'Soooome-wheeeere, (Van)couver the Rainbow!'
Trip Start May 05, 2011
19Trip End Sep 08, 2011
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Yes, I'm writing this entry from a wholly exotic land on the American continent. Canada! It's just like Oz; only with fewer munchkins and witches, and with more mounties and grizzlies. But precisely the same number of flying monkeys...
Canada is really beautiful, and it's totally unlike anywhere I've been on my travels so far. And I've just had a fantastic few days in Vancouver with my brother and the 'rents. I've been able to escape into the countryside and climb the odd mountain, and most importantly of all, the confectionary here is substantially less alien (yes, a Mars bar actually is a Mars bar here, rather than a Milky Way or some sort of ridiculuousness). But even though Vancouver has been a little bit of a pit-stop, I've still been able to do and see loads on the pacific shore.
When I left off writing last week, I was still in Plano, Texas, in the hands of some very generous long-lost family members, who were happy take me in in spite of my funny accent and hobo-like appearance. My whole stay at Valerie and David's was immense fun, and the last day was no exception; shortly after I had finished writing to you lovely people, my nephews-once-removed arrived, and immediately demanded my presence in the pool. I was only to happy to oblige. Though I've never been jumped on (and over, and around) quite so much in my life, I laughed the whole time. And when Colin and Cameron cracked out the inflatable pirate ships (and Union Jack lilo - well, SOMEONE had to represent the Royal Navy) fun and games really began. Following on from an exhausting oceanic war (which I won, naturally), I joined the adults for barbeque (well, brisket) and politics, which was less furious, but no less passionate. After all, I'm always passionate about brisket.
An EXTREMELY early start the next day (thanks to Valerie for driving me to the airport) was followed by a (slightly depressing) insight into the American psyche, at the hands of American Airlines. If that sounds like the airline somehow held me down and subjected me to a metaphorical kicking, well...perhaps that's a little extreme, but it certainly managed to lower my faith in humanity. Prior to checking in with AA, I had already determined that the definitive American national characteristic was a commitment to the principle of democracy. This cultural and political principle is in many ways wonderful. Contrary to what some Europeans believe, Americans are not all just overtly capitalistic, selfish, egoistic types. Indeed, at a local level (and particularly in the South) it's surprising how friendly Americans are, and how committed they are to local community projects. Sometimes, their strong localism borders on patriotism, and in a way, this is all explicable as a celebration and pride in their democracy. The flipside of this principle is that, even though everyone is entitled to their say, and to a chance (and indeed people are expected to take that chance), if anyone is considered to have wasted that chance, Americans have little sympathy. This is my impression of the American psyche; and my experience with American Airlines compounded this view, but added another element: privilege.
When I went to check my luggage, I was told that I had to pay $25 to check each bag into the hold. Of course, since I'm not used to this, I grumbled, but paid it. This in itself was not so disheartening. But when I went to reserve my seat number, I was told that I could not reserve at check-in. Instead, I would have to go and see the 'Gate Agent'. Fair enough. I went through security, and went in search of my gate, and the logically-named 'Gate Agent'. She was not there. But that's ok - I'm a traveller, fairly laid back, and I thought I could find a spot overlooking the desk, so that when she arrived I could go reserve my seat. After a while, she finally did arrive, and I lined up. When I got to the front of the queue, however, I was told that - because I wasn't paying extra, or because I wasn't part of a privileged club - I would have to wait. I was not prioritised. They would call me up. When they finally did call me up, I was one of the last that was able to choose their seat - despite being one of the first ones there. Because I'm not an 'AA Emerald', or 'Sapphire', or some ridiculous other rock-themed customer, I was made to feel unimportant, the bottom of the pile. And it really makes sense in an America that is shot-through with a concept of privilege; nonetheless, I really don't think that it's a good thing at all. It undermines any sense of equality, and warps the democratic sentiment that inspires the nation. I had noticed privilege in the States before, but it had always been intangible. But it seems so weird, given that in Britain, we've been trying so hard to eliminate a culture of privilege over the last 50 years (admittedly not always successfully). Anyway, flight-based rant over; suffice to say, I felt much better when I stepped off the plane in Seattle.
I met my brother Chris in Seattle, and he very generously paid for my hostel room there (in fact, I haven't paid for accommodation for a long while!) Although we were both pretty exhausted from early-morning flights, Chris and I soon headed out to see the town - in the most random, unplanned way possible. This was good, though; we wandered over to the central market, and below it, we discovered a very curious municipal theatre, which has had its facade decorated in many fantastic colours. Basically, everybody that walked past the wall of the theatre attached a pice of chewing-gum to the brickwork, until it became an attraction in its own right, pebble (gum) dashed with a series of fantasic, flourescent, bright and fruity colours. Thanks to an American family who lent us a stick or two, Chris and I added our contribution to this spectacular but decidedly gross attraction. And after a trip to several of Seattle's most famous architectural marvels, including the Shining-inspired Central Library (blood-red walls, floors and ceiling, anyone?) and the Spaceneedle, we ended up at the EMP. The EMP - Experience Music Project - is probably the airguitarists' equivalent of Mecca, featuring huge exhibits on Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix (both Seattle-local), in addition to an epic audio-visual rock music chamber called the skychurch, which has the unfortunate side-effect of keeping people enthralled and gaping-mouthed for a preposterous amount of time. Funny to people-watch, though!
Next day, it was time to jump the border. Of course, this was one of the more dangerous border crossings in the whole of my travels - there's no telling what these 'mounties' will do - but as it happened, it was all remarkably smooth and boring. We finally arrived into Vancouver at about 6pm, but there was no time to rest, as Mum and Dad met us at the station with utter determination to storm the Vancouver Art Gallery that evening. So, after dropping our stuff at the hotel (a hotel. HOTEL. My god, it's like traveller-Nirvana) we headed out. The Surrealist exhibition at the gallery was of course spectacular (with works by Magriette, Miro, Dali etc), but by 9pm, when the gallery closed, I was beginning to feel sympathy for Miro, who starved himself in order to send himself into an inspirational dream-like trance. Fortunately, the cure was quick in coming, and after a rather stupendous injection of beef (mmm, ribs) I felt muchly refreshed - ready to see all that Vancouver had to offer.
Sadly, this did not mean bear-wrestling and wild-wolf taming (I know, that would have made for a rather exciting entry). Nonetheless, Vancouver is SURROUNDED by nature, which meant a pretty different and clean urban experience. It's also a mercifully laid-back city, which is lucky, because I wasn't about to climb any mountains (or so I thought!) On Wednesday, we hit Stanley Park and walked around the bay. I ran into someone I sat next to on a bus from Savannah to Atlanta (thus confirming my theory that there are in reality only 217 people in the whole of North America), and in the evening, we went on a family cinema-trip to see the latest Harry Potter film. Busy(ish) day. The film itself was predictably effects driven, but won plaudits from mother for its cringeworthy epilogue. I was personally cheering for Voldemort, but I won't ruin the ending by revealing whether or not the dark wizards emerged on top (whatever the result, it was a clear moral victory for Helena Bonham Carter's funky wardrobe).
The next day, with the sun scorching the sky, we headed to Grouse Mountain, a pretty spectacular point on the Vancouver skyline. Now, there are two ways up the mountain: the cable car (the wimpy way up), or the rugged endurance trial that is the Grouse Grid (about as grindy as the name suggests). Mum and Dad clearly weren't feeling particularly grindy that day, so they immediately elected to take the cable car. Chris, rather naively, decided that he was going to run up the mountain (which is in part impossible), and I was left with a decision to make: which crew would I join?! The decision was made for me, however, when Mother discovered that a trip up and down the mountain cost $40, whilst the downward ticket alone cost $10. 'Up the Grouse Grind you go!' So, forlornly, like a Dickensian child or a martyred hero, I quietly turned away, and began my impossible, wolf-infested descent. (Am I overhamming this just a little?) Actually, the Grind itself was fantastic, set betwixed fir trees that leapt skywards and disappeared from view, and although the ascent was pretty hard work (though not on a par with the deathmarch to Machu Picchu), I revelled in the pure mountain air and the unexplicable sense of elation (maybe the air was a little thinner than I thought). The main thing, though, is that I walked up the mountain in just 58 minutes, whilst it took Chris 51 minutes to run the distance. Hah! Sibling superiority.
At the top, there were a whole host of activities to keep us all entertained, including comedy lumberjack shows (and no, that's not a joke), a grizzly bear pit, and a skilift that frightened the socks off various virtigo-prone members of the family (I was not included in that number, and my demand that the skilift go faster was not appreciated by said family members). There were also monumentous views over the bay, some of the best I've seen in my journey. It all took me back to Rio, but that's another story...
Next day, we had to check out and move hotels for the last couple of nights (which in real terms meant little more than an upgrade for me and Chris and a simultaneous downgrade for Mum and Dad - karmically deserved, you understand). After a late lunch and a LOT of loafing around we finally accomplished the move, but before we did, I suffered a much-needed encouter with the barber that has liberated me from a blond curly explosion-themed hairstyle that was threatening to mutate into a wafro and consume us all. You'll all be glad to know that I now look somewhat less Viking and somewhat more American Civil War General (it's the sideburns that make the look) which is at least geographically fitting if slightly chronologically akimbo. I look forward to razing the South again someday soon.
Last night, Mum, Dad and I checked out Gastown, the old part of Vancouver (probably the nicest part), which has a odd steamclock that is quite remarkable. I convinced Mum to buy an arty T-shirt in a gallery (so that's where she spent the money that could have taken me up the mountain - *consumptive cough and pathetic eyes*), and then we got sidetracked into a cheesecake restaurant (MAN, that was good cheesecake - really creamy...and...ummm..cheesy) before hitting Chinatown Market. By the time we returned we were exausted, but fortunately, since we had a beautiful view over the bay from our room, Chris and I just whiled away the hours in front of the sunset. Mum and Dad were not allowed to come watch. (Only kidding).
Today has been great - a swim in the hotel spa, followed by a huge lobster-themed brunch, and then a trip to the Classical Chinese Sun Yat Sen Gardens, full of meditative charm and all that jazz. We're in the process of packing up, before we head out to the fireworks tonight (the Vancouver 'Celebration of Light', one of the premier fireworks festivals in the world, begins tonight - look for an update on the whizz-bang incredibleness in the next installment). I've had a lot of fun, and I'm really grateful to Mum and Dad for putting me up for a week or so. But I feel my feet iching, and I guess that means that the hobo-style travelling is about to recommence...Chicago, here I come...