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July 31, 2005

The Trip Back

It was time to say goodbye to Miss Wongchong (or something similar, I never asked for clarification). Apart from the cheap rates, clean rooms, interesting surrounds, television and peace and quiet, she was the only reason I stayed the extra few nights. By the third day she had offered me family rates if I ever chose to come back to Vancouver. By the forth day she had offered me a job, if I ever came back. By the fifth, she was telling me all about her life, her thirteen hour non stop days, without holiday. If I had stayed for a fifth night she would have probably let me stay there for free. “Ah, Mr Rich, why you go home so soon?”. It was just as well I wasn’t staying another week. We would have probably been married by then.

I made my last trip by the sky train, apparently it seemed, not a favoured form of transport with the locals. It would appear to busy, too expensive, too slow for most. But the sky train, remains impressive. Built at huge cost, it connects downtown Vancouver with the Eastern Suburbs. Unlike a subway system, it sits above the local traffic, allowing you the advantage to look at the scenery and not the slightly strange looking person opposite. One of the Hastings brigade had tried to become a ticket tout at Stadium station, picking up discarded tickets and forcibly trying to sell them on when people purchased tickets from the machine. I stopped this time, had a discussion, tried to explain I didn’t want his second hand ticket and told to him to stop lying about his false reasons for wanting money. After realising he wasn’t coming around to my way of thinking, and thinking he was getting to persistent, I told him to fuck off back to Hastings. It worked. After all, he was limping, he couldn’t catch me. My sensitive side had long gone.

The leap back into normality was complete when I stepped off the train. Time to say goodbye to a radiant friend, who had shown me around town, shown me their life. There had been a few new experiences on this trip, seeing seals, chipmunks, eagles, the unintentional deep water of wake boarding, people living on lakes, huge mountains, strange cowboys, amazing firework displays, good service, good ideas. Then of course there was the fish, I ate it. And I don’t know why. Simply because I never had.

I wanted to give Hastings Street another go in the daylight, maybe the freakshow I had experienced a couple of nights back was a one off. This time I was more of a target, dragging a large, bulging bag, with a sign saying ‘You could get lots of cups of coffee out of me, take me’. To my surprise, the street, was exactly the same in the day as nightfall. This time however, they were not just zombie shadows. Some lay down, some staggered across the street, ignoring the traffic light signals and chancing their luck, It wasn’t long before I attracted attention.

“Hey, that sure is a heavy bag”, a squinting man had started to follow. Unlike most of the direct ones, he had tried an unsubtle tactic. Act all innocent, wait for the kill. “I need to get to Surrey fast, I need two bucks, man, you have got to help me, I’ve been chased all over town by these guys, please”. Maybe if I had heard this story the first time, I would have been slightly sympathetic. But I hadn’t. It wasn’t a bad story, after all, but not as good as the dying homosexual, the poem speaker, or, the one who had to go and see his ‘sick’ mother (I would have thought she should have been coming to see him). The bit that made my slightly weary was the pace he was walking, if I was ever in the chase by situation by two even more mentally inept people than the one I was speaking two, I will be running, not pigeon stepping.

My pace had been slowed by the number of articles getting stuck between my wheels, there was glass, cigarettes, empty cans, and, more than likely, a couple of discarded needles. Every so often I was pause, clean the obstructions, and walk at a fast pace, to at least pretend to know what direction I was going in. As I entered Gastown for the last time, the pressure eased. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, I picked up a copy of the Vancouver Sun. The headline read “Hastings Drug Baron arrested by US drug officials”. Apparently this had cause anger locally, the pot smoking character was local folklore, taking advantage of Vancouver’s more relaxed cannabis laws. However, with a three million dollar hemp seed selling business, he was no floater. A multi state Investigation in the U.S had concluded that eighty percent of his market was over there, thus, despite the local fury, the Canadian police under forced U.S pressure had gone for the swoop.

The first delay. Apparently a computer didn’t work, causing a check in queue snaking around terminal. By the hour I was thinking of working at the airport, given the amount of “No, this is the Zoom flight” responses I was passing off. After eight hours of children screaming in my ears I finally landed. Like a hastings Zombie, I sat and watched the bags go around, and around , for forty five minutes. Three weeks of enjoyment. It was cloudy outside. What a surprise.

July 29, 2005

Hastings Street

I had to get off somewhere around here, I knew I must be in Chinatown. I tried to fool myself it was the road sequences I had remembered from my excursions around town, a newly acquired sense of direction or a sense of feeling at home. It wasn’t. There was Chinese writing everywhere. Even someone with my limited linguistic skills could tell, I was in a place full of Chinese people.

Hours before, my Big Mac and Dairy Queen laced stomach had been tested to the full at Play land, just outside of Vancouver. It appears the thrill factor at play land is derived from the instability, coming off the wooden seats whilst navigating dips and curves. What started as an misguided and make believe sickness problem, actually, and worryingly, started to come true. Maybe the Big Mac didn’t get along well with Dairy Queen, but visions of pieces of toffee and ice cream flying in the air and hitting innocent children in the face were making even me even more queasy. Try explaining that to their mother as I got off. I managed to refocus. Seeing children who were big enough to fit in my right pocket made me realise it would be a crime to throw up. After all, they kept on staying on the seats waiting for the next go.

As I stepped off the bus at the end of the evening, I walked onto a film set, not uncommon in Vancouver, but rather strange for the early hours on a Friday. As I continued to walk in one direction along the street, I noticed it was a rather lager film set, with, surprisingly, a lack of cameras or film type people. It was then I realized that this was no film set, they were not filming a zombie movie. This, was in fact, Hastings Street.

As I wondered past the blank expressional faces, I started to feel slightly lost, and more concerned that I felt in a long time. Of course I haven’t been to neighborhoods in New York, but I had walked through the poverty stricken, drug influenced areas of East London, Kings Cross in Sydney, Eastern Bangkok, central Amsterdam, the red light district of Frankfurt and the village green Seniors lawn Bowling final in Dorset, and quite frankly, it was bizarre. Very bizarre.

I resisted the temptation of some ‘great’ crack cocaine, lied several times that I had no cigarettes, gave three ‘I’m sorry, but fifty cents wont get you back across the river even if I gave it to you’ looks, turned down two offers of a ‘great night’ with some wonky looking, middle aged women and saw three police cars all on one night. I guess it’s nice to have options.

My perception, apparently, was not unfounded. With a postcode being deemed to be the poorest in the Country, this once vibrant part of the city is now more the focus for national debate. It’s decent has been steady. Over the last fifty years the loss of key transportation, head offices, shopping centers to more central areas such as Robson Street have added to the decline. Another key factor? Well the seventies witnessed a decrease in public spending that led to thousands of psychiatric patients being put on the streets. Streets such as Hastings just happened to be the most welcoming. Crazy, literally.

“Do you know where East Pender Street is please?’” I asked, not to a member of the wonky brigade, but two friendly police women patrolling the area. “You are staying around here?!” came the response. Clearly, thinking I was become as crazy as those that frequented Hastings Street. As I made my way up the road, it started to become clear just why my good, yet surprisingly inexpensive lodgings were so reasonable. Ignorance is bliss.

July 27, 2005

To Chinatown

The charms of staying centrally on Seymour Street had worn off. The coffee spilt, reservation losing computer combined with the wooden floorboards that cried for help every time someone walked past, meant it was time to move on. The previous night it was a head on car collision outside my room that had caused me to stir in the early hours. This time, without warning, I was woken by a strange dream. In somewhat bizarre fashion, people were shouting at the top of their voices to ‘leave the scene quick, before the police came’. It was only after ten minutes of being awake that I realise it was no dream, but a comical, almost film set like production going on outside.

I dragged my bag through Gastown, wondering how the area had got its name. I went through the obvious, maybe it was historically a stopping place for cars to fill up, to the ridiculous, wondering if the local population had a reputation for flatulence, after all, their clocks were powered by steam. To my disappointment, it was, in fact, named after a drunk English Sailor called ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton, who moved there from the sea to open a bar in 1867.

Walking up past Gastown, I made my way towards Chinatown. My destination was a hostel sitting on the outside, named, Pender Lodge. As I realised a long time ago, staying at characterless, uniform hotels is, at best, colourless. Sitting in a Holiday Inn in Rio would just be like being in a hotel in East London. All Big Macs taste the same after all, it’s just sometimes you have to pour the sauce yourself.

The Chinatown in Vancouver, is, unlike some, authentic to the homeland as you could get. Housing over 35,000 people of Chinese descent, the smells and sounds make even the most lost traveller find themselves again. As I walked through Pender Street, I felt distinctly foreign, the signs were all in Chinese, the people spoke little English. Indeed it was easy to understand why this was this was one of North Americas largest Chinatown’s, even the buildings looked Chinese, whatever Chinese buildings looked like.

I approached Pender Lodge with some apprehension. For exactly half the price of my previous lodgings, I was wondering whether I would have to share my room with a large extended Chinese family. Okay, I didn’t get a free heavy metal concert below my room, complimentary car accidents, steaming reservation losing computers or musical floorboards, but I entered wearily.

“Hello, I’ll be one minute” came the voice from around the corner. I was starting realise why it was half as cheap as the Cambie Hostel. She appeared, a scrubbing brush in one hand, a folder in the other. The Chinese lady was certainly friendly. “Ah, you come from England, why Blair follow Bush? All those innocent people in London”. As she took my details she added “Your room is not ready yet, I tell the people to be out by eleven, by they are never are!”. It was probably due to the fact that she was the cooker, the cleaner, the manager, the night porter. She confirmed my suspicions. “Ahh, yes I work fourteen hours a day”. As left by bag, I made sure to tell her not to rush on my behalf. Afterall, I had enough trouble cleaning my own room let alone fifteen others.

July 26, 2005

Twenty miles and counting

“Oh yes, Grouse Mountain, you can take a bus” came the reply. “You want to walk there?!” came the shocked response. Apparently people just didn’t walk to Grouse Mountain, they took the bus. Well, they certainly didn’t walk from downtown, that was a twenty mile roundtrip.

As I staggered up the mountain, my ears popped. It was then I realised maybe this mountain was quite high after all. After two hours I began to think about my impending death. The only thing that could trace me was the large amounts of fluids dripping from my back. I guess it was like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, only this time is was sweat. Large amounts of sweat. Just as I was about to congratulate myself for my non stop pace, I was over taken on a blind bend by a sixty two year old granddad. The heart bypasses do wonders these days.

After two hours, as predicted by the wooden sign at the bottom. I could see the light through the trees. If I had been entered into a wet t-shirt competition, I would have proudly been given first place. My light grey t-shirt had turned to a dark gray t-shirt, the sweat was now running down my legs. The wooden eatery area at the top was full of prime, cable car fresh people that had just arrived. After worrying about getting sweat on the newly mopped floor, I decided to move into the tourist shop area to escape. My dilemma was simple. Purchase a touristy Grouse Mountain t-shirt at three times the cost, or, lay on a bench and look like a tramp. After a couple of minutes of internal debating, I went for the item of clothing with the smallest Grouse Mountain logo on it, handed over my credit card, and changed in the adjoining changing room.

The lady at the desk kindly provided me a plastic bag to put in my dripping wet t-shirt, probably more for the benefit of the guests than myself. As I walked out, I picked up a leaflet, consoling myself that I had just walked up 4,100 ft mountain, and maybe it was acceptable to be soaking on a very hot day. Luckily for me, there was advice about what to do if you encounter any Black Bears. I found this most reassuring.

“1 - If a bear approaches you, speak firmly”

Now, does shouting at the top of your voice “Shit, there’s a bear, he’s got big paws” count as firm or not? I was keen to gain more advice, afterall, I was walking down alone in bear country.

“If it attacks, fight back with any weapon”

That will be right. I’ll use the revolver I carry around in bag that I use to blast door locks when I forget my keys. But if I have forgotten my gun, there is always….

“If you have pepper spray, prepare it for use”

Fantastic.. I was now feeling drenched and completely unarmed. All I came with was a bottle of water and a half eaten packet of crisps. Maybe I could bang the crisp packet, or maybe, I could play dead….

“Do not play dead”

Sure, I have no weapons and I can't play dead, surely I would just run for it……

“Do not make a run for it”

I could barely believe it. I woman jogger had recently been killed by a bear and I could see why.

The long, winding walk down Capilano Road, led, unsurprisingly, to the Capiliano Suspension bridge. Apparently it’s Vancouver’s oldest, and most famous, tourist attraction. Declared as the World’s greatest suspension footbridge and built in 1889, it’s certainly tries to take advantage of that reputation, charging twenty five dollars to enter. The walk across is speculator, if a bit flimsy. The rocking motion of kids running about and stamping means there is a full time member of staff watching, and talking over an intercom “Please, no swinging and jumping”. As I wondered the benefits and drawbacks of being paid to watch people walk up and down a swinging bridge, I made my way out, back over Lions Gate bridge and through Stanley Park once again.

After twenty miles and eight hours, maybe the lady was right. Maybe I should have got a bus. But at least I had beaten my walking record. And my shoes.

July 25, 2005

The little differences

Bill Bryson, when talking about the British fascination with weather, would counter this with the simple statement “What is there to talk about with the weather, there are no extremes, it’s normally just cloudy, what’s so interesting about that?”. Sociologists would agree to point, the weather is non speculator and hardly worth a mention, it’s just a way of breaking down social barriers within society.

One American remarked “The English, they spend twenty minutes trying to find out what you doing for a living, trying to avoid the direct question, then, just as about you are to go your separate ways, they say, by the way, my name is John, what’s yours? The American on the other hand, will just say, Hi, My name is John, what do you do for a living?”.

The Canadian personality forms a prefect bridge between the two, more engaging and genuine than asking about the weather, yet having the ability to be friendly without any hint of falseness or showmanship. A rapport gained over hours of English awkwardness, can, in most cases, be formed within minutes.

The sense of trust within Canadian society is apparent from the moment you step into the country, step on a train and be prepared to feel self conscious. The transportation needs little policing, barriers are obsolete. There is no mentality of “I wonder if I can get away without a ticket”, quite simply because, in the majority of cases, people just buy a ticket. Of course, just as I was thinking about the wonderful concept, a train inspector got on and inspected the tickets. They must have known the English were on board.

Walk into any shop and you are greeted with “Hi, how are you doing today?”. This is done with such regular occurrence, and without a sense of purpose, that, if one day you are not greeted in such a way, you start to feel as if it was something you had said, or not said. Maybe they were having a bad day, or maybe they were spending too much time with other customers.

“Have you got those in size twelve?” I asked. They looked at me as if I had just asked for some toothpaste in a sweet shop. I had made the mistake before in Australia, the UK size eleven is actually a size twelve over here. Fine, only one size different. It just takes three months to get into the shoes, and, as I was finding after twelve months of squeezing, my poor old diesels were struggling. I made the same mistake as I was always doing. Looking at the price tag, forgetting the tax. Before I knew it I was spending a hundred pounds on a pair of shoes I had no right to invest in. But the girl in the shop was so nice, and, well, I’m a sucker for good manners.

As I walked out, down along Robson Street to Granville, I noticed a pattern I was getting used to. Being asked for spare change or cigarettes was such common place that I was getting good with my firm, but polite, drilled answers. I could tell, from a distance, the potential askers. Those that walked slightly funny, the ones dressed down, the ones sitting down, the ones who were directionless, the ones holding big signs saying ‘Please give me spare change and cigarettes’. Such was my ordered response, I was getting worried that I might actually, by instinct, say “No, sorry” to a lost member of the Ladies Swedish netball team looking for directions. Strange. I don’t think it’s happened, yet.

July 24, 2005

Steam Computers

We had walked past the steam powered clock the previous day in Gastown. Unusual in itself. But not as unusual as the steaming computer in front of me in the Cambie Hostel reception area. Just as I was thinking that the Canadians were far advanced in terms of innovation, I realised, or was pointed out, that in fact the steam was caused by a spilled cup of coffee.

“This is just not my day, I’ve told the cleaners not to come anywhere near me” came the distressed voice behind the desk. Like trying to peer through a misted windscreen, I had picked the moment to extend my stay at my hostel. “Now what room number were you?” as she tried to make the difference between the one four and the one five on the screen. “No, someone has got your room, I’ll have to move you to another one”. As much as I could trust someone squinting through a steaming computer monitor, I accepted someone else’s mistake and went upstairs to prepare my bags. Despite the minor inconvenience, I didn’t want Miss Steamed face to get any more steamy, she would probably take off if she did.

The move along the corridor had mixed blessings. I was slightly disappointed that I would miss the free heavy metal concert that occurred between eight and two am every night. The previous room appeared to be directly above the drum kit, it had got to the point where I could hear screams for “more, more”. Instead of trying to fight the noise I accepted it, trying to second guess the next song on the list. I felt a reasonable sense of satisfaction getting one correct (Metallica’s ‘Sad but true’, for some reason it always came after ‘Unforgiven’). I felt disappointed the next morning when I woke up, I had missed the last hour of the live show, the pillows must have finally suffocated me as well as protecting me from the noise.

“Hey man, let me be on the movie, I can act, look at me” as he walked into the road and tried to dance, stumbling in the gutter. At eleven thirty, the aspiring actors come out, fuelled by alcohol and false confidence, the ‘filming’ signs act like a red rag to a bull. This guy was good, if only they were shooting Water world or Anaconda, they would have got the part straight away.

It is impossible not to walk past a film set in Vancouver, the glowing signs and huge trailer trucks provide reasonable clues. If you combine this with lots of people walking around with clipboards, headsets and “Silence please, filming in progress” you tend to realise it isn’t just a Japanese family filming traffic, for a start, the family would have way more expensive and numerous cameras.

Vancouver is the third largest film production centre in the world, and it growing fast. The reasons are as varied as they are plenty. It’s all year round climate is favourable, the changing topography provide flexibility and, most significantly, the scenery around Vancouver could easily pass for any American city.

Although the recent trend has been to shoot sci-fi movies such as ‘The Net’ or ‘Cat Woman’. the genre of film making is expanding all the time, with the ‘Bachelor party’ being a recent example. The city appears to be open and friendly when it comes to accepting potential film makers through the city, the locals tend to take all this action in their stride, it seems, to them at least, to be a way of life.

As I came back into the hostel, a voice from reception popped out. “You in room 215? You seem to have paid for two rooms”. Without wanting to look like a know it all, I refrained from saying, but thought instead, I knew steam computers would never catch on.

July 23, 2005

Lost in Translation

“Do you want to hear some poetry?”. Well, I didn’t for the third day in a row, but at least I knew I was on the right street. My legs were getting sore from the seven hour walk.

“Excuse me, you know where Wet beach is?” came the voice in half broken English. Wet beach? This was the third person who had stopped me for directions, I looked down at my map, which I pulled from my ‘happy to help’ bag. Wet beach, now, I cant remember seeing a wet beach, sure there were some wet beaches out there, but none called Wet beach. I game him the universal confused look, he came back “Rick Beach?”. It twigged. I think he meant ‘Wreck Beach’, famous, apparently, around the world.

As I went to point out the direction he needed to go, he held out his hand, providing a handshake firmer than most. “My name is Sergio, I’m from Spain, where are you from?” came the ever friendlier reply. “England” I replied. “You have tongue pierced, back in Spain die gah min have thuis, you die gah?” I gave my universal but convincing confused look, but then, to rush on the conversation, I nodded. Somehow it always seemed easier to nod than shake your head. “You wan to go naked down the beach hey?”. Suddenly, my mind focused like it had never focused before. My mind traced back through the conversation and it suddenly became apparent that my rushed and well practiced nod and “yes” when I didn’t understand someone, had given encouragement to someone who I really should be encouraging,

Back in the days of learning languages at school, they never prepared you for situations like this, I mean I could say “I’ll have two apples and a loaf of bread” or “What time does the bus leave” but never “Please, I think I have misunderstood you, I like women, not men”. Even my numerous trips to Spain had failed me in my ability to communicate. After all, I had followed the typical English way, learning the essentials, “Una cervesa, por favour”, asking for a beer was hardly going to help the situation. After a few quick ‘have to make my bus’ signals, I left our friend Sergio to enjoy his session down the beach, I wished him luck on his ‘crazy’ parties he was intending to have around the world and made my back the way I came.

As I made my way across Granville bridge and south towards Kitsilano, I noticed that I was alone making my way across. Maybe it was the fact that I was walking next to a highway, or, and more significantly, the fact that the zebra crossing on the highway was in the middle of a section of sixty mile an hour traffic. If they had trouble stopping on the twenty mile an hour roads, then, maybe, they would find it a little more difficult to stop at three times the speed. Making the assumption that nobody would stop for me, I waited for a break in the traffic and crossed, making sure I didn’t get hit by one of the many convertible sports cars zooming around town.

As I walked past Jericho beach Park, the peace and quiet from the bustling city provided the same hit like turning off the vacuum cleaner, it was if all the people had been swallowed up some tube. The sign of quality in any good city, should be the time it takes to go from mayhem, excitement, noise and people, water, green grass and tranquillity. It was if nobody had discovered this area before, so untouched by people and movement. Maybe the walk across the bridge had put them off, I just hope that bridge gets more traffic.

Walking through the parks and beach areas, I began to appreciate the city for what it really was. Away from the tourist areas downtown, were a number of areas completely unique to themselves. They seemed to operate without a care in the world, a far cry from the city centre. The more time I spent in Vancouver, the more I was appreciating the hidden values of the city. It was like a mosquito bite on your leg, you know you shouldn’t scratch it, but the more you did, the better if felt.

Half way through my fifteen mile walk, I started to see “Clothing optional” signs, which, I guessed, must lead to the famous Wreck Beach, apparently, so I was told, one of the best nude beaches in the world. Being the trusting sort, I decided to accept the words of others, being rather English, and prudish, I decided against making my way down to test for myself. I did however, decide to walk down to the bottom, encouraged by the pretty forest filled walk along the way. Just as I was about to make my ascent back up the high gradient path, I slipped, dropping my wallet and the eleven bank and store cards held within. As I scrambled around looking for the last card, my 2003 never used but might do sometime Blockbuster card, I looked up and was greeted by a couple walking past. Their faces were slightly startled looking, I guess I would, coming across someone in the trees looking all flustered next to nudist beach. As I gave them the ‘I’ve just dropped my wallet and I’m looking for my cards honest!’ look, I made my way up towards UBC, the University of British Columbia.

No university back home had seemed quite so impressive. Surrounded by water, this was a small town in reality, flanked with Museums, swimming pools and churches, it gave a sense of what University should really be like. Even the accommodation was like none I had experienced before, with grassy areas, the thought and preparation was impressive. As I made my way back towards downtown, I left with a feeling of regret, why can’t all the places be like this?

July 22, 2005

The two extremes

As you wonder around downtown Vancouver you can’t help but notice the extremes. The tanned, the beautiful, the crooked, the slightly deformed. Maybe that‘s why you notice the homeless that little bit more.

In the past three years, the number of homeless people has doubled, reaching levels close to 2,100. The contrast continues. Many properties in the city have doubled in price within the same period.

“Hey man, do you want to hear a poem?” came the voice staggering towards me. As much as I appreciated this unusual approach for money, I felt compelled to say no, after all, he could hardly speak let alone speak a verse of John Keates. As I walked away I was left wondering. What if I had said yes, what if anyone had ever said yes, I don’t think he would have known what to do.

Their shopping trolleys are their lives. Some are filled with clothes, others with half broken radios. As I walked around without direction, I looked down at my decaying shoes, plastic bags and ice cream spilt shirt, I suddenly realised that maybe I could fit in here, maybe I should learn some poetry.

Stanley Park is like no other. Originating in 1886, the park now consumes around 1278 hectares, flanked by water with views of Vancouver Island in the background. The parks epitomise the Canadian outdoor life ethos, providing an eight kilometre cycle or rollerblading track around the perimeter. I, of course, chose to walk it, taking two hours, delayed as I tried to avoid collision with moving wheels and diverting every time a gaggle of Japanese people decided to take another group photos next to the rubbish bin. Again.

Vancouver leads into little districts with their own distinct character, the unique architecture of Gastown, the strange and abundant smells of China Town. These smaller communities are flanked by the packed and shop filled streets of Robson and Granville, providing a melting pot of nationalities. The Chinese influence is particularly evident, much of the Hong Kong capital began to flow into the coffers of Vancouver in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed and proclaimed the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

“Excuse me” a voice came from behind me. I stopped, instinctively. “Why thankyou for stopping, you see, most people don’t”. In my full vision I could see why. Presentable to a point, but with blurred vision and an exaggerated camp posture. “Now, I’m going to tell you a story…..” well he forgot to ask me if I wanted to hear his story, at least the poem man asked. “You see, two months ago I was diagnosed with HIV and, you see, I’m going to ask something very bold, but I must”. Fantastic, did he want my hand in marriage? Or maybe he thought I was some life saving doctor with a cure for Aids. “Would you spare some money so I can purchase some food in my last few days of life?”. It had been a long trip so far, but not long as this guilt trip. Making the signs as if I had no real money, I gave him the only coin I had, a one dollar. Somehow I doubt he had HIV. The look he gave me when I gave him only the one dollar suggested otherwise.

July 20, 2005

Bumping into Dylan

As we walked down Robson Street amongst the shops, it was coming clear why people like this place. But my acknowledgement turned to complete surprise. One minute we were in a bustling city, a few roads along we could have been anywhere but. The sun lit out the through the mountains and shone down on the beach in fron of us. They called this English Bay, it’s just there was nothing English about this at all. It’s good to see irony travels well. This place was heaven.

“Can you see that seal?”. As I looked across I could see a seal's head popping out of the water. I had paid to see these in New Zealand and yet fifty feet from the shore, there was a seal ducking and diving without a care in the world. It was an evening of firsts, slightly along there was a small gathering of people. The bald eagle was having its dinner on a rock, feasting away mealy thirty feet from our noses. It was more like a zoo than a beach area, providing a certain level of surrealism amongst the English Bay signs.

And then the final piece of the nature jigsaw. Something you could never see at a zoo or a wildlife park. Something I had never seen before, something rare. Something so unexpected and out of place. A lesbian wedding on the beach. This city was going to be different.

As the plane flew into Vancouver, I looked down and recognised the mountains in the background. It almost felt familiar. I wish I was as familiar getting from the airport to city. I made my way outside and realised I had absolutely no idea where I was going. My self defence instincts kicked in. If in trouble, follow a Japanese tourist with a bag. It worked. Well sort of. I was standing at the bus stop trying to work out which bus went where when, just at that time, a bus pulled in. It could have been going to Narnia for all I knew, but the Japanese tourist was going there and that was good enough for me.

In most unfamiliar situations it’s easy. You just stand back and watch everyone else. It’s just on this occasion, I couldn’t do this. The person in front of me stepped forward and preceded to throw a number of unspecified coins into a whole next to the driver. It was like giving money to the homeless, its just this bus driver wasn’t homeless. As I watched the coins pass down the tube, the driver waited for a second and then pressed a button. Without exchanging a word, a ticket was produced and the person moved on. Shit. My turn.

I was going to play the safe game on this packed bus. Throw as many dollar coins possible down the tube and hope I hit the jackpot. I threw three dollars down, tried to look as if I had done it a hundred times before and moved off. “Ah, twenty five cents short, but I’ll let you off”. Thankfully this driver was refraining from being a jobsworth. A combination of being a nice driver and being able to tell that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing or where I was going probably helped convince him I wasn’t trying to get away with a low fare.

The Japanese tourist escaped to the back of the bus. I was on my own now. As I stood at the front I read the signs, the ones may I should have read in advance of getting on the bus. “Zone 1 – 2.25, Zone 2 – 3.25, Zone 3 – 4.35”, Correct change only”. I could have been going to the twilight zone for all I knew, but had obviously selected by default zone two and come up twenty five cents short. As the bus made its way down the long and never ending Granville Street, I started to think I had made a mistake.

In normal circumstances I would just follow the crowd, get off when most people seem to get off. But it was getting more difficult as my bag was being submerged by the people as more and more people jumped on the bus. Then, instinctively I did it. I made a move. I made a move when nobody else got off. It was like I had just stepped off in the Ghetto such was the inactivity. But that was it, I got out my crinkled map and my ever increasing bag and walked in a direction away from the bus so it at least it seemed it knew what I was doing. As the bus pulled away I caught a glimpse of the Japanese tourist and realised maybe I had been a little premature in my choice.

Lugging my bag up the street I walked past two huge trailers. Just as I was tutting to myself and wondering whether they could actually park there, I had to start dodging people in the street, nearly causing my wheeled bag to capsize. As I continued through the gap I made my way past a queue of strange unwashed, long haired people. What was strange was that although they looked like unwashed homeless people, they were holding out bits of paper as if they wanted something signed. Just as I was thinking they must have a higher class of homeless people here, my bag rolled over someone’s foot. “Oh, sorry” I said, half apologising, half cursing. The person smiled. At the same time someone shouted “Hey Bob, can you just sign this for me”. As I looked back I realised my error. I had just run over Bob Dylon.


July 18, 2005

Stampede


For ten days of the year, Calgary turns into cowboysville. For someone who’s closest experience with horses was the radish type you put on your Sunday lunch, it was going to be a new experience.

As we stood in line on the Friday night, I started to feel like I had missed something. Was there a certain dress code here? As I looked across I saw all types of cowboy hats, brown ones, straw ones, pink ones, rude ones. I looked up at the glowing sign above us and then realised why. We were going to cowboys.

The evening presented a number of challenges from the normal nightclubs. It’s difficult to get drunk without money. After queuing for an eternity at the cash point, I then realised that the Visa adverts were in fact misleading. Maybe I could get money out in a jungle in Africa, but I couldn’t get my money out here in cowboys. The solution, though slightly dangerous, was to put my credit card behind the bar and hope there wasn’t too many Cowboy Coopers in the place tonight otherwise I would need to a horse to ride me back home.

“You mean you have never been line dancing?” came the question loaded with shock. Well I had, it’s just dancing in a church hall when you were thirteen with a chequered shirt hardly counted. I guess things had moved on a lot since then as well. After refusing the request to give it a go, I stood back and rejoiced in my decision after taking the opportunity to observe the boisterous crowd take their bow. In theory, but certainly not in practice, you are meant to step and move in certain direction in the timing of the music whilst someone is shouting down the microphone. The result of this drunken spectacle was inevitable. Missed timed steps, bruised toes and a lot of confused faces. I would have fitted in well.

The next day was once of recovery. Having spent more money at the bar than fifty two step lessons, the day continued as it started. A Red Bull induced blur. As I walked around the malls trying my best not to bump into everyone, I struggled with even the simplest things. Buying food. Now, as with many things, Canada seems far advanced when it comes to sorting out a hungry stomach. There will always be something to eat, and more times than most, a number of types of things to eat. Unlike your spotty grumpy thirteen year old back home, there are a number of smiling faces happy to serve you. They form a conveyor belt, one person takes your order and your money, and another goes off and finds the relevant items. You therefore rarely have to wait. Well you do, you stand and gaze trying to choose the number of different items on the menu.

After walking past one of the most famous singers in Canada and not realising it, I made my last purchase. A brown cowboy hat. Despite being assured that the pink label didn’t mean it was a girls hat, I walked out confident that I could pass for a local. All I needed now was a bit of straw and to learn how to ride a horse in a day.

It was going to be impossible. I mean where would I find straw around here?

‘Welcome to Stampede 2005’. We had been slightly delayed getting to the park via the sea train. It seems although most things in Canada are better, there was one thing that they hadn’t given much thought to. Placing a big red handle with the words ‘Only pull in an emergency’ whilst four feet in the air is like saying to a kid in a candy shop “Don’t eat any of them”. The train came to a halt. “No, Amy, you mustn’t pull that lever, bad girl”. Her mother leant down to the intercom, “I’m sorry, it’s my four year old daughter”. The packed train shared a mixture of tuts and “If I was a kid I would have pulled it as well” comments before finally a man came aboard and reset the emergency system.

Calgary Stampede is like one big theme park combined with an outdoor show. There are Karaoke competitions, more apt to Country Idol to pop idol, exhibitions with pigs and cows and a number of side attractions all with a country theme. Being a world wide attraction, there were a mix of people swarming around the park, like myself, with absolutely no idea where or when they were going next.

As the evening grew older, it was building up to the finale. The Chuckwagon races. Seeing chariot racing with four horses created bizarre images. Not as strange as the rules for the race. Unfortunately it wasn’t a case of first horse wins after going one circuit of the track. Oh no. First of all the outriders have place a barrel on the back of the wagon then mount their own horses. I tried to picture it as a rush to get out of the supermarket car park on a busy Saturday afternoon, it sort of made sense after that point. The next part is to make sure you manoeuvre your wagon and your four horses around a barrel, again, it’s like the old granny trying to reverse park without hitting her side mirrors on my car (for the second time), if they do, they get deducted points.

So, we had lots of big cowboy like men sitting down on their wagons whipping their horses and generally making a lot of noise. The crowd stand to their feet. I could'nt understand it. Why cheer for someone when you are not betting any money on it. I then started to appreciate that maybe peoples lives over here didn’t revolve around betting and making money on horses. Maybe they were just really into their horses. Strange.

Just before the end it was time for my defining tourist moment. Not content with wearing a cowboy hat with a ‘look at me, I’m a tourist sign’, I saw in the distance a large man with a red coat. I had flash backs of Due South. Surely not. I had just seen a Mounty. Rushing over like a Japanese tourist in Buckingham palace, I grabbed the Mounty round the waste like some long lost brother whilst someone snapped away. After smiling for me for the picture, I decided it would be best to let him get on with his day job. Making the streets of Calgary safe again from Cowboy impostors like me. Maybe they should do a television show about a Mounty? That would be long over Due, especially in the South of Canada.

July 15, 2005

Crimes down that the lake

Bowling for Columbine compared the hugely differing crime rates of Canada and the United States, generally Canada is a nice and safe place to live. I wanted to find out for myself, was it just distorted media? Or do people leave their doors open and let people borrow milk from their fridge?

This was the closest I had come to the witnessing of brutal murder. The laughing, senseless figures stood on the dockside, obviously oblivious to the witnesses sitting just up alongside them. Murder around this parts was rare. A small community would be affected by this, it could even surpass the first murder in Twin Peaks. Things like this just didn’t happen. After all, a community built around trust and respect little policing, but maybe this was about to change. Maybe my timing was unfortunate, but with a new person in town and bodies floating in the water, it would be long before two and two together and got eight divided by two.

They stood laughing, hanging the lifeless body in the air from a metal hook. A crime, that would pass without detection elsewhere, would be front page news at this lake. Worse still, and more dangerous, the community would find out, passing throughout the cabins like wild fly. A family had killed two fish. Worse still, they were putting the dead fish back into the lake. It was the equivalent of a gangland shooting without dumping the body in the trunk. But unlike some gangland revenge attack, this was purely a motiveless killing.

“Are you going to eat that?” Laura questioned, anger filling up like an unattended bathtub, it’s just nobody was about to pull he plug this time. “Oh, can we eat it?” came the reply, with a look as if someone had put salt in his coffee instead of sugar. Even with my well known phobia of fish, I knew the rules, if you catch a fish, eat it or let it go. After all, if you take a hostage Die Hard style, you may as well try and get the money, don’t just shoot them.

My search for crime continued. Apparently I had heard on the grapevine that someone had never wake boarded before. I guess, when you live on a lake, have access to spread boats, then it would be fairly criminal. It’s a fine line in the criminal underworld. Either admit defeat, accept you are going to be really bad and embarrassing at something and refuse to try, or, give something a go and be criminal in your actions.

I may have well been arrested there and then. As I tried to squeeze my large feet into the supposedly large ski, the people on the boat started to think criminal thoughts. If he was having trouble getting his feet in, actually rising from the water would be like turning water in wine. It wasn’t a case of the duck to water, it was a case of ducking out. But I couldn’t. Despite all the good words of advice, when push came to shove, a got shoved. My ski, unlike lifting me out of the water, acted like a snow plough, pushing me deep into the water. They said “Whatever you do don’t let go” only that’s not meant to apply when you are heading underwater. At this rate I would be meeting the fish that were murdered before, only this time they would be scooping up the remains with a crane and not a fishnet.

It was at this time I started to worry. Not about my ability to qualify for the next wake boarding championships, but a nagging feeling in my head. One of those ‘Did I remember to turn the iron’ off feelings. Only this was a little more concerning. As with most forms of lake communication, it’s a bit on the limited side. People just turn up. Especially parents. The best way of telling when your parents are coming down to your cabin is to hear the gravel moving on your driveway. Its often best to become expert in the sound of engine noises, since that us the best way to have notice of impending elders. So, when smoking a cigarette when its not common knowledge, causes a fair bit of quick thinking when the gravel starts to grind.

Using my quick thinking ability, I quickly grabbed the ashtray, squeezing the cigarettes to the side and rushed inside. Putting the ashtray in my bag, I emptied the ends into the rubbish bin, all within twenty seconds. Panic over. Well panic over for thirty minutes. It was only whilst waiting to go into the water, that my mind frantically started to wander, which in turn started another thought process. Were the ends completely out before going into the bin with paper and other flammable materials. As I sat in the boat and wondered how the hell I was going to glide out of the water like a swan, I suddenly got pictures of a cabin, passed down though the generations, smoking in the background. Now that would be criminal.


My frustrations continued. There simply no more crimes to be seen, sure, my six attempts to stand up on the water, were, without question, criminal. My ability to turn sunburnt red at the earliest moment of sun, were worthy of a suspended jail sentence, but I was to be disappointed this time. Word had it that someone’s the eagles would swoop down and kidnap the adopted chipmunk pets. Well, I guess you can’t make crime happen, but it was time to leave the lake and move on to Calgary.

July 13, 2005

Going to the Lake

“Mummy, why is a man sliding down that shute, can we go on that game as well?”. After a brief pause the reply came “No, dear, that’s if the plane crashes and we all have to get out”. After a non existent pause, the voice which was increasing with pitch and volume added “But why would the plane crash?”.

I had chosen a seat in front of ‘Mummy, I’ve saved all my questions for the two and a half hour flight so please tell me everything about the world’ boy. This kid was demanding. Not only did he insist on questioning every sentence and picture in the safety manual, he also asked for a lecture on flying on a history on flying, something his mother was happy to do, with painstaking patience and attention to detail. After question number one hundred and seventy two (if you cant beat them, count them) I began the game of guessing the next question. I got nineteen out of twenty wrong, but left on a high, correctly guessing he would say “Mummy, why do we have to sit down?” when the announcement was made about the impending landing.

Just as I was learning that we can’t breathe underwater if we crashed, the flight was over, I left, knowledge enriched, and ready for the next leg of the trip, a lake in Manitoba, a place I had heard so much about, but like most things, had no idea what to expect. After all, who lives on lake? Apart from Swans of course.

After a two drive past some of the oldest rocks in the world, some burst tyres, three hitchhikers, thirteen huge trucks and a couple of lakes, we arrived at the Lake of the Woods . It’s then that I started to realise they make lakes a little bit different over here, after all, we do have a similar lake back home, it’s just called the English Channel. In and around the trees, the cabin sat proudly amongst the others, the water glittering through the gaps. In an instant you just knew this was going to be more relaxing than having a rubdown with a Swedish masseur whilst playing ‘the Greatest Relaxing Hits Ever volume five’ whilst smoking some of Jamaica’s finest.

The tradition of cabin ownership is a interesting and integral part it seems of family life. Most people seem to have access to at least one cabin somewhere, for the most part next to water. The cabins traditionally are passed down through the family, not only creating an excellent place to escape, but more importantly, bringing families together and creating a unique sense of community. After all, if you never sell you cabin, and your neighbours never sell their cabin, it’s always a good idea to at least try to get on. A hundred years is a long time to hold a grudge.

Living in a nostalgic and close community provides some refreshing, yet sometimes challenging differences from the so called norm of back home. Leaving doors unlocked although perfectly natural and expected here seems instinctively unnerving.
Like taking the stabilizers off your bike, you know you shouldn’t fall off now, but there is that feeling that doubt, “But what if I do fall sideways?” After a day of slight paranoia, you realise it just that. There really is nothing to worry about other than shutting the door quickly to make sure the mosquito’s don’t fly in.

Mobile phones have created a lazy culture in most parts of the world, here provided a refreshing alternative. When the people you know live in adjacent cabins, the first option is to always just go and knock and see if someone is home. And if they don’t respond to your knock? Just walk in anyway; the door won’t be locked for sure. That’s of course based on the assumption that their truck and boat are still there, after all, popping out for a little boat ride is more instinctive than planned.

A community of cabins needs little policing or control, if you do something wrong, the gossip will spread across the lake quicker than a jet ski. Quite simply, everyone knows everyone else, all connected at some point in their lives. “Ahh, yeah, you dated my sister” or “Your dad knows my dad” or “your granddad helped build my granddads cabin”. Keeping secrets is hard. It’s like knowing that the guy at number twenty seven has just cheated on his wife last Thursday. Oh, that was meant to be a secret. Don’t tell anyone.

“This person is from England, Kathleen has said give this person whatever he wants”. The boy working behind the counter looked up, slightly confused. Here was someone he didn’t know asking for free food for someone at the Burger trailer. Without doubting and with complete trust, he replied “Do I have to give free food to everyone from England?” As much as it was unlikely to see a bus full load of English people stopping off at this remote burger bar, I could see the free food rumour spreading around the lake like firefly, causing a number of Hugh Grant impressionists trying their luck on the Burger boy. To save any confusion, and certain closure of the burger trailer, the clarification was made. It was just me that got this kind gesture this time.

The simple life. People come here to relax, have parties and to get away from the city. The purpose of the lake is two fold, boating, fishing, swimming and throwing people off the side in the best possible fashion in the summer, and skating, fire lighting and truck rising on the frozen lake in the summer. Everything, not surprisingly, revolves around the lake. It’s the immense sense of pride combined with the years of growing up around the lake that enforces a level of protection so sadly lacking in society today. It wasn’t only their grandparent’s lake, but it’s their lake, and, most importantly, it’s their grandchildren’s lake. It’s self policed, well respected and unites the small community surrounding it.

“You’ve never seen a chipmunk before?” came the face with a look of astonishment. This wouldn’t have been so bad, yet it was the third person who had just looked at me as if I just found out that we had landed on the moon. This acted as confirmation that despite speaking the same language, having similar cultures and close historic ties, there were some things there were completely different. Chipmunks weren’t that common back home, well they were, I used to love the Alvin the chipmunk cartoons. The same look of complete astonishment furthered itself to eagles, beavers and a number of other animals, which, as I had never even heard of before, confirmed my suspicions. I was rather naïve in the animal department.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate what’s on your doorstep, especially if it’s a dead mouse, but here, despite being here all their lives, there is a feeling of pride and appreciation of what they have. Whether the ability to choose between driving or boating it to see if your friend across the lake is in, leave your stuff unlocked knowing that it will never be threatened, observing the sunset over the lake whilst sitting at your table, it’s easy to see why.

July 12, 2005

Niagara Falls

There were two ways to get there apparently, the Niagara Falls day tour, or, as recommended by the girl behind the desk, Jenny’s tour. “If I was you, definitely would do Jenny’s tour, it’s a lot better, but of course, it’s up to you”. Of course it was up to me, I just better not go against what you said otherwise you would give me that ‘don’t you trust me look’. It turned out to be irrelevant anyway; Jenny and her cronies were full for that last day. Time for alternatives.

I remembered walking through union street the day before seeing a train station called ‘Niagara Falls’, surely, even with my knack for the misfortunate, there could only be one place called Niagara Falls, and, with closer inspection, according to the map, it was a small distance from the bits of water itself.

As I stood inline, pondering how a train could be three times as expensive as a coach, and yet take longer to get there, I was hit with my first unfortunate moment for the day. Out of the four hundred or so passengers waiting to go onto the escalator to board the train, I just happened to be standing behind ‘Don’t know how to use an escalator’ woman. Grasping the rail with the left hand, she completely missed the right rail with her right, causing her feet to come away from beneath her. In the chaos that ensued, the guard slammed the big red stop button, setting off a number of sirens and causing the movement to halt. After fifteen minutes of trying to restart the now stopped escalator, defeat was admitted and we walked up the stairs manually.

The lessons learnt from my twenty mile round walk of Toronto two days previous obviously did not stick in my ever sweatening head, of course, two inches on the map involved the equivalent of a walking marathon. But after a thirty minute walk, I could hear the sound of running water. Fortunately for me the tap hadn’t been left on in the toilet block next to the souvenir shop, it was the Falls.

Niagara Falls has obtained the reputation of a mini Las Vegas style tourist destination, most notable now for the honeymoon’s as well as the water, a tradition its held since Napoleon’s brother took his newly wed there many moons ago. In fact, it’s more commonly known as Viagra Falls now. Of course it isn’t.

The Maid of mist provided the first activity, the sequel to a forty five minute queue in excess of hundred degree heat. “Oh, there’s a lady in a wheelchair, let her through” a woman said to her husband. Let her through? She is the one who is sitting down, but I kept that thought to myself as we were shunted along.

We made our way onto the ferry, donning the latest in fashions, a bright blue XXXXXL raincoat. As we made our way towards the thing spouting water, it started to rain. It was quite incredible. On minute it was clear blue sky, the next I as being drenched. And they say British weather is unpredictable. Just as the ferry sailed back to our original destination, I took time to consider the impact of tourism on the local economy, the way an industry had been incredibly developed just over a piece of running water. I mean, what if that running water stopped, just like it did in 1848? Then I came to the measured conclusion. They would be seriously fucked.
















As I made my way off the ferry, I took a short cut across the lawn, the heat had given me an appetite. Just as I was about to make the pavement, I was attacked by a giant sprinkler, which, seemed to follow me as I quickened my pace. The irony soon hit me as I continued to walk on , completed soaked, I’d managed to stay dry in one of the biggest man made showers, but been had by the sprinkler. As I crossed the road I heard a voice behind me “Look, mum, you really DO get wet on the Maid of Mist, Can we go on it”. I did'nt have the heart to say anything different. I would let the mother pick up the pieces later on.

After two hours of soarng heat and walking amongst a multitude of rather large, candy eating tourists, I suddenly realised I had lost the will to live. The Falls were speculator, it’s just they weren’t looking any different whatever angle I viewed them from. With defeat surely admitted, I made my way back along the way I had come from, only uphill this time.

“The five thirty has been cancelled”, came the reply from the bearded ticket office man. “The next one is at seven twenty”, he added. It was three o’clock, I had walked back from the Vegas style Falls to the station, the only thing that appeared to be open was the station door. Deciding between four hours of ceiling watching or a twenty dollar coach ride home, was easy. I ripped up my lovely train ticket and purchased a four o’clock coach ride home, making sure I got a good place in the seated queue.

“Oh, your from England, now tell me, does the Queen live at Old Scotland Yard” came the voice from a grey haired man sitting next to me. “No, that’s the police force, she lives in Buckingham Palace sometimes” I replied. “And what about a place called Liverpool, do you know it? The Beatles come from there you know”. This was going to be interesting. This man was getting a coach back to his home town of Detroit, I started to enjoy the conversation. “So London, is that the place where the trains go underground and the planes fly above?” he probed. With a brief, yet bizarre exchange of conversations, it was time to board the coach back to Toronto for the last time.

July 11, 2005

I don't support Saskatchewan, okay

Maybe it was a wrong selection in hindsight to wear a green t-shirt and walk around the stadium on the night that the Toronto Argonauts played the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
It just so happened that the away team colours were, green.

“Hey, how comes you didn’t get into the game? Do you want a ticket for the game, ten dollars”. Now, it would help if I had known who was playing in the first place, as much as I liked my sports, Football was not one of my fortes. And so the they came and they came, “Excuse me, do you know where the box office is?” was the next, followed by “Do you know the line up”. Now, this on itself would be fine, its just at this point I started to realise there was a bit of language gap here, it was if I was speaking like someone from the planet Zoo Lu.

“I haven’t got a clue, sorry” was my standard reply, but I soon began to realise from their blank expressions that for some reason, I was making no sense whatsoever. Maybe I should simplify it to a straight “No”, but surely that was a little impolite.

I escaped to the nearest station, tired from my misunderstandings, a Harveys burger would do nicely. At it was at this point I started to realise the differences, even in a fast food bar. The people serving were actually enthusiastic to serve, even without the fifteen percent tip. It was if you were their first customer, they were even patient when, taking my time to look through the twenty different types of burger, I actually finally made my mind up. And the next surprise. No burger that had been sitting there since six am when, like back home, Tracey had forgotten about the burger in the corner and duly passed it off to you at seven pm, dry and crinkled. These were fresh, you even got to select your salad that you put into the burger. Nice. Well, all nice apart from trying to describe ‘everything but no Tomatoes’ and getting a look of complete bewilderment. “Oh, you mean tomaarrrtoo’s”.

As I sat down, the television was on. To my bemusement, the game that I had strived to get away from, was showing. “Hey, how has the game being going, I couldn’t get a ticket”. Fantastic. I had just chewed on my second curly fry and I was being asked to summarise a game I knew absolutely nothing about. Instead of trying to explain that I knew absolutely nothing about football, let alone this game, I tried to blag it. “Nothing really has happened so far” came the unconvincing response, which, for a split second seemed to work until the commentator shouted “Wow, what a game, three touch downs in the first ten minutes”. Just as I was about to say “Yeah, but what does he know, I finished my burger, left the peppers, and was just about to get up when … “Hey, have my Candy, I’m allergic to peanuts”. With a pat on the left shoulder, another complete stranger left the large yellow wrapper sweet on my tray, and walked off into the distance. Far too nice.

From the top of the tallest building in the world, the CNN tower, I could now quite clearly see where I had got lost the previous day. As apposed to walking towards the city, I had, in fact, walked five miles off onto a island that as suspected, led to a dead end of water. Armed with the hindsight that maybe I should have scaled the tower first, as opposed to walking into a different city in thirty degree heat, I was starting to feel like I knew my surroundings. “Excuse me, can you point me in the direction of New York”, came the sound from a have broken English Mexican sounding accent. Just as I was digesting this question (I thought I was bad at getting lost, this woman had missed the wrong turn to the States and ended up a tower), she added “They say you can see New York on a clear day”. After learning from the previous football experience that it’s better not to blag, I resisted the temptation of pointing towards a nice boat I had been looking at, and replied “I think you are asking the wrong person, I didn’t even know the way back to the city, let alone New York”. With a look as if she thought I said no, she preceded to point the in the direction of the boats to her kids. Maybe I shouldn’t feel too bad.

The trip up the CNN tower confirmed my deepest suspicions. The people of Toronto were playing a game of hide and seek. They were nowhere to be seen. It’s just nobody had told me to count to ten. Just where 2.4 million people on a Sunday could hide I will never know. For Canada’s largest city, the ‘New York’ of Canada, I was beginning to wonder if I had said something. Okay, I lied about the football, but I had remembered to apply a fresh coating of Sure for Men that morning.

Quite how I could walk down a central street and not pass a sole for five minutes was, baffling. After ten seconds counting up on the tower, I decided time was up. I was going to find these people.

After two hours of searching, purely by accident, I found the ants nest. It’s called a Mall. Quite conspicuous by it’s entrance, the hiding place was a good one for sure. Then I realised why everyone was hiding in there. It was air conditioned and huge, not just a few shops or a few floors, but lots of the both. It seemed shopping was a secret religion such was the buzz of people. All could think about was being outside to catch some of the rays, but the smell of the coffee shops and cinnamon stalls proved an equal pull.

Which came onto my second conclusion. The food, it really is better. A lot better, Just like the burger bar, the choice and care put in the food was a different class. Food preparation seemed not only to be a business, but an art form. I could have a maple cookie with almond roast coffee if I wanted, I could have my rings lightly dipped in cinnamon or just a touch of sugar. If I wanted pickle in my ice tea, I probably could.

With choice comes enjoyment, with space comes relaxation. As I walked around again, it started to become clear why Canadians appear so laid back, so friendly. It's as if your parents said to you when you were younger, “Right, you don’t have to share a single bed with your brothers anymore, and whilst we are at it, lets get a nice big double bed, that is always comfortable and never breaks, and hey, its even quite cheap. And there it was, from an irritable, tired kid with bruises from fighting, to one, well, hasn’t got much to worry about, lying around in comfort with his armed stretched out.

July 09, 2005

Subtle Differences

Amongst the familiar, the Starbucks, the language, the signs, the labels, appears the unfamiliar.

The roads. Now then, driving on the right is purely something you adapt to quickly, the sight of a briskly moving never stopping tram tends to focus your mind as you step out and look left. However something more challenging, and equally confusing, is the pedestrian crossings.

The first task is to try and find the pedestrian signals, if at all. The town planning department one day had to decide, twenty pedestrian crossing signs or three hundred and fifty more dual French and
English Airport signs. Oui to the latter. Crossing the road is a game of roulette, some times there are friendly white men waving you across, other times, well, there just isn’t. But it doesn’t all end there. Just because the big red hand goes and the friendly white man comes, it doesn’t mean you wont be run over by an A-Team style truck or an ever quickening tram.

That’s because even when it says go, the cars can go as well. In theory, it’s up to the cars to stop for the people crossing with the big friendly white man. Unlike the apologetic drivers on the little Island back home, it seems not uncommon for stand up confrontations if the big white man and the big truck man cross paths. The best form of defence seems to work. Walk along side other people so they get hit first. The true test of identifying a local is to simply stand at the crossing. Those that walk across five seconds before the big white man comes out are local. Those that the walk five seconds after the big white man are not.

Not tipping in the Canadian service industry is like telling your girlfriend she looks fat in a dress. But just like deciding when to be honest or truthful with your other half, it’s often difficult to tell when to tip or not to tip. Okay, you tip when you go for a meal or order drinks at a bar. But do you tip when buy a coffee from Tim Hortons? When does service not become service? If she bends down to get you a Maple cookie as opposed to you picking it from the front, does that constitute fifteen percent? If she smiles as well does that add another five per cent on the bill? I almost feel like paying them a service charge just to stop me thinking about the service charge.

Streets are roads out here. That’s not the only difference. If you look at a map and the guidebook says ‘down the end of Gerrad Street East’, you tend to think that can’t be very far, after all, there is a Gerrad Street West. Wrong. When the guidebook subtlety says you can take a tram down the street to see how the locals live, it is really saying, “Don’t walk whatever you do, not only will you see how the locals live in one suburb, you will also see how they live in the next five suburbs”. Quite simply, a street can go on for miles, and miles and a few more miles. After eight miles I looked back and realised that the CNN tower, the tallest in the world, was starting to look like the shortest tower in the world. Not only did every street look exactly the same after the fifty seventh interjection, I came not closer to working out the secret pattern of the pedestrian crossing puzzle.

Walking in Canada seems a faux pas around the city. And I was soon discovering why. Quite simply people think you would be crazy to walk mile in thirty degree heat, roller blading and cycling is by far the preferred option. This is maybe not that surprisingly when the cycle paths are the same size as the roads on the little Island back home. If ever the Canadians were nailed on for an Olympic medal other than Ice Hockey, it would roller blading. You heard it here first.

After seventeen miles of walking and getting absolutely nowhere it was time to admit defeat. Using the Large and ever present CNN tower as my compass, I got…. even more lost, finding dead ends and little islands that even the town planners hadn’t discovered. I knew I was nearly back when I saw a woman hitting and cursing (“You stupid bastard, you have ruined my life and I am going to beat the shit out of you”) a traffic warden for giving her a ticket and a man walk in front of cars and grabbing the drivers whilst asking for money. I was starting to think behind that nice smiling and approaching face, there were more to these Canadians than meets the eye.

July 08, 2005

Getting There

This was interesting. Well not that interesting. There was a queue for mens toilets, unheard of. And then we waited. “I thought I heard a flush at the end” came a voice from behind me. Such was the boredom and unique novelty of having to actually queue to go to the toilet, people had started to analyse which cubicle would be free next. My turn. Then I found out the problem. The toilets were blockeding up. On a ‘request’ basis, the people coming out of the cubicles were informing the attendant if their toilet had been blocked, which then triggered the signal for large bearded man to wade in and do some plunging.

Shit. Mine didn’t flush. Do I tell the attendant or do I briskly walk away claiming all innocence at 6.30am. I turned straight out, looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the person walking across to enter my recently departed cubicle. Just as I was cursing my cubicle selection luck, the man who had just replaced me, came back out “This ones blocked too”, clearly referring to my act of cheekyiness. Maybe I wasn’t that unlucky. After all, I wasn’t the one with a plunger in one hand, man, he was in deep shit.

I looked up at the screen over my 6.45am pint of Guinness and saw, Flight Z40511 to Toronto, DELAYED, DEPARTURE 10AM. Fantastic. Not only had fate given me the wrong cubicle, it had also given me a shit plane with poor time keeping. Just as I was working out how many pints of Guinness I could now fit in whilst wallowing in my self pity, a voice appeared from beside me. “Is your plane delayed mate”. Just as I was choosing the tone in my reply I looked across. There were eight empty whisky glasses. “Yes, only by three hours, what about you?” I replied. “I’ve been here for 6 hours, I’ve got another four to go. Quite clearly, my delay wasn’t that unlucky after all.

My luck was about to change. I was going to be sitting next to Miss Canada, she had just come back from some promotional work in London. Of course not. Sitting in seat B came the figure I had come to dread. A more ‘mature’ lady with expected bladder problems. It got worse. After an hour of the flight, I realised that in fact she had not moved one inch. Just as I was contemplating pressing the cabin assistance button and requesting if they could move the dead lady next to me, her armed moved. She was asleep.

Her impending death seemed to take on less significance to me the longer the flight went on. Clearly she was in some kind of deep sleep, but this wasn’t helping my toilet matters. Every glass of water I accepted from the cabin crew grew into a game of Russian roulette. Just one more, one more, and I could piss my pants. My ever increasing bladder problems were getting worse. A Canadian girl sitting behind me kept on referring to a place called ‘Virgina’, but obviously not known to her, she was pronouncing it as ‘Vergina’. “You know what, that Virgina, what a great place to go”, followed by “Virgina, yeah, it’s quite large, though not that many people go down that way”.

Just as I was contemplating my bad luck in selecting a dead lady over Miss Virgina, I finished the article that I was reading from the Times. “She gave me a smile, I saw there was a space next to her in that carriage, but I had a bag and wanted a another spare seat. She went down to one end of the carriage, I went to the other end. Three minutes later there was an incredible explosion, I looked across at the other end of the carriage, all I saw was bodies”.

With a new sense of luck perspective, I made my way down to immigration. “Have you booked your internal flights Sir” came the loaded question from the poker faced immigration official. Well, I thought it was loaded. Maybe they thought I was going to do a runner in Canada. Just as I was about to pull out my documents the face smiled, “No, there’s no need for that, I was just checking to make sure you knew which terminal you needed”. Blimey, Canadians, they just too nice.

July 06, 2005

How will I cope.............

Off to Canada for three weeks.

I really don't know how I will cope without the twelve hour work days, political issues at work, project pressures, the guy who always stinks out the toilets at eleven am, the coffee machine that always overfills the coffee, the fact that I can leave to work for work in the sun, only to reach work in the rain, the people who the corridor who are too indecisive to go right or left and thus causing me to walk into them, the fact that the shop for the eighty ninth day running has only got pickled sandwiches left when I get there (when is someone going to realise that errrrr, maybe nobody likes pickled sandwiches and therefore nobody is buying them), the fact of someone asking me again "Is someone sitting there" when quite blatantly nobody is (manners overkill), and, well that's it for now, after all, that is everyday.







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