River Road Plantations

May 6, 2013

In the years prior to the U.S. Civil War, the 70 mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was a corridor of sugar cane plantations, many showcasing monumental homes.  Today the sugar cane and a few of the antebellum mansions remain, intermixed with petro chemical plants that sprang up in the 20th Century.  We drove the length of the River Road, visiting the plantations and small, historic towns along the route.

Of the historic River Road plantations, the most recognized is probably Oak Alley.  Its white pillared house, built in the Greek Revival style, has been featured in many movies and television shows.

A white pillared house at the end of a long walk line with beautiful old oaks

Oak Alley

The 300 year old Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana) which line the path extending from the house to the river, pre-date the building.

Pat and Diane on the oak-lined walk of Oak Alley

Visitors to the plantation are taken on a guided tour of the house.

Our tour guide wearing a white dress standing in front of a fireplace

Our tour guide in period dress

Oak Alley looks like the stately southern mansions of my imagination.

The parlour filled with furniture include blue upholstered wooden furniture, and a small piano

The Parlour

A foyer long foyer extending the width of the house with a narrow staircase extending to the 2nd floor

The Foyer

A long dining room with wooden floor and a set wooden table, with a fabric fan hanging above the table

The Dining Room

Many plantation homes were abandoned, ruined, or destroyed during the 20th century due to encroachments of the Mississippi, federal action, owner disinterest, fragmented ownership, demolition by industry, and a weak economy.  The revival of the remaining River Road homes began with the restoration of Oak Alley in the 1920s.

Diane standing behine a large metal cauldron filled with water and lillies

Diane with an old sugar cauldron

The River Road plantations were narrow and long, allowing each to have access to the Mississippi river, which was bounded by a small levee to protect from spring flooding.  In addition to the main house, each had a large number of buildings including a sugar mill and many slave cabins.  The plantations produced a cash crop on a large scale for world export.  They were self-contained communities run like a manufacturing business.

We also visited the Laura Plantation, one of the few Creole plantations that remain.  Creoles were a multi-racial people descended from the French, African American, and Native Americans.  Creole plantation houses were generally smaller and brightly coloured.

A 2 story house painted hellow with an upper pillared balcony

Laura Plantation House

At its largest size, the Laura Plantation was approximately 12,000 acres (4850 hectares), which included properties amassed over time.  The main house, in addition to being the living quarters of the plantation owners, was also their business office and the place where grand social occasions took place.

Dinae standing in a white walled room in front of a fireplace with a large set dining room table with white tablecloth

Laura’s Dining Room

Laura Locoul, after whom the plantation was named, left a journal for her daughters, so a great deal is known about the family itself and the estate. The guided tour offered at this plantation is based on personal accounts about life on this historic farm found in Laura’s journals and the French National Archives.

in the center of the property, 3.5 miles behind the house were the slave quarters.  There were 69 cabins, each holding 2 families, communal kitchens, an infirmary, and several water wells.  By the 1850s, the Laura Plantation was the workplace for 100 mules and 195 humans, 175 of them slaves.

2 small shacks among trees in the distance with a large bell int the foreground

Slave Quarters

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Are Canadians paying too much? What can we do about it?

May 2, 2013

Canadians pay more for most retail goods than Americans living just across the border, despite the fact that the Canadian dollar has been near or above parity with the U.S. dollar for several years now. We are constantly reminded of this when we see American advertisements on television, when we shop online, when we buy books and magazines that have 2 different prices on the back cover, and when we visit the United States. My recent investgation into this matter (Are Prices Higher in Canada than in the U.S?) confirmed my suspicions. The price differences in certain product categories are glaring – gasoline (20-35% higher), automobiles (other than economy models), groceries (especially dairy and poultry products), alcoholic beverages, etc. Are we being gouged?

Our unelected Canadian Senate recently looked into this matter, releasing its study on the reasons for price discrepancies for goods between Canada and the U.S. (The Canada-US Price Gap).  They did not look at the price of services, which are harder to compare, nor supply-managed goods (e.g. eggs, poultry and dairy products, which we definitely pay more for but are a political hot-button issue). Although their report was anything but definitive, they concluded that in many cases retail prices are higher in Canada, and the reasons for this difference include: lower economies of scale, a higher level of retailer concentration, higher transportation costs, higher Canadian tariffs and taxes, the high volatility in exchange rates, and different regulatory requirements (like bilingual packaging and product safety standards). For its part, the Senate recommended that Canada review its tariffs, better integrate safety standards between the 2 countries, and consider an increase in the minimum threshold at which low-value shipments from the U.S. are taxed. One of the biggest reasons for price differences that they identified is country-specific pricing by international manufacturers who charge more in Canada simply because Canadians appear willing to pay more.

In order to maximize profits, manufacturers attempt to segment the market, creating real or imagined differences that allow them to sell their products at different prices in the two countries. An example of this are car manufacturers who don’t allow their warranties to be transferred between the two countries. Some manufacturers charge Canadian retailers 10% to 50% more than U.S. retailers for identical products. Manufacturers try to justify this by saying that their higher prices subsidize the cost of maintaining operations in Canada and are necessary to compensate Canadian distributors and wholesalers who face higher costs than their American counterparts. But they also openly admit that they charge more because Canadians are used to paying more (which seems like a chicken-and-egg situation to me). Manufacturers may price more aggressively in the U.S. because in order for their brand to succeed globally, it is essential that it be a success in the U.S. American consumers benefit from this effect. In fact, market segmentation allows manufacturers to lower their prices in the United States, effectively subsidizing their prices using earnings from higher profit territories like Canada.

In addition, American retailers are more competitive. They enjoy lower labour rates, higher productivity, and are quick to respond to competitive pressures. Many Canadian retailers have failed to pass along to consumers the benefit they’ve garnered from a stronger loonie.

Ultimately the price gap is about Canadian’s willingness to pay. Sellers simply believe that Canadians will pay more, and they appear to be right. Canadians don’t shop as aggressively as Americans, and aren’t as quick to seek out deals. Canadian retailers and consumers are failing to put the sort of pressure on manufacturers needed to bring prices down.

This situation won’t improve by itself. Neither the increase in the Canadian dollar nor the arrival in Canada of giant U.S. retailers like Walmart and Target has had a significant effect. So, what can we do about it?

  1. Shop Local

    Where possible, buy locally made or Canadian made products that provide good value for the money. This doesn’t solve the problem of higher prices for Canadians, but at least the profits are going to Canadian manufacturers.

  2. Switch to cheaper brands or basic commodities

    As the Canadian economy has matured and we have become wealthier, we consume more and more differentiated goods rather than basic commodities. The manufacturers of differentiated goods are able to increase their prices as long as consumers demand their products. e.g. They can charge more for Pizza Pockets than no-name pizza snacks, and much more than for wheat flour and tomato sauce.

    Canadians can increase competition and lower prices by switching to cheaper brands whenever possible or using basic commodities instead. e.g. Buying generic brands in the grocery store. Buying unbranded products. Buying commodity items like bulk foods, fresh produce, etc. Choose brands that don’t practice country-specific pricing (or that minimize it) and that are competitively priced to those in the U.S. Manufacturers will lower prices if Canadians don’t pay their marked-up costs.

  3. Check prices and shop smart

    The Senate report noted that, “As more Canadian consumers become aware of smartphone applications and Internet sites for price shopping and comparison, and become price-savvy consumers, competitive pressures in Canada will increase and the price for products in Canada will converge to U.S. prices”.

    Compare prices and buy where things are cheaper. Price comparison web sites make this easy (e.g. Shopbot.ca, ShopToIt.ca, PriceGrabber.ca, NextTag.com, Shopzilla.com). Smart phone apps that scan bar codes and compare prices make this even easier (e.g. RedLaser, Google Shopper, Amazon Price Check, Pricegrabber).

    Choose retailers that offer prices competitive to those in the U.S. Retailers will lower prices if we shop elsewhere.

  4. Speak up

    Let manufacturers, retailers, and governments know that you’re fed up with paying more, and that you’re voting with your wallet. Join consumer associations that advocate for fair pricing.

  5. Shop cross-border

    Canadians have a long-standing tradition of cross-border shopping. 75% of us live within 161 kilometres (100 miles) of the U.S. border. The total number of Canadians travelling to the United States by automobile is closely correlated with the movements of the exchange rate. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 an average of 3.4 million Canadian travelers crossed the border into the United States by automobile each month, including 2.4 million Canadian travelers (69.7% of all Canadian travellers) who made same-day trips (which likely involved some shopping). Duty-free exemptions for Canadians were increased effective June 2012, making it easier to bring back more stuff. Although the duty-free limit for same-day trips is still zero (unlike Americans who get $200), Canada Customs often doesn’t bother with smaller purchases like groceries.

    Shop online. The price advantages of shopping in the U.S. (or even other countries like England) often more than make up for the costs of shipping, a customs broker fee, and duty (if applicable). More U.S. companies offer free shipping to Canada, and downloaded items (like music, movies, and software) don’t need to be shipped at all. Many items are duty-free under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Canada Customs doesn’t charge duty on items valued under $20 Canadian (an amount which has effectively increased with the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the greenback).

I can hear some patriotic Canadians squealing, those who believe that we have an obligation to ‘Buy Canadian’. Hopefully I’ve covered that with my Point #1 above. Please note that while we are smart shopping, I believe that Canadians should continue to pay whatever sales or other taxes are required. I believe that in the long run, Canadians will be better off if our manufacturers, retailers, and government remain competitive in the global market. Competitive retail pricing will benefit all Canadians, rather than line the pockets of international manufacturers.


Scott Boudin Festival

May 1, 2013

We drove out of Texas and into the swamps of Louisiana. The tourist office at the state boundary mentioned something called the Boudin Festival happening in the town of Scott. We had no idea what boudin was, but when we learned it was food, Diane set a course for Scott.

Brightly coloured festival poster with a train and pig engineer and boudin!Boudin is a dressing of meat (usually pork), rice, traces of vegetable, and spices that is packaged in a sausage casing (i.e. pig intestine) and boiled. Not as much meat as sausage, and no oatmeal like haggis. Like sausages everywhere, it’s something to do with the leftover bits of slaughtered pig (like liver and butt). Boudin has been made in southern Louisiana since the mid-1800s, probably originating with French Acadians, ancestors of the Cajuns, Some modern versions of boudin substitute crawfish or shrimp for pork.

We arrived hungry on the opening day of the festival. The announcer put out a call for anyone from out of state who had never tried Boudin before. I volunteered and soon found myself onstage and being introduced.

The announcer worked the crowd saying, “We had to go all the way to Canada to find a person who had never tasted boudin before!”  Cheers from the crowd. After some pleasantries, I was handed a foil wrapper. Fearing a set-up, I opening it carefully.

Patrick on stage with drums behind, wearing shorts and a t-shit and standing beside the annouuncer with a microphone.  Patrick opening a silver foiil package.

Opening my 1st boudin

What emerged was an 8 inch brownish tube, warm and slippery. I wiggled it. The announcer said to, “keep it above your waist”. It was family show. Laughs from the crowd.

Patrick on stage holding a half unwrapped boudin

Staring down my 1st boudin

I tasted it. The crowd held their breath. Who knew food could be so exciting?

Patrick on stage with boudin to his lips

Bite the casing and slurp out the goodness

The announcer asked me to describe it.

Tasting Boudin (P1100598)

Patrick on stage holding a boudin in one hand and a microphone in the other

Trying to describe boudin

As is my nature, I gave an overly analytical response, like a damn restaurant review, “flavourful, surprisingly spicy”. What the crowd really wanted was for me to throw my arms in the arms and say, “I love it!”.  Leeson Learned.

Patrick on stage with both arms raised in the air

Patrick whooping it up on stage

My on-stage appearance raised our visibility for the rest of the day. People approached us, we were given tastes by a couple of food vendors, and I was interviewed for local TV.

Patrick being interviewed by a reproter with the camera man int the foreground

My TV interview

An impetus for this inaugural festival is that Scott, Louisiana was recently named Boudin Capital of the World, the result of a bipartisan bill passed by both the Louisiana House and Senate in April 2012. This was done over the objections of Broussard, Louisiana which had previously been using the title but couldn’t prove it had an official designation, and despite the protest of Jennings, Louisiana which was declared Boudin Capital of the Universe in the 1970’s. The feud between the Boudin capitals even made the Wall Street Journal.

The small city of Scott (8800 people) produced 1.5 Million pounds of boudin in 2012. That’s 3 Million links! Within the city limits there are four establishments employing 80 people who make and sell $5 Million of boudin each year.

Although boudin is the raison d’être of the festival, there are other things to do. There is a busy stage with non-stop cajun, zydeco, and rock performances. People aren’t shy about dancing, even in the afternoon sun. Folks sit around on folding chairs enjoying the music. There is a busy midway for the young and young at heart. But the star of the show is definitely the food.

A street lined with food tents and filled with people

Busy food vendors

We ate our way through virtually everything the food vendors had to offer. In addition to boiled boudin, we enjoyed:

Links of boudin on a cutting board with 2 pairs of hands

Smoked Boudin

2 deep-fried balls of boudin about 2 inches in diameter in a white paper dish held by Diane

Boudin Balls

Diane eating jambalaya with a plastic fork from a disposable bowl

Jambalaya

We really liked the cracklins, which are seasoned, crispy bits of deep-fried pig skin and fat with an occasional bit of meat.  Very tasty, but not even remotely close to healthy.

A man in a red t-shirt with a long metal pole standing over a boiling black vat of oil

It’s hot work making cracklins  I

A black pot filled with boiling oil and bits of pig skin

Cracklins fryin’

Diane with a cracklin in her hand about to eat it

Diane enjoying cracklins

We still managed to find room for a grilled pork sandwich, a huge slab of tasty pork on soon-to-be-sloppy white sandwich bread.

A person standing over a large frying grill covered in pork steaks

Grilling Pork

Patrick eating a pork sandwich in one hand with a paper tray to catch the drips in the other

Tricky to eat

A suggestion for next year’s festival is to offer real beer, something other than mini-Budweisers.

Patrick holidng a small can of Budweiser beer

Even when it grows up, it still won’t be a real beer

Overall, it was a great small town festival. Comfortable and friendly. Tasty and interesting food. Terrific music. It’s wonderful to stumble across gems like this, where we can experience something new and unique.

The back of a woman with a lime green t-shirt with the words, "Where the west begins, and the boudin never ends"

A friendly festival organizer’s t-shirt


Impressions of Texas

April 30, 2013

This is our first visit to Texas, so it was a new experience for us.  Here are some things we find interesting about Texas.

  • I’ve always heard how big Texas is. At 268,580 square miles (695,621 sq. kms), it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, second only to Alaska among all U.S. states, and is larger than every country in Europe (except Russia which isn’t really in Europe in my mind). However, the area of Texas is not quite as impressive as its reputation. There are 5 Canadian Provinces and Territories that are much, much larger than Texas (British Columbia!, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), and 3 that are almost as big (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • The word “Texas” derives from local Indian words meaning allies or friends. Reflecting this, the Texas state motto is friendship.
  • Texas has been part of or ruled by 6 nations in its modern history – Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States (twice) and the Confederate States of America (during the American Civil War). The words ‘6 Flags’ are incorporated into a lot of Texas venue names.
  • The Texas state capitol building in Austin was completed on May 16, 1888. It is the largest of all state capitols in the nation in terms of square footage. Its construction was paid for by bartering 3 million acres of land in the Texas ‘panhandle’ to the builders.
  • West Texas is mostly wide-open, dry desert. It is sparsely populated and there are no big cities except El Paso (on Texas’s Western border with Mexico and New Mexico). The Eastern side of Texas looks very different, with grass, green trees, and more agriculture. The dry west and green east are separated by the 100th Meridian (100 degrees West of Greenwich England), a line which happens to closely approximate the 20 inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation, not unlike the lines of equal elevation on a topographic map) which is commonly used to demarcate arid and non-arid land

    A silhouette of a tree against a graduate grey background

    West Texas Landscape

  • Texas is part of the Southern ‘bible belt’ and has a majority Christian population, primarily Evangelical Protestants (65%) and Catholics (21%, a byproduct of Texas’s 38% Latino population

    A large billboard with black print on a white background reading "Think God"

    Texas Billboard

  • Famous from old Western movies, the Rio Grande River serves as a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

    A piicture of Patrick's muddy feet stadnign on cracked mud earth

    Muddy feet after I waded the Rio Grande into Mexico

  • Because Texas shares a long border with Mexico, there are almost 10,000 United States Border Patrol agents in the state. Roadside checks are common like in Southern Arizona.
  • A lot of Texans like to dance. There are old-fashioned dance halls throughout the state where people enjoy the 2-step, waltz, and occasional polka.
  • Texans also love their bar-b-que (BBQ), which is meat cooked using the indirect heat of wood smoke. What we usually call BBQ in Canada (i.e. cooking over direct heat or flame) is actually grilling, not BBQ.
  • Texas is a conservative place, and is currently one of the most Republican states in the United States. Republicans control all statewide Texas offices, both houses of the state legislature and have a majority in the Texas congressional delegation. Despite this, the state capital of Austin is liberal, artistic, and actively encourages individuality (‘keep Austin weird’)

    Brown building of Austin Texas seen from the river

    Austin Skyline

  • Texas allows RVs to park overnight in roadside picnic areas, which are generally nice and clean, but sometimes right beside and not separated from the roadways.

    The Dream Machine parked with slide out in a rest area beside the road

    Sleeping at a Texas roadside picnic area

  • Texans are very patriotic. There are American flags everywhere and a lot of Texas flags.

    The Texas flag flying against a blue background

    Texas Flag

  • Although George W. Bush is commonly associated with Texas (he was the State Governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), he was not born there (actually, New Haven, Connecticut). But Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected 1952) and Lyndon B. Johnson (elected 1963) were both born in Texas. Johnson spent much of his presidency on his ranch in Texas, operating from his home nicknamed ‘The Texas White House’.

    The Dream Machine parked beside a Jetstar jet under a roof

    The Dream Machine and Lyndon Johnson’s mini-Air Force One

  • Many restaurants in Texas don’t have a license to serve hard liquor, sometimes only beer and wine). Some of these restaurants allow you to bring your own liquor and they’ll sell you ‘a set up’, which is the glasses, ice, and mix that you need to make your own drinks.
  • The Texas drawl is real, not just in the movies. “Y’all” is the most common pronoun here. When people call us “Sir” or “Ma’am” we feel old, but folks are just being polite.
  • Texas’s State Flower is the Bluebonnet, a sentimental favourite, which was blooming as we passed through.

    A field of blue flowers with green leaves

    Texas Bluebonnets

  • Like Arizona and New Mexico, the Texan desert is home to the collared peccary (known in the south as javelina). They are social animals, often forming herds, and adults weight 40 to 90 pounds.

    A brown javelina on dry grass.  it looks like a small pig with stiff hair.

    A Javelina visiting our campsite in Big Bend National Park


Comparing The Dream Machine and The S&M Motel

April 25, 2013

Last year we traveled around Europe by motorhome for 9 months. Our friends Sue and Martin loaned us their camper van (British for motorhome) which we nicknamed The S&M Motel. Now that we’ve been traveling in our own motorhome (recently named The Dream Machine) for 3 months, we’ve been able to appreciate some of the differences between our North American motorhome and those that are commonly available in Europe.

The S&M Motel Camper Van in front of a grassy field with mountains and a castle in the background

The S&M Motel

What follows are some of the differences between our Forest River Solera 24S and how we traveled in Europe. Most of these differences would apply generally to all Class C and Class A motorhomes in North America versus their European counterparts. This comparison is not in any way intended to be a criticism of The S&M Motel nor our generous British friends who took a giant leap of faith in loaning it to us.

Our motorhome on a gravel road by the river

The Dream Machine

Note — This comparison is lengthy and detailed in places.  Feel free to skim to the topics you’re interested in.

Size — Our Solera, although it’s on the small end of the scale for North American motorhomes, is longer, wider, taller, and heavier than most in Europe. At 24 feet 6 inches (24’6”) it is 5’8” (1.75m) longer than the S&M Motel, not including the bike racks on the rear of either unit. At 11’6” (3.5m) it is 2’3” (0.68m) taller and at 7’7” (2.3m) it is 5” (0.13m) wider.

Engine – To power our bigger, heavier coach, the Dream Machine has a 3.0 Litre 6 cylinder engine while the S&M Motel has a 2.8 Litre 4 cylinder engine. Both are turbo diesel and seem to have sufficient power, especially on hills where the diesel engines really shine.

Fuel Economy – Our larger engine gets lower gas mileage, currently averaging around 15 mpg (15 L/100km) versus the S&M Motel’s 21 mpg (11 L/100km). Our motorhome has a 26.6 gallon (121 Litre) tank for a theoretical range of 400 miles (645 km). The S&M Motel has a smaller 21 gallon (80 Litre) fuel tank but a slightly greater range of 440 miles (725 km).

Fuel Cost – Diesel fuel is cheaper in North America than in Europe. I’ve estimated a blended rate of $4.58 per gallon for our route (lower in the United States and higher in Canada). The lower fuel economy and less expensive fuel balance each other out though, and both vehicles have an operating cost for fuel of about $15 per hour. However, the distances are much greater in North America.

Transmission – The S&M Motel has a 5-speed manual transmission, which is more common in Europe.  The Dream Machine has a 5-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and tip-shift, which also allows the gears to be shifted manually while driving.

Handling – With a longer wheel base, the Dream Machine isn’t as maneuverable. It drives well, but requires more room to turn, especially ‘U’ turns. With a longer overhang behind the rear wheels, the ‘swing out’ is greater and needs to be considered in tight spaces. Being taller it tends to sway a bit, particularly at slow speeds on uneven ground like speed bumps traversed at an angle or potholes.

Interior Space — Our Solera is 7 feet (2.13m) tall inside, which will allow our height-endowed friend Martin to walk comfortably inside. It’s a much tighter squeeze for him in the 6’5” (1.96 meter) tall S&M Motel. When our coach is parked the slide can be extended which adds an additional 23.6 square feet (2.2 sq. m) of floor space and 142 cubic feet (4 cu. m) of interior space. Although the Dream Machine is still very usable with the slide in, it is positively spacious with the slide out. The difference between in and out is like night and day.

Storage – Because of its larger size, our Solera has a lot more interior and exterior storage. Even though we have a lot more stuff with us, we have room to spare. The limiting factor is weight not space.

Cook Top – The S&M Motel has a 4 burner cook top (3 gas and 1 electric). The Dream Machine has 3 burners, all gas. Having an electric burner is great because it saves on gas when connected to shore power. We’re thinking of buying an electric frying pan to achieve the same result.

Oven – The S&M Motel has a decent-sized oven and a separate broiling compartment. Despite both ovens being about the same overall size, our oven compartment is only 5 inches (13 centimeters) high, barely enough for a casserole dish, and has a questionable broiler underneath.

Refrigerator – Our refrigerator has 2 separate compartments for fridge and freezer, each with their own door, and is much larger than the one in the S&M Motel. Ours runs on propane or 110 Volt electricity when connected to shore power, but can’t run on 12 Volt electricity during travel like the S&M Motel’s fridge. Ours runs all the time, automatically switching between propane and electricity if it is available. This means that we always have cold food, cold beer, frozen food, and ice in the refrigerator.

Microwave – The Dream Machine has a small microwave that is great for defrosting and reheating. It requires 110 Volt electricity though, so to use it we either need to be plugged in or start the generator.

Bed – Our rear corner bed is available all the time, and doesn’t need to be made every evening and morning.

Shower – The Dream Machine has a separate shower, so the toilet area stays dry. This uses more space, but makes cleanup easier. Perhaps because of the dedicated shower, leg room on the toilet is limited.

Vanity – We have a small sink, mirror, and cabinets located just outside the bathroom. This sink can be used while the toilet or shower are occupied, and provides convenient access to a second sink in the main living area.

Batteries – Our motorhome has 2 household batteries rather than 1, providing more capacity. We connect a small power inverter to the batteries to get AC power without a hookup (e.g. for charging camera batteries).

Electricity – The S&M Motel uses 220 V European power and requires a few adapters for the different plugs used in various countries. Ours uses 110V North American power and we also need adapters to fit the various RV plugs available (20, 30, and 50 amp).

Generator – The Dream Machine has a 3.6 kilowatt generator which runs on propane. This provides us with 110 Volt electricity if we need it, but we try to limit its use, especially if the noise might disturb someone.

Interior Lighting – Our coach has more interior lights. They are all flush mounted and so they aren’t directional, which would be nice for reading. We have installed LED lights throughout, which use less power than florescent or halogen lights.

Entrance Step – The Dream Machine’s electric step extends automatically when the door is opened and retracts automatically when the door is closed or if the engine is started.

Door screen – Our Solera has a screen door, great for keeping out the bugs.

Windows – The Dream Machine has fewer and slightly smaller windows. For its size, the S&M Motel has larger windows that any motorhome I’ve ever seen (in Europe or North America). Our motorhome is more typical of motorhomes in both countries, with smaller windows and a slightly darker interior. It has tinted, frameless, awning windows (jalousie or louvered windows with a single large glass panel) which tilt open a few inches at the bottom by turning a knob inside. This style of window, in addition to being stylish, can be left open during most rains. The drawback is that they don’t open fully. The S&M Motel’s large side windows swing up to create a glorious open feeling and are also handy for visibility at angled intersections.

Skylight – Both motorhomes have 2 roof vents in the main living area, plus one in the bathroom, but the S&M Motel also has a nice skylight.

Black and Grey Water – Our black water tank is built-in and does not utilize cartridges that can be emptied by hand. Both the black and grey water tanks must be drained via a large sewer hose at a dump station.

Tank capacities – Our fresh water tank is 41 gallons (155 Litres) versus 17 gallons (65 Litres) for the S&M Motel. Our grey water tank is 33 gallons (125 Litres). Our black water tank is 35 gallons (132 Litres) whereas the S&M Motel toilet cassette holds only 4.6 gallons (17.5 Litres), a huge difference! Larger tank capacities mean that we can easily go a week or more without filling or emptying fluids.

Propane tank – The Dream Machine and the S&M Motel both use propane gas for the cook top, oven, refrigerator, and furnace. Ours also uses propane for the generator. We have a single, fixed propane tank while the S&M Hotel has 2 separate but integrated refillable cylinders. Both coaches can be filled easily at a propane filling station. Our propane tank has 9.8 gallons of usable capacity (80% of a 13 gallon tank) and the S&M Hotel has two 6 kilogram tanks which I estimate have a total usable capacity of about 5 gallons of propane.

Furnace – Our furnace is propane only, whereas the S&M Motel furnace will run on propane or electricity. We carry a very small electric heater with us to use when we have shore power.

Air Conditioning – The Dream Machine has air conditioning in the dashboard (part of the Mercedes-Benz chassis) and ducted throughout the coach ceiling from a roof-mounted air conditioner. Running the 110 Volt rear air conditioner requires shore power or the generator to be running.

Arctic package – Our grey and black water tanks have electric heating pads that can be used to prevent them from freezing, but only when the RV is connected to shore power.

Bike rack – Like almost all European motorhomes, the S&M Hotel has a built-in bike rack high on the rear of the vehicle. On ours we had to add a rack on the rear receiver (aka trailer hitch) which led to some other issues (see << LINK Layed Up in Lynnwood >>).

Safety – Our motorhome has smoke, carbon monoxide, and propane gas detectors, which are standard in all new North American coaches.

Multimedia System — Our Solera has a built-in flat panel television that can receive ‘over the air’ high-definition television broadcasts using the adjustable roof antenna or display video (DVDs) from the cab multi-media system. This system can also display images from a CD, DVD or USB storage device. There is an iPod docking station and auxiliary input for other devices. The same multimedia system provides in-dash navigation with voice commands integrated with the audio.

Design – Overall I would say that the practicality of its design and the quality of the S&M Motel are slightly better, despite it being a few years older. Our Solera, though newer and probably prettier (though nowhere near as cute), isn’t quite as robust. Although all motorhomes seem fragile compared to houses or apartments, European design and attention to detail are noticeable.

Overall, I would say that each coach has its advantages. With its smaller size, the S&M Motel was excellent for Europe where roads are narrower, parking is scarce, and fuel more expensive. Its large windows and skylight create an open feel despite it being a smaller coach. The Dream Machine, due primarily to its larger size, has the advantages of more interior space and storage, a dry shower, a bigger refrigerator, a microwave, a flat screen television, an extra battery, and larger fluid tanks. It also has a generator, which isn’t common in European motorhomes. Each coach is well suited to its environment.

Note — all gallons referred to in this article are US gallons because The Dream Machine was made for the US market.


Picket House Pig Out

April 24, 2013

Our friends Bob and Beth recommended that we visit Picket House, a unique restaurant located in Woodville, Texas.  Woodville is just outside of nowhere, and not on the typical tourist trail, but it was on our route.

Picket House is part of a heritage village that gets mixed reviews, so we didn’t check it out.  It’s located off the highway on a side road, easy to miss, but we found it on our 2nd pass.  The old building is rustic outside and in, as if the clock has been turned back 80 years, but it’s clean and comfortable.

A building with a red roof, yellow paint, and a large porch with white posts and railings and the words 'Picket House' painted on the front

Picket House has Rustic Country Charm

A sign at the entrance explains the “Boarding House Eatin’ Rules”.  Patrons pay in advance ($10 each), are assigned a seat (which may be at a table shared with others if it’s busy), fix their own drinks, and clear their own dishes.  Food is served family style and is ‘all you can eat’.  Leftovers go to the hogs.

A brown sign on a yellow background with 5 rules that are summarized in the blog text above

Boarding House Eatin’ Rules

Although Picket House is often very busy, it wasn’t on Thursday at 1 PM when we arrived.  There were only a few tables occupied, including one with a very old, frail, African-American woman eating alone wearing a hat.  I was dying to talk to her but couldn’t get up the nerve.  The walls of the two dining rooms are blanketed with old circus posters and the tables have checkered table clothes.  The combination creates a unique and interesting atmosphere.

A white wall covered with circus posters behind 2 tables with red and white checkered tableclothes

Circus posters on every wall

Diane seated at our table with circus posters on the wall behind

Our Table

Our food was served quickly.  We barely had enough time to get a glass of tea (a classic southern beverage served cold over ice, typically unsweetened), and some condiments (pickled jalapenos, beets, and watermelon rind).  Neither Diane nor I had ever had pickled watermelon rind, and we had to ask the waitress what it was!  The menu is the same every day – fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, greens, beans, biscuits (with butter and optionally honey or cane syrup), coleslaw, peach cobbler, tea, and coffee.  The fried chicken and the biscuits were exceptional.

White bowls of food on a red and white checked tablecloth

Southern Food!

I got my money’s worth.  I ate:

  • 6 pieces of fried chicken,
  • 2 helpings of chicken and dumplings,
  • 2 helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy,
  • 1 helping of greens,
  • 1 piece of corn bread,
  • 1 and a half servings of peach cobbler,
  • 3 pieces of pickled watermelon rind,
  • 3 slices of pickled beets,
  • 1 glass of sweet tea,
  • and 3 biscuits with butter, 1 with cane syrup and  honey
A biscuit on a white plate

Biscuit with honey on the right side and cane syrup on the left

Patrick with a biscuit in hand and cobbler dish ont he table

My friends, biscuit and cobbler

I may have overeaten.  I couldn’t breathe fully for 2 hours afterwards without pain.  I didn’t eat again until the next day.

Diane had a good time too, limiting herself to a mere 4 pieces of fried chicken.

Diane wearing burgandy fleece seated a table with coffee, tea, and cobbler

Diane enjoying her meal

Before we left, I met Brenda, one of the cooks.  With her strong accent, she was hard to understand, but she was very friendly.  Although she’s normally responsible for just the fried chicken, today one of the other staff called in sick, so she also made the biscuits (mmmm, biscuits) and the peach cobbler (mmmm, cobbler).

Patrick standing beside Brenda, a short African-American woman wearing a pink t-shirt and red apron and making a peace sign

Brenda and a bigger me

Picket house is heaven for southern hogs.


American Atheists

April 23, 2013

Atheists are perhaps the most unjustly reviled minority in the United States. Often criticized as being nihilists, anti-American, or even devil worshippers, atheists are one of the few remaining minority groups that it is not considered politically incorrect to publically criticize.

In Austin, Texas, I attended the National Convention and 50th Anniversary Celebration of the American Atheists, the most outspoken organization representing atheists in America. I had never attended any atheist event or gathering before, and didn’t know much about the American Atheists before arriving.  When I heard the opening remarks of David Silverman, President of American Atheists, and noticed that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, I wondered if perhaps I was in the wrong place.

Founded 50 years ago by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, once branded the ‘most hated woman in America’ because of her successful supreme court challenge against compulsory prayer in schools,  American Atheists is a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the separation of church/mosque/temple and state.  They promote freedom of thought and religious beliefs, secular education, and humanist ethics and they defend the civil rights of Atheists and other nonbelievers.  They are a provocative, grumpy organization known for in-your-face atheism, running billboard campaigns and launching legal challenges regarding state and church separation.  Some of their recent court challenges include the erection of a cross at Ground Zero, site of the former world trade center towers in New York, and displays of the 10 commandments on public property.  In the style of many religious proponents, they practice firebrand atheism, leading the fight against the privilege of religion in America.  David Silverman argues that his organization’s aggressiveness is critical to advancing the broader acceptance of atheism in the U.S. by shifting the debate and creating space for less strident organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.

The number of Americans who say they are religious has been steadily dropping in America, down from 73% to 60% between 2005 and 2012 according to WIN-Gallop’s Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism.  According to this poll, the number of Americans who say they are atheists increased from 1% to 5% over this same period and the number of Americans who identified as atheists or ‘not a religious person’ was 35% (Canada was 49%).  The Pew Forum October 2012 Poll  found that 20% of Americans are not religiously affiliated.  This unaffiliated group has grown more than any other particular religion and more than religiosity overall.  This trend is likely to continue as young adults aged 18-29 are much more likely than those aged 70 and older to not be religiously affiliated (25% vs. 8%) and are more likely than the adult population as a whole to be atheist or agnostic (7% vs. 4%).

Despite these trends, American atheists still face widespread discrimination.  Although Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, no avowed atheist has ever been elected to either of the U.S. Houses of Congress (only Congressman Pete Stark, who came out while in office, has been re-elected).  Although there are many suspected atheists in the over 500 members of the current 112th Congress, all profess to be members of an organized religion except one (an openly bisexual U.S. Representative from Arizona who won’t call herself an atheist).  Two Muslims were elected at a time when America is at war with fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but not a single atheist.  This stands in stark contrast to Australia where the Prime Minister Julia Gillard is openly atheist.  Nonbelievers outnumber every religious group in the American military except Christians, yet have no secular chaplains to provide ethical and family counseling geared to their own non beliefs.  Atheists cannot be Boy Scouts of America nor members of its leadership.

In some parts of the country, to identify oneself as an atheist results in blackballing by the community, including the loss of one’s livelihood and friends.  In many religious groups, apostates are denounced and ostracized, eliminating their only support network.  In some families, coming out as an atheist results in rejection by one’s parents, siblings, and perhaps even one’s spouse.  Clergy who lose their faith often keep it a secret and continue to preach rather than lose their only profession, their livelihood, and perhaps their only means of funding after retirement.

I support freedom of religion.  Religious people have a right to worship, to organize, and of course to free speech, which includes the right to proselytize to consenting adults.  When I am in the home of a religious person, I follow their traditions, and I am courteous in houses of worship.  I am also a secularist and believe in an absolute separation of church and state.  The government should never promote not impose any aspect of any religion on others, nor allow this behaviour by its representatives or on its properties.  Will those promoting a Protestant Christian America, who are currently barely a majority (51%), be as supportive of public prayer and religious education when the Muslims or Catholics have the numbers to impose their will?