A Battle in Barcelona

Barcelona Container Port

It was never how I imagined my European holiday would end – in a police car, driven at high speed, through the Barcelona Container Port.

But that’s how it ended – sitting in the passenger seat, next to a Spanish National Police Officer.

The drive from the terminal security gate to the pier took two minutes – no longer. Then, a grateful handshake with the Officer. I say, “Gracias”. Smiles and the customary farewells.

From the car trunk tumbled my bags. Two went over my shoulders; the third one clutched in hand. Thus burdened, I climbed the gangway from the pier.

Gangway to a freighter ship
Gangway to the Vera D

And it was done.

In the blink of an eye, Europe was behind me. I was on board.

After days of waiting, anxious delays and aborted efforts I was finally on my way. To Halifax! A passenger on the cargo freighter, the “Vera D”.

Only later did I fully appreciate that I was in fact, a ship‘s crew member. And thereby hangs a tale…..

Barcelona from the bridge of the Vera D
Barcelona Harbour from the bridge of the Vera D
Barcelona Harbour from the bridge of the Vera D

Last February, Bob’s Excellent Adventure was still in the planning stages. I wondered, “How I could minimize the climate impacts of my trip?” Flying generates tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. “What were my options if I wanted to return home from Europe solely by surface transportation?”

My friend, Barry Truter, had once taken a freighter from Vancouver to Vietnam. So, I called him. Barry put me in touch with his travel agency, “Slow Travel Experience”   https://www.langsamreisen.de/en/ . Based in Germany, they specialize in connecting passengers with freighters. Through them, I learned the Vera D would be travelling from Europe to Halifax about the time I wanted to come home.

I signed all the required forms:

  • acknowledging my needs as a passenger would be subservient at all times to cargo requirements;
  • my physician declaring I had no health problems requiring medical attention while in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean;
  • confirming I carried adequate travel insurance coverage in case of a medical emergency.

I paid the fare and reserved my spot. I would join the ship at Genoa in late June. With stops in Barcelona, Valencia and Lisbon, it would reach Halifax two weeks later in mid July.

I left Calgary on May 4th. No sooner had my flight arrived in Toronto, than I received the first of four notifications of an itinerary change. The freighter’s departure from Genoa would be delayed to early July.

“Ah, wonderful!”, I thought. Already this adventure was improving. More time in Europe. “What could be better than that?”

This process would repeat another three times. With each delay in the ship’s itinerary, I gained extra days to explore Europe. I could not have been more pleased.

The last itinerary change had a difference, though. The Genoa stop was cancelled. The ship would instead be leaving from Barcelona. To catch it, I would have to travel from the Czech Republic to Spain, not to Italy.

Even then, I welcomed the change. 30 Million tourists a year can’t be wrong. I was happy to find out for myself why Barcelona has such star power. http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en/

Slow Travel Experience advised me to be in Barcelona a few days before the departure date of July 18. I would need to check in with the port agent as well as be available to board in case the ship departed earlier than scheduled.

The Shift

As directed, I arrived at the offices of the port agent to get my instructions. However, the interview had rude and unwelcome surprises. The manager of the port agency came out to speak with me. Instead of giving me the expected help, he objected to my travelling on the Vera D.

So far as he was aware, the charter company had not authorized the carrying of passengers. They only carried cargo. In fact, he had never before had a passenger on their freighter.

“Who sold you your ticket?”

“The ship’s owner”, I told him.

He replied that his company only represented the Cuban company that had chartered the ship, not the owner. If the owner wanted me to travel as a passenger, then the owner needed to have a separate agreement with his company to represent me as port agent.

“Anyway”, he continued, “the port where the Vera D will be arriving has no customs clearance. Only the ships’ crews are allowed there.” He did not know how I might get Immigration and Customs clearance to leave the country.

I have since thought often about that encounter. The ship could carry a maximum of only two passengers. Why would he be troubled about the tiny extra passenger revenue the owner could generate?

Perhaps he was threatened by discovering he was out of the loop;  or by uncertainty as to how to manage the anomalous passenger standing in front of him. Maybe there were already other problems between the owner and the charterer.

In any event, whatever the reasons, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help me.

Somewhat alarmed and dismayed, I described this turn of events to my travel agent. Clearly, we needed a Plan B*!

Plan B* – an Ingenious Solution Emerges

Ah yes, Plan B*! But Plan B* can sometimes have false starts. And this one certainly did.

I was first asked to call a company in Gibraltar. They would help me. I called. “No, sorry.” They had no jurisdiction to act in Barcelona. That was a dead end.

The next initiative seemed more promising. I was invited to the offices of Hamburg Sud, a large German cargo shipping line. One of their senior managers assured me they would arrange for their port agent to represent me.

I was at least heartened by his observation that after 45 years in the industry he had never seen such an impasse. To him, it was “crazy” that the charter company should object to a passenger joining a cargo ship. Amen to that.

Ships at anchor in the ocean
Ships at anchor outside Barcelona harbour

By now, the Vera D was in Barcelona at anchor outside the harbour waiting for a berth. It was anticipated it would dock on Saturday, July 22.

It wasn’t exactly panic, but on Saturday morning, the new port agent did not contact me and was not answering my phone calls to him.

As the morning wore on, I began to make urgent calls and emails to Slow Travel Experience. Miraculously, they were available throughout the day. They urged me to go to the terminal and present my ticket. I should do everything in my power to attempt to board while the ship was moored and loading cargo.

I called a taxi. With luggage loaded, we roared off to the container port terminal.

At the security control point, I showed my passport and ticket. “Where is your port agent?”, the security guard asked. “I don’t have one,” I replied.

“It is not possible to get to the docks without a port agent,” he said, handing me back my documents.

My stomach dropped. My heart sank. Fortunately, at least the taxi driver had not abandoned me. With the meter still ticking, he returned me to my accommodations in the city. (Another miracle. They had one room left.)

More emails to Slow Travel Experience. I began to search the internet for flight options to Canada from Europe.

Slow Travel Experience tried to reassure me. “The ship’s owner is working to get you on board.”

Finally! At 16:08, Saturday afternoon, Plan B* finally kicked in. Third time a charm.

I received an email from an entirely new source, “Barcelona Transcoma Shipping”. The email had directions, times and instructions. A few minutes later, I received a phone call confirming the details.

I would be picked up at 8:00 the next morning – Sunday. They would take me to the terminal security gate. They would not leave me until I was on board the ship.

Events unfolded more or less as promised. The much delayed Vera D had finally been allocated a dock. My young driver eventually appeared and took me to the terminal I had visited only the day before. However, after waiting with me at the security gate for nearly two hours, he was called away. “To the Immigration Office”, he said.

Something worked. Not long after he left, the Spanish National Police arrived to stamp my passport. Relief! Elation!

And then, fifteen minutes after that, my escort arrived – not my port agent, but again, the Spanish National Police.

It was only once on board and my journey commenced, did I come to understand the ingenious solution adopted by the ship’s owner. The charter company port agent continued to refuse me boarding the Vera D as a passenger. Instead, the owner simply added me to the ship’s crew list. This allowed the ship’s owner to use the port agent that represented their crew.

It also had another elegant advantage. The charter company port agent had the power to frustrate or prevent me from becoming a passenger. But he was powerless in preventing me from travelling as one of the owner’s crew.

Ah, Plan B*! It can be credited with “Besting a Barcelona Bully”!

 

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B* is for Bidding a Sad Farewell

The Czech Republic had two national holidays the same week that Canada celebrated its 150th birthday of Confederation.

Ivan and Maria were my hosts in Telč. We toasted Canada Day before I hit the road.

The first of the Czech holidays was July 5. It celebrated the missionaries that brought Christianity to the Slavs in the 9th century. One of the two, St. Cyril, invented the Cyrillic alphabet which for the first time enabled a written Slavic language. Today, over 300 million people use some variation of that script. http://www.officeholidays.com/countries/europe/cyril_and_methodius_day.php

The second holiday followed on the next day. It commemorated the martyrdom of Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. Hus had been influenced by Wycliffe, and believed common people had every right to be able to read the bible in their own language. Hus also preached in the Czech language, when preaching in Latin was the general practice.

Jan Hus memorial statue in Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic
Jan Hus memorial statue in the middle of Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic

70 years before Luther, Hus condemned the commercialization and corruption of the Christian Church. At the time, the selling of indulgences was a significant source of revenue. His views got him in trouble with the authorities to the point that it cost him his life. http://www.officeholidays.com/countries/czech_republic/jan_hus_day.php

 

It feels like the Czech national identity incorporates two competing narratives. The founders are celebrated on the first day and the rebel celebrated on the next.

Perhaps it appealed to the “Canadian” in me. In our national identity, we have had to manage the tension of competing stories between settlers of French and English origins. This accommodation has had its rough patches over the decades. But by and large, Canada has made the tension a positive, creative and inclusive force.

Czechia is another country with two competing stories. And they celebrate them both – in back to back national Czech holidays.

What impact has this had on Czechs? It’s impossible for me to say with any confidence. Has it provided them with skills and ways of thinking that will prove valuable in the world of the 21st Century? Possibly.

For whatever reasons, the Czechs maintained their unique national identity within the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire for more than 300 years.

Their national identity was also sorely tested during two occupations of the 20th Century – first by the German Nazis and then by the Russian Communists.

Their first freely elected President at the end of the cold war, was a jailed poet.

Despite not knowing the language, I felt a strong affinity with the Czechs I met. Their interactions with me were, without exception, respectful, authentic, helpful and kind.

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Honza Galla and Patrik Ištok at AZUB Recumbents http://azub.eu/ were good examples. They took time to give me invaluable advice. The two helped me extensively to chose a route and to prepare for my unusual tour. They didn’t have to, but they did it anyway.

Patrik Ištok, Sales Manager, Azub Recumbent

There was a “down to earth” quality in the Czechs I met that made me feel at home. At no time when I was in the Czech Republic, did I have an unpleasant encounter. I would have a hard time saying that after spending a month in my own country!

In other words, all the Czechs I met, acted like Canadians when we are on our best behaviour.

 

The Czech Republic has so much going for it. It’s capital city, Prague, is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

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Czechia has been at the heart of European history from earliest ages. Their UNESCO World Heritage sites are merited and protected for good reason. The countryside is picture postcard perfect.

Here is a gallery of some favourite sights:

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Plan B* is about creating and embracing new possibilities. What happens when those possibilities greatly exceed expectations?

My experiences in the Czech Republic greatly exceeded my expectations. I was not prepared for how sad I would feel once my visit there came to an end.

I hadn’t thought of sadness as a measure for enjoyment. But in a way, it makes sense. We are usually made sad by what we have lost.

For me, bidding a sad farewell to the Czech Republic is the measure of the meaning, pleasure and enjoyment I experienced there.

What’s the Czech secret? I can’t honestly say. I’ll only suggest that a country that celebrates founders and rebels at the same time has to have something unique going for it.

 

 

Czech Out Plan B* – for *Beer and *Bar!

Olomouc, Czech Republic has to be one of the prettiest towns in Europe you’ve probably never heard of.

But I didn’t know that at the time I was riding the tram into town from the railway station. All I could see at my tram stop was this:

Street corner in Olomouc, Czech Republic with Plan B sign over the door
Plan B Bar, Olomouc, Czech Republic

I dropped my bags at the hotel and immediately came back. Dear readers, I had to learn more.

 

I asked the server, “Where did the name ‘Plan B’ come from?”

She said: “The owners had, you know, a club. But it went out. It closed. So, this was their next business. They wanted to try again.”

Sign Outside Plan B Bar in Olomouc, Czech Republic
Sign Outside Plan B Bar and Caffee House in Olomouc. Plan B isn’t always something you want. But it may be something you need. Just ask Mom.

So, there you have it. You can travel half way around the planet and find others who have the same name for the same experiences.

Bob’s Excellent Adventure now even has it’s own bar and coffee house!

Europe Rocks When It Rolls

Europe holds many pleasures. Getting around by public transport is definitely one of them. Maybe, it’s because I’m a municipal guy. You know: “You can take the boy out of the City (of Calgary), but you can’t take the City (of Calgary) out of the boy.”

You may not share my interest quite as strongly. But, public transportation has an interest, even a fascination perhaps, for me. Europe, as I have discovered, has a way of feeding that interest at every turn. 

For anyone who wonders how the rest of the world gets from point A to B to C to…..without a car, Europe has lots of interesting technology and solutions on offer.

For Bob’s Excellent Adventure, I’ve wanted to get anywhere and everywhere, as much as I can without the hassle or cost of renting a car. From that stand point, European rail and public transportation have proven to be just the ticket; the cat’s meow; what the doctor ordered.

 From City to City

Eurostar train
The Eurostar in London St. Pancras Station.

 

The rail option between places can be fast. The Eurostar took me from London to Paris in about two and a half hours. Our top speed was 300 km/hour.

Then there are the unexpected surprises and delights of rail travel in Europe. While waiting at the Gare de Lyon in Paris for my connecting train to Zurich, I could hear beautiful piano music. It pulled me from my seat to investigate.

A man plays a piano in Gare de Lyon in Paris, France
Impromptu Concert in Gare de Lyon, Paris.

 

The station had thoughtfully placed a piano in a central spot for travelers to enjoy. There, was a guy in a tee shirt (a fellow traveler, perhaps?) In a beautiful operatic voice, he filled the space with aria after aria. The crowd gathered and was enthralled.

A crowd listens while a man plays a piano in Gare de Lyon in Paris, France
A crowd gathers to enjoy a free concert while waiting for their trains.

 

You have to love a place, a country, a transportation system where a delight like that is possible!

Concert over, it was on to Zurich.

 

The TVG Lyria is ready to whisk us from Gare de Lyon Paris to Zurich in 4 hours.

TGV stands for Train à Grande Vitesse or High Speed Train. Like the Eurostar, it is faster than flying from one city to the next.

By comparison to flying, a trip on the TGV Lyria has a tiny  impact on climate warming. My ticket stated that the C0₂ generated by travelling across France to Switzerland was only 2.1 kg! ( I wonder if the reason is because so much of the French electricity comes from nuclear power?)

Some trains in Europe also provide overnight accommodations.  In Zurich, I caught the night train to Prague. This was my bedroom that night.

Sleeper car on a train
Sleeper car for three. The only thing to do is roll into bed. When booking these cars, men and women are in separate compartments. On fellow traveler was from Vietnam, the other from Czech Republic. None of us really knew the languages of the others. So, after a few short “hellos”, it was lights out and a quiet night.

 

Shifts happen!  That Plan B* just keeps showing up. The night train to Prague from Zurich had engine trouble and had to be replaced.

Man attaching an engine to a train
Plan B* replacement engine being attached to Zurich/Prague train.

 

Our arrival into Prague was delayed by two hours. Engine trouble on a plane can easily delay a flight longer than that.

Prague Railway Station
Prague Railway Station

 

City Travels

Trains are great for whisking travelers quickly from city centre to city. centre. The rail stations have all been built in city cores. Once you arrive in a place, public transit takes over.  It’s a simple matter to walk from the train platform, down a corridor or out a door to reach bus terminals, metro underground stations, and tram lines. City accommodations and attractions are then in easy reach.

Oxford city double decker bus
Oxford City bus. It has similar technology to my Prius! The battery is recharged when the gas (diesel) motor is running. Much of the time, the battery can run the bus with just the electric motor, thus greatly improving the mileage and reducing fuel consumption. This is one of many examples where Europeans are making a shift to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

Transit fares and day passes are affordable. For example, a three day transit pass in Budapest for all trams, buses, subway cost me approximately $20 (Canadian).

European cities treat transit as one of the family. Transit shares the road with all the other street users.

Horse and buggy travel along a Krakow, Poland street with a tram following along behind
A tourist horse and buggy travel along a Krakow, Poland street with a tram following behind.
Budapest, Hungary trams share the street with cars
Budapest, Hungary trams share the street with cars and pedestrians

It’s been fun to figure out the transit system and connections in all the cities I’ve visited.  By day two in a city, using the bus, tram or subway is generally a breeze.

Budapest underground station on the M1/yellow line
This Budapest underground metro line was the first on the European continent. It still has the 1896 vibe from when it opened.

What about when shifts happen and you take the wrong direction? Yup. It’s happened. But so far, it hasn’t been a problem. My Plan B* is pretty simple. Get off, then catch a ride back in the direction from which I’ve come. Transit service is so frequent, it’s only a matter of minutes before the needed ride shows up.

Taking public transit gives a visitor a fascinating opportunity to watch and listen to people. What are they carrying? How are they dressed? You can’t help but overhear snippets of chatter; or the one side of a cell phone conversation. I may not always know the language being used, but the tone and cadence of a voice can carry meaning.

Transit riders are also offered an unvarnished view of a city as it unfolds before their eyes. Derelict or prosperous; neo-classical  or modern apartment blocks; newly renovated, or boarded up office buildings. Every city has stories to tell, for those who want to glimpse them through the windows of a tram or bus.

Also seen from the window of a bus. A cyclist on the motorway from Oxford to London. Obviously not everyone is convinced of the merits of transit as a mode of travel!

Man riding a bicycle on a motor way in the United Kingdom
Road warrior.

 

That’s how I roll. And so far, it has rocked!

Scotland The Brave

Scots have a reputation for thrift and shrewdness. Like any stereotype though, real people defy categorization. Exceptions are usually the rule.

 One aspect is evident, though. For centuries, Scots have managed to maintain a distinct identity that distinguishes them from the much larger English population to the south. I can’t help but think in this regard, Scots and Canadians have a great deal in common. I wonder if Canada’s enduring desire to remain distinct from the much larger America to our south has been in part, gifted us from the Scots who played such a formative role in our early history.

 At the heart of that Scottish identity lays Stirling. It is home of Stirling Castle, the aerie of Scotland’s kings and of Mary Queen of Scots. The castle stands high above a once marshy plain on a hill of lava left by some long extinct volcano. It has a commanding view of all directions and stands sentinel over the widened channel of the Forth River where it was at one time a port at tide water.

 It was at Stirling where horses (armies) could most easily cross south and north. They who held Stirling held the strategic entry way between the highlands and the lowlands and hence could command all of Scotland. Of fond memory in Stirling still, is the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297), Battle of Bannockburn (1314), William Wallace (think Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”. Then again, please don’t.) and Robert Bruce.

Stirling Castle, Stirling Scotland
Stirling Castle has a commanding view of the Scottish countryside

 My intention in going to Stirling was not to discover any Calgary/Scotland connection or relive ancient battles. My purpose was to meet with “The Surefoot Effect”, a not-for-profit social enterprise. They earn their income consulting on a broad range of all things “sustainability” related.

 Scotland has bravely adopted one of the most ambitious carbon dioxide (C0₂) reduction targets of any jurisdiction in the world. The Surefoot Effect has been one of their civil society partners, working with citizens, organizations and businesses to bring those targets to life. I came to Stirling to learn what they are doing.

The Shift

The amount of carbon dioxide (C0₂) in our atmosphere now exceeds 400 parts/million (ppm). At one time, before the industrial revolution began – not so long ago – it was under 300 ppm.

The miracle and gift of C0₂ is that it makes life on earth possible. C0₂ embraces our planet like a warm blanket, trapping heat. We’ve all been in a greenhouse and know how warm it can be, even on a cloudy day. Light from the sun comes through the glass and warms the space. The same glass that lets the light in, keeps the heat from escaping. It captures the heat and warms the greenhouse.

Carbon dioxide works the same way. Sunlight hits earth. Instead of radiating back into space, some of that energy is taken ransom by the C0₂ and used to warm up our planet. (Just don’t ask me to explain the physics of it.) Too little C0₂, and earth turns into a frozen wasteland (think ice ages and Game of Thrones). Too much C0₂, and….well, we can’t be entirely sure what earth turns into.

What’s the worse that can happen? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ

James Lovelock is the granddaddy of the environmental movement. He has written elegantly about how the global atmosphere regulates the distribution of heat around our planet: http://www.jameslovelock.org/

The amount of C0₂ in the atmosphere has been “just right” for many millennia – it has kept earth not too hot and not too cold. The world we humans inhabit is a product of just the right amount of C0₂ that has kept temperatures fluctuating within a narrow range over long periods of time.

What does all this extra C0₂ in the atmosphere mean?

You would think more of a good thing would make it really good. But too much of a good thing is not always better. If a sweater is all you need, you won’t put on a down parka. And you’d never put on a parka if you could never take it off.

How does all that C0₂ get into the air in the first place?

Since the industrial revolution, humans have been extracting coal and harnessing all that energy on a massive scale. Burning coal releases C0₂ as a by-product. Burning oil and natural gas has the same effect.

It seems humans are contributing to this shift since there are so many of us consuming the products made harnessing fossil fuels.

Here’s the crux of the issue: How can harnessing fossil fuels be a bad thing?

Exploiting fossil fuels has raised the standard of living for countless numbers of us. The benefits have been enormous. Many find it very difficult to accept that the impact on our climate brings high risk. Even if the consequences are serious, what can one person do anyway?

Who wants to make a Plan B if they don’t have to?

The Surefoot Effect has engaged thousands of people in a crucial conversation that tackles these questions. They help people explore what climate change means, how to make sense of it and what can they as individuals do about it.

They are helping people create their Plan B.

I’ll tell you more about The Surefoot Effect in my next post.

Where’s Waldo?

 

The Heathrow Express into London! ! If things go according to plan, it’s all surface travel from here.

“If things go according to plan…” That sure is an oxymoron for a Plan B* journey. But there it is. Old habits die hard. 

I haven’t shared much about where I hope to visit and what I aim to do on this trip. I hope, gentle reader, you don’t mind remaining in suspense. Here’s a clue though. I’m not flying home unless it’s an emergency.  

For now, it’s on to England’s green and pleasant land!

Victoria Rail Station London UK
Victoria Rail Station London UK
Paddington Station, London Underground
Paddington Station, London Underground