Wednesday, 26 August 2009

End of the Line

No, it's not Optimus Prime's embarrassing great uncle. This is an Inunnguaq, standing on top of Whistler Mountain north of Vancouver. Innunnguaq apparently means "Imitation of a person" in the language of the Inuit tribes in the north of Canada, but it's also becoming a universal Canadian symbol of welcome for travellers. So it's being used as a symbol of next year's Vancouver Olympics, an awfully long way from Inuit country as the pedants are keen to point out.

This seems an appropriate way to finish this blog, as warm welcomes and extreme generosity have been perhaps the most memorable feature of the last 6 months. Since I left home I've been welcomed in 22 separate homes (ok, one of the homes was a tent), including those of 9 Couchsurfers, and can't think of any where I've not felt relaxed and comfortable. Provided I don't stay too long - as they say, visitors are like fish; after 3 days they start to smell. I've also slept in 36 hostels, 1 hotel, 3 trekking huts, 1 other tent, 1 boat, and 5 planes, and they've all been good sleeps except the planes. And Milford hostel, boy could that big lass snore.

If I've any regrets it's that I didn't go off on any really unexpected tangents. But maybe I should treat that as a compliment to my initial planning. And an incentive to do it all again sometime, there's lots more countries that I could be touring when I should be working. And if the Scottish climate, which has taken only 5 days to give me a heavy cold, carries on like this, the next trip may be sooner than my bosses expect. But till then, thanks for listening.

People are strange, when you're a stranger

When being asked for highlights of the trip, I tend to slip into autopilot and reel off dolphin swimming, parachuting, scuba diving, mountain summits, getting my 1st proper suntan for 20 years etc. But it's the people who really made it memorable. In no particular order
  • The American who turned up in Bollywood without a penny, and now dubs generic Yankee voices onto local films when a local actor is playing an American but sounds nothing like one;
  • The girl who was dumped by her live-in partner of 3 years the night before setting off on 4 months of travels;
  • The girl who admitted she's still with her boyfriend because she likes his family, even though she's felt little for him for several years;
  • The oldest fellow-hosteller I met, a cheery Midwest American in Waikiki who looked about 90.
  • the 14 year old daughter of one of my couchsurfing hosts who calmly informed me that she had a boyfriend and a girlfriend but neither of them should expect her to be faithful (Mum named her after a song by The Damned, so I've little sympathy);
  • the girl travelling with her somewhat dissolute father, reluctantly meeting his costs rather than the other way round;
  • the Chinese girl who lectured me for half an hour on why the leadership were quite right to massacre the Tiananmen protesters;
  • the Kashmiri in Sydney who claimed to have had both Indian army and Pakistani-affiliated rebels interested in kiling him in his teens;
  • The guy at Darwin hostel haranguing his female companion about "What you just don't realise is that music is my LIFE" - my 'total wanker' detector has never gone off so fast or so loud.
  • And the weirdo who left his job for 6 months without pay, but still checked and answered his work email about once a week - oh hang on, that was me.

Lost in some good books

One last selection of the books that have kept me company through bus trips, coffee shops, and airport departure lounges various over the last couple of months. Apologies for inflicting this on my own readership, know it's not to everyone's taste. Wonder if my Blog will get any reviews?

Exit Lines - Ian Rankin: It's a mark of how little impression it made on me that I've no idea what my one previous Inspector Rebus book was called. This is his last adventure before retirement, and I still don't really like the character (much too snide and unnecessarily confrontational) or rate Rankin as a writer. Can anyone have overused the verb 'shrug' as much? It's addictive and the solution holds together, though of course it involves a ridiculous number of coincidences. And why do characters called Stuart always turn out to be murderers or weirdos?

First Among Sequels - Jasper Fforde: Desparate grab from a hostel bookshelf when I had nothing else to read. 5th book in a comedy series (lazily compared to Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett - aren't they all?) set in an alternate contemporary England, that assumes the hero can visit 'Bookworld' and meet every character in every novel ever published therein. And that she has to solve crimes that take place among them. I like the idea and Fforde is good for a few cheap laughs, but his inventiveness swamps the plot - it's hard to feel any tension when a new authorial device turns up to rescue the hero every time she's in trouble.

Fiasco - Thomas Ricks: Another dissection of the US disaster in Iraq, this time focusing on the military angle rather than the politics. US generals and most of their subordinates seem to have been as incompetent as Bush and his ideologically-blinded team. Ricks is more willing than Bob Woodward to draw conclusions rather than leave that to the reader. I think he relies too much on anecdotes drawn from his visits to the country, but still an absorbing and convincing account.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union - Michael Chabon: My favourite literary discovery of the trip (just edging out Andrew Greig) for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. This time he mixes alternate history, a whodunnit, and chess, so presses lots of my buttons. The book assumes that in 1940 European jews were given refuge in Sitka, Alaska (apparently an offer Roosevelt seriously considered making), and built a yiddish-speaking society there. The plot is a standard detective yarn, though with added doses of the 2nd Coming (well, 1st Coming as far as the Jews are concerned) and Holy War. The detective format, so soon after reading Ian Rankin, and featuring a detective with lots of similarities to Rebus, is perhaps too conventional for this to match Kavalier & Clay in my affections, but Chabon's a fantastic writer and I'm keen to see what else he's done.

The Android's Dream - John Scalzi: Bought partly to support a science fiction bookshop in Vancouver that actually sells only books! No figurines, fanzines, Star Wars tie-ins or other such mince. It'll never survive, but it won't be my fault. Scalzi's nothing special as a writer, and despite sci-fi setting (sort of a David Brin-type Universe in which Humans are lowly but resourceful) it reads more like a contemporary US-based thriller with hokey dialogue and added exposition, which Scalzi downloads in random plot-choking blocks. But it's a fun action-packed plot with some nice twists, and an oddly touching moment between a human and the alien that's about to eat him. Which tips it into the 'thumbs-up' column.

And that's all, folks!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Take me down to the ball game

Baseball doesn't get much respect in the UK, but much to my surprise it became my brother Mike's favourite sport during his 3 year sojourn in the US. Alan and myself went to one game with him then, at the widely disliked New York Yankees (the Man Utd of baseball) and we repeated the experience at grass roots level with the Vancouver Canadians last night. And I mean grass roots; we hadn't realised how humble an operation this is. Vancouver play in the Northwest League, which glories in "Short Season A" classification. This seems to translate as 'about 3 levels below the major leagues and based in an area with too few teams to put together a full season.' Sort of like the Magners League if it mislays any more teams.

Vancouver's play was distinctly humble too, a 10-3 defeat to Tri City Dust Devils, with two of their runs scored at the bottom of the 9th, i.e. meaningless consolation prizes. But baseball is a family occasion and no one seemed to mind much. About 2000 fans, well short of full. Maybe Vancouverites are keeping their powder dry for bigger events. The Ice hockey (or just 'hockey' to the locals) season starts soon, and the big one is the Winter Olympics next year, which in true Olympic style is dividing the population, many feel it's a complete waste of money. More negativity than I've sensed re London's Olympics, I'm guessing that Montreal's experience in 1976 (they finally paid off the associated debts a couple of years ago) makes Canadians pretty cautious about this sort of thing.
The big TV sport seems to be UFC - Ultimate Fighting, which can be spectactularly brutal but can also degenerate into a boring variety of wrestling. It doesn't get reported in the papers, but I've seen it on TV a lot, far more than boxing, and one bar we were in was full of people who'd come just to see that night's big fight.

As a dry run for the Olympics, Vancouver has recently been hosting the World Police and Firemen games. So no point in Alan or myself trying to impress the local talent...

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Trees

Canada has no shortage of trees (their finest rock band, Rush, even sang a song about them), but the locals still campaign hard to keep the loggers at bay from those they think are special. Which includes those on today's kayaking destination, Meares Island (7 km by kayak from Tofino, where we're staying). Apparently loggers had the whole place in their sights, but a groundbreaking 1980s campaign dissuaded them and was the start of a far greater emphasis on conservation. The benefits can be seen everywhere; Bald Eagles are common as muck, and this has been the finest year for salmon fishing that anyone here can remember.

It's ironic that one of the trees the conservationsists were trying to preserve was the Sitka Spruce, a native of western Canada, but better known in Scotland as the centrepiece of lots of ugly forestry. Even there the worst excesses are in the past, but I don't see anyone mounting campaigns to save them, as they're doing here!

With no human interference, Meares Island is covered in thick temperate rain forest. Not ideal walking territory, potentially rather harder than kayaking in fact, even though today was my first attempt at the latter since my teens. There were some alarming thunderclaps while we were out on the water, but the local sounds, channels and inlets were all flat and still except for motorboat wakes, and you would have to paddle appallingly to capsize the kayaks. Even Alan managed to stay dry.

Talking of intrepid sailors, I also had another encounter with my old pal Captain Cook in Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island. Yet another coastline he touched on his travels, and everywhere he visited seems impelled to raise a statue to him.

2 more nights here, 2 more nights somewhere between here and Vancouver (we haven't yet decided where), 3 more nights in The World's Most Livable City (per this year's survey in the Economist) and then home. Whether I want to be returning to a country that can concede 4 goals to Norway is a question I'm still pondering.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Doon the watter...

...on an inflatable raft, to the constant accompaniment of "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!" from one of my fellow crewmembers. And as certain rocks approached, I thought she might be right, especially with turkey vultures hovering overhead, looking like they felt lunch was just a matter of time. But these rafts are deceptively robust, even when stuck on the rocks. We mislaid an oarsman at one point, and his name was Mackenzie, but I'm evilly delighted to say this was Alan rather than me, and nothing hurt but his pride.

This was about 3 hours upriver from Vancouver, and in lovely conditions, but today we're going in the opposite direction, across to Vancouver island, where I hope to see the sun again. Vancouver is soaking today (the weather gods must have heard us discussing a game of golf), and even when dry, has been grey and hazy throughout our stay. I can tell there are impressive mountains nearby, but it's hard to get excited about them when all I can see are fuzzy silhouettes. But this means temperatures are ideal for walking and cycling in town, especially in Stanley Park where the tourists tend to congregate. And it's ideal for homeless people - apparently in Canada they tend to congregate here as it's the one city with a year-round climate where it's more or less comfortable to be homeless.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Mr Mackenzie, I presume?

Vancouver, less than 2 weeks to go, and at last I've met my ideal travelling soulmate. Able to share my appreciation of unchilled ale, debate the relative merits of Buffy and Doctor Who, and join me in deploring American pronunciation ("there's no such thing as 'aluminum'!") And an even more pathetic excuse for a suntan than mine. Yes, my brother Alan is in town. Only drawbacks are having to listen to his sleeptalking and indulge his enthusiasm for culinary experimentation - tonight's vegetarian restaurant has gone down in the 'learning experience' file.

Our couchsurf host Rain (pictured with us - as usual, the level of hospitality goes way beyond what we've any right to expect) exposed us to more culinary experiments at what must be about the world's biggest ice cream parlour. I don't think we're ready for wasabi, garlic or curry flavours, and I'm sure these and many others are produced for the shock value - having sampled them I can't imagine anyone actually ordering a full cone of the stuff. But with over 200 other flavours there's no shortage of palatable alternatives.