Friday, October 2, 2009

It's hard to know what's right

At the beginning of this trip, I wrote an entry on travelling alone. It was ultimately scrapped. What did I know about the topic after a mere four days? Those first days were euphoric; I was so happy to engage with everything I saw alone and on my own terms. I'd never travelled alone and held the sneaking suspicion that a partner places too much of an imprint on your experience of a place.

Over the years, my travelling companions have ranged from family to old friends to boyfriends to huge student groups. It seems there's no rule as to whom works out best. There have been awful family affairs as well as lovely ones. I've gotten into shouting matches with a boyfriend in a a sunlit European square, a place where we should have engaged in lewd PDA, and then the next day toured the city with no trace of yesterday's blow out. I've spent a night gallivanting until dawn with friends in Berlin and then hidden myself away for the remainder of the trip. I've played my part in destroying some trips, but I can put my finger on a fair few people who have felled my own. This time around, if things went south, I only wanted to blame myself.

Midway through this trip, my euphoria lessened and then took a steep a nose dive. I was plagued by disgusting hostels or the uncertainty of where I was going to sleep next. I felt, at turns, bogged down with indecisiveness, that I was asking too much of friends, that I should just get on with my life, my "career," whatever that is, and stop this travelling business. It all started to wear on me. I whiled away a few days in Vancouver's Finch Cafe, writing page after page, trying to get a handle on how I was feeling. Finally, I pulled myself out of the funk and headed to the Gulf and Vancouver Islands. From there, it was only a short jaunt to Saskatoon and I resolved to stay positive to the end. It worked better that way; bracing yourself for the worst is exhausting. I'm glad I waited before I tried to summarize my thoughts on travelling alone. And so, to end this blog, a list of the good and the bad, of why I'm in love with travelling alone and why I may never do it again.

The Good
  • You can plan your whole day down to the minute and then change everything at moment's notice.
  • People find a lone traveller more approachable, therefore you will meet more people. (This can have negative repercussions. See under "The Bad" below.)
  • You can be in a sour mood and there's no pressure to make happy cause you're "ruining" someone else's trip.
  • You write more than you ever have in your entire life. Without someone to tell each minute observation to, every thought has a gravitas you never felt before. Notebook after notebook is filled with frenzied chicken scratch. Suddenly, a book seems within reach.
  • When something works out well or poorly, there's no need to make the ultimately inane remark of "well, this is nice/shitty." You don't have to comment at all. You either bask in it or fix it.
  • Never compromising on anything. You can blow as much cash as you like or cheap out on supermarket samosas. You can spend far too long photographing a cliched broken window, take a really long shower or walk for hours. The trip is all yours.
The Bad
  • The French are right. Eating every meal alone is novel at first, then it gets lonely.
  • While people find you more approachable alone, you don't necessarily want to talk to them. Many travellers know how to make fast friends, but not all have the keen social sense of knowing when someone wants be alone. Have an excuse ready to give them the quick slip.
  • There's no half-sies on anything, so food, transportation and board are all more expensive.
  • There's no one to double check your planning. So, if you happened to mix up your 24-hour clock and the train left five hours earlier than you expected, then too bad. (This never happened to me, but I had nightmares.)
  • Finding that special something that would delight a faraway friend of yours. You try to remember every detail to tell them later, knowing full well it will never be the same without them beside you.

If you've enjoyed the blog, please let me know! I'll be starting a new blog on Halloween costumes very soon, where I'll interview people on their best (and worst) get ups. Keep an eye out for it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Lessons learned, resolutions made

In no particular order:
  • Don't eat that sandwich.
  • Riding across the prairies is hypnotic. Your eye naturally drifts up to the vanishing point and follows it until you realize that you've seen nothing between the horizon and the window for hours. Maybe even days.
  • Baby carrots seem like the ideal train ride snack. They are not. They ferment within hours and turn into bitter little pickles that you are only slightly tempted to eat anyway.
  • Don't watch your mid-section while riding a jostling train at top speed. Will only make you depressed.
  • No women wear high heels on the west coast.
  • Don't swear in small towns.
  • Bring your laptop.
  • When you say "camp" in Alberta, everyone thinks you spent a summer cooking for oil rig workers. You must specify "summer camp," unless you actually did spend a summer cooking for oil rig workers.
  • Make more money so you are never forced to stay at a hostel again.
  • Bring your laptop.
  • Public libraries are the best invention ever.
  • Black pants are the second best invention ever.
  • Writing down every single thought you have for a month makes you incredibly protective of your journal. Like, 12-year-old-girl protective.
  • I'm so f-ing tired of people complaining about how unfriendly Toronto is. When will the rest of Canada suck it up? When can I stop nodding sympathetically to their woe-be-gone tales of someone not saying "hi" on the street?
  • Bring your laptop.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Flat as all get out!!!

Pulled into Saskatoon yesterday morning, my final stop on this great cross-country journey. The sun went down just as the train was leaving the foothills of the Rockies. When I woke up, we were in the prairies and the sky looked like it could crush the earth. Another major difference? It's cold here. I seem to have made the transition from summer to fall in a day's train ride. Vancouver was balmy. I sweated wearing pants! Saskatoon has a fierce wind, even worse than Portage and Main in the Peg, that makes cycling very hard on the hands. I bought a pair of fingerless gloves, something I wouldn't wear in Toronto cause it looks so wanna-be anarchist, but I've decided they're terribly chic and useful while travelling.
Saskatoon is a ghost town on a Sunday and by that I mean stores are actually closed here! So this secular heathen skulked around town looking for something to do. I ate breakfast at a greasy spoon, moved on to the Mendel Art Gallery and then the Ukrainian Museum (the oddest little musuem that has garden furniture in and amongst its displays! No pictures allowed unfortunately...)

Today, my last day of the trip, I woke up late for the first time in a month. I biked to the outskirts of town where I had heard, via a Googled Facebook messageboard thread, that Mel's Cafe served a mind-blowing breakfast. I had my doubts at first. The surrounding area had all the signs of sketchtown (autobody shops, barking German Shepherds, chainlink fences) and Mel's itself looked, well, pedestrian. But inside, oh my god, heaven. The whole place was filled with construction workers, truckers and men wearing five gallon hats. The waitress was surly. Someone coughed every five seconds throughout my entire breakfast. My plate was this heaping mess of fried bread, hash browns, hunks of ham and cheese with eggs. I'm probably gonna need open heart surgery tomorrow, but oh so worth it!

After that, with this brick of fried goodness in my stomach, I biked to the edge of town and then 7 kms down rural highway to a berry barn. The barn has an orchard of Saskatoon berries and a cafe, on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, that serves Saskatoon berry pie. The bike ride was hard going. The wind was against me, I took a wrong turn and ended up at the city dump and, frustratingly, couldn't tell how far I'd biked cause everything's so darn flat. I got there in the end. On the way home, the cloudy sky was starting to clear up. On the stretch of highway ahead of me these little chinks of sunlight would appear and then dissapear just as quickly. I tried to catch them with my camera, biking one handed and snapping frantically, but I guess you'll just have to come here and see it for yourself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Go east

After three weeks of westerly travel, I'm changing directions tonight and heading home. I'll start the 4,500 kms back and the thought of all that ground ahead of me makes me feel incredibly tired. But, in less than a week, I will cover it. (MacBook, mama's coming home!) Last night I was riding the SkyTrain through Vancouver and looking at the city lights. I started to get excited; it was so similar to taking off into the air, watching the city transform into a swarm of lights and dissapearing behind a cloud. But wait, that's not how my Vancouver exit would happen. By train, you wave a very long goodbye to a city, seeing all its suburb and exurb warts before you hit farmland and then wilderness. I'm so accustomed to the airport ritual that marks almost every arrival or departure that I'm craving that jetsetting finality. I was ready for the train journey, but mentally I had reverted back to the typical airplane departure. Sure, the leisurely pace of train travel is nice. Everyone knows there are full days and nights before you reach your destination that no one's bothered about a few hours delay or whether someone wants to go ahead of them. Next time I take a plane, I think I'll be so zen about the whole process. Who cares that we're waiting on the tarmac, at least we'll be there in the next 24 hours! It only took a week of sleeping on a train to reach this state of calm.

On the rocks of Galiano

One serious regret: not spending more time on the Gulf Islands of BC. The only island that ferry and train schedules allowed was Galiano. I left Victoria yesterday morning at 10 am and arrived at the mini terminal at noon. There's not much to the port of Galiano, just a convenience store, diner and, strangely, a vintage shop, just in case you wanted to pick up some bespoke barrettes while you were stopping over. I asked a guy at the post office whether I could bike to Montague Harbour, which looked not too far away, had a nice beach and a few shops nearby. Really, I should stop asking people's advice on the biking front. Everyone thinks it's impossible to bike anywhere. Seriously.

I headed down a few winding forest roads, looking for a cove on the east side of the Island. It's all private cottages here and difficult to find public access to the water. But then I saw it - a sign for a trail to the shore. I dragged my bike through the brush, hearing pounding waves in the distance. The forest smelled as sweet as honey, of warmed bark, pine needles and soft soil. And then the forest cleared and there it was - the ocean! The cove was this ocean carved perch of stone. I sat for awhile, looking at the mountain topped peaks on the other side and smelling the stink of seaweed and salt. Wave after massive wave crashed onto the rocks, spreading out and almost touching my toes each time. I decided I was happy - that this had to be the climax of something.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Some of my favourite things

In every city and town I've visited, I feel guilty about immediately scouting out the gentrified or gentrifying parts of town. Shouldn't I be tired of exposed brick and minimalist lighting sandwiched between down-and-out storefronts? It's been done, okay. I found that area in Victoria today along Johnson and Yates. At first I was all excited, you know, cause that coffee shop looks exactly like a coffee shop I would go to in Toronto. But I've done that a thousand times, shouldn't I be looking for something that's distinct to the place, rather than me? And it's not even about me anyway - there's an army of people around the world who like good coffee in sleek settings.

When I started planning this trip, my dad nay-sayed seeing big cities. They're all alike now anyway, he argued, while the smaller locales might still have some Canadian identity. As he put it, before World War 2, Canada used to have a distinct identity and I might be able to find it still in the smaller cities. He's probably right, but discovering my country's identity will have to wait until I get a car. There's no way in hell I'm waiting in Oba, Ontario or Viking, Alberta til the next train passes through three days later.

Anyway, so back to my whole proclivity toward gentrified 'hoods. I'd like to chalk it up to homesickness. That, no matter how far I travel, I'm still seeking out my old habits in a new setting. It reminds of the buildings in Vancouver's Chinatown, where whole blocks of Chinese architecture has been plopped down into a North American city. There must have been a lot of homesick people there. After I did my a 60 km bike ride along the Galloping Goose Trail to Sooke, I came back and rested in a cafe that felt just like I was sitting in Toronto. And it felt good. There was one slight difference in this Victoria cafe, which I think all Toronto cafes should adopt. There was a wall of magazines for sale, with one copy of every mag available for reading while you were in the cafe. Is that awesome or what?! I found this mind-blowing magazine from Manitoba called Geez that's alternative reading for Christians. The level of writing is truly thoughtful and a little intimidating. I know there's a lot of religion haters out there, but I knew there had to be a way to make religion cool again. They don't have me converted from my secular ways yet, but I'm willing to listen.

Stay tuned... I may be ending my trip a few days early as I've come down with a cold and sleeping in a hostel last night was horrible. Like trying to hold your coughs in during a lecture, but instead of an hour, it was eight hours! I'm a wimp, I know.

PS. the picture on this post has nothing to do with anything, it's only a dude I met in a grubby pub called Big Bad John's in Victoria.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Victoria...and beyond!!

So, there were some doubters. Hell, I even doubted myself. Could I really bring my bike all the way to Victoria, alternating between cycling and lugging it onto public transit? Some said it would be impossible and others said it was no problem. I didn't know what to believe and after four days of staying quite comfortably with friends in Vancouver, I was dreading the nasty surprises that naturally arise when you travel. Thank God I was given a break this time.

I'm happy to report that the route on Vancouver's bus and light rail system to the Tsawwassen ferry about 40 minutes outside the city was easy. The 35 km bike ride from the Swartz Bay terminal on Vancouver Island to Victoria was a dream! The Lochside regional route, as it's called, alternated between a side path along the main highway, then went through farmlands and forests and then winds right into downtown Victoria. I saw a few pumpkin patches and wineries along the way. Everyone I passed, smiled and nodded and I got to pretend that that's what I always do. The only tricky part was finding downtown Victoria when I neared the city. But it was only mildly perplexing in the where's-this-road-going, oh-that-works-out kind of way. I'm so encouraged by this ride I'm ready to tackle the 55 km ride to Sooke tomorrow, a town outside Victoria. There's not much to see in Vic anyway after my nighttime walk tonight. The wax museum of British monarchs looks kitschy, but I don't know how much fun it's going to be to chuckle all by myself. Maybe this is all training for my eventual bike ride across Canada (NOT!).