozy pub, listening to Johnny Cash while the sun painted longer and longer shadows of the strange metal sculptures milling around in tawny grass towards the back side of the building. Realizing it was twenty minutes past the second of the possible times to hear Pat’s musical feet at “the place in town serving Italian food”, we paid for our beers, bought a mixed six pack, paid our goodbyes, and sped off to find a venue on the main street of Île du Havre aux Maisons that looked Italian.
Within fifteen minutes we had spied a restaurant with an Italian flag, parked the truck at a Canadian Government parking lot (figuring only a truly audacious individual would attempt to tow Inconnu), and were being greeted by the sounds of Pat’s guitar and an eager hostess who seated us at the bar. The owner of the restaurant came over and ran us through the beer and wine choices, set us up with drinks, and shortly after Pat took a break and introduced us to the girl on the bar stool beside ours who it turned out was one of the two girls who would be accompanying him that evening.  She explained that she had a five year-old son who she loved to spend time with, so she worked three months out of the year (summers) in the tourism industry, and spent the other nine months as a full time mother. Occasionally, because she loved music, she would take gigs like this, playing piano and singing backup.
It was a lovely evening – Chip had scallops and herring that were out of this world, and Drew had a personally created pasta dish with loads of vegetables, all the while listening to Madelinôt ballads that restaurant patrons would occasionally sing along to. Pat alternated between guitar, drums (some of which were played by his…feet, at the same time as the guitar), and the occasional harmony, while the main singer possessed a wonderful voice and a charming sense of self-effacing humor when the crowd would inevitably applaud after each number. It sounded more as if she was saying “Mercy, mercy, mercy” than “Mercí”. Saying our goodbyes, we arrived back at the point just in time to park the truck and watch the sun sink below the sea one last time, and congratulate ourselves for taking a wild chance and visiting a place we saw from a plane and sketched on a shampoo advertisement through a haze of jetlagged travel madness, sometime around five a.m., Greenland standard.
Driving towards the ferry and through the pouring rain at dawn the following morning, we promised ourselves that we would return to these islands in the future. We would spend more than just a few hours casting spinning rods off of the red rocky point behind the lobster factory, and perhaps even catch one of the flounder we tempted with lures too big for their pouty little mouths. Next time we would take Sonny B. out for a beer, and have garnered a better vocabulary so as to be able to do more than communicate the basics of our travels and problems with the “campeur noveau avec problems três grandes…problems du la range…du propane…problems três graves”. For the time being, we were headed towards PEI, and then across Nova Scotia and onto Newfoundland, but at least we went onwards fortified with the rich cheeses and hearty beers of the charming people of the Îles de la Madeleine.