Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cash, Check Or . . .

Doesn’t it seem like everybody takes credit cards anymore? Fast food fare, event tickets, your doctor bill. In Ann Arbor, you can even pay for your on-street parking with a credit card. No more nickels in the meter (like you can pay for parking in downtown Ann Arbor with a nickel—yeah, right).

Anyhoo, Wendy and I were in Twin Falls, Idaho on the last leg of our trip out west. We stopped at a large department store that sold groceries as well as gift-type items. Since we hadn’t had a chance to shop much yet, we filled our grocery cart with everything imaginable. Then we headed to a check-out.

After our total was rung up, close to $80 worth, I handed the cashier our credit card.

“I’m sorry. We don’t take credit cards. Only debit cards, checks and cash.”

WHAT??? Don’t take credit cards??!! Had we crossed over into the Twilight Zone or something? I’m thinking of that one episode where a tired couple accidentally drove onto another planet. Maybe that was the Outer Limits. Still, it didn’t seem like we were on planet Earth.

Wendy reminded me that we had a VISA debit travel card specifically purchased for this trip. Oh, yeah. I pulled that out of my wallet and ran it through the card-reader. It asked for my pin number. Then it asked if I wanted money back from this transaction. No. Let’s keep it simple.

“It won’t take it. It think it’s a credit card,” said the cashier. No, it’s a debit card, I responded. Says so right on the card. I showed her the card, pointing out where it said D-E-B-I-T. I almost gave her the card so she could show it to her computer or something.

“You can try it again,” she offered, unsmiling by the way. I did. Swipe, pin number, no I don’t want cash back.

“It still think it’s a credit card.”

Argghhhh. Did I hear a groan among the shoppers lined up behind me? For sure, they didn’t look happy. Wendy and I emptied our pockets and wallets, giving her all the currency we could gather up. No sense even asking whether they’d take an out-of-state check.

“That’s seventy dollars,” she said. Still short! I checked my wallet again and found a ten dollar bill. Boo-yeah. Paid the bill with two dollars and change to spare. Not enough cash obviously to take us to Michigan from Idaho, so we took our debit card to the ATM in that same store and withdrew $200 from our Visa debit travel card.

Yeah cashier, did you hear that? Your ATM says we’re cool. We got $200, over $100 more than we were asking from you. Your debit card swiper needs to communicate with the other electronic financial instruments in the building and educate itself.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In Search Of Kermode Bear

Here I am checking my tourist guide to see what kind of exotic wildlife I can expect to find in Canada.

While on the BC Ferry that took us from Prince Rupert to Vancouver Island, a guide sent a ripple of excitement through those of us gathered to hear his talk when he declared that the day before, on this very same route, a Kermode bear was spotted catching salmon on Prince Royal Island.

He said sightings of this bear, often called the spirit bear by Native Americans because its often white fur caused it to resemble a ghost, were so rare that he compared seeing it to seeing the Loch Ness Monster.

Our ferry slowed down as it approached Prince Royal Island so we could all get a good look. But . . . nothing. Figures. We saw precious little wildlife during our two-weeks on the road--a deer here, an antelope there, a few small black bears that we drove by too quickly to get a picture.

About the only time Wendy would get her nose out of the book she was reading while I drove was when we passed an "elk crossing" or "moose crossing" sign. As Wendy complained later, we passed those signs for thousands of miles without encountering a single, verifiable elk or moose.

I even drove us to the wild rainforest of the Pacific Rim National Park Preserve where only a week or so before a cougar had mauled a camper. The literature I picked up at the park office warned that wildlife encounters could include wolves, bears and cougars.

These pamphlets advised what to do if we should encounter a wild animal. Rather confusing though. We had to figure out whether the animal was activing defensively or in a predatory manner, before figuring out how to react to defend ourselves.

If the bear is defensive, I needed to appear non-threatening. If the bear is predatory, I needed to "try to intimidate the bear." Yeah, right. Intimidate a grizzly? Like that's gonna happen. BUT . . . I did bring my air horn. I've had one for years but never used it. Come to find out, it's the defense of choice in many of these wild animal encounters.

Alas, I never had occasion to use it. I even slept with it when we camped in a tent once. Forgot about the horn until we were unpacking the mini-van in Wyoming and something pressed against it, sending a blast through the motel parking lot. Scared Wendy who was helping me unpack a few feet away. It also startled another motel guest who was leaning over his second floor railing observing goings-on below. He looked at ME like he'd just seen the Loch Ness monster.

Yeah, that's right. Better not mess with us Michiganders. We're prepared.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Play It Again, Wen

After a week in Canada, I was ready to come back to the good, ole USA. Canada was pretty and the weather treated us kindly, but everything is so expensive there, not to mention their hefty sales taxes. On top of that we were dinged a three percent foreign transaction tax on anything we charged by credit card, AND the exchange rate in Canada favored their dollar over our's, which made everything even more costly.

But we were on Vancouver Island and had to book passage to America via ferry. Since we were in Victoria, British Columbia, that meant we had to book the Coho, via Black Ball Ferries. Their website is difficult to navigate and by the time I got to the point where I could actually reserve passage (after giving them my name, address, birthdate, citizenship documentation, my wife's name . . . .), I was told that no more reservations for the times I needed were available.

No problem. Reservations are optional, according to the website. Not required, nor even strongly suggested or even just plain old suggested. They said they always have spaces available for drive-ons. That would be me now, I guess.

Still, better be safe than sorry, so I arrived down at the docks at 6 a.m. though the ferry didn't actually leave until 10:30. I was going to make sure I was FIRST in line. "Where you off to so early?" asked the hotel desk clerk when I was checking out. When I told him the ferry, he said he understood.

But the ferry offices were closed. I did find one fellow tourist wandering about, distressed that the office was closed and that the early morning ferry she had planned to travel wasn't even offered now that it was after Labor Day. She was trying to book a passage on the adjacent Victorian Clipper. But I knew there was one problem with that. They couldn't take their car with them on the Clipper.

Suddenly I began to feel anxiety well up inside me. I felt like a refugee in Casablanca, the ones who were hoping and praying for passage through Lisbon to America. If anyone recalls the movie, there was a young couple who won enough money on the roulette wheel to pay for passage to America. They told the prefect they would be at his office the next morning at six to finalize arrangements. He responded that he would be there at eight.

Coincidentally, that happened to us. Not the roulette part. But we were at the office at six, and they did not open the ticket counter until eight. By then several fellow refugees, er, tourists packed around the counter, also hoping to book passage.

By the way, we had tried desperately to garner any shred of information that would tell us what we had to do to get ferry tickets. There was nothing on the website, no information at the ticket counter, or at the vehicle gate. Wendy and I got coffee at the cafe across the street (Let's call it Rick's) and I even asked the cashier there. She phoned her boss but her information proved not to be accurate.

So armed with only second hand information and hope, I approached the ticket counter. The lady said she could not sell me what she said was a "standby" ticket until my car was actually parked in the boarding lot. What??? The gate to the boarding lot was locked.

Apparently not anymore, and by now other refugees with better information than I had entered the lot, parked their cars in the waiting area and bought their tickets, including the one lady I had encountered in the pre-dawn darkness. By the time I had made it to the gate myself, I was number 15 on the standby list. The clerk said the chances of actually making it on the ferry were small. What?! I couldn't wait another day in Canada.

She suggested I drive back up the road about 50 miles to BC Ferries in Nanaimo. They could take me to Vancouver and possibly I could get to America from there. We decided to take our chances here. Number 15 we were. That clerk incidentally had all the charm of Major Strasser, the German villain in Casablanca.

Planes kept taking off in the harbor, probably also carrying refugees to their homeland, I felt. Just like in the movie. Wendy and I had plenty of time to watch them as we waited in our car. Finally, the ferry arrived. Cars exited, then cars got on. Big semis and big campers. Surely there would be no room for us.

But, just like a Hollywood movie, we were finally waved aboard. "We're going home, Sonja, we're going home," I teased Wendy, feigning a German accent. But it was the greatest sense of relief to be on the ferry and see the distant mountains of Washington.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Can't Figure Tourists

Wendy and I are somewhere in the middle of British Columbia tonight. Earlier I witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen in my life. So then, what's wrong with the above picture.

I took this photo along a particular scenic stretch of Banff National Park. The snow-capped mountains overlooking a particularly vivid blue river really attracted the shutterbugs. So why were so many people in the above picture interested in the motorcycle instead?

Short answer: I don't know. They all got off the same tour bus and spoke a foreign language that I gathered to be Russian. Maybe they don't have motorcycles in Russia, but jaw-dropping scenery they do. I'm thinking of Dr. Zhivago.

Here's another interesting anecdote. We were following a couple other cars on a winding mountain road leading to Lake Moraine, also in Banff NP. As we neared the lake, there were a line of cars parked on the right side of the road. I couldn't even see the lake, nor the parking lot, but it seemed obvious that the lot was full so people were parking up the road.

The two cars ahead of me spotted a couple empty spots on the road shoulder and quickly maneuvered to take them. Wendy and I drove on, and on, and on. I didn't see any open spaces that a poor parallel parker like myself could squeeze my Grand Caravan into.

We ended up down at the official lakeside parking lot. And there was a vacant spot for my van there. Actually there were a few empty parking spaces. Wonder what those people who were following us thought after they walked a half mile down the road to find they could have parked in the designated parking lot and saved themselves some effort.

Speaking of effort, many tourists were intrigued by a pile of logs lying next to a large rocky hill at this same lake. OK, including myself. Many decided to hop the big deadfall of logs and climb over the rocks to get a better view. Me too, though I didn't ascend too far.

Like the tourists who hopped a canoe on the lake, their first time, and ended up facing eachother so when they paddled they worked against eachother, I had the feeling that many of the brave souls tackling the log and rock pile had never done anything similar.

One young lady slipped, her shin striking hard on a dead log. She winced, then sat down for a long time right there. Eventually, when she felt comfortable enough to walk again, she turned around and went back rather than continue onto the rock pile. Another young lady stepped on a log and found out it was floating on water. She just suffered a wet shoe, sock and foot. She continued on to the rock pile.

Moral of the story: just because somebody is doing it doesn't mean that you should too. Sometimes though, you just want to take that picture that you think is going to be a little bit better. My effort is below.