The Chiefly Outdoor Appeal of Squamish

Situated between the bustling city of Vancouver and the ski-haven of Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway is the district of Squamish. Its name is approximate to the language of the First Nation people who were the original inhabitants of the valley since around 5000 years ago. Navy explorer George Vancouver encountered Howe Sound in 1792 during his expedition along the Pacific Coast, but the first European settlers arrived in 1888.

The district of Squamish spreads over various villages – Downtown, Dentville, Valleycliffe, North Yards, Garibaldi Estates. Whilst cafes and pubs will have their locals, I didn’t detect a huge sense of community around town. Perhaps the autumn season had dragged everyone into a slumber state, but it all felt a bit flat. This sense of detachment wasn’t helped by the unease of access to other villages without a car. Cabs cost around $15 or you can take local transit for $1.75 a ride. Without a car, options for getting out to Whistler and Vancouver are limited to coach services from Greyhound or Pacific Coach Lines. A journey to Whistler takes 40 minutes.

Many people live in Squamish and commute to work in Vancouver which is 68km (1 hour) away to avoid the higher rent prices, but housing availability is falling here. Residents are also concerned by the lack of available jobs which is an additional contributor towards forcing people to leave. Squamish previously had a large logging industry which eroded after closure of the pulp mill. My Air BnB host appeared to be one of the luckier residents in financial terms, having a job as an estate agent in town.  There is definitely hope for more investment in public infrastructure to help create more jobs and reduce the gap between high and low wage-earners. The Liberal Party’s promise of $125 in funding towards infrastructure development certainly appealed to voters here, the majority of whom chose Pam Goldsmith-Jones as their MP in the October 2015 federal election.

As a consequence perhaps of the lack  of material industries, tourism is now the main source of income for the local economy. Squamish is considered to be the outdoor recreation capital of Canada. The opportunities for climbing, hiking, mountain biking, triathlon and windsports are aplenty and are celebrated during the summer months through various festivals such as the ‘Test of Metal’ bike race. A music festival is also held in August which featured the likes of Drake in 2015.

There are eight provincial parks in Squamish, one of which is the Stawamus Chief park popular with climbers for its challenging granite rock cliff-faces. One of the largest granite monoliths in the world, hikers can tackle the ~5km return hike up to the three peaks of the Chief, which takes roughly 4 – 5 hours to complete depending on your fitness level and how many peaks you target. The trail leads you on a steep ascent of around 600m elevation gain that involves stairs, ladders and rope/chain-assist sections. It will be worth the aching thighs when you reach the top of the fir tree-dotted dome and are greeted by wonderful views of glistening Howe Sound and surrounding snow-capped peaks.

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Less aesthetically pleasing is the view of the tired-looking town below. It’s almost as if a jumble of characterless box buildings have been squashed hurriedly amidst great scenery, and they look quite out of place surrounded by such mighty natural superiors. (The photo below was one of the more flattering shots!)

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Expect wobbly knees on the way back down the trail and near the bottom, take a detour off to the left towards Shannon Falls Provincial Park for views of the pretty waterfall there.

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Experiences like the Chief hike certainly help point a traveller’s compass in the direction of Squamish. Whilst often overlooked by young tourists in favour of the commercial zeal and party-town feel of Vancouver and Whistler, there is something appealing about the modest urban development of Squamish, as this simply helps emphasise the range of outdoor activities available from the surrounding geographic features. The Squamish landscape has been featured in films such as Free Willy and Happy Gilmore. It’s easy to understand why people choose to live here – for the distance from its loud neighbours and the comparative quietness, and for the access to fresh, scenic outdoor areas and a subsequent healthy lifestyle. It’s therefore easy to understand why rising house prices and decreasing job opportunities are such a concern for residents.

A huge congregation of bald eagles roam Squamish between November and January. If wining and dining is your thing (and you have a designated driver for the evening!) there are also a few varied restaurants to choose from as well as pubs brewing local craft beers. Otherwise, autumn is perhaps not the best time to visit should you want to get a lot of outdoor activity out of Squamish. I look forward to returning one day in the summer when there is more of an energetic buzz around the place and warmer weather for getting out and about.

 

 

 

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An Autumn Weekend in Whistler for the Non-Skier

Host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler is a commercialised town that thrives off the stream of tourist activity which mounts in the run-up to winter. It’s similar in its appearance and character to the Rocky Mountain emerald of Banff in Alberta (think Swiss-style chalets and designer shops). Skiing is the main attraction here, but if powder isn’t your thing, don’t panic! There are still plenty of things to do on a long autumn weekend in Whistler without getting on the slopes.

Activities all Around

As an Olympic host city, you can expect premium quality from Whistler when it comes to available activities.

Hiking options are aplenty for all levels. You can join part of the 180km Sea-to-Sky trail which runs between Squamish and D’Arcy. A segment of the 33km section running through Whistler passes three lakes: Alpha, Nita and Alta, all of which have their own parks for eating and leisure. Trails are mainly flat and paved, attracting either those who fancy a slow stroll accompanied by coffee flasks and gossip with a friend, or those wanting an early morning solo powerwalk. Experienced hikers can attempt the more challenging 16km-return Rainbow Trail which starts from Rainbow Park on Alta Lake.

The west side of Alta Lake provides a great view of the mountains, even if they’re not sprinkled with snow. Kayakers and paddle-boarders can often be seen cruising along the water. Lost Lake is a secluded place where tourists escape to from the hustle and bustle of Whistler Village, and youths hang out and play guitar on the beach. It provides a great running loop for burning off the sweet treats that will inevitably find their way into your stomach if you visit Whistler.

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For those wanting to move at a faster pace, Whistler is also great for cycling. There are fun gravel routes for off-road biking near Lost Lake. If you stay at UBC Lodge in Whistler Creekside, bikes can be rented for $20 a day.

If you prefer more laid-back sports, Whistler is not shy of golf courses. There is also the swanky Scandinave Spa for those in need of a massage after a long day of hiking. Those tight on pennies don’t have to splash out though ($162 Deep Tissue Package – ouch!); UBC Lodge residents have free access to the hostel’s spa and sauna.

Fill me with Food

There are plenty of eating options available in Whistler Village that cater for various budgets and world tastes.

For a cheap and cheerful breakfast that will fill you up until the late afternoon, I recommend heading to Gone Village Eatery in Village Square where you can have hearty meals for around the $10 mark. Orders are taken and paid for at the counter and there is a washing area for to diners clean up their dishes themselves. This café is also located behind a cool bookstore.

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For lunch, El Furniture’s Warehouse offers a meal for only $4.95. Mainly filled with youths keen to watch ice hockey and NFL on TV, this place serves food that is nothing special (think burgers and mac ’n’ cheese) but it’ll fill you up for a few hours of wandering around. Dups Burritos makes tasty Mexican food priced around the $10 mark. For take-out, the renowned Peaked Pies has savoury and sweet options. Got cash to splash for dinner? Head to restaurants like Caramba! and The Keg Steakhouse for higher-end cuisine.

If visiting Whistler in the fall, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need a hot drink to warm your hands. Good cafes include Pure Bread and Moguls. Both are quite popular and hence pretty small when it comes to seating space, but the $5 cake slices look incredible! Moguls also offers many healthy savoury options.

Craving a sweet treat after an active afternoon? The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory will satisfy your needs. A dazzling display of decorated toffee apples, flavoured fudge, chunky cookies and hand-crafted chocolates awaits you. Naturally the prices in this chocolatier don’t match ‘Save on Foods’ and deciding on one item is difficult, but the chocolate chip cookie topped with dark chocolate, caramel, nuts and raisins is so worth that $7. Just be sure to brush your teeth extra well at bedtime… Another place to check out is Hot Buns Bakery for its famous cinnamon buns and crepes, while Cow’s Whistler sells ice cream and milkshakes made fresh in front of your eyes from a Prince Edward Island recipe.

For home-cooked meals, there are two large grocery stores in Whistler Village: IGA in the marketplace and Whistler Village Grocery Store in Village Square.

With so many more dining options available, it wouldn’t be surprising if you spent most of your money on food during your weekend in Whistler…

Ease of Entertainment

Most shops in Whistler cater for hikers, skiers and snowboarders but there are also fashion and jewellery outlets available including GAP, Pandora and Footlocker. Even if, like myself, you’re not into these things, you can still get some fun out of window-shopping the many stores along the Village Stroll.

Picnics can be eaten on the Medals Pavilion next to the Olympic monument. Here kids run around playing games, glamorous moms in ski-based attire drink smoothies… and the odd couple perform yoga exercises. You can observe the activity from the comfort of one of the big chairs.

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Worth a visit is the Squamish Cultural Centre just outside Upper Village. This exhibits First Nation crafts including Totem poles and canoe boats, with plenty of photos illustrating the connection of these people to the land. You’ll find out interesting information, such as the tradition that newborns are given one name at birth before receiving their permanent ancestral one at adolescence. One memorable photo depicted two mountain peaks which represent two princesses who begged their husbands not to engage in a war.  Entry to the museum costs $18.

Whistler is quite the party town, featuring many bistros that turn into cocktail and wine bars; public houses offering locally sourced craft beers; and three nightclubs. Promoters will often be on the street with big smiles inviting people to join their weekly bar crawl. The last BC Transit bus departs at 12.59am. Any later than this and you’ll be needing a cab.

Getting There and Around

Buses through town come regularly. A single journey in Whistler costs $2.50 (as opposed to $1.75 in the smaller nearby Squamish). Save yourself from rummaging in your purse for cash by paying $22.50 for 10 tickets at the visitor centre near the main bus stop. The staff here are bilingual and very helpful with recommending activities tailored to your interests. Free shuttles run to the Marketplace from November to April and from the Village to Lost Lake in the summer season.

If you’re not driving, Greyhound and Pacific Coaches are the main transportation services, taking two and a half hours to/from Vancouver. The latter is more expensive, however it does offer pick-up and drop-off at Vancouver airport and selected hotels.

Whistler to some is, like Banff, too touristy, plastic and expensive. Hosting the Olympics inevitably boosted redevelopment of its commercial face. It’s definitely not like the more simplistic rural Canada I fell in love with, and yes, you are bound to encounter the odd rich  foreign skiing-nut. However it’s definitely worth seeing just for the experience and for the natural beauty that surrounds the village. Don’t feel unwelcome because you haven’t brought your skis with you; come along to Whistler for a weekend and treat yourself to a bit of commercial charm.

 

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Would you like to take this article on the road with you? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Appreciating the Simple Life in Tofino and Ucluelet

It would be easy to say “Is this it?” after arriving in Tofino. Located on Vancouver Island about a five hour drive upland from Victoria (depending on the number of tourist stops taken on the way), you arrive in a small town and it may not be immediately obvious what the appeal is to the mass of tourists that come here. There is no symbolic institution or landmark as such and the view of the ocean offered can be found at many other areas around the island. So what is it that people love so much about Tofino?

The obvious answer is the beaches. There are lots of opportunities to give surfing a go, with Surf Sister being a particularly popular company for girls to learn with. Experienced surfers are tempted by the waves on Long Beach. Those less keen to take a dip can sunbathe amongst the driftwood on quiet Florencia beach, or admire the lovely sunsets on Tonquin beach.

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There’s also plenty of hiking on offer, with various boardwalk  and trail routes available including the Lighthouse Trail, Rainforest Walk and others within the Pacific Rim National Park. These will take you on a journey that features Western Cedar and Hemlock trees, colourful fungi and possibly the odd bear or two.

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But the beaches and these hikes aren’t the main features that set Tofino apart from other coastal towns.

My sister and I stayed in the Tofino Traveller’s Guesthouse on Main Street. It’s a lovely place with a cosy, relaxing ambiance. There was no reception desk which made the atmosphere more welcoming, with the main rule being to take shoes off upon entry. The soft sounds of Bon Iver and Matt Corby played in the kitchen and in the morning, the host would make waffles for everyone. Guests were very chatty with each other. Particularly memorable was seeing a couple in their sixties talking about life aims and societal pressures to a young punky girl who was wearing only a flannel shirt and her underwear. I couldn’t imagine them talking in other, more urban contexts.

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The hostel featured lots of mottos conveying deep meanings. Reading ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story’ made me feel restless and I had a sudden urge to stop thinking too much and just get on with personal projects. A poignant one referred to how people waste time devoting so much of it to something they don’t enjoy under the assumption that this will eventually allow them to do what they do enjoy…but this doesn’t happen. Reading this made me think of city life – how people in high-paying jobs tell themselves they’ll live the mundane office life with the 50 hour weeks just for a few years until they’ve saved enough money to escape to the country and live a restful life of part-time work. But as this lifestyle becomes routine and the income becomes comfortable, many abandon their vision for fear of losing security.

With its sleepy town-feel, Tofino definitely evokes a sense of the simple life. This is the kind of town where you can imagine the owner of the pub is best friends with the guy who runs the hardware store two blocks away, who happens to be related to the doctor at the hospital who is married to the lady who works at the cafe, who herself is sister to the owner of the pub. Friday night bonfires will always be favoured and new faces are welcome. The corporate world is completely alien and nobody is in a hurry. Routine is not regarded as boring but rather a guaranteed source of happiness, even if it doesn’t allow for ‘climbing the career ladder’ as such. Life just flows along at a nice gentle pace and people are content with it being this way.

This is why the fatal capsize of a whale-watching boat in October 2015 was such a momentous event. The sleepy town had to wake up to run an intense rescue operation that strained its resources and relied significantly on the personal initiative of boat-owning residents. It was a huge shock for the town psychologically and practically.

Located about 30km away, Ucluelet is even sleepier, with the main attraction on offer being the beginning of the Wild Pacific Trail. Once this had been completed, there was much twiddling of thumbs as my sister and I looked around for something else to fill our time with. We didn’t fancy paying $14 to go inside the small aquarium so went to Zoe’s Bakery and had some tasty carrot cake and frothy hot chocolate. The only other options after this seemed to involve eating more food, which wasn’t necessary.

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Instead we decided to turn up early to our rustic hostel. A wooden path led down to the water where boats dozed on the still surface. Here was a place of tranquility and creativity, and under this influence I found myself pouring out words onto paper.

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In the evening, the hostel manager invited the guests and some locals round for a bonfire. My sister and I got ourselves into a slightly awkward moment when we asked one of the local girls what she did for a living. Mistaking ‘server’ for ‘surfer’, we piped up with remarks of “Oh, cool!” only to unintentionally evoke less enthusiasm when she corrected us. She was from Toronto and I asked what she liked best about living in Ucluelet. She answered me with a frown and a tone that suggested she was puzzled by the question – “Because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” I agree that it’s lovely, but I wasn’t convinced of the credit of this statement. I believe there are many more stunning and unique places in the world that have more character to them.

The guy running the hostel first came here on a vacation from Vancouver and ended up staying for five years. Then he followed a girl to Europe for a year or so, only to return here to remedy his symptoms of withdrawal.

As they sat smoking weed and talking about the funny guy eating fries in the cafe today, I found it hard to relate to these people and understand the appeal of their lifestyle. Sure these small quiet towns were nice detoxes from the busier, more populated world, but did they not get boring after a few months of seeing the same faces and places every day? And if these people did interact with the tourists that come and went, did they not feel a burning sense of curiosity to follow in their footsteps and see more of the world?

However, what is interesting is that these two people in question came from the city to the countryside. They came from urban density to rural seclusion, from an area of domineering social norms to one allowing greater freedom and acceptance of individuality. In some sense one could say they had regressed from life in a fast-moving, technologically advanced setting to a slower, less developed pace. But they were happier in this way of life.

Perhaps that is the appeal of Tofino and Ucluelet; it’s not so much to do with their looks but their humble, quiet characters that welcome anyone and let them be themselves, rather than imposing an identity on them. To entertain oneself in these areas, more emphasis is placed on the environment than on consumer goods, on personal communication over technological sources. Residents might not have as many responsibilities nor make a tonne of money but they’ll likely be happier, healthier and have more time for themselves and others. As snobby as city-based people may want to be about such lifestyles, deep down they are probably a little jealous.

Tofino made me envision a quieter, simpler life – one in which I would have fewer professional accolades but a more care-free routine that gave me time to appreciate the small things in life. I day-dreamed of running a guesthouse for income, writing stories for pleasure and going for daily runs on the beach for leisure. It’s maybe the case that people spend too much time looking for the next big thing to do and not enough time enjoying the present. And so I’ve decided that this is what makes these towns so attractive to those they welcome; they offer an alternative lifestyle that requires so little to achieve.

 

Searching for Nature’s Treasures in Goldstream Provincial Park

Located off Highway 1 just under 20km from Victoria on Vancouver Island, Goldstream Provincial Park is a great stop en route to Tofino and a favoured destination among locals looking for a weekend walk with their dog. Parking is free, toilets are on site, and the staff in the tiny visitor centre will point out the park’s key areas on a map.

Autumn is a lovely time to visit this park as the maple leaves have a wonderful golden glow to them when they catch the sunlight, emitting that wispy wet sound as you wander through them. I spent much time staring at the ground looking for the perfect one to take away with me. Within these lush surroundings, the only fault is the faint sound of traffic from the highway nearby.

As you walk through the tunnel that remains fom the gold rush experienced here in the mid 19th century, you’ll come to Niagara Falls (a much smaller version of its eastern twin!) with a trail beginning on the right. There aren’t many signs so further on you have to follow the sight of flattened soil which highlights a path up to the right. Scramble steeply up and after leaping a few fallen logs, you’ll eventually reach the old railway trestle which, based on the number of Facebook cover photos I’ve seen that feature them, is quite a popular place with island kids.

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The park is most famous for its salmon run which takes place in mid October until December, featuring mainly Chum salmon as well as Coho and Chinook. I saw about 12 salmon struggle upstream to lay their eggs having journeyed from the Pacific Ocean after living there for the past three years. Conquering the current is quite a battle, with splashes erupting sporadically as the fish thrash to move upwards. Nests in the gravel are known as ‘redds’ and are chosen by the female, while the male guards the area. Her eggs, known as ‘roe’ are fertilised by the male after they have been laid. After a new life has been created through all this effort, the salmon will slowly die in the place where they were born. It’s quite the sacrifice! To add salt to the wound (or perhaps highlight the significant existence of the food chain in nature), bald eagles will eagerly feed on their corpses in the spring.

 

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Some visitors will come to the park for a 60 minute refreshing walk; others will spend a day exploring. I did the former but elsewhere in the 366 hectare park you can find a range of rich vegetation including red cedar and arbutus trees, while if you crave a workout there’s the hike up 419m high Mt. Finlayson.

When surrounded by such an abundance of natural goodness, it’s a shame that some visitors couldn’t put their Starbucks cups in the many bins provided in the park. But this is the risk when nature is easily accessible to urban society and the social habits that form within. The park is in close proximity to life in the fast lane, but as photos like this one below show, it’s a great little spot for when you need a breath of fresh air.

 

The Test of Time

How does one assess how they’ve ‘improved’ as a traveller?

Three years ago as I was getting ready for my first solo trip to Canada, I was both excitedly and anxiously curious about the places I would see and people I would meet, with no idea what to expect. I packed and repacked my backpack, stressing about being able to fit everything in. Upon landing in Toronto I had a swarm of butterflies in my stomach as I fluttered around the airport in a daze of confusion. Relief came when a man from a bus company approached asking if I was looking for a way to get downtown. I sat upright staring out of the window the whole way with a beating in my chest, too nervous to make conversation with anyone else. When I got off the bus in the city I had little idea of where I was or where to start, asking a girl who looked my age for directions with a squeaky voice. I had to spend five minutes psyching myself up to approach a group of people who were cooking dinner in my hostel.

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On the ferry to Vancouver Island, August 2011

Then, three years later in July I went back to Canada and the feelings were very different from the first time. Excitement was there, but of a different kind. There was no real sense of wonder about what it would be like; I was simply returning to what felt like a second home. I was like a child returning to my usual sweet shop on the corner to buy my usual treat, knowing that it would be there and I would enjoy it. Packing took little time and I glanced over my backpack like a protective parent less frequently. Gone were the butterflies as I strode through Vancouver airport’s arrival lounge. I still wasn’t sure exactly where I was going to get to my final destination, but it didn’t worry me like it would have previously. I calmly followed signs to the trains and confidently asked people questions when necessary. I then boarded a bus and sat back in my seat relaxed, exchanging smiles with an old man when I heard him make a joke to someone. I bought a ticket for the ferry to Vancouver Island and initiated a conversation with an older man and woman. It was only when I arrived at my final destination that the excitement really vamped up. On that first evening back in Canada, I felt immensely proud of how far I had come since my first travel experience alone.

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A boat trip around the island,  July 2014

So much assessment of a person is carried out using academic testing – systems based on objective, quantitative scoring. The education system in England and many other countries means that one only adopts a belief that they are improving at a subject if they receive an improved numerical score for an examination.  Even if someone feels they are understanding a topic easier, receiving a low or average score dents their self-belief. Students are pushed into a system where learning is about passing exams rather than developing a wider intelligence that can be applied to everyday life. However, some of those students who consistently receive the highest marks will have little confidence outside of the classroom in a new social environment. Their grades say little about their personal human development as a whole.

The numerical system of assessment doesn’t have to be used with travelling. There is no test to pass in order to impress anyone nor checklist to complete for someone else to approve,  but simply an experience for one to evaluate for themselves qualitatively. Real-life events allow one to see how far they have developed not as an academic in one specific intellectual sphere, but as a person in general. If a mistake is made, such as getting lost on a map or being conned by someone, there need to be less stress about the repercussions it will have on one’s future career – it is simply a useful life lesson. There is no rush to become better at travelling within a short time period, unlike the pressure a student can face to understand algebra or the Second World War in two weeks’ time. Travel really is one of the most independent, most effective, most fulfilling and most enjoyable forms of learning.

When I returned to Canada, my confidence and ability to travel alone had increased over the past three years not from three years of studying for a degree in London, but from the summers throughout this time when I went travelling. These were the times when the biggest tests were asked of me: the ability to organise myself; communicate with others effectively; cope with difficult situations; be decisive and use initiative; be constantly physically active and mentally alert. No longer were these tests being asked of me in the classroom, but in the real world. And one of the best ways to assess how I had grown as a traveller was to return to the place where it all began and compare the emotions felt. Of all the exams that I have taken on the way to completing my entire education and therefore preparing to enter the real world permanently, travelling has been my favourite and most valuable test.

 

Souvenirs and Sentimentality

One day as I  went to leave my flat for a class during my second year of univesity, I went to spritz myself with some body spray, but nothing came out of the can. I shook it and pressed down harder on the releaser, but there was no sound of jolting liquid from inside; instead all I heard was a pathetic gasp of empty air. I unwillingly put the can back down, feeling a brief sense of glum. I had other deodorants and perfumes that I could use, but for some reason I still left feeling incomplete, as if I’d lost something.

Then a week later, my watch stopped working. At face value it’s not a particularly special watch of huge monetary worth – a black leather strap wearing away on the inside, its face with its lightly scratched surface surrounded by a golden rim smudged with fingerprints. Most people wouldn’t look twice at it, probably thinking it was a piece of junk. I didn’t even wear it in or outside the flat and hardly even used it to check the time, using items of technology such as my phone or laptop instead. And yet just having it around provided a sense of comfort, so that when I no longer heard its faint clicking and instead saw its hand twitching weakly, I felt a pang inside.

Why was it that I was so moved by these items losing their function? They seemed so insignificant. Financially they were of minute value. But their sentimental worth was huge.

I found the watch when I was in Australia, having met up with my sister for a road trip up the East Coast. We spent a night in a hostel in Byron Bay, where it was attached to the base of the bed above me. For some reason it really caught my interest, and I lay in bed just looking at it. I knew that it had probably been left there unintentionally, and that I should probably give it into reception in case someone returned for it. But another part of me wondered if it had been left there on purpose, as a ‘gift’ from one traveller to another. In the end, I took it with me. At first I felt quite bad for proclaiming it as my own – had I not technically just stolen something? But I later came to believe that I really had been meant to take it.

A few months later I was in Canada, on my first proper solo backpacking trip, with the watch strapped securely to my left wrist. On my first full day I went to see Niagara Falls. As a girl used to the countryside over the city, my arrival in Toronto had been pretty overwhelming and I was still not quite at ease with the whole ‘going-it-alone’ process. On the bus back, we passed a sprawling lawn decorated with a flowerbed cultivated into the words ‘School of Horticulture’. The words rang a bell but I wasn’t sure why. I absent-mindedly looked at ‘my’ watch to check the time, only to fully comprehend what the tiny writing on its face said: ‘Niagara Parks Commission –  School of Horticulture’.

Excitement shot up inside me. It was a bit like the feeling you get when you finally crack the answer to a difficult question – it’s often at a time when you aren’t really thinking about it and instead the answer suddenly comes to you just like that, causing a feeling of accomplishment and disbelief. Despite the seemingly obvious word ‘Niagara’ (and image of a maple leaf), never before had I associated the watch with Canada. The overly-imaginative girl inside me began to believe it was a sign; the watch had indeed been left for me and I’d been destined to come here all along, to continue the journey that its previous owner had begun, and perhaps other owners before him/her. I didn’t want to accept the high possibility that it had just been pure coincidence. Before arriving I’d had doubts about my reasoning and ability to travel alone, but now my trip seemed to have a greater purpose, and any doubts were washed away, all thanks to a boring old watch.

The story behind the body spray isn’t as memorable. I bought it in a ‘Canada Drugs’ store a few weeks into the trip, simply because (I was increasingly conscious of my lack of showering and) it was cheap, to the extent in fact that it was almost tacky (‘Mystical – Our Version of Fantasy Britney Spears’) But it had a nice smell – like candyfloss. Whenever its fragrance filled the air after returning home, the fumes would transform my mind back to little moments from the trip where the aroma had been present: moments of joy and excitement; friendship and romance; sadness and frustration. It seems pretty fascinating, when you think about it, how powerful this sense can be for stimulating certain emotions.

From that trip onwards, the watch went on to become for me that special ‘thing’ that many people have and always treasure. It’s normally a cuddly toy that one can snuggle with for comfort or childhood nostalgia, a special stone that acts as someone’s lucky charm, a poem written by a loved one, or a piece of jewellery passed down through a family generation. But for me, it was a plain old watch – an item that only I as the owner could understand the personal significance of. The watch is often a feature in my travel photos, yet few will probably pay much attention to it, viewing it as having only a practical purpose. But it’s the personal experiences surrounding such random objects that make them so special and worth holding onto. They are a gateway to a meadow of memories.

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It’s fair to say I can get a bit OCD about collecting souvenirs though. And by ‘souvenirs’ I don’t mean t-shirts or mugs bought from a shop at the airport, baring the country’s flag. When I returned home from Canada and reluctantly began unpacking, jumbled together in a plastic bag at the bottom of my bag was a bunch of travel tickets and scrunched-up receipts from certain Canadian shops; dog-eared tour brochures and ripped maps; scraps of paper on which I’d written notes of bus times or the name of a musician I’d heard; pebbles and flattened grass stalks; wrappers and labels from confectionary and drinks specific to that country. I knew it looked slightly OTT, and yet when I discovered later that one of the chocolate wrappers had been put in my bin (mother!) I rushed over in horror to remove it and place it delicately in a box that would later become devoted to travel souvenirs, as if returning an abandoned baby to its cot. Some might say this is the behaviour of a person with worryingly excellent stalking potential, but fresh from the trip I was just so desperate to cling onto every memory.  Each random item took me back to experiences that I wanted to remember, either because they made me feel proud, happy, amused or curious.

Now I’m a little more relaxed when it comes to my souvenir-hoarding, by that meaning I’ve removed the presence of food-related memoirs (mainly because it just makes you crave something you can’t access in your own country). But I stand by the other assortments, curious as to whether, looking through them again in 40 years, they would spark a recollection of some personal event or emotion. I think on the whole, the weirder one’s collection of souvenirs, the more interesting stories they have to tell. It’s fair enough for someone to return home with a load of expensive items from Duty Free, or famous gifts from the Tourist Office shop, but it’s unlikely that these items will provide a special memory of a place. Furthermore, everyone can take a photo of one famous amazing site, but photographs alone can’t necessarily remind one of a unique memory related to it.

You might be wondering how I managed to keep a 75ml can of body spray going for two and a half years. I think that sub-consciously  I was conserving it, not wanting to finish it because that would mean the ending of a tie to certain memories. And so when there was nothing left in that can it was briefly a sad moment, because it appeared to reflect the loss of a link. Likewise, seeing the watch sit silent seemed to signal the end of something, as if a chapter had been closed. Canada was the story I’d been forced to stop reading early because an upcoming degree required other commitments,  and I was reluctant to forget the storyline and the characters completely. The spritzes of spray in the months after acted as a reminder; snippets from the plot I’d immersed myself in. Whilst I had fantastic stories to tell from countries elsewhere afterwards, Canada continued to top the list for the book I found hardest to put down. Now that the scent would no longer hover through the air and the watch no longer tick along, it was as if there were no more words to read –  it was time to accept that, two and a half years on, the trip was officially in the past and no longer a new, glossy book on my memory shelf.

Of course, this doesn’t at all mean that the memories are gone forever. But when one places so much sentimental value on an object, it is easy to feel that a connection to an experience has been weakened in some way. Some people might think trying to maintain strong attachments to travel memories through the form of objects is lame. But what’s wrong with trying to retain a nostalgic association, if the experience really meant something to you? I don’t think people should feel embarrassed about holding onto certain mementoes from a trip because they might seem pointless, unfashionable or weird to others. At the end of the day, it was your personal experience and only you can understand the sentimental worth of something.  Hold on to anything that made you feel anything, because then in later years you at least give yourself a chance to reflect and remember.

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Relevant links: Souvenir Finder

Pine Cones & Brown Bears: The Things We Can See From Running

The end of my degree is fast approaching and I’m starting to think about the things that I will (and won’t) miss from university. While in time I may indeed start to miss 9am seminars, hoarding through countless books and articles late in the library, filling in footnotes on essays, and the ear-splittingly aggressive chants of the hockey girls in the union bar, it will be my time in the university’s running club that I’ll miss most.

Presiding over a sports club has had a greater emotional impact than I expected. Being a ‘figurehead’ inevitably makes one more passionate about the sport they represent, and subsequently keen to encourage others to share this enthusiasm. There has been nothing more fulfilling than seeing people show up to a first session with a pessimistic outlook, only to see them again a few weeks later, finishing the session with a smile and saying, “I’m really glad I made myself do that extra set.” Nobody probably notices the little beam of delight on my face when I hear such comments, or watch someone who originally couldn’t complete the warm up running with a new fluidity. It’s a sight that inspires me for my own running too. I’ve witnessed people do things that they originally insisted they couldn’t, simultaneously surprising myself with how much I enjoy and can cope with being a ‘leader’ of a large group. The experience has highlighted how reciprocal the psychological effects of running with others can be, regardless of age or ability.

But the great thing about encouraging others to run, and being encouraged by them, is that it doesn’t just have to take place in school or university. It can be done anywhere, including when travelling. I’m not sure I would have adapted so comfortably to my role was it not for my help-exchange experiences. It was during an evening run in Canada when I particularly learned how when it comes down to significant circumstances, anybody can take the lead.

My first homestay experience was in British Columbia, where on one evening I was asked by a mother to take her 12 year old son out for a run. Ice hockey season would be starting soon and he needed to get fit. The family lived on a farm near Shuswap Lake, which we would go swimming in with the dogs and horses. I stretched outside, admiring the melting beams of light oozing from the lowering sun onto the placid surface, until the boy appeared reluctantly. We walked down the sandy drive to the road not saying much, my comment on it being a “lovely evening for a run” provoking only a greater look of dread on the boy’s face. I didn’t know the area well at all, nor the boy’s level of fitness. Watching him swing his arms half-heartedly by his rather tubby torso, head down as he scuffed his trainers over the pine cones on the gravel, I figured we would just go for a gentle jog for a couple of miles. Cars barely touched the road that was sandwiched between dark sheets of fir trees.

The sweet smell of pine fragranced the air as we set off. A delicate humming of midges serenaded my ears, soon interrupted by the sound of the boy panting behind me. Eh oh. Was I going too fast? I didn’t think anyone had mentioned asthma..? I told him to think about his breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth – wary of sounding patronising…but also of causing my host’s son to collapse. When I glanced behind me to make sure he was still alive, a frown of concentration was etched on his face as he inhaled deeply before blowing out, his eyes fixed straight ahead of him determinedly. “Good! That’s much better,” I said encouragingly. He nodded his thanks, eyes still focused ahead. I considered trying to make conversation, only to decide it wouldn’t help with his rhythm. Occasional calls of “Keep it up!” and “You’re doing really well!” received no verbal response. And so I carried on running in front, letting the sound of pine needles crunching under my trainers entertain me instead and distract from any awkwardness.

A few painfully un-conversational minutes later, the road curved uphill slightly to the right. I had no idea where we were going but carried on regardless, staring at the grey tarmac as if it might contain chalk-written signs telling me something funny to say to lighten the mood. Suddenly the boy piped up with breathless gasps: “Okay… we should probably…start talking now… so that…the bears don’t come.” My head jerked up in alarm. Bears? Nobody had mentioned bears! The faint, innocent smell of lemon in the air suddenly became blotched with an overriding aroma of panic. But being the ‘adult’ here, I told myself I had to remain calm. I swallowed and attempted a casual, “Oh, okay,” hoping I didn’t sound too squeaky, before offhandedly suggesting we turn back. “Yeah,” the boy replied earnestly with a greater fluency of speech that seemed to reflect his new-found authority, “and you should probably run behind me now, because although I may not be too great at this long-distance stuff, I can sure run fast when I have to!”

I bit my lip, trying not to laugh as I obediently slowed to let him overtake. His sudden entrance into protective mode was adorable, providing a brief distraction from the startling issue at hand. “Oh I’m sure we’ll be fine, but yeah, good idea,” I said in a confident tone, before immediately casting a fleeting look over my shoulder at the pine trees to the side. “If you see anything, just follow me,” the boy instructed, as I just avoided stepping on his heels after another cautious glance behind me. I asked him about school and his interests, the words ‘bear bear bear’ running through my mind in time with my quickening footsteps. As he explained the rules of ice hockey to me, I tried to decide which would sound better: ‘I’m really sorry, but your son had a cardiac arrest’, or, ‘I’m really sorry, but your son got mauled by a bear’. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

But gradually through maintaining conversation I became more relaxed and the frequency of anxious peeks over my shoulder decreased. While I would continue to encourage him with desperate utterances of “That’s it, pick up those feet!” and “Doing great!”, he would puff “Almost there,” over his sagging shoulders, which would rise again resolutely every time I urged him on.

The sense of urgency caused the boy’s running to pick up immensely. We arrived back at the bottom of the drive exhausted from our mad dash, the boy bending over double puffing away. ‘He must hate me,’ I thought to myself as I wiped the sweat off my brow. But when he stood up straight, spread across his face was a grin of both relief and pride. “It’s true, you can run fast when you have to!” I remarked teasingly, and I held my hand up for a high five. The boy returned it, sealing what became the beginning of a great ‘brother-sister’ relationship for the remainder of my stay. I felt proud of him, knowing that he probably hadn’t run that fast for such a distance before. And I felt proud of myself too. Having never had a younger brother, just trying to persuade an unfit lad to keep running whilst being responsible for his welfare was a new enough experience, before the small matter of bears came up.

Being in a position of responsibility had made me act more calmly than I probably would have if alone, simply because I felt a duty of care to someone; a sense of duty that would have appeared with any child. And at the same time, the young boy had adopted a protective persona that disguised his real fear, feeling that it was his duty to take charge because of knowing the area best, and because of this belief that, as the male, he should look out for the female guest.  A true little gent. Or at least I thought so until it occurred that he’d organised things so that I would be the first to be eaten…

This memory is what always comes to my mind when people ask how I can enjoy running so much. It can do so much for human relations, mainly because of the various contexts in which it can take place. Everyone knows that marathon runners form great friendships because all share a sense of accomplishment, which they have achieved having helped one another get through the process. But this effect of running doesn’t only come from huge distances or competitive settings. In this instance, the boy and I had become closer through a shared sense of fear, with the act of running helping to bring us together through our mutual support and dependence. Someone comparing the before-and-after scenes at the bottom of the drive couldn’t have failed to notice how paradoxical they were, following just 20 minutes of running. I’ve continued to see such sights whilst training with my university team mates.

It only really hit me recently that there probably wasn’t actually any real danger of being chased by a bear – it was perhaps a rumour that the boy’s young, gullible mind had believed. Or maybe he had even made it up so we could head back early, thinking that the girl with bright blonde hair and a funny accent would probably fall for it. But even if that was what happened, I’m glad for it, because of how much the experience helped me get the most out of running while at university. I’ll truly miss walking out of Regents Park with stories and special moments to look back on from the training session, but if I keep running, I know that there will be so many more of these to come.