A Bus, a Backpack, and a Blessing in Disguise

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 “Don’t lose your passport” must be one of the most-heard pieces of advice given to the young person by their parents before they begin their travels. The gateway to one’s adventure, it seems like the most obvious and significant item that could go missing. So what about the backpack? It is, afterall, the locker to your life during your time away. The love-hate relationship you develop with it from acquiring achy shoulders after walking with it all day, combined with your sigh of relief at seeing it emerge on the conveyor belt, make it almost indifferent to a human travel companion.

This is something that’s particularly true when one is travelling alone. Your backpack becomes your loyal friend who you love to see when you wake up in the morning, but occasionally grow frustrated with for following you everywhere for the rest of the day. It only takes a week of its sole company to appreciate it so much that you begin taking for granted just how important it is. Whilst losing backpacks in transit is common, the location of the traveller in the airport means that on the whole, one can expect to find experienced guidance and a swift resolution of the problem. If someone is with other people, there is the emotional and practical support present to help dry their tears of stress and lend them clothes for a few days.

But when you’re on your own in a random part of the country, who will be there to support you? This was the exact question I found myself asking outside an empty bus station when I lost my backpack, halfway through my first sole travelling experience, aged 19.

***

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I viewed travelling alone as a more do-able prospect after meeting someone who was doing a help-exchange with my family friends in Australia. The system was simple – you did around six hours work a day for the family and received free food and accommodation in return. It seemed like a great way to save money whilst learning about a country’s culture first hand. Seeing this guy become a valued member of the household was touching and I liked the idea of it for myself.  Inspired by his experience, I began planning some for myself in Canada.

However, being biased I assumed my new friend had simply been lucky – surely not all families could be so welcoming? To invite a stranger into your home with your children and possessions seemed risky. After the increased media-hype about child abuse in care homes, I couldn’t help but feel unconvinced about the ability of a family to welcome someone they met through the internet so easily into their life.

I had a week of sleeping in hostels before I would experience this for myself though. And indeed, that one week was enough to confirm to me just how important the backpack is to an independent traveller. Being my first time alone in a foreign country, I was borderline obsessive-compulsive about its security for the first couple of days while in Toronto. I doted on it like a baby, making sure I was super-careful doing up the zip so as not to strain it, and reluctant to get any dirt on it. Then I landed in Calgary to explore the Rockies and embraced the knocks and scuffles the backpack would inevitably receive from various rural activities. Hoisting it onto my back every morning before a hike, its company made me feel like I was on a real adventure. I was experiencing huge senses of personal achievement and my backpack was the one consistent partner who understood. What had begun as a protective arm over it as it sat by my side evolved into a gesture of fondness and appreciation for the feelings of support and security that its presence produced.

***

My first help-exchange in British Columbia was on a horse farm. The week went fast and by the end of it, as pleasant as my hosts were, I still felt separate from them. I’d been so busy working that I hadn’t had a chance to immerse myself in their way of life. And yet I sensed that this wasn’t something they looked for from the scheme, instead viewing it as the share of a practical favour, with no strings attached. How included I was seemed completely contingent on how useful I had been, and my sceptical beliefs were reinforced. ‘What was I expecting from one week’s stay anyway?’ I thought as I filled (and refilled) my backpack.

It was a sweltering hot day on August 16th as we arrived late at the bus station. I hurried through the depot and gave my backpack to the bus driver to store without even thinking about the need to tag it, since my journey was direct anyway. Our friendship had reached that stage where I was taking its constant company for granted, and I presumed I’d see it again in a few hours. The family thanked me for all my help and then walked back to the car without looking back. Feeling like I’d already been forgotten, I boarded the bus with my smaller bag.

The bus picked up a fault, so we had to change at Kelowna. I went to retrieve my backpack but the driver assured me it would be put onto the correct bus, so I left him to it. I was the only person getting off next and began feeling excited about my second home-stay as the driver went to fetch my luggage. “A green backpack?” he asked uncertainly as he rummaged through. “I don’t see one here.” Silently blaming his eyesight, I went to look myself. But it wasn’t there; my companion wasn’t there. There was no feeling of comfort at the sight of its bulky shape. Butterflies began to flood my stomach. He asked if I’d put a tag on it, and shook his head disapprovingly when I blushed and said no. “Where do you think it could be?” I asked with panic rising in my voice. The station was closed, so he suggested I ring the Kelowna bus depot.

I frantically slotted dollar coins into a phone box as the driver stood waiting awkwardly beside the bus. The lady in Kelowna’s office couldn’t see a backpack anywhere and suggested it was on the bus to Vancouver. I dialled the number she gave me immediately as sweat drops gathered on my forehead – a mixed effect of the heat and my sudden stress. The bus driver came over to check my progress. Nobody was picking up. He scratched his head and hesitated before saying “I’ve gotta go,” with a shrug of his shoulders. I watched the bus turn the corner and disappear out of sight, leaving only clouds of gravel-dust behind. Suddenly everything seemed quieter. That was the point where it hit me that I now really was on my own. The apprehensions I’d had a year earlier about travelling alone were unfolding and the tears began falling. I felt like the stupidest and unluckiest girl in the world at the same time.

30 minutes and a list of furiously-crossed-out unsuccessful numbers later I reached the correct number for the Vancouver office, only to find it had closed for the day. Frustrated, I crossed the road to buy a drink from the gas station and sat on a bench outside this empty depot, thinking to myself ‘Mum and dad can’t help you now.’ Trying to be rational, I told myself that most importantly I still had all my essentials, including my passport.  In the meantime I’d just have to find my hostel for the night and try the Vancouver office again in the morning. But I was meant to be meeting my second hosts tomorrow. What use was I going to be to them without any clothes? I couldn’t work outside in the peep-toe sandals I was wearing. I had no number to contact them on, so I had no choice but to turn up simply to say that I couldn’t work for them anymore, because I had to go to Vancouver to find my backpack.

The next two hours waiting for my next bus were the loneliest two hours of my life. When it did arrive the driver asked if I had any luggage for the hold, so I told him what had happened. But my brave face had returned in the presence of others and I said with a laid-back manner that I’d ring the Vancouver office tomorrow – “it’ll be probably be there.” Climbing the steps onto the bus however, my face burned as behind me he exclaimed ‘Good luck!’ with a sarcastic snigger. That comment stuck in my head and I struggled to sleep in the hostel that night, filled with unease knowing that my travel companion wasn’t by my side. Wearing the same clothes from the day before, I rang the office early only to hear that nothing there fitted my description. My heart sank and I boarded my next bus reluctantly, anxiously anticipating my next host’s reaction to meeting me, luggage-less.

A blonde lady in an old VW was parked outside the tiny bus station. I felt like a child as I introduced myself with a squeaky voice and explained my problem.  With a drawl expressing both surprise and calm, she recalled never hearing this happen before and led me to the office to speak to the staff. A man and woman inside greeted her with a casual “Oh hey, Lisa”. It turned out they were her daughter’s neighbours. They gave me the numbers of potential stations my backpack could have been deposited at. I rang one of them and hesitated on the pronunciation of my new location. Lisa corrected me with a wink, adding, “You can give them my number to contact, honey.”

Lisa lived in a small town five minutes away. Bare trees dotted the dry brown hills that overlooked the sparse valley like bristles on a hair brush. “I’ve lived here my whole life”, she said proudly. Whenever a car did pass on the bare road, it was likely that Lisa would recognise them and flash a wave. We stopped by her daughter’s place to say hello. I went in for a handshake but she gave me a hug and said “Don’t worry, you can borrow anything,” when hearing about my backpack. They didn’t seem bothered at all. Lisa’s lovely house was a few minutes down the road. The sweet aroma of banana muffins filled the air in the huge kitchen. Country songs played on the radio, soon drowned out by the sound of her pug greeting me with yelps of excitement. I was shown upstairs to my room and offered a shower. “Just chill out today and make yourself at home,” Lisa said with a warm smile.

I collapsed onto my new bed next to my fresh towels and stared into space, overwhelmed. Only an hour ago I’d been fretting over my next move, biting my nails as I wondered where I’d be sleeping tonight. Now I was sat in a room with a toothbrush and clothes lent to me by the younger daughter, as if nothing had happened and I was a regular guest. The sudden change of situation stunned me. I’d never felt so grateful in my entire life. And I wanted to show it. So I put on the clothes and started weeding the garden, determined to show my appreciation and make myself useful no matter what.

In the evening the whole family came round and we sat outside drinking beers. They spoke about the latest town gossip, with me wondering how there was so much to say about such a small place. It was like being at home, only thousands of miles away. The next morning Celia and her fiancé offered me a lift to a second-hand store in Penticton. She sang along tunelessly to ‘Under the Bridge’, with Ben resting a hand on her leg. They planned to marry in Lisa’s garden. In the evening we took the pick-up down to the Similkameen River and spent a few hours fishing and shooting at tin cans, with Celia laughing at her photos.

I don’t know whether it was because I was wearing new clothes, but something about being in this place, with these people, made me feel like a new person. They lived in such a close-knit community and yet I knew that as long as I had a heart and a sense of humour, I would be welcomed into it. At first, losing my backpack had made me feel like I was missing part of myself, but now its loss brought a strange sense of new identity. With a greater dependence on other people had also come a greater willingness to integrate and share my experiences with them. Out jogging later on in the week I waved absent-mindedly at a passing car being driven by a guy I recognised from a house party I’d gone to a few days earlier. I’d been here less than a week and already felt like part of the neighbourhood.

I imagined turning up my previous hosts’ house with no clothes and knew they would not have been as sympathetic. My incentive to help this family out wasn’t from knowing it was a compulsory condition of the agreement, but from a desire to help in return for their generosity. Likewise I could tell that Lisa didn’t simply view me as a temporary employer. She was curious about my life and family, asking questions about us as if wanting to compare. In the car she sang along to Joni Mitchell on the radio, like my mum would.  And I really did see her that way – like a temporary mum. Help-exchanges aren’t necessarily meant to produce that feeling. They might cook for you, but the mothers of the house aren’t required to treat you like a child of their own. But Lisa did just that for me, when I needed that sense of comfort and care. On my last day I went to do my washing, but she said “Oh just leave it, honey, I’ll do it.” The only other person who had done my washing was my real mum. As we hugged goodbye at the station she said, “And remember, you’re welcome any time.” Sometimes I think people say that because they feel they have to. With Lisa, I knew that she genuinely meant it.

I only spent a week with the family in that small town, but it was enough to restore my faith in the compassion of people from around the world towards others they have only just met. Some people will re-define the ‘rules’ of a certain agreement for the sake of helping another human being. I spoke of a backpack almost being like a backbone. When I lost mine, Lisa replaced it and restored my confidence in continuing my trip with an adventurous mindset. I really valued my backpack, but without losing it, I’m not sure I would have got so much out of this travel experience. I never did see my backpack again, yet the trip went on to become my most treasured to date.

***

Help-exchange websites: www.helpx.net / www.workaway.info

Three Days in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

I spent three days exploring Alberta’s Rocky Mountains back in August 2011.  Three days is of course inadequate for covering the whole of this vast area, but it’s enough time to get caught in its majestic spell. Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise are ideal stops for acquiring a taste of the Canadian Rockies.

Day 1

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Banff National Park is the third oldest of its kind in the world, having been established in 1885. The town itself is also the most populous in the region, and I was glad that my hostel was located away from Banff Avenue with its bustling tourists. Banff Y Mountain Lodge is situated right next to the Bow River, which is lovely to walk along during sunrise or sunset.

A bus from the town will take you up the base of Sulphur Mountain, and if you don’t have time or desire to hike your way up, it cost just under $35 (at the time of writing) for an adult ticket to take the 10-minute ride on the Gondola. This might seem pricey but the views are definitely worth it. Imagine being surrounded on all sides by nothing but jagged mountains studded with fir trees, as you look down like a royal on your kingdom below. I could have happily stayed up there all day. The gondolas run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer so technically, you could.

Views from Sulphur Mountain, Banff

Banff’s Central Park was heaving with midday activity. Lying down basking in the sun, head resting on my backpack, I was reminded of childhood camping trips as mothers dealt out food to their excited kids on picnic tables. It was such a pretty area, but I couldn’t help but wish there were fewer people around. There was something very commercial and glamorous about Banff Town, and if anything I felt slightly left out in my untidy outdoor clothes. I could see hardly anyone else with a backpack, and anyone who did have one was likely to be kitted out in fancy clothes that screamed ‘all gear no idea’. But maybe that was just because the more experienced travellers were out hiking on a mountain somewhere.

I’d heard that Jasper, also a World Heritage Site, was quieter than Banff and contained more wildlife, so had high hopes as I boarded my Brewster bus in the early afternoon. At one point in our journey the bus slowed to a halt. I looked towards the front, wondering if we’d broken down and starting to wish I’d stocked up on more food at the supermarket in case. But no, the bus driver had simply spotted a black bear on the side of the road. I scrambled out of my seat to look through the window on the other side and just caught a view of its large rear as it sneaked behind a bush. A few people on the bus laughed at those tourists who’d got out their cameras excitedly. This was obviously a sight they were used to.

Continuous mountains towering like statues above sparkling-blue lakes dominated the scenery as we carried on along the Icefields Parkway. The air conditioning on the bus stopped working and I grew more impatient, itching to be on my feet again. I instantly noticed a difference upon getting off the bus in Jasper Town. It felt more homely and natural here. I’d booked two nights at the HI-Jasper, which was located 7km southwest of the town. The staff at the tourist information centre will happily book a taxi for you, as buses run less frequently in the evening. A guy in his twenties with long hair picked me up. He must have been drinking coffee all day because he was full of energy, constantly making jokey observations about the tourists as he nodded his head in time to ‘Give it Away’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers whilst the taxi climbed the steep hill up to the hostel.

I walked up some steps into a rustic building, where Fleetwood Mac was playing in the reception. My dorm contained 28 bunk beds and I was reminded of those hospital wards you see on films about World War Two. A tiny Vietnamese girl was in the bed above me. I introduced myself and asked if she wanted to go for a wander outside with me – a decision I soon regretted as I found myself being attacked by midges. Her name was Wen and she was painfully shy and with limited English. If I’d been slightly anxious about travelling alone in a country that spoke my first language, I couldn’t imagine how apprehensive this girl was.

Day 2

I rose early and packed a small bag, excited for my busy day ahead. Jasper Tramway was about 20 minute’s walk up the road from the hostel. Unlike the Banff Gondola, larger carriages carried groups of us up to Whistlers Mountain, which stands at 2464m high. Puffy clouds surrounded us and the cold air hit me immediately as I stepped out of the tram. As I stood waiting for gaps in the clouds to appear and reveal the view below, I was joined by a group of Chinese tourists who insisted that I be in a photo with them.  After my two minutes of feeling like a celebrity I proceeded with the 1.5km hike up to the summit of the mountain. As I climbed higher over the loose rocky terrain, the air gained a greater sting in its bite and I began to regret wearing a playsuit that showed my bare legs.

Teeth-chattering views in the Canadian Rockies

The views were even more incredible that those on Sulphur Mountain. I was stood level with the mountains, their sharp snow-capped peaks poking up for miles in front of me, with wispy clouds floating lazily between them. I stood gazing in mesmerisation, until a man approached and asked dubiously “Aren’t you cold?” Feeling like I’d been woken from a dream, I turned to him and insisted I was fine. “I’m from Yorkshire,” I joked. He didn’t look convinced. I didn’t want to leave but ten minutes later the chattering of my teeth told me it was probably a good idea.

There was a souvenir shop at the bottom of the tramway and I appreciated the fact that, for once, I could find my name on the gifts! A shuttle bus ran down to Jasper town, from where I would begin my afternoon tour with Sundog Tours. There were only seven of us and I was the youngest and only sole traveller, but because it was a small group I didn’t feel swallowed up. If anything, I felt like everyone was looking out for me, even though I didn’t crave it, and it was quite touching. Our first stop was Maligne Canyon with its steep gorges and gushing falls. Then we were driven onto Maligne Lake, slowing every now and then to make way for a group of care-free mountain sheep taking over the road.

Our group joined a few others as two young guys with ear plugs took us out on a boat trip to Spirit Island, where the magic really began.  The name ‘Maligne’ (or ‘malignant’ in English) at first seemed unsuitable for an area of such beauty, but I soon started to understand its relevance. The views were spellbinding – like something from a fantasy film. Huge glacier mountains looked down on the shimmering water, the colour of which was a turquoise-blue unlike anything I’d ever seen before, surrounded by forests on either side. It was an infectious sight, and one could almost believe that there was poison in the lake to make it such an incredibly rich and unique colour. The lake was placid and so inviting, but who knew what secrets were hidden underneath.

Majestic views of Maligne Lake from Spirit Island will put a spell on you

When the boat got back to shore we went for a hot drink in the cafe. A Belgian couple sat with me and asked where I was from. Upon learning that I was English the woman sat up with interest and said “Oh! So, do you know how Amy Winehouse died?” I couldn’t help but feel amused. Of all the questions she could have asked me, this was the first one! The man remarked how unusual it was to see people my age on their own here, and that made me feel quite special. As the bus took us back through the Maligne Valley and passed Medicine Lake with its sinister grey water, I realised that I was living in dreamland, and pinched myself when I thought back to the stunning places I’d been that day. My thoughts were interrupted by the bus stopping again, this time because the driver had spotted an elk in the bushes. I could just make out its huge horns.

In the hostel that evening I met a girl from South Korea, an American woman and an Australian girl who was taking the same tour as me the next day. Four people from different areas of the world chatting together – that was a new and exciting experience for me during my first solo travel adventure.

Day 3

On this morning I got kitted out well and truly professionally: big rugby shirt, jeans tucked into warm socks and trainers. My friends back home would later tease me for how funny I looked. The first stop on today’s tour was Athabasca Falls, with more gorges of sheer velocity. Next we stopped at Columbia Icefield, halfway between Jasper Town and Lake Louise and evidently the largest icefield in the Rockies. A special coach with huge tyres driven by a tall hunky man took us down slowly over the icefield and onto Athabasca Glacier, where we were allowed to get off and walk around. The tour guide used a metal pole to show us how deep the ice went. Luckily there were no crevices nearby for us to fall into.

The tour continued on until we stopped again at another viewing point. I wasn’t sure what we were looking for and followed the others along a path curiously, only to gasp at the view that appeared below. Peyto Lake was even bluer than Maligne Lake and didn’t look real. There were clouds in the sky but they failed to dim the brightness of the water that shone like a diamond, with forests surrounding the lake like a guard protecting a rare jewel. Looking at my photos was like looking at an oil painting. If you go to the Rockies, this is a must-see.

The sneaky surprise of Peyto Lake will make your jaw drop open

Peyto Lake

Finally the tour brought us to the famous Lake Louise. It was more enclosed by mountains than Maligne Lake, and dotted with kayaks. I wanted to jump in and join them. As expected the place was brimming with tourists, many of whom wandered over from the fancy Fairmont Chateau nearby. I resented how busy it was, but at the end of the day, you could understand why.

My hostel was situated just north of the quaint village. I went for a wonder round and sat by a river, glad to see less people and hear nothing but bird song and the gentle lapping of the water on the rocks. There was something charming about this little place, and it felt fitting that my last night in the Rockies would be here.

Even though I’d managed to pack a lot into my three days here, it felt way too short. There was so much more to see, and just that brief taste I’d got had made me hungry for more. The next morning I boarded a bus that would take me on into British Columbia. As we wound our way past the mountains with Neil Young entering my head, I felt rejuvenated. My adventurous mindset had been unleashed. I can’t wait to come back and see even more of this amazing part of the world.