Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blog 34 - Canada and the end of the Road

Canada Rules

New Zealand was a blast. It was the first place I’d come across that I felt as if I could live in. Oz is pretty cool and they have a great ‘beach and barby’ lifestyle. But I suppose NZ is the closest place to home in terms of climate, seasons and attitude. Being in the southern hemisphere from October through to January was sooo strange. Your body gets used to the seasons over the years. Winter means dark, grey, cold, rain. A time to get cosy. In a sort of pseudo hibernation. Going from autumn back to summer seemed all wrong. Which was really nothing compared to going from mid summer to mid winter in the space of twelve hours and losing a day in the process. You start the day in sandals and t-shirt (nothing else) and wind up in boots and bobble hat (nothing else… well gloves, perhaps).

The time thing is a real mind bender. It was all fairly plain sailing to begin with. England to Thailand, gained five hours. Thailand to Perth gained another two hours. Perth to Sydney gained four hours again. Sydney to NZ, plus two hours. So now I’m thirteen hours ahead of England. Then flying across the Pacific Ocean to L.A. and on to Vancouver, in real time you gain another three hours but lose a day! To complicate matters, I’m now eight hours behind UK time. I’ve got math’s O’Level but I had had to get a piece of paper and a pencil to work it all out.

LA was just a couple of hours waiting to get a connecting flight. It was enough to get a flavour of the place. After a while you get used to killing time in airports. That’s one thing I’ve learned to cope with on this trip. I have the naïve idea that any form of public transport should be like getting on a bus.. you just walk on and pay the conductor, stick your bag in a rack and you are sorted. Air travel is so diametrically opposite to this utopia. The way airport security is headed, you will soon have to strip down to just the boots and bobble hat, except the boots would have to come off. Where does the line get drawn? There are only so many places to hide contraband. Will all guys have to be circumcised? Ooh, can’t go there, my eyes are watering at the thought.

How brilliant it would be to stand by the runway and hold your hand out to make the plane stop. “Does this plane stop at the beach?”. “No you need the No. 89”. “Oh, sorry”. Can you imagine. Instead of all the business types at the front there would be massed ranks of grannies with shopping bags on wheels. Until that day arrives, then killing time in airports will still be a compulsory aspect of travelling. Most terminals have huge windows where closet train spotters (me) can watch the planes taking off. I think that’s what all these people with laptops are doing. They would like to give the impression that their sorry workaholic asses are busy catching up on vital reports and emails. But the truth is they are secretly jotting down plane numbers and then bragging to their fellow saddo’s over MSN. If the planes get boring then there are the baggage handlers to watch. In L.A. they all appeared to be either gansta rappers or latino gang kids. “You seem to have mislaid my bag, but that’s ok, no worries, it was only cheap, I can get another. I’m sure you’re not pleased to see me and that really is a pistol in your pocket.”

Book shops/Newsagents are another good time filler. Its amazing how many magazines you can get through in a couple of hours and it doesn’t matter which part of the world, there is always a car mag with Jeremy Clarkson on the cover. There is no getting away from him. LAX was also the first public space I’ve been in where they had a wall mounted heart defibrillator. I noticed this as I was munching a cheese Danish.

Then, if you’re a lower paid train spotter and can’t afford the laptop; most terminals have some internet stations. These are a sort of bullet proof computer made to survive a nuclear holocaust. The versions in LA had been the victims of people who hit the keyboard with the momentum of twenty five stone of lard. No coincidence that the defibrillator was on the next wall. Its amazing how you can get used to keys where the letters have been rubbed off by thousands of itinerant typists. These pay as you go internet kiosks gobble money like crazy. You can get about half the BBC home page loaded before your dollar runs out. Its like an information bridle path.

People watching is a good old standby and never fails. As usual, fellow passenger paranoia sets in when you are in the check-in queue. Getting sandwiched between Mr. Bean and the Al-Quaida works outing doesn’t bode well for a ten hour high altitude incarceration. But still better than the Jehovas Witness disguised as a beauty queen.

Arriving in Canada signalled the last part of the trip. The initial plan to stop-off in Fiji and Hawaii and end up in the Caribbean as the final stop, had to be dropped. Doing the Sydney-Hobart just cost too much money. Which wasn’t a problem. Everything just came together at the right time for me to do the race and I have no regrets. If you are going to attempt something that big then you can’t be worrying about the money. There is no way you can relate the experience to any sort of balance sheet. I cut short my time in New Zealand. Still have the North Island to explore. But I knew that I would go back. Its such a wonderful place it deserves a trip all of its own. I’d kept enough money to go skiing in Canada, which had been one of my big goals of the trip. I’d carried a mangled newspaper clipping about Whistler halfway round the globe and was determined not to miss out.

In a sheep station on the Tropic of Capricorn I had had a camp fire conversation with two young Aussie lads, there for the shearing (why couldn’t they go to the barber’s like everyone else). They were working on the farm for a month to get the money to go snow boarding in Big White and gave the place a great recommendation. They weren’t wrong. Big White is a six hour trip on the Greyhound from Vancouver to Kalona then another hour to the resort. The bus was an experience. They run a very uncomplicated service. When you buy a ticket you can travel anytime. Seats are first come first served. So it pays to get there early. It also pays to stock-up on food and drink for overnight bus trips, as non of the Greyhound stops were open at night and I hadn’t brought enough water. Nibbling on my salty beef jerky hadn’t helped (no, that’s not a euphemism). You could see vending machines inside the locked stations, which turned me into a window licker for a bit of condensation. Not a good practice in midwinter Canada. I nearly had to leave my tongue on the window and get back on the bus. I don’t think the woman next to me objected to me melting some snow in my boot. I probably shouldn’t have used the end of her coat to dry it though.

Big White is a terrific resort. Not too much in the way of night life, which was fine by me. The skiing was excellent. I’m pretty much a beginner and there were easy runs off the top of every lift. Soft powder snow. No queues. You could take you time and not get run over by boarders as you do in the Alps. They even have Snow Hosts – volunteers who take you on a tour of the mountain for free. I stayed in a hostel which was fine and comfortable, with my own room with a small kitchen. Even had pot noodles left by the previous occupant (a last resort).

Travelling on your own can get a bit lonely at times and it forces you to make an effort to speak to strangers. Its amazing how often this bears fruit. Ski lifts offer a gilt edged opportunity to practice your small talk. I had really good chats with all sorts of people. I’ve always admired how girls can swap life stories in a flash. Supermarket checkout conversations. Its surprising how willing people are to talk if you give them an opening. “How is your day going?” is all it takes. I’ve always been a bit shy about this sort of stuff but the small effort can be very rewarding. I suppose the fact that there is no chance of being trapped for hours by a complete bore, encourages people to speak. Once the lift spits you out, you might never see them again. Wrapped-up in anonymising hats, goggles and scarves also helps people to open up. It’s the fancy dress factor. There is an old saying that ‘Strangers are just family you have yet to meet’. The media would have us believe that ‘Strangers are just rapists, psychopaths and paedophiles you have yet to meet’… which is a pity.

After having looked forward so much to Whistler, it was a big disappointment. As a resort it was much bigger and more spread out than Big White. Not much opportunity to ski-in ski-out. I had to get the bus from the Hostel to the lift. Fortunately the friendly Irish lads at the ski hire place in Creekside let me stow my ski’s and boots in the back of the shop. Shopping trolleys on a bus are one thing but me and a pair of skis would have been lethal. I can’t imagine how many eyeballs would have been hanging off them by the time I got home, what with misted-up glasses and big mittens and ski boots reducing you to the mobility and dexterity of a Dalek.

It hadn’t snowed for over two weeks and most of the time I was there it rained! This made the trails really icy at the tops and the flat light made it really hard to see bumps and drops. There were masses of kids cutting you up. It just wasn’t fun. On top of that I was staying in a hostel run by a neo-fascist golf club secretary. Me and golf clubs don’t get on. Anyone that asks you to leave because you are wearing a round neck sweater is going to be first against the wall come the revolution.

I accept that hostels need some rules. Otherwise the great unwashed would run riot. But this place really pissed me off. On the surface it looked like an idyllic log cabin in the woods but inside it was Stalag Luft XVII with leather sofas. Scratch my surface and inside is a grumpy old man waiting to burst out. It feels good to complain though. I must admit I’m beginning to get addicted to it. I left them a lovely long letter in the suggestion box implying that Guantanamo Bay was more homely.

I think probably that this was just the thin end of the travel weariness wedge setting in. I’d been away four and a half months and was getting a bit fed-up of living out of a suitcase and looking at a different ceiling every night. I knew it was time to come home. Vancouver airport gave me another opportunity to practice complaining. I’ve never seen such a one sided arrangement for travellers. If you were going to the USA then there were more shops, bars and eating places than you could poke a stick at. On the European destination side of the divide there was only a bunch of boarded-up clothes shops, one dingy café serving dried-up, salmonella ridden Chinese food. Couldn’t even get a beer. Such blatant favouritism and inequality makes my blood boil. To make it worse, you could see all the stuff you were missing through floor to ceiling glass partitions. Reduced to window licking once more.

I didn't make it to 80 blogs - this trip! - but I had had a brilliant time. Four months was just enough. A year would have been overdose. Travelling is a great thing for the youngsters. It opens their eyes to new worlds and opportunities. It makes them resourceful and independent. For the not so youngsters it does exactly the same. You come back with a bag full of dirty washing and a clean window with which to view the world and your life from a new perspective. Don’t think about it, just do it.

1 comment:

AJPEE said...

Can't wait for the book! As for jet lag, imagine what is going to be like going to Mars, if they ever get round to it!