Sunday, 3 February 2013

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes….

What a pleasure it is to announce the resurrection of the blog meaning that once again I am back on the road.
I am currently sat in the Canadian ski town of Banff, located in the province of Alberta on the east side of the Rocky Mountains and today is a relatively mild -3 degrees.
So let’s get up to date shall we?

It already seems such a long time ago since I was in the UK let alone updating you on my activities as far back as November but let’s just run through it as quickly as possible with a few key highlights.

Paris: a wonderful weekend spent in the ‘capital of love’ although we were slightly removed from that sentiment being located in the red light district of Pigalle, but that’s how we roll!
We arrived on a wet and cold Friday evening at 11pm so there seemed little else to do but pop in to a local licensed café and sample the local vin rouge. My French may not be good but even a little secondary school level French goes a long way in Paris, especially for an Englishman, so we were always greeted with smiles and politeness.
Saturday was a proper tourist day:
- Place de la Concorde
- Musee du Louvre – to view some of the most world’s famous pieces of art, most of which were better than the Mona Lisa
- Notre Dame
- Eiffel Tower
- Arc De Triomphe – the views of Paris from the top were non-existent as the heavens opened and we were soaked

We certainly packed it all in before we got ourselves ready for our evening treat of a 3 course dinner riverboat cruise down the Seine River to view all of those sights again by night but from the luxury of a seat.

We were due to fly out late Sunday afternoon which gave us time to idly meander around Monmatre and the artists square, probably my favourite area in Paris.

The following weekend came around quickly enough and we were now in Toledo, a former capital of the Spanish Empire located 70km south of Madrid and a UNESCO World Heritage site. (I do love a UNESCO site!)
As far as I am concerned everybody should spend a weekend walking along the cobbled alleyways amongst the medieval buildings, cathedrals and churches that seem to have remained unchanged since the 1600 / 1700’s. As Toledo is a fortified city located on top of a hill and sealed off by its own city walls you really do feel away from it all.
All we did was eat well, sampling the local speciality of marzipan and drink as well as visit the infamous Jew Gate in honour of a quarter of my genes – well I had to really didn’t I?

Both of these weekends were an early birthday treat to myself but for my actual birthday Arancha took me out for dinner at Paramount restaurant, 32 floors above the centre of London and it definitely ranks as one of my top meals enjoyed in the city that I call home.

Before we knew it we were into December and that meant 2 things;
1) Soon we would once again escape normal life
2) Goodbye Latner (one of my best chums)

If I do say so myself I think Latner did pretty well with regards to leaving presents:
  • Gifts from the ‘I love Leicester’ gift shop – I still can’t believe that place exists
  • A pre-loaded digital photo frame of what’s important – family, mates and Jimmy Savile (big up to Sharon and Cheryl for the photos and the use of their home for the presentation and drinks – Cherry B and Snowballs – classy)
  • Signed photos of LCFC legends ala Julian Joachim and Frank Sinclair
  • A DVD of our 2011 Aussie road trip
  • A LCFC shirt with a selection of his nicknames printed on the back
  • A t-shirt with a mug shot of each and every one of us so that he can sleep with us next to him if he gets lonely on the other side of the world

As for the actual leaving do I do not remember a lot but I definitely remember more than Lat’s cousin Tyler who was smashed and ejected from the comedy club for consistently heckling the acts. Yes it got a little tiresome but to be honest he was far more entertaining than the supposed headline act who had a shocker.

Oddly enough on that same night next door there was a Lambert reunion of sorts for my auntie’s 60th bday so given that I had not seen most of the family for 2 years I popped my head in to say hello to everyone and introduce them to Arancha as it would be at least another 2 years before I saw them again, if that.
Anyway, a good night was had by all (except by Tyler post 11pm) and it was goodbye Latner in Leicester.

Goodbye Latner full stop came on the following Monday as he came down to London to stay the night before heading over the airport to fly off to Sydney and the love of his life. I took him for the meat feasts of all meat feasts at Bodeans for a last supper and he thanked me by leaving a trademark Latner scent in my bathroom. Love you Lats.

It seemed like the opportunity to travel had been somewhat limited of late so December 7th weekend was spent with Arancha’s aunty and uncle in Bordeaux. Michelle and Georges were superb hosts, their house was fantastic and Bordeaux itself is on the list of cities that I could live in.
This was a lazy weekend of a lot of sleep mixed with fine food and wine including a restaurant specialising in dishes constructed with cheese – very tasty but very sickly by the end.
I was also introduced (not literally) to perhaps the most self-sufficient prostitutes on the planet. Bordeaux’s pros all work out of their own campervans even equipping the interior driver lights with a red bulb – how fucking cool is that? Just drive your entire business around. Brilliant.

One other funny moment during this visit was when I went down with a sugar dip and started to feel really ropey. The result; a 70+ year old woman running up and down the hills of the wine region town of St Emillion to find some bread for a supposed fit and healthy 33 year old. Out of breath she returned 10 mins later with a full baguette of bread and I felt like a complete weakling. What must she have thought of me?
AJ is still abusing me about this now.     

My first Christmas at home in 3 years soon followed and it was a pleasure to see that the day was business as usual and exactly the same as it has been for the past 33 years of my life but with the welcome addition of Arancha to the Lambert family table.
Thanks for all of our pressies Suze and Pippin – spoilt once again!

I took dad out for a ‘couple’ of drinks on Boxing Day and 7 hours later we got home completely smashed – it was a fun day but I certainly felt it the next day.

29th December and Arancha left me, the bitch. Luckily for her work was finished and so there was no need to hang around in London and spend her money when she could begin her adventure and spend it in Canada.
So for the next 3 weeks it was just me in the flat tidying up the loose ends and packing my life away for the second time in just over 2 years.         

NYE was a fun night at my old flat in Waterloo with my former housemate Marchie and his bride Shamila. It was a proper house party with some faces that I had not seen in quite a while and the added benefit of being able to leave the flat at 11:50pm to watch the London fireworks from the streets behind the London Eye as we all live so close to the centre.

On NYD I had to be on a 10pm train to Leicester to take my day to a LCFC football match and I can tell you that it was not pleasant. I was still drunk, the train was overcrowded due to a cancellation and the sun was shining right into my face for the entire journey. Fortunately it was worth it as Leicester won 6-1 in a thoroughly entertaining match but by the time I got back to London that evening I was knackered and was not looking forward to work the next day.
The next 10 days flew by as I caught up with mates to say goodbye, meet a new face (congrats Bennet and Bedir on Bella, probably the most content baby I have had the fortune to meet), move out of the flat and finish up at work.
Due to complications with the handover at work I was required to work up to the day before I flew (not ideal) but apart from the benefit of extra cash for the trip I also had the good fortune to stay in a 5 star hotel by St Paul’s Cathedral  and enjoy the room service. I had already moved out of my flat so if work needed me until the day before I flew then they needed to accommodate me!  
Work ended with my reputation as a self-employed contractor intact and it is fair to say that my first UK contract was a complete success so I was well chuffed.  

So that was that – London life was over once again. I jumped on a train and headed back to the Shire for a precious last few hours with the parents before I was up early the next morning to once again head back down to London to Gatwick Airport.
One thing for certain was that I was very happy to have an end to the London to Leicester to London travel.  
My last meal at home was mum’s roast dinner – what else would you want before you disappear for 18 months?
Then we were there again. It was at this same location on 9th October 2010 that I said my uncomfortably emotional farewells to mum and dad as I embarked upon my first backpacking adventure beginning in Delhi, full of trepidation and nervous excitement, completely unsure of what lay ahead.
This time is couldn’t be more different. Yes it was emotional but we’ve all come a long way since that October day, we (I) can actually say we love each other to each other’s faces and be cool about it. There were probably a few more tears than the last time but it was controlled and mum still hasn’t dropped to the floor and wrapped her arms around my legs as I am forced to drag her along the floor as I make my way to the train.

As for my own feelings about what lay ahead? No worries, I can’t wait, it seems more normal to be living this way now than living in a flat and working in an office in London.
Plus this time I am not alone, I have Arancha for company, the one person who thinks exactly the way as I do (which is scary as we have some pretty fucked up thoughts that not everyone agrees are funny), so it is going to rock! 

Wednesday 16th January 2013 and off I fly with the relative luxury of a 2 seat row to myself and enjoy movie time for the entire 8.5 hour flight.
Wednesday morning Leicester, Wednesday evening Calgary after a few probing questions from Canadian immigration such as:
  • Q: What are you doing here? A: Traveling
  • Q: Why are you here for so long in Canada (54 days)? A: Traveling
  • Q: How long are you away for overall? A: Traveling for 18 months in total
  • Q: You must have a good job if they let you take that long off? A: I quit, as I say, I am traveling
  • Q: Are you planning to work in Canada? A: No, I am traveling
  • Q: Are you here on your own? A: No, I am meeting my girlfriend
  • Q: Is she is Canadian? A: No, she is Australian
  • Q: What is she doing here? A: Traveling
  • Q: How did you meet her? A: In Nepal, traveling
Seriously, I am here for 54 days and a standard tourist visa is 90 days – what is the big deal? Anyway, once I produced proof my travel insurance I was free to go; with a 6 month tourist visa!

Getting to downtown Calgary was as easy as peas and within 1 hour I was 2 blocks north of the city in a quaint B&B and reunited with my homie after 3 weeks apart. We popped out for a bite to eat and as to be expected at this time of year it was cold!!!
Going out for dinner was also my first introduction to the most annoying thing about Canada – Goods and Service Tax (GST)!
GST is the same as VAT except that the Canadian government doesn’t fleece everyone like the UK, but what pisses me off is that every price you see whether it be a food menu of clothing in a shop is excl GST. It gets me every time – I might buy a sandwich for $10 and have the note to pay for it but then the cash register rings with an increased value and this can vary depending on where you are in the country as there may well be a provincial tax on top of the GST.
Just put the actual price on the menu please then we all know where we stand!!
And don’t get me onto the dollar shop! A dollar plus GST is not a dollar.

We will leave tipping until the States as I am sure that it will piss me off more. As a backpacker I think I should have a concession card like an OAP bus pass that gives me exemption from tipping because I am an unemployed bum.

I had been up for quite a few hours so a comfy bed was all I needed to fall completely into a deep slumber and leave AJ to lovingly watch me sleep and listen to the snoring that she had so very missed.

Staying in a B&B meant that breakfast would be served for us at a time so desired by the paying guest so at 8:30pm sharp we sat down to freshly made eggs benedict and black coffee so strong that I was left with the Mohammed Ali’s. Now I like a good yarn as much as my dad but having the owner, Diana standing over us asking questions and us replying between mouthfuls and spitting food onto the table cloth was a bit much.
However, having only been on my travels for a little over 12 hours our very sketchy itinerary had already changed.  We had mentioned that after Canada we would travel overland down the west coast of the US to Mexico (hopefully the turban I plan to wear with my beard and backpack will be ok in the southern Republican states) and Diana was all over the proposed route with places that we must check out; so I am happy that she did hang around.

My only day in Calgary was literally a designated shopping day – buy the ski gear here or be ripped off in the ski towns.
To say that I wasn’t looking forward to it was an understatement but with AJ’s patience and Canada’s version of Sports Direct everything was bought in under 4 hours.

 To interject there is a new tv show being advertised on Canadian tv – who is the best taxidermist? The example shown was a chicken with a light bulb for a head and a fox looking at it wearing sunglasses! Ok.

I can’t say that I was that impressed with Calgary as a city, it didn’t really have a lot of charm and was a little run down but the frozen river running north of the centre that looked like a glacier was awesome and worth a few photos.

That evening we were at the bus station for my first journey on what is an institution for travellers in these parts, the Greyhound Bus, on my way to my new home for the majority of the next 2 months, Banff.
The next 3 days were all about the snow, the everlasting views across the vista of the Canadian Rocky Mountains from the top of my own mountain before the headlong rush and adrenaline buzz down the slopes to the bottom before heading back up to begin it all over again.

 Accommodation in places like Banff is very expensive so the majority of the time we find ourselves staying in hostels. Fortunately a private room is affordable especially as there would be 3 of us sharing once Bec (a mate of AJ’s from back home) was back from a work conference in Chicago.
Upon Bec’s return I noted earlier that having only spent a brief amount of time with her in Melbourne that my first real ‘quality’ time spent with her in our hostel room was me asking her about Chicago whilst I sat on the floor trimming my toe nails trying to ensure that they all went in the bin (I am going with 95%). Is that weird and little too comfortable?

Banff itself is a great little town full of shops, bars, clubs and restaurants even if it is overrun by young Aussies and Kiwis on work and travel visas – but seriously, where isn’t overrun by antipodeans?
It also seems that Christmas never ends in Canada as it is now early Feb and the trees and lights are still illuminating the snowy streets and many ice sculptures that adorn them, some of which are unbelievably intricate.
Throw in the frozen lakes full of ice skaters and hockey players and you have your archetypical Canadian postcard and I like it.

The reason that we are in Banff is that we bought season passes to ski on 3 separate areas of the Banff National Park and plan to be here throughout Jan, Feb and Mar:
  • Sunshine Ski Resort – 107 ski trails set upon and within the alpine valleys of 3 adjoining mountains with a top elevation of 2,700 metres
  • Lake Louise Ski Resort – 139 ski trails across 2 mountains
  • Norquay Mountain – 33 runs

I have skied in Europe and Australia and I would say that I am a little better than intermediate but without the fear of attempting any run, as I can always get down even though it may not be graceful. However, the mountains here are the real deal and there are some seriously challenging slopes to get down that are much tougher than what I have previously faced.
The trails are rated:
  • Green – Easier
  • Blue – Intermediate
  • Black – Most Difficult
  • Double Black – Expert
To date we have been tackling everything up to the Black runs but until there is a serious dump of snow ie. Some cushioning, I will not be attempting the double blacks just yet.
However, as time goes on my skiing and AJ’s snowboarding is coming along very nicely as we grow in confidence and become more familiar with our favourite runs that can last anything up to 20 minutes down the mountain.

There is a great app available on the i-phone that monitors your days skiing and our average day consist of 20km – 25km distance covered and my top speed is 87kph / 54mph. I am determined to improve on this but I can assure you that it feels really fast when it is just you on a pair of skis! However, I don’t think I will get to the 111kph that a lad in one of our dorms achieved!

There is little point in me trying to describe the views and experience of the skiing and of Canada as a whole – Google images will show you what you need to see.  But you have to move with the times, so this trip and blog will include links to film footage so you can see a little more of what it is I am seeing.  
You can view it at:

All I can say is that is lives up to all that you imagine of Canada and the Rockies – snow, ice, glaciers, mountain peaks, thousands of pine trees and mile upon miles of wild country – a truly beautiful place to be spending my time.
Of course there have been a couple of boozy nights out but having had one particularly heavy night celebrating Australia Day with Arancha and Bec the next day’s skiing was a complete write off, so much so that we only got 2 hours of skiing in before we gave up falling on our arses through a combination of headaches, lack of coordination and lingering intoxication. I am not saying that booze and the snow do not go together, of course they do, but to get the most out of the experience and to improve our technical ability we will be limiting our nights out. Plus, I am 2 weeks into 18 months and I have already spent a shit load of cash – limiting the boozing is more about ensuring that I will have enough cash to last the distance.
Saying that, the nightlife is great here and the atmosphere on a Saturday night when the locals are about for the weekend makes me wish I had a few more dollars to spare.

Given that the girls had already spent a couple of weeks or so in Banff so on the Monday post my arrival we moved on to the town of Jasper for a bit of variation. Jasper is located in its own national park and is approximately 4 hours north of Banff.  
The drive to Jasper took us along the provincial Highway 93 which is ranked as one of the top 5 tourist drives in the whole world. For 4 hours we stared out of the window at the aforementioned wilderness, some of the 200 or so glaciers that dot the Canadian Rockies and huge snow cornices hanging precariously from the sides of the mountains which themselves were created by layer upon layer of sandstone that once formed the bed of an ancient ocean before being thrust up into the heavens as the Asian and American continental plates collided to create one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. As if this wasn’t all romantic enough as I finally began to relax and release the burdens of the corporate world it was topped off by Chuck the driver delivering his running commentary throughout the trip which was both factual and interesting. We covered the geology, nature, environment and wildlife elements of the region and I was enthralled.
A couple of beauts that I learnt were:
  1. The Rockies form the continental divide of North America meaning that when it rains all the water landing on the east side will flow down into the rivers and ultimately end in the Atlantic Ocean and on the west side the Pacific Ocean
  2. We drove past the Columbia Icefield, an icefield that sits astride the continental divide and feeds 8 major glaciers. This icefield covers 325 square kilometres and can be as thick as 1,200 feet in places. Fortunately this is one example of an icefield that is managing to remain stable in size due in part to the 7 metres of snowfall it receives per year, however, it may remain stable but that means it also isn’t growing!
It will sound to you the reader that this trip was almost bordering on eroticism but I was nothing compared to the male half of a kiwi couple who we believed to be honeymooners and possibly on their first overseas trip. The guy must have taken over 500 photographs and by the way he was weaving around in a still seated position trying to capture every bloody thing he should be filmed and sold as a fitness video to every fat ass couch potato at home – his core stability must have been amazing. I felt quite sorry for his missus as when she finally did get a turn with the camera was directed about every shot which she should take – “click, click, click, click, click…”

We were in the sleepy town of Japser for 4 nights in the comfort of an amply sized 2 bedroom log cabin with open log fire. All that was missing was a rocking chair and a smoking jacket!
All in all we didn’t do that much but what we did do was worth the journey:
  • Maligne Canyon ice walk – a 3 hour walk along a frozen river bed that is hard to believe is a 12 foot tall raging torrent of white water during the summer months. Immediately the action began as we encountered my first coyote idly walking along the side of the highway past the minibus before it trotted off no doubt on the hunt for an easy feed. Next was the herd of elk enjoying a relaxing morning socialising in a field. As for the walk itself we were fortunate enough to have footwear akin to wellies with attachable crampons but I still resembled Bambi learning to walk as we traversed over the sheets of ice and in and behind frozen waterfalls. The culmination of the walk was to enter the canyon itself to be confronted by 50 foot tall walls of ice which unbelievably showed the hallmarks of the many brave ice climbers that scale these temporary monuments every winter. On the way back to the van we encountered a juniper bush and given that these berries are used to make gin I wasn’t surprised when I saw Arancha and Bec lean over a pluck a few. They were quite tasty and you definitely got a hint of gin.The rest of that day was drank away in the Whistlestop Pub with a bargain $5.50 burger and fries
  • Marmot Basin – Jasper’s ski mountain. All in all this ski area was a disappointment, it was a lot smaller than our ‘home’ skiing and the quality of the snow was not the best. However, we did have a fun day filming each other as we skied from the very top to the bottom and each film includes a fall by Arancha but I have to give her some credit as she was performing a row of 360 degree turns . I will get this footage edited and supply the link in the next post
What followed was a lazy day sandwiched by a couple of lazy evenings in front of the open log fire before it was time to hop back onto the bus and back along Highway 93 to Banff through a snowstorm that would bring England to a standstill. In Canada it is business as usual and this particular driver told me that one day he had driven through 3 feet of snow whist watching an avalanche in his rear view mirror. Can you imagine our National Express bus drivers being that capable back home?  I don’t think so; they can barely cope with a frost.

As with Australia, Canada has ‘Beware Animals Crossing’ signs. Australia has Emu, Camel and Kangaroo; Canada has Moose, Coyote and Grizzly Bear!!! I wonder what we would have?
Fox, Squirrel and Hedgehog? Or maybe a vicious Badger to make us look a little harder?

After a final weekend with Bec in Banff which included a great day off piste, skiing the back country, dodging pine trees and falling over a lot, as well as an Elk steak which was very tasty, we waved goodbye to Bec with the agreement of next seeing her in Las Vegas in early April and off we went to the resort of Lake Louise, 45 mins up the road.
This was more like it; Lake Louise looked like a mini Lapland, knee deep in snow surrounded by twinkling lights and log cabins. Even the youth hostel was built to sit perfectly within its wooded surroundings.

Lake Louise is a very small town with a real charm that makes you feel completely welcome and at home, the only problem is that accommodation is very pricey so our only option was a mixed dorm room.
Fortunately, the mixed dorm that we were allocated had a double bed set in a loft alcove that was reached via a 12 foot vertical ladder – not advisable if you were on the sherry.
Our roomies for the first 2 days were Kirk, a young kiwi with an unhealthy interest in Wall St bankers and Jasper, an Aussie banker, both of which were sound lads. They were both here on Canadian work and travel visas with the option to stay for 2 years!
We would love to do this but Arancha and I are too old to get a visa as we are over 31 years old, one of us more than the other – quite gutted really.

For 2 days we enjoyed what Lake Louise skiing had to offer, particularly on the backside of the mountain that had beautifully powdered runs and intricate routes through the trees. I can’t say that we cared for the front of the mountain which was too icy and dangerous – this proven by the fact that I twice ended up on my back skidding head first down the mountain.
I also had a particularly bad fall on my last run of the second day as I lost control over a mogul run and hit the snow face first. It was pretty scary during that slow motion split second when I knew that I was going down but I couldn’t help but laugh with Arancha as I pictured myself covered in snow with one of my skis a few metres up the slope behind me.

Apart from being a little shaken I was fine but yet another camera was broken. That is 2 cameras in little over a year broken by ‘falls’ – this travelling lark is getting expensive!

Canada itself has been unseasonably warm of late (and this has been proven by the fact today is Groundhog Day and Phil the ‘Hog has declared an early spring) but on this second day in Lake Louise the thermometer bottomed out at -26 degrees. It was easy to see that this was the case as when Jasper came to seat in front of us on the bus and he had some of his own spittle frozen on his chin. It gave Arancha that nails down the blackboard feeling but for me I just stared at it giggling internally.
Arancha has just told that she purposely slid further down in her set so that she could only see him from the nose up!! Ha ha.

I have just noticed that I have an American quarter in my pocket which is a little annoying as I don’t think that you can use them here but on closer inspection I would never to discard this coin. Do you know why? Because it has Helen Keller as the subject and next to the name it has a translation in the tiniest brail so that there is no way that a blind person could ever read it.
Helen Keller is a legend amongst the boys and we love her.

For our last day of this visit to Lake Louise we decided that a treat was in order. We like our treat days. We took a day off from our office jobs on the mountains and spent a few hours at the famous Chateau Lake Louise – a 5 star hotel set upon the banks of the actual Lake Louise, a stunning turquoise lake fed by the Victoria Glacier (named after our own Queen Victoria) on its western shore.
Of course at this time of year the lake is completely frozen over and the part closest to the hotel doubles as an ice rink complete with ice sculptures and an ice castle complete with thrones.

We spent an hour or so walking along the banks of the lake admiring the dramatic scenery that surrounded the said lake whilst looking out for the ancient mountaineering lodge that sits atop one of the surrounding mountains overlooking what must be one of the most awe inspiring sights. The lodge is actually open for afternoon tea during the summer months so we are left with no option but to return to conquer this new item on the ‘list’.
After the brisk walk we went into the hotel for a delicious lunch of Bison brisket amongst the luxurious surroundings and the panoramic views.
The end of lunch signalled the end of treat day so it was a 4km walk back down to the village below. This was an unremarkable walk along the roadside until Arancha thought that she had finally found the path only to climb up onto the ledge and then promptly sink thigh deep into dirty brown snow.  

We wasted the rest of the day watching films on the laptop before a depressing pasta dinner whilst speculating who would be our roomies for the night from the array of people about us. There were definitely some that we did not fancy such as an old couple who did not know what ear phones were as they sat in the communal area watching their own laptop at full volume. There was also a very bizarre bloke who looked like he had jumped off the pages of a hitchhiker murderer film and I was very unnerved by the way he sauntered around taking in absolutely every part of his surroundings including us.
Obviously we had all 3 in our room.

We are now close to the end of this post and it has been a much longer update than first envisaged. So I will leave you with one last story of my travels to date. We are now back in Banff and coming to the end of Celebrity weekend at the Sunshine Ski Village, a weekend where celebs get another freebee for some charitable cause and enjoy a weekend bender on the slopes.
There were a plethora of so called celebs milling around and we found ourselves in the close company of Minnie Driver, Lyle Lovett, Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Robert F Kennedy Jnr (American royalty) and Pierce Brosnan on 2 separate occasions, once in the shittiest café on the slopes where we were sat eating our crushed sandwiches and microwavable rice!!
Now seeing these faces was all good but I was hanging out for Kevin Sorbo (Hercules), Susan Surrandon, Kelly Lebrock (Weird Science) and Alec Baldwin.

Right, that’s that for now and I must really do my updates more often as these essays are a killer.

We are off to Muse on Monday; Chao. 

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