Sofia, Bulgaria, to Belgrade, Serbia (with a layover in Nish)

To my immense surprise, I actually got some sleep in Sofia. I woke up around 3:00, but, thankfully, was able to go back to sleep until my alarm rang at 6:30. I dawdled almost too long in bed and then hurried up to dress and finish packing. I was out the door by 7:00ish, with my bus being at 7:30.

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Points to anyone who recognises what this is and where this picture is from! Hint: I was there this summer and there are pictures of this on my blog! This gorgeous scene was hung above my bed in Sofia.

The bus wasn’t at the station yet, so I went off in search of coffee, which in Bulgaria either comes from a vending machine or is a freshly made espresso. I wanted the latter of course. As I scanned my myriad options, an older gentleman came over and asked me in perfect English if I needed help finding a bus! All my uncaffeinated brain could stammer out was, “I’m fine Thank you. You’re very kind!” Where was he yesterday?! I settled on a café and was very pleased with my choice, since the coffee was good enough to drink black!

I kept an eye on arriving buses as I drank my magic bean potion.

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That bottom word is one of my least favourite in Bulgarian! I know what it means (entrance), but forget pronouncing it! The X sound is the bane of my existence. This is something along the lines of V-k-h-o-d….

Finally, I saw a bus marked Nish, like that, in Roman letters. A lot of people spell it Nis, without the accent (Niš), but if you drop the accent you need to add the h to get the proper pronunciation. The driver got out and called out, “Serbia!” I felt a little shiver of anticipation. I stowed my suitcase under the bus and went in to get a window seat.

The woman who had sold me my ticket had really not been listening to me and had sold me a ticket for 4:00PM today instead of 7:30AM. I chose to play dumb and see if it would get sorted out. Sure enough, the woman matching the tickets to the passenger manifest (international route!) took off with my ticket. A few moments later, I heard the driver call out “Maria!” It took a long moment to realise that that was me! He handed me a corrected ticket and off we went!

There was a whole lot of nothing to the Serbian border, which we reached in about an hour and a half. En route, I started to feel queasy and realised it was because I’d just had the black coffee, so I tucked into one of the cheese croissants I bought yesterday. It cured my ills!

At the border, we waited in line behind another bus and then it was our turn. We all had to disembark to go through the immigration part of the checkpoint. Everyone ahead of me had just an ID card and flew through this part of the crossing. Then, it was my turn. The officer scanned my passport, frowned, and looked up at me.

Him: How long were you in Bulgaria?

Me: About three months.

Him: About three months?

Me: Um, a little less. About 88 days.

Him: Are you sure?

Me: Pretty sure…

Him: You were in Bulgaria 87 days.

Me: I didn’t know if I should count the entrance and exit days.

Him: You can only be in Bulgaria 90 days.

Me: Yes. That is why I have to go to Serbia today.

Him (after stamping my passport and handing it back to me): Welcome to Serbia!

Now, how do you think this exchange went? Just from reading it, it sounds like a Canadian-style interrogation where I was sweating bullets, right? Well, not at all! The officer’s tone was friendly with an under tone of teasing. I wasn’t worried at all!

As everyone was processed, we had to move to the back of the building and then go outside, where it was freezing. Thankfully, everyone else got through more quickly than me and the bus was finally cleared to let us back on.

Next step was customs. This time, an officer came on board and took our documents. I didn’t really like seeing my passport go off like that, but at least I expected it. It came back with another stamp showing I’d cleared customs.

After the border, we almost immediately pulled over at a rest area before finally starting to get some Serbian miles under us. Like Bulgaria, Serbia is wide open and rural.

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Foggy mountain.

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I thought we might be driving into a storm, but nope.

Serbian villages look like Bulgarian villages.

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353KM to Belgrade…

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There was a lot of roadwork being done, what appeared to be the construction of a new highway. My first impressions of Serbia are that it is very industrious!

I liked the stripes of colours at this quarry:

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I turned to look towards the driver’s side at one point and WOW!

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Serbia really wasn’t that different from Bulgaria!

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We got to Nish at 10AM local time, which was 11AM Sofia time, bang on schedule. I just wanted a bathroom, but the cost was 50RSD (dinar) and, of course, I had no local currency on me and didn’t want to break my euro note. I realised to my horror that to control human traffic within the departure terminals where the bathrooms are, there’s a turnstile system to get back in. To get cash, I would have to exit, find an ATM, wait in a very long line to get a ticket, and then get to a bathroom. I rather cursed my coffee at this point. 😀

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Thankfully, I found an ATM from a proper bank right outside the bus terminal. It was a bit strange to request a withdrawal of 10,000 anything, but it was only 122CAD! I grabbed my bills and went back to the station to buy a ticket.

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Serbian currency is going to take some getting used to! Divide by 120 to get the CAD equivalent, or more roughly, by 100. So these bills would represent our 20, 5, 2, 1, 0.50, and 0.10. Kinda sort of. I’ve figured out that less than 1,000 is a deal for a meal!

The lady who served me had just enough English to understand me when I asked what time we would arrive in Belgrade, but not enough to answer, so she wrote it down, 2:30. Oh, and she had offered me an express or a local, and I went with the express since it was the next bus (at 10:50) and would get me to Belgrade faster. I forget the difference in price, but I don’t think it was significant.

And then, finally, the bathroom! I paid and was heading to the turnstile when the attendant banged on her window and motioned for me to come back and leave my suitcase with her! I was rather loaded down and have no valuables in the suitcase, so I was very happy to do so, especially since she pulled it into her booth where it would be secure.

It was almost 10:40 by the time I sat down to try the free wifi. My stupid phone refused to connect to it, but my iPad had no trouble, to my immense relief, since I wanted to contact my host in Belgrade to confirm my arrival time. I’d said 4:00 and decided to stick with that as it would leave time in case there were any contingencies or I couldn’t find the apartment. He wrote back immediately to say he’d be there.

That done, I Googled “platform” in Serbian since I wasn’t sure where to catch my bus and I knew the info was somewhere on my ticket. I learned that a platform is a “peron,” rather like the French for a porch! I scanned my ticket and found перон. As it turned out, I was at the right platform, eight, so I didn’t have to go anywhere.

The bus pulled up right at 10:50 and we lost a few minutes while passengers disembarked. When it was finally time to load luggage, I was confused that people were passing the attendant money. As it turned out, you had to pay 50RSD (about 0.60CAD) per bag on top of your ticket. This is where I started to learn that Serbian numbers are very similar, if not identical, to Bulgarian numbers! I mean, the guy said to me, “Pet…” which meant he wanted 15, 50, 0r 500 for my bag. 15 and 500 made no sense, so I pulled out a 100 and he took that, gave me back 50, stuck a tag on my bag, and handed me a receipt!

The bus was super crowded but I managed to get the last window seat!!!!! AND no one sat beside me, so I was able to spread out! That’s the good news. The bad news is that the bus was apparently manufactured by the folks who build the “local” Mazatlán buses, so my knees were touching the seat ahead of me. It was cramped and would get a bit painful as the trip progressed!

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Saw this car coming out of Nish. Better a “Yugo” than a “Nova”!

We made a stop or two before finally getting under way. I had a simple lunch of pineapple juice and a ciabatta roll that I just dipped into my peanut butter jar. I then played a word game for a while since the scenery was getting monotonous, then decided to have a nap. It was bang on noon and I was just started to doze off when… BOOM. Tire blowout! The driver did a great job steadying the bus and pulling over safely.

I calculated I could afford only a one-hour delay and still get to my apartment by 4:00. So I figured I was going to have to scramble for internet access in Belgrade to let my host know I’d be late since there was no way a tire repair service and/or backup bus could reach us in time. But, get this, the bus driver and his helper changed the tire themselves!

I was in such disbelief that I got out and took a picture because I figured no one would believe me.

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We were back underway in 45 minutes. Wow! I promptly went to sleep and next thing I  knew, I was in civilisation. It was about 2:30. Were we coming into Belgrade already?!

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Yes, we were!

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Belgrade’s trams look much more modern than do Sofia’s.

We got to the bus station at 3:00, so I had an hour to get to my apartment, only 1.3KM away. So, of course, I planned to walk and turned down offers of taxis.

Look at this sign near the arrivals. Puts so many countries to shame:

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There was a wifi signal at the park behind the arrivals area, so I figured I could use it to orientate myself and then follow the directions to the apartment. But signage was poor and Google Maps was being a Google product and not cooperating. I could not orientate myself at all. The iPad doesn’t have the compass and the phone’s compass would not work on wifi, so I couldn’t even figure out in which direction to set off. So frustrating!

I eventually got into a cab and quickly realised I’d made a mistake (ie. got into a fake cab) and was about to be scammed. Sure enough, my 1.5KM drive cost me about 12CAD! I know I should have gotten out the minute he turned on his metre, but I was running late and lost!  I just did some research and his metre did start off at the right amount, but ran up very quickly, which is how they get people. So, welcome to Belgrade. It appears that getting scammed by the taxis is a rite of passage. I’m just glad that this doesn’t matter even if it matters. I’ll be more careful if I get in another taxi.

I recognised the apartment when we got to it and said the Bulgarian “tuk,” for here, only to learn that it’s “tu-ey” in Serbian. 🙂 The driver got the luggage out and made sure I knew where I was going, so he gets points for not being an evil scammer (I read horror stories about scamming drivers, so, really, I got off easy). It wasn’t until I was standing at the door to the apartment that I realised I had no idea where exactly I was supposed to meet my host! Dang, what did we ever do before internet?! I scanned the names next to all the buzzers for the building and was going to press the one that started with “иван” since my host’s name is Ivan when I heard my name! I turned around and a man introduced himself as my host’s brother Marko (easy to believe based on the host’s Airbnb picture). It was exactly 4:00!

My arrival in Belgrade continued to be a little less than smooth when Marko informed me that the apartment I’d rented had been flooded overnight and was inhabitable… He said he had another place for me that was comparable and even closer to downtown. I followed him there. The apartment he showed me is comparable, but not newly renovated the way the other apartment had been and also doesn’t have a balcony. But they actually rent it out for more (which I know is true because I saw the listing for this one) since it is right downtown about a block from the pedestrian street, rather than about a kilometre away. So, in a way, this is an upgrade, depending on your priorities. The bed is comfy, so I’m happy, but I am concerned that there’s just a bar and no table, so I’m not sure where I’ll be transcribing from…

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Standing at the entrance, bathroom to the right, then kitchen, then living space.

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The kitchen isn’t bad at all. I should be able to cook simple meals here, but, really, I’ll probably do a lot of takeout pizza. 🙂

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I took lots of pictures of the surroundings so that if I get lost, there’s a chance of someone being able to guide me home!

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My building and address.

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Organic bakery right next door!

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Fancy clothes store on the other side.

It was then time to walk around and orientate myself. Marko told me that behind the building is all manner of cheap fast food and he’s right. Don’t have to go far for pizza! I walked a bit aimlessly for a while.

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Fancy building. Government offices?

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It’s the post office! Wow!

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Ah ha! Directions! I headed in for the tourist info centre!

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Another fancy building…

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The national museum! This is when I realised just how close I am to everything! And that my Bulgarian was going to be useful in Serbia!

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Bulgaria invented the Cyrillic script and is very adamant about using it. Serbia, not so much. There is a of Roman writing all over and even books are published in it. I actually find it more difficult to read the Romanized Serbian than I do the Cyrillic because the Romanized version relies on a bunch of accents to guide pronunciation. I haven’t learned those (yet?), so I have no idea how to pronounce most of what I see, even if the letters look more familiar. The Cyrillic does have some unknown characters, but I can muddle through.

I found the pedestrian zone!

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And ice cream! Coconut! I haven’t had coconut ice cream since Mérida! This wasn’t as good, of course, but it sure hit the spot! The attendant spoke perfect English, so it was easy to order.

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I found the tourist info kiosk after and the attendant there also spoke English. I got a map, info on a free walking tour, and advice to visit the nearby Telenor store to see about internet (shame that my Bulgarian Telenor SIM isn’t transferable!).

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I found the Telenor store, where the attendant there also spoke perfect English… Let me pause here to say that I’m exhausted from not being able to communicate effectively in Bulgaria and I’m happy to hear the English! Research had told me that Serbians generally speak English and that it’s possible to get by without using Serbian, but I didn’t believe it. Looks like it’s true at least in Belgrade!

The Telenor guy said that they’d sold their last “tourist SIM” and to go next door to the MTS (competitor) office. That place looked a little sketchy, but the attendant understood me perfectly and put me at ease. For 1,000RSD, she sold me a SIM card with 1GB of data on it and the ability to call others on the MTS network. She said I would have to go to a convenience store kiosk to get a top up to make calls or text. I don’t think I’ll need to do that, so I won’t bother unless the need comes up since the kiosks are everywhere. If I run out of bandwidth, it’s only 200RSD (2.40CAD) per GB! As a point of reference, at last research, Bell Mobility charged 10CAD for 1GB over overage and Telus charges 55CAD. Let’s not get into the cost of getting set up for pay as you go. I won’t be able to go home again…

Internet sorted, I ambled some more in search of dinner. I passed a few restaurants that looked good and had what seemed like excellent prices so I made a mental inventory of where to go when I was done ambling.

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National Bank

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I picked an Italian restaurant that had reasonably priced pork choices since I am going into meat withdrawal and pork is my favourite! Eight years of wearing a head scarf and tonight was the first time a server made sure I knew I was ordering pork!

My dinner choice was perfect and wonderful, but I’m sure it will not be to most of my readers’ tastes. There’s a bed of grilled zucchini with the pork over top and a blue cheese and prune sauce over everything. Served with a chewy bread with sesame seeds and a glass of white wine.

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This hunk of bleu alone was worth the price of dinner!

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It was sadly too much and I was unable to finish. It was sooooooooooooo good. An amazing first meal in Serbia! I will have to remember the combination of blue cheese and prunes!

The server was very quick to tell me that the tip is not included in the bill… I hadn’t researched tipping in Serbia and my phone died just before, so I handed over 1,500RSD (about 17CAD). Later research told me that that was a good tip, on the higher end, but not excessive. Notice that the bill is in Roman letters.

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I was done by this point and just wanted to crash. I gained an hour coming to Serbia, but my body doesn’t appreciate it!

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Marko thought there might be a grocery store near the apartment, but I couldn’t find it. I still had a bun left that should be fine tomorrow morning, plus the peanut butter and coffee, so I figured I was fine for the morning. I did pop into a convenience store for water since I don’t like the taste of it here (it is potable). This was one of those stores where you have to say what you want. I broke the ice with those in Bulgaria after getting enough vocabulary to do so. So facing the store here wasn’t as intimidating as it might have been had I zero experience with them. Here, after determining the woman didn’t speak English, I just said “voda” (same word for water as in Bulgarian) and put my hands wide apart to show I wanted a big one. The attendant understood me fine and a bit of “da, ne-ing” got me the bar of Milka chocolate I wanted. The attendant was so sweet! Please and thank you are complicated in Serbian and aren’t sticking yet, so after I paid, I just said thank you in English and the lady gave me a big smile. So she might not speak English, but she understands a bit.

I then rounded the corner and decided to climb the four flights of stairs to my flat rather than fiddle around with the scary lift.

I unpacked a bit when I got in, then jumped in the shower, which was hot and had good pressure. The shower in Malak Izvor was luxurious, so I’m a tad spoiled in that regard and glad I have a good shower here!

So that was my very long day. I’m off to crash. It’s crazy noisy out there, which will take some getting used to, but this is what I wanted, the big city after four months (three in Bulgaria, one at Haven) in the middle of nowhere! 😀

Cody, WY, to Haven

I debated this last leg of my trip over and over again, crunching all the variables. In a best case scenario, with no delays, minimal stops, and an easy border crossing, home is a mere eight hours or so from Cody. Leave early and I could get to the border before it closed at 6:00 pm and be home with daylight to spare. A very long day, but not a hard one. But if there was a delay, like construction or a particularly nasty secondary inspection, I could be miss the 6:00 pm border closing time.

I also had to decide which route to take. My options were Cody to Billings to Glasgow to Opheim to home or Cody to Billings to Miles City to Scobey to home.

Last night, I decided I would get up early today and attempt to make a run for the border. This made the second route, crossing at Scobey, the better choice because Scobey has a reasonably priced motel while Opheim doesn’t have any lodging. By choosing this route, I wouldn’t have to double back very far from the border if I got there at closing time.

That settled, I went to bed looking forward to another good night of sleep. I’ve been on quite a streak since Camp Verde. Well, I probably got two hours of fragmented sleep all night! Guess I was just too eager to be home… 🙁 I gave up on sleep around 6:15 am and spent a final half hour enjoying good internet before getting up to dress and finish packing the truck. I’d done the hard work last night, so I didn’t have much to do. By the time Vicki got up around 7:00 to double check that I had everything and hug the stuffing out of me, I was ready to go.

What a great week we had! It’s not easy living in such close quarters with someone, but she makes it very easy. Thanks again, Vicki!

I left the campground around 7:30 and went to a gas station for fuel and coffee since the more obvious coffee choices (McDonald’s and Starbucks) were in the wrong direction. The coffee I got was absolutely fine. Vicki and I did pizza again last night, so I had my leftovers to munch on today and didn’t need any breakfast — or lunch. 🙂

And so, I pushed northeast to Billings, then got on the Interstate, eager to reach Miles City as that would be the start of familiar territory. The miles passed uneventfully and sometimes I even caught a clear station on the radio. It was good driving weather, a little overcast, so the truck was comfortable.

In this direction, Miles City was the end of civilisation as I would start to push on into a few tiny towns with dozens of miles of open prairie between them. I made a pit stop in Circle and then turned onto highway 13 to Scobey just before Wolf Point when…

I hit the wall. Well, the wall was a train. A train several miles long that was not budging and would not budge for hours, blocking the way north.

There was quite a lineup forming, but I also saw people turning some distance before the crossing onto a gravel road. I explored this road with my GPS and saw that it led to a railroad crossing about 10KM away where I could take highway 2 and come back to highway 13. Most of that 20KM detour was on gravel and it took me almost 30 minutes, but it was completely worth it!

Right there at the corner of 2 and 13 is the first sign telling me that my journey across the US is almost over: “Canada – 62 miles.”

I pulled over in Scobey to fill the gas tank one last time and then pushed on for my final 14 miles in the US, dreading the border crossing. Many of you know I was spoiling for a fight. The number of times I get pulled over for secondary inspection is unacceptable considering the fact that I have never made a false declaration or otherwise given CBSA any concrete reason to red flag me. I was fully ready to file a complaint after having my truck emptied for the umpteenth time for absolutely no reason.

Needless to say, I was not ready for an official who remembered me and started with, “Hey, welcome home! Your truck made it!”

Ah, life in a small town… Cross at the same place often enough and things get easier…

I still had to give a very thorough declaration, but I was not physically searched. This was fine and I am pleased that I had my first truly easy crossing in a very long time. It infuriates me that so many resources are wasted on me when I know RVers who come back with contraband or who flat out lie in their declarations and barely get boarded. But, anyway, I was cleared quickly today. WOOHOO!

It was then a very potholey final hour to home. Work crews were out in full force patching and so the roads will be smooth again very soon.

In the final stretch from Willow Bunch, it was wonderful to get to that rise where I see the hamlet spread out before me and then drive down into it. Home!!! 🙂

I wish I could say that all was well at Haven, but that was not the case. 🙁 One of my neighbours went on a bender over the winter and broke into everyone’s homes looking for booze, cigarettes, and valuables. Charles did a check of my place and thought everything was okay, but he didn’t see that an attempt was made to pry my front door open. There is considerable damage, but the deadbolt held and still works. I would need a new door frame and door, but I doubt that’s going to happen. I called the RCMP’s non-emergency number and left a message. When the constable in charge of this case gets back to me, I will be pressing charges. My insurance status is a little dodgy right now and even if it weren’t, moving Miranda to a repair place to get a new door isn’t an option. I will probably try to hammer the door back into shape and then apply some black spray paint to the scratched areas. I’ll have pictures tomorrow for those who want to give me suggestions on how to deal with the issue. 😉

Even though I’m annoyed by this, it really isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things and my buildings were secure so I’m not as upset as some of you may thing I am. I quickly detarped, hooked up power, started the fridge, and connected the internet. The latter was so easy thanks to my new booster setup! Everything so far is good except that Miranda is not level (Charles will help me deal with that once and for all tomorrow) and that the hydrant where I get water hasn’t been turned on yet so I can’t test my water system. Spring has sprung early, so there is a chance I can get the hydrant turned on next week instead of waiting till the middle of the month.

I then hauled in a few boxes before calling C&C to let them know I’d landed, and was invited for supper! Oh, bless these lovely people!

I made my bed (two toppers and a heated mattress pad sound like heaven right now!) and put together some things so I could have a shower there. I then headed over to catch up (including giving their dog Brutus lots of hugs and kisses — it’s so lovely to be missed!). I opened all my mail and had nothing urgent, just a tax form for when I get around to filing my return and a small cheque that is hopefully still good.

We had a lovely late dinner (with good avocado in the salad!), I enjoyed a shower (Caroline had wondered why I’d brought my suitcase, LOL), and then I headed home in a rapidly chilling evening.

It’s very smokey because Alberta is on fire, but otherwise, conditions are excellent for May, even too much so. The area is desperate for rain and there is worry of fires starting here… Even so, I’m the wrong person to ask to do a rain dance!

That’s all I have the energy for tonight! I’m going into town in the morning to get some groceries (I did a shop at Walmart in Cody yesterday, but need meat and veg) and then I’ll keep unpacking until Charles comes to help me with my leveling issue.

HOME! 😀

A Mattress Topper at Last

Since I had to go back to Plentywood today to pick up a piece for the booster, I decided to make the trip worthwhile and finally ordered myself for delivery there a mattress topper, something I badly need for my bed in Mexico. As I was shopping in earnest the other night and doing research, something hit me: those things are absolutely not portable!

They are vacuum packed and meant to expand on the bed. It would be impractical to think that I could fold it up and easily take it with me to Mexico. I’m already planning to spend money on an easy chair that I will leave behind after six months and didn’t want to spend over $100 on yet another thing that was going to have to stay. So I started searching for a travel or portable mattress topper and actually found one! It is amusingly called a Bag of Comfort by Sleep Innovations.

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Now, this is meant to be portable, so it’s just a 1″ piece of memory foam, a far cry from the luxuriously thick cloud on John’s RV bed in Santa Fe, but it’s definitely better than nothing.

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Reviews say that it’s easy to get back in the bag, so I should even be able to take it into a hotel for one night if that’s true. If I can have a more comfy bed at Totonaka in San Carlos, I would be happy to go back there because it’s so convenient.

The kit also includes a memory foam pillow! I needed a new pillow, too, and have been wanting to try a memory foam one, so this Bag of Comfort was quite a deal for me.

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The topper is marked as being sized for a long XL twin (standard dorm bed, apparently). I have a full size bed and the topper is plenty big enough for me since I only sleep on one half of the bed anyway (it’s only a few inches narrower than the mattress). I think a couple could fit on it if they really wanted to as it’s a lot wider than I expected.

It was a good drive to go get both the topper and the piece of cable. My “Danger! Danger! Danger!” alert did go off at the U.S. border when they started to ask me questions about Mexico and what I do for a living. The question I have never flat out been asked, but was dreading, came, “Do you work in Mexico?”

I don’t lie at the border and I think people who do are idiots looking for trouble. So I replied in the affirmative. A very, very, very long beat passed and I wondered if they were making notes in my file that would cause me issues next month. Finally, the other officer came back to my window. “Sorry. We’re both confused. Do you work in Spanish or?”

He was curious, not suspicious. Classic U.S. customs scenario for me and I started to relax. “No, no, no. I work for my existing clients from the computer. I don’t have a visa to take a Mexican job.”

“Oh, that makes more sense! Mexico wouldn’t care since you’re not taking one of their jobs and you’re spending money. Good for you! Have a good afternoon in Montana!”

And that was that. American border officials are generally so lovely. It’s almost always, “Welcome to America! We’re glad to have you and your money, but, please, don’t overstay your welcome,” a sharp comparison to consistently being treated like a criminal by my country’s border officials.

I got to Plentywood around 11:30 and immediately went for lunch. Then, I got my packages, which cost me $10 ($5 each). I think the amount would add up really fast if I was frequently having stuff sent to them, but for these occasional situations, it’s a bargain since you get the confirmation that your packages are on site (something I don’t get in Opheim for the same price) and the package room is more secure.

After, I went across the street to a hardware store to get a faceplate for my booster project as well as some copper wire. The gal who served me was really helpful, but the surly man working there was rather unpleasant. Anyway, I got what I needed, so I was happy.

Then, I headed to a museum just east of town that I believed was open at 1:00 p.m. after Labour Day, but it wasn’t. Oh, well. I pointed the truck towards home and found a Dairy Queen tucked away off the main drag, so I popped in for a Blizzard. A ‘mini’ was still way more Blizzard than anyone should eat, but I highly recommend brownie cookie dough. 🙂

The border was quickly upon me after my snack and I sat at the window for what felt like ages but was probably only five minutes until someone acknowledged me. It was a very quick interview: where do I live, how long was I in the States, how much did I have to declare, and did I have any drugs or ATF? And that was it! I didn’t even have to go in to pay my $8.50 or so in taxes and no one emptied my truck (which was absolutely empty except for myself, my purse, and my purchases. This was my first easy crossing back into Canada since crossing at the Sault in 2012. I hate CBSA.

And then, it was just rolling hills and I think maybe passing one car all the way home. This picture didn’t turn out that well (my iPhone camera sucks compared to my Pentax), but I was struck by the golden trees contrasting with the olive hills. Fall is here!

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When I got home, I spent about three hours finishing up my booster installation. I can’t believe it was that long, but time flew by since everything was coming together fairly easily and, so, I was having fun! That post will be next!

A Full Day With a Visit to the Big Muddy Badlands and Castle Butte

Today was the day to go get my booster, but it was also the day that my internet situation exploded media-wise. I woke up to a link in a comment to a write-up by CBC about our internet situation. I was, of course, pissed off by our reeve’s lack of support for the project. I was misunderstood/misquoted in a remark I made about the number of people affected and instead of saying something like, “The number of people don’t matter,” he just dismissed my efforts. Lovely to have community support. I then made the mistake of looking at comments and spent too much time replying to trolls. I’ve decided to not go back and look at any other comments!

I finally got on the road around 8:20. I stopped at the gas bar in Coronach before the border to get a coffee and was told I didn’t have to pay! It’s such a small thing, but it really reset my mood! And the coffee was actually quite good, to my surprise!

I was at the border about an hour after leaving home. The crossing was painless beyond having to explain what a cell signal booster does and why I need one. I then enjoyed a drive across Montana landscape that looks a lot like ours to arrive in Plentywood around 10:15. I was picking up my package at the Little Muddy Dry Goods store, which offers a package service for Canadians, but discovered that Main Street isn’t the road that cuts west-east through town. I stopped for fuel (saving 20CAD even with the exchange rate) and got directions.

The package service pickup is at the back of a bright clean open store. I was a bit dismayed that the room was open to the public, like the bar in Opheim I’ve used in the past, but was assured that the door is closed and locked when there is no staff around… I paid my 5USD and then lugged the huge box back to the truck. There, I opened up the package to make sure everything was there and I knew what I was bringing back across the border.

It was about 10:50 by this point. I was an hour earlier than I had thought to be in Plentywood, so it felt like a weird time to hunt down lunch, but I was ready to eat. I’d done research ahead of time and so I headed to the Cousins Restaurant to see if I could order off the lunch menu that early. I got to the restaurant and was greeted very warmly by a server. I find that sometimes these small town restaurants are light on the customer service because they’re not used to seeing strangers and the locals know the drill, but this was not the case here. I was handed a menu that had all their options on it, not just breakfast, so I figured I could order lunch.

The menu was pretty typical American diner fare, so I opted for a ‘patty melt’ which is a fancy term for a hamburger between slices of toast rather than a bun. This turned out to be a slice of ground beef with heaps of perfectly sautéd onions and melty American ‘Swiss’ cheese’ between slices of pumpernickel bread. The menu had said ‘marble rye’, but the pumpernickel flavour was really strong, which was a plus! It elevated the sandwich from pretty ordinary to something special. The sandwich came with fries for 7.99USD. I gave the server my last 10USD (I’d withdrawn 50USD from my US account, so if you’re following my day, you’ll know that I had 10USD left!). I’m really glad I had lunch at Cousins Restaurant.

Then, it was time to head up to the border at Regway/Raymond, which I hadn’t even known existed between Portal and Scobey until John in Santa Fe told me about it! There, upon seeing my passport and being told where I live, the customs official exclaimed that he recognised me from the radio this morning…

I declared the booster and he had me go in to pay. Then something interesting happened. He clued in that I’d said I work from home as a transcriptionist/proofreader and that I was bringing in a booster, so he asked if I was bringing it in for commercial purposes. Oh, boy, I thought. This is going to cost me! I cautiously asked what’s the difference. He looked at me like I had snakes growing out of my head. “Has no one at the border ever told you that if you import stuff for your business you don’t have to pay the PST???!!!” HUH???!!! Well, that was news to me! Dang!

It was then time to figure out what I owed now that I was importing as a business. I had my USD invoice and my PayPal receipt showing what I’d paid in Canadian. He said that I’d probably get a better exchange rate through whatever system they use and I said that the exchange rate is worse now than it was when I bought the booster almost two weeks ago. He did the math and went, “Yup. According to your PayPal rate, you owe me $53. According to our rate right now, you owe me $61. That will be $53, please.”

First time I came away from the border having paid less than I expected to pay. Lovely guy. And yet, he and another guard then emptied out my truck (thankfully, I had very little in it) and even went through my purse, which I had left on the front seat. It’s so lovely to be waved through into a foreign country and be treated like a criminal when coming into your own. But, hey, I saved $53…

From the border, I headed north into the Big Muddy Badlands, eventually pulling over to check my emails. I had a voicemail from someone at CBC Radio wanting to schedule ad interview for later that day, so I was able to return that call and set up a time for them to call me.

Then, it was time to head on to Castle Butte, a famous landmark in the area. I thought I’d have trouble finding it, but there was a sign announcing the turnoff. Castle Butte is a particularly remarkable hill in the middle of lots of other hills and was used as a landmark in the old days. I arrived, changed into a hiking skirt and my Keen sandals and pretty much crab walked my way to the top. It was very slippery! But I got up there without much incident and was surprised when I reached the summit effortlessly.

The trip down was another story, though! I crouched down and pretty much slid my way to the bottom. Then, I had a walk around the entire structure.

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And people think Saskatchewan is flat…

From Castle Butte, I took the back road through Harp Tree to get to Willow Bunch. There were just one or two signs the whole way there to assure me that I was heading in the right direction. Just as I was certain I was completely misplaced, I saw the red tower of the Willow Bunch Museum! Whew, what an adventure! But I wouldn’t have really needed a search party since I had cell service the whole way through this particularly desolate part of the province…

When I got in, I called Caroline, who got home late last night, to check in as she’d left me a message and asked me to do that. I asked if I could come by around 4:00 so I could do my interview from their landline. Of course! So I called back my contact at CBC Radio and gave him C&C’s number.

I then very carefully unpacked my booster, making sure I kept the packing material and did as little damage to it as I could. The materials are really heavy and obviously of better quality than what I’ve received from Wilson.

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I tried to set the booster up temporarily without mounting the antenna at any great height, but I got the ‘you have oscillation’ error message that means that the interior and exterior antennas are too close together. I managed to get the old antenna off the pole and the new one mounted with a minimum amount of effort, but I still couldn’t get the booster to work. I went so far as to install the booster in the shed, which was as much horizontal separation as I had cable for, but that still wasn’t enough… Tomorrow, I’ll go to town and get another section of pole and hope that another 10′ of vertical separation will do the trick. If not, I’m at a loss and will contact the sellers to get their thoughts. I’m disappointed, to say the least. I had a feeling this unit would be overkill for my small property and I might be right… But I’m not giving up yet!

Then, it was time to head over to C&C’s, where I had a coffee and catchup before my interview. I think the interview went well and I was able to share how I lose internet during the day and have to pack up my things and race up the hill.

I think I’m done with this issue because nothing is going to get done. I’ve fought a good fight, but with SaskTel not having to answer to anyone and my community management not willing to get involved, this will never get resolved. Time to start thinking about where I’ll spend next summer since it won’t be here…

After my interview, I got another coffee and then Caroline asked if I could stay for supper! Of course! 😀 She made her amazing whisky-marinaded salmon with scarlet runner beans, corn on the cob, and grilled zucchini. She is such a good cook! It was a lovely meal where we all came away replete, but not stuffed. They don’t do dessert, but they do do wine! So we sat out for a bit to finish our glasses of fermented grape juice, then I headed home with a giant zucchini.

When I got in, I remounted the old antenna onto the broomstick and stuck the whole thing in the truck like I used to have it set up, then restarted the old booster. It’s going to rain tomorrow, but hopefully I can do more work on the new booster Sunday and Monday and get it working… Croft, you’d better be online this weekend! 😉

Whew, it’s been a very long and full day. Time for a hot shower and hopefully a good night’s sleep. I’ve been so stressed that I have been sleeping poorly, but hopefully the exercise I did today will help.

Upgrading a Magnetek Converter

Stock RV converters are notoriously poor battery chargers. One of the worst, and most common, is the Magnetek. It is essentially a trickle charger that can boil batteries dry because it doesn’t know when to stop charging. I spent up to six months at a time plugged into shore power in the last few years and I know that is part of the reasons my last set of batteries didn’t last long.

Because the charger in the Magnetek only puts out a few amps, it is not efficient for charging batteries with a generator. I usually consume 45 to 70AH per day and the generator puts back in an average of 1.5AH. At that rate, I would have to run my genset for up to 47 hours to get a full charge using the Magnatek only! Of course, I have solar, but when it’s grey like it’s been here the last little while, solar just isn’t enough.

An easy and relatively inexpensive solution is to charge the RV batteries with a dedicated charger that can put in up to 15A. This works well enough when I turn off the solar, otherwise the dedicated charger thinks the batteries are full and won’t work. But it’s a pain to have to hook it up and run an extension cord.

What many boondockers do instead is upgrade their Magnetek converter to a better multi-stage smart charger, such as a Progressive Dynamics Converter Upgrade Section, matching the Progressive Dynamics unit to their Magnetek model. For example, my Magnetek was a 45A model, so I had to pair it up with the 45A Progressive Dynamics model.

I picked this converter upgrade because it was well rated and available on Amazon so it didn’t cost me much out of pocket ($2 for the unit, $21 for tax, plus the gas to go get it in Montana). I had it shipped to Opheim, MT, where it arrived Friday.

This morning, I headed out around 8:45 and enjoyed a scenic, albeit very isolated, drive to the border where I was grilled about my last trip to the US. Oh, I hope not to have any issues this fall…

My package wasn’t at the post office since they don’t accept Fed Ex, but I was told to try the bar across the street. My package was there and cheerfully given to me in exchange for $5. I got some beer for C&C while I was there, filled up with gas since the SK stations were closed for the civic holiday, and then I headed home.

I got grilled by CDN customs about why I’m now living out here and then paid the duty and tax on the beer and the tax on the converter. Then, it was an easy drive home. The trip took just under three hours.

I got to work immediately, having previously read the instructions and gathered the bulk of the tools I would need (many types and sizes of screw drivers and wrenches, plus a wire cutter that I only needed because one screw in my DC panel was badly stripped and I couldn’t get the wire out without cutting it). I also had different coloured electrical tape on hand to use as markers. This came in handy when I had to wire the new DC panel as I had many wires the same colour. I wrapped each one in a different coloured tape and then made a note of in which order I had to reconnect the colours.

Installation was easy. I just followed the step by step instructions and really didn’t have any problems beyond needing a strange screw driver that isn’t stock in most basic tool kits (thankfully, I’m well beyond a basic tool kit) and having to struggle with too short wire lengths. It took me 2.5 hours to install and a good part of that involved getting up to get more tools, trying to get the flashlight angled so that I could see, and wrestling with tight screws. None of the difficulties had to do with the technical part of the installation.

I’ve been so nervous about tapping into the factory-installed wiring, but now that I have, more upgrades are in my future!