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.

DSC_0002

DSC_0009

DSC_0011

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.

DSC_0018

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.

DSC_0013

DSC_0017

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.

 

*

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!

Advertisements

Appreciating the Simple Life: Tofino and Ucluelet

I’ll be honest: when I arrived in Tofino for the first time in October 2015, my initial reaction was “Is this it?”. Located on Vancouver Island about a four hour drive upland from Victoria (depending on the number of tourist stops taken on the way), you arrive in a small town and to me it was not 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 sandy 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.

DSC_0140DSC_0144

DSC_0094DSC_0108DSC_0113

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.

DSC_0121DSC_0122DSC_0125

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.

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.

DSC_0178

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.

DSC_0191

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 and gave a little too enthusiastic of a response after mistaking “Server” for “Surfer”.  She was from Toronto and I asked what she liked best about living in Ucluelet. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world”, as it this was an obvious answer. 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. Some might say they had regressed from life in a fast-moving, technologically advanced setting to a slower, less developed pace. But they were happier with 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, instead of 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. In today’s age, people tend to spend too much time looking for the next big thing to do and not enough time enjoying the present. And so I take back my initial thought about you, Tofino.

 

Afternoon Adventures through Arches National Park

Arches National Park is located just outside Moab in Utah, USA. For a state that has such strong religious communities, it seems ironic that it is also home to many national parks that stun visitors with their complex geological formations. Whether a higher power made them or not, the sights in Arches are magnificent enough to make you bow your head in respect. Covering all the areas and 2000 recorded arches in this 76,519 acre park would make an even longer post than my usual ones (‘is that even possible?’ I hear you say) so below are some highlights from the sections I visited during my afternoon in Arches.

A winding uphill entrance leads you into the park, which was originally classed as a National Monument in 1929 before being upgraded to national park status in 1971. In the ‘Windows Section’, Balanced Rock stands out like a defiant fist punching for freedom amidst gloomy clouds. A random collection of fins in the distance is common as you drive on, quickly losing the desire to take photos in favour of just absorbing what you are seeing.

449

478

The Cove of Caves looks like it would have been a suitable ‘home’ area for the humans who occupied this park 10,000 years ago. As you drive on through the park, it’s fascinating to consider how long these fragile looking structures have stood.

595
Arches NP

Driving on further, Delicate Arch is the most photographed in the whole park, as you can see by the dots of people surrounding it. Its name perhaps comes from its rather delicate-looking placement down the side of a slope. The weather wasn’t too cheerful and having to compete with fellow tourists for a photo is never fun, so it was skipped.

Upon arrival in the Devils Garden section in the north of the park, the sun decided to come out. First up was Tunnel arch, with the hole’s shape so seemingly symmetrical that it’s easy to imagine someone coming out at night to sand down its edges.

487

See that tiny green figure to the right underneath Pine Tree arch? That’s not a tree, but me in fact. Try not to step on a cactus or make the ants angry as you tread the sandy paths after it.

493 498

Ant holes, Arches NP505

508 509

The most popular arch in the Devils Garden section is Landscape Arch, which boasts the title of longest recorded arch in the park (if not the world?) with a measurement of 93m across. Its thin frame has formed from three separate occasions since 1991 of sandstone falling away. Who knows how long it will hold together?

519 578

Partition Arch follows shortly after, but thankfully fewer tourists do too, so there’s more space for shameless poses…

546

As you carry on along the fins of the Devils Garden Trailhead, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re still on planet Earth. With the park located on the Colorado River, its bewildering landscape has been formed by a continual geological process taking place over millions of years. Beginning as a salt bed caused by an evaporated sea, eroded rock sediments have been carried by a sea current and crushed together to make sandstone, before being layered and re-layered on the salty sea bed. Some layers were thrust up above the surface as salt domes, with a continuous process of erosion breaking off segments of these to give the rocks their distinctive arch-like shape.

 554 568 575

You’ll often stumble across random arches here and there. I’m still not sure of the names of all the ones I saw, such as the one below. But it’s the sights that will ultimately stick in your memory, and not the names.

 570482

The Tower of Babel and the Organ have a domineering presence in the Courthouse Towers section near the entrance and exit of the park, especially on the morning after a stormy night. Their titles perfectly suit their tall, rigid structures.

625

628

Meanwhile, here I am eating breakfast whilst the Three Gossips have a chinwag behind me…
632

The Courthouse Towers Viewpoint looks exactly like its namesake – a row of judges standing up in a high courtroom, summoning the audience’s attention as they deliver their verdict on the tiny green men below them.

638 639

Being imprisoned on this planet wouldn’t be such a bad thing though. There are plenty of areas to run away to, and nooks and crannies to explore. Let yourself get lost in the red maze of arches and enjoy a brief escape from Earth.

*

Here is my latest Huff Post article on my experience of Arches

Harming Nature Through Human Nature

In the past couple of weeks as I write this post in November 2014, a rogue artist from New York has been in the news for vandalising some of America’s national parks with artistic graffiti. As expected, this activity has been condemned by both national park rangers and the public. Type ‘lady defacing national parks’ into Google and the top searches begin with the terms ‘awful person’ and ‘terrible human’. The perpetrator has been slammed for drawing these images and uploading them to Instagram, i.e. for seeking fame and attention at the expense of nature.

I of course was also appalled when I heard about these acts , especially as I have many special memories of the magnificent topography in some of the victimised parks – including Canyonlands and Zion – that were formed only weeks before these images were drawn. But then I thought about this issue some more and asked myself: regardless of spray-paint, are tourists not already defacing the nature of the parks? Through our own desires to find fame from capturing the best photo of a wild animal, are we camera-crazy (albeit well-meaning) humans not causing harm too? Harm that is subtle and unintended in nature, but still damaging to nature’s routine.

The other day I read the George Orwell classic ‘Animal Farm’. Published in 1945 and banned in the USSR for its anti-Stalin sentiment, the beginning of the story involves the animals of a farm rising up in rebellion against their greedy human owner and establishing control of the farm themselves. As I read the (highly-recommended) novel, I thought back to the encounters I had with wildlife during my American road trip this past summer.

I thought about the Rocky Mountain goats in Glacier National Park being woken from their afternoon naps by invading tourists trying to take a photo of their babies. Often the mother goat would nudge her kid to its feet and they would trot off to find a new secret place – something hard to find on the particularly popular Hidden Lake Overlook trail. People would watch them go almost offended, as if it was an insult for an animal to reject human advances.

355

I thought about the bison in Yellowstone demanding that traffic come to a standstill while they marched across the road to new pastures. For all I know, their deep grunts were a sign of resentment towards the cars that clogged the man-made partition of their resources. I was surprised at how gentle they were; they were more than capable of causing damage to the monstrous RV that obstructed their path, by bashing their huge heads against its artificial walls in a determined declaration of  “We were here first.”

079

I thought about the regular signs on the roads of Yosemite that reminded tourists to drive carefully, citing recent bear fatalities (reports state that so far this year, the figure is at 25). How ironic that in our quest to see a bear, we actually end up killing them? We contradict the whole purpose of a national park to conserve a species. It is in Yosemite’s campgrounds that keeping food in cars is prohibited, since recently a few bears learned how to open doors. These bears were then destroyed to prevent the trait being learned by others and to avoid human casualties. But is it not humans that are invading the bears’ space, rather than vice versa?

Finally, I thought about the large group of elk on Highway 101 just outside Redwood National Park, who caused a traffic jam when they decided to block part of the road. I remembered a man with long hair who drove a VW campervan videoing the scene and asking out-loud, “What does this mean, animals blocking a man-made road?” At first I had smiled to myself at this apparent hippy-expressionism, then I realised that he actually raised an interesting question. Was this group behaviour a form of defiance against man’s interference in nature?

1466

Does our greed as humans for viewings of rare wildlife touch on the verge of exploitation? Are we not slightly reminiscent of the white man colonising sparse lands in order to generate revenue, killing native inhabitants in the process? It should be mentioned that it is because bison were brought under conservation in Yellowstone that the species was protected from poaching and was subsequently able to grow in numbers within the last century. But back when the park was established in 1872, who was to know that these animals would eventually become the target of the tourist paparazzi? For it has become human nature to stalk the world’s rarest wildlife through a lens.

Obviously tourists, including myself, want to get a close look at wildlife; it’s only human nature. Personally however, I try to respect animals’ privacy in doing so and not disturb them from their natural state. It’s the same way that I would attempt to be discreet if taking a photo of a human stranger doing something interesting, if it was a situation where asking for permission would ruin the moment. Animals have no voice to give consent and therefore cannot be ‘asked’ in the way we humans are familiar with, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behaviour.

After reading ‘Animal Farm’ and thinking about these issues, it almost seems plausible to imagine these animals calling for a revolution against us human tourists.

But then there is the issue of squirrels. At first, it’s cute and endearing when the tame, chubby ones in Zion scamper over to your feet and look up expectantly for food with their tiny paws out like Oliver Twist. Even my friend and I were at first caught in the trap of taking photos and ‘awwww’ing at them. However, you then see them picking on the skinnier squirrels, consequently depriving them of food. Like in ‘Animal Farm’, those animals that interact with humans benefit, and it becomes the case that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. If humans weren’t feeding these squirrels, the inequality within the species would be smaller. Like the British Raj in India, it seems that human tourists have cemented power through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Perhaps if the intrusive human presence left, the animal kingdoms would disintegrate into a state of instability and corruption.

Of course, I expect many people reading to view the idea of an animal rebellion as an eccentric, far-fetched vision. But it is easy to imagine innocent things, just like it is easy to harm innocent beings. As history has shown, both are only human nature.

 

 

 

 

Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park

‘Failure to prepare means preparation to fail’: that’s something we’re told growing up, whether in school or before competitions. You would think the same motto applied to travel, and in most cases it does. However, the most memorable experiences from travelling do not necessarily arise from preparation, but pure unpredictable chance.

When I started my road trip through the USA, I didn’t consider the possibility of seeing a grizzly bear to be very high. Having not seen one in the Canadian Rockies three years earlier (a black bear from inside a bus doesn’t count), I assumed history would repeat itself, regardless of the breed’s higher population in Montana. Only when my travel buddy and I were walking along the interestingly-named Thunder Knob trail in Washington’s North Cascades one morning,  did the prospect of coming across a bear seem greater. A clanging noise grew louder through the trees and we passed a couple in expert hiking gear walking their dog with a bell attached to its collar. My friend looked down at his outfit and said, “Okay, now I feel unprepared.”

In Glacier National Park in Montana, tourists are briefed to prepare themselves for seeing a bear. On arrival at the park’s entry stations, drivers are handed leaflets explaining what to do in the event that they encounter one. (Interestingly, this leaflet recommended making occasional bursts of noise, rather than a constant sound.) Bears were described as more likely to avoid human contact than pursue it, but that didn’t make a backcountry hike seem any less risky.

We drove on to Bowman Lake, the secluded ‘primitive’ campground (‘primitive’ meaning there were pit toilets and no showers, hence a subsequent cheaper price of $15 per night). From the park’s west entrance to the campground in the north-west, it’s a 32 mile drive which mostly involves dusty gravel roads, switchbacks and plenty of potholes. Some cars turned back, fed up with the slow-driving conditions. At six miles, Polebridge is the closest ‘village’ to the campground for stocking up on supplies. A small female ranger at the entry station greeted us and we asked her for clarification of what to do upon coming face to face with a grizzly. “Oh well…you know… you just want to show the bear that is has plenty of space to pass,” the lady began slowly in a cute high-pitched voice, tucking some hair behind her ear. “Just stand still and be nice and calm, you know – ‘hey bear’,” the lady’s tone piped higher as she mimed a shy tiny wave that stemmed from her wrist. “Let him know you’re not a threat, you know, just relax…and back off slowly.” We nodded at her and I bit my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of this little lady waving up a grizzly saying “hey bear”.

Many more potholes and tight pull-overs later, we were rewarded for our patience by views of Bowman Lake with its scenic mountainous backdrop, before we found a spot in the rustic campground. Accompanying the descriptions of each 12 mile-return hike was a warning about bears. All these warnings, understandable as they were, made me a little nervous. As we set off on a hike along the Lower Quartz Lake trail, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, occasionally calling out “hey bear!” in a voice that sounded way too wimpy. Blood flowed to the tips of my toes and fingers. I was in flight-mode and instructions saying to stay still and not run away upon meeting a bear did not seem realistically achievable. I certainly wasn’t going to stand there saying hello with a wave…

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

Why was I so worried? This wasn’t like me. Was it because I was with (male) company that I felt a greater excuse to be scared? Or was it because all these warnings increased the expectation of being confronted by a huge animal? It probably didn’t help that my friend, walking behind me, began telling me a story he’d read about a mountain lion leaping from a tree onto a man’s neck in Washington. I laughed sarcastically to suggest I didn’t believe him, all the while glad he was behind so he couldn’t see me scan the trees suspiciously. “I doubt we’ll see one to be honest…” he then said reassuringly, and I felt a little better. “…But if we do and it comes for us, I want you to run away while I distract it.”

I wheeled round and cried for him to stop it, unable to bear the thought (ha). ‘I am never going travelling with a boy again,’ I thought as we carried on up the path, with him now singing a made-up song to a bear in a baritone voice. “Can we turn around now?” I asked a few minutes later. “Are you really that worried?” he asked in surprise. I don’t think I was; I too was starting to believe we wouldn’t see a bear. But the anticipation of doing so was making me skittish, frustrated with the boring trail. “Okay, okay, 10 more ‘hey bears’ and then we’ll head back,” my friend promised. When we got to 10 I turned around and took off running for home, side-stepping tree trunks and skipping roots in the ground. The potential danger had charged me with adrenaline and I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I dashed back along the trail, blood pumping, not looking back. It was a feeling reminiscent of that I’d experienced in BC in 2011. We reached Bowman Lake breathless with fatigue, relief and laughter, and jumped into the glacial lake, fears forgotten in the freezing cold water.

After all the cautions and expectations, we had not seen a grizzly bear. ‘That’s how it always seems to go,’ I thought. Both of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t see one the whole time we were in the park.

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake - the 3rd largest in Glacier National Park

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake – the third largest in Glacier National Park

A day later, we had made our way along the incredible Going-to-the-Sun road and stopped to make sandwiches at the quiet picnic area in St. Mary. As I innocently opened the trunk to find the bread, a French lady nearby started gabbling excitedly to her husband and grabbed a camera. Intrigued, we followed her to the edge of the picnic area where a few other people had gathered, whispering giddily. 20 metres away, a small grizzly strolled casually out of a narrow path and ambled past the picnic benches, oblivious to the humans staring at him in fascination. “He looks pretty young…” my friend remarked pointedly, but still people crept out from the bush to take a closer shot as the bear wandered on absent-mindedly into another pathway. Two couples peeped out from the path the bear came from and called over “Has it gone?” French-couple waved them over. “I’m pretty sure it was a cub,” my friend said louder, but again, his hint wasn’t registered. However, it soon became clear the bear was alone, and people went back to eating their sandwiches, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was almost as if it was the thousandth one I’d seen; there was no overwhelming rush of fear or excitement as I had expected, perhaps because I had been bracing myself for this moment for a while, and because the sighting had occurred in a more populous area and with less drama than I had anticipated.

"hey bear"

“hey bear”

A few minutes later, we ourselves walked along the very path the bear had emerged from to sit at the edge of St. Mary Lake. Even though there was a fresh pile of bear dung feet away, decorated oh so prettily with huckleberries, I didn’t feel nervous at all, completely unfazed by the possibility that this bear might return the way it had come. Likewise, the first mile of a hike to Otokomi Lake later that afternoon featured bear droppings every 100 metres or so, but still I felt no fear. Finishing the 10 mile-return trail in one piece, I joked light-heartedly, “Calling out ‘hey bear’ probably wasn’t the most sensible phrase to use.” My anxious anticipation had reduced now that I had actually seen the talk-of-the-town for myself.

Definitely makes the 5-a-day of huckleberries...

With this huckleberry consumption, bears definitely makes one of their 5-a-day…

Our sighting was an experience that many tourists diligently prepare for, researching promising time periods of activity and driving themselves to the most recommended locations before spending hours waiting there, all just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. And yet, like forcing oneself to struggle until a math problem is solved or dance routine learned, it seems that trying too hard at sightseeing might even threaten progress. Events happen when you least expect them and are least prepared. It’s easy to get drawn into the hype of potentially seeing a special wild animal in risky circumstances; it’s the expectation created by this hype that can make us more nervous than is perhaps necessary, and subsequently less successful. I feel really lucky to have seen that bear, knowing that many tourists will leave Glacier National Park feeling disappointed about missing out. It almost seems unfair that it happened so easily. Sometimes people simply find themselves in the right place at the right time, and there are no bear necessities when preparing for this type of experience.

Familiar Faces in Foreign Places

You’re in your home country at a bus stop or in a lift or some other enclosed space, joined only by an older stranger. The stranger begins speaking to you and so you engage in polite small talk to fill the time, almost because it feels necessary in order to avoid an awkward silence. Then you part ways and forget about the other person. A few days later, you see them again in a more public context, but they are not looking to be busy themselves. They don’t notice you and you have no reason to speak to them. What would you do – walk right past them whilst looking in the opposite direction, or go up to speak to them, regardless of hardly knowing them? ‘It would depend on how attractive they were,’ I hear you say. Removing that element from the equation, it is hard to believe that one would feel any desire to approach them. Even one’s sense of legitimacy to go up to the person would probably be quite low. The social-networking generation seems almost too afraid of the potential gawkiness of human interaction to strike up conversation with a random person they share no established connection with. Familiarity is a comfort. When someone is certain of their position in their nearby surroundings, they are less likely to feel the need to communicate with a vaguely familiar human being. If you go on a solo trip to a foreign-speaking country, you might find yourself amazed at how easily the rules of the equation can change.

Day One in the Black Forest, Germany. I had spent the night in a youth hostel in Freudenstadt, a market town in the north of the area. Before a day of hiking commenced, I dropped into the tourist office to quickly find inspiration for a route. Walking out of the door whilst running the rough directions through my mind, I almost bumped into a man chaining up his bike. “Hey there!” he said cheerily in an accent I instantly recognised as Canadian. “You’re staying up at the youth hostel, aren’t you?” I was taken aback by his genial approach and said “Yeah” uncertainly, wondering how he knew. “I cycled past you on the way here – I’m at a guesthouse in town,” he added, as if recognising an initial look of suspicion on my face. He looked to be in his early forties, but despite his older age I still found his confident chattiness quite surprising, and a tiny bit unsettling too. Even so, it seemed only polite to ask a short question or two.  After sharing his plan for the day, he remarked, “You’ve picked a great day for a hike,” nodding at my outfit and then up at the blue sky. This seemed like an appropriate time to move on, so I wished him a good trip and we parted ways.  My thoughts having been interrupted, I returned to recalling the name of the path I was looking for, and my brief encounter with the man was promptly forgotten in favour of sign posts and sweet little streams.

312911_10152041169225495_1858244718_n

A few days of moving southwards later, I ended up in Freiburg im Breisgau, where I would spend a few hours of the morning before heading back to Heidelberg. The town is famed for its Minster and for being Germany’s sunniest city. Sunlight wasn’t out on show today though. Thick clouds looked down lethargically as I dawdled through the large hoard of tourists and students in the university town. It was market day and I squeezed and side-stepped past people looking at various cheeses and vegetables and wines, feeling like a mouse amongst the mania. Elbows knocked me and I looked around dazed as the air was filled with rapid German chatter. The past few days had been filled with walking and my legs felt sluggish. The weather and the people were draining, and I suddenly felt a little overwhelmed by my surroundings. I needed to stop and recover for a minute.

 

Freiburg

An ice cream sign called me over. One scoop of mint choc chip – heck, why not two? I walked on past a row of picnic benches filled with tourists gorging on bratwurst and burgers. Suddenly, one of the munching men caught my eye. I realised it was the Canadian man I’d seen a few days earlier. Without thinking twice I bounded over to say hello, feeling a wave of respite from the mass mouth of unfamiliar tongues. Caught unaware, the man looked up mid-ketchup-spurting-bite with wide eyes of surprised embarrassment, to see me standing in front of him holding an ice cream in my hand with a big grin on my face, like a little kid. We both laughed at how innocent and pitiful we looked. After a proper greeting, he asked if I’d like to join him for a drink at a nearby beer garden that served only Swabian speciality beers.  I said yes without hesitation.

My initial dubious impression of the man had completely vanished. In the last three days I had only uttered about 50 words. I was craving some human contact through which I would be able to have a fluid conversation in my own language for a few minutes. Having felt lost in and exhausted by the busy state of the town, his familiar face provided an element of reassurance. So I went ahead and did something that would have probably been classed as ‘breaking a rule’ back home – going to have a drink with a male I hardly knew, and a much older male at that. But the man’s age wasn’t on my mind at all as we found a table on an upstairs terrace and chatted about Canada. He said I seemed to know the western side of the country better than him. His name was Kevin and he worked in the civil service, but loved cycling in his free time. As he ordered and paid for our drinks, attempting some basic German with our waitress, I realised that he was a genuinely good-natured person.  I told him about my degree and my hobbies, and that I would be volunteering at the Olympics when I returned. With a big smile he said, “Well it seems like you have a lot going for you, Shannon.” Those words have stuck with me since.

Once we had finished our beers (I tactically ordered a half-pint so he wouldn’t have to wait for me), we headed back downstairs into the street. I felt rejuvenated – my batteries had been recharged within an hour by a device I was accustomed to. Now I would be able to finish the trip with no more feelings of disorientation and detachment.  Kevin planned to spend a few more hours in Freiburg, while I needed to head back to the station. After a standard hug-and-kiss-on-the-cheek goodbye, we parted ways for the second and final time. There would be no sharing of contact details to keep in touch, as is so often the trend amongst young travellers who have spent a few drunken hours together; it was just simply an hour of shared company that made the day a little more interesting for both. I’ll never see that man again, and so he will never know how valuable I found his company for that short time (unless, of course, he finds this blog!) I had never felt so glad to see such a familiar face whose owner I was so unfamiliar with.

My dad told me two things before I went travelling: 1) that travelling alone makes one more open to new people and new experiences, and 2) that it makes one realise that people are nice. After that morning in Freiburg, I realised that I had underestimated the applicability of his statement. It’s something that is not just relevant to people you meet in bars or on a tour, someone sat next to you on the bus or sleeping in your dorm; it can also be relevant to random situations where there is no expectation of speech and interaction. If someone is alone abroad, they are likely to feel more receptive to the company of an unfamiliar person, if that person seems more familiar than the alternatives. A person’s slight sense of vulnerability can make them more willing to do something that would probably never enter their intentions back home. This can perhaps explain why study abroad students or immigrants tend to hang out with those who share their nationality. It’s not that they are reluctant to integrate into the new culture; speaking with someone who shares their native language simply acts as a maternal comfort – a cuddle to reassure and settle when one is feeling insecure in or disillusioned by their unfamiliar surroundings. There is no shame in craving some ‘home-away-from-home’ moments – everyone is bound to experience that need at some point whilst travelling alone.

The rare coincidence of seeing someone again in a foreign land makes it seem stupid to avoid approaching them out of reluctance to risk getting involved in uncomfortable communication. Would you rather feel lonely and bored, or sociable and entertained? Yep, thought as much. So if an older male (or female) stranger starts talking to you enthusiastically, don’t be quick to make assumptions about their intentions, subsequently trying to dismiss them out of uncertainty. A few days later, you might find that their bold and unconditional friendliness would be very welcome.

 

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.

151

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.

***

Relevant links: Souvenir Finder