Monday, 25 March 2013

Seattle minus the insomnia (and Portland too)

Happy springtime one and all.
Life is pretty sweet at the moment (as always when you are travelling and not working) and this post comes from the very spring like San Francisco and to be exact the front room with a view of my good friend Miss Rachael Moore - who I am now spending time with in my sixth country after meeting on the night train from Mumbai to Goa back in Nov 2010.

We have now been in the USA for 10 days and I like this country a lot - a big surprise for me and for those of you who know me best although immigration had nothing to do with my positive experiences to date.
We took the overland route into the US on the Greyhound from Vancouver and before we could even attempt to pass through immigration we were kept waiting for an hour on the bus because it was lunch time; therefore no staff present to process us! I expect that sort of deal in India or Thailand but not this sort of tardiness from the world superpower.
When we did finally disembark we found ourselves near to the front of the queue - but the bus was left waiting for us by the end of the process.
From the outset I got the feeling that the immigration officer wasn't completely on my side - which I know is part of their job but I think the whole 9/11 thing still bears far too much precedent to proceedings and "9/11" did come into our dialogue.
An example of how the exchange took place is as follows:
Immigration: "How long are you staying in the USA"
Me: "3 to 4 weeks"
Imm: Do you have a job to fund your stay?"
Me: "No, I quit to travel"
Imm: "Well, how are you funding this trip then?"
Me: "I worked to pay for it"
Imm: "You said you didn't have a job"
Me: "I don't, I worked to save up to travel and then I quit"

Each one of my answers seemed to result in more questions and me heading further towards being denied entry and I really began to get worried once Arancha and my immigration officers got together to confer. At one point Arancha's asked the other if he was going to let me in; his response was "Hmm, I haven't decided yet".
Eventually he did back down and agreed to let us in but only after giving me earache about backpackers not usually being allowed access as they were a security risk and more than likely going to go AWOL in the US and try to stay as illegal aliens unlike Sting.
It's all good fun!!

By late afternoon we had arrived into our first American city, Seattle. We had already sorted out some accommodation but upon our approach to the city centre we reviewed our choice and decided that it was too far out of the downtown area so we needed to rethink.
So with that in mind we literally got off the bus, headed into the nearest Starbucks, got online and found a deal on For an extra $10 a night we managed to bag ourselves a room including its own siting room in a lovely boutique hotel next to the infamous Seattle Space Needle.
All that was left to do that day was to eat and fortunately our hotel was located in a great area of bars and restaurants.
I can't say that I ever thought that I would have a Mexican enchilada smothered in chocolate chilli sauce but let me tell you; it's a winner.

We headed downtown the next morning to see the sights and our first impression of Seattle was of the sheer number of homeless and drug fuelled bums that littered the streets. We have since seen that this is a nation wide problem with the States. Now I have seen real poverty and on a wide scale in parts of Asia but never have I seen such numbers of complete loony tune individuals that really need some help and support on the streets of the country that promotes itself as the land of the reachable dream and saviour of everybody else.
When I say these people were mentalists I clarify this statement by saying that we saw people in full on conversations with themselves, a woman in her seventies doing a drug deal with a girl in her twenties at the bus stop and a guy prancing around in front of a reflective window with his trousers pulled down so he could watch his arse jiggle about - there were office workers behind this reflective glass.
But I digress. So the first touristy thing that we did was to visit the Pike Street Public Market - home to the infamous Pike St fish throwers and the world's first Starbucks Coffee. To say that Seattle is proud of their Starbucks is an understatement; try 1 store on every block corner for size.
As for the fish throwers the deal is that once a punter purchases a fish the fishmongers throw the said fish across the stall to the pleasure of the snap happy tourists (us).

Part of the excitement of venturing into the States was for the food and to date it has not been a disappointment. Venturing into one supermarket I have never seen food displayed in such an attractive and simply mouth watering way plus the sheer volume and variety of goods on offer combined with the fact that the price of living in the US is stupidly low and it all tastes so f*cking good I can understand why obesity is a problem.

Our own reasons for exploring the subject of food were to partake in a Man vs Food challenge along the way, or at least dine at the establishments features in that particular city's episode.
For those of you who do not know what I am talking about, Man vs Food is a tv programme where the name pretty much tells you all you need to know. In each episode the presenter will take you around the legendary eateries of a particular American city / town with an eating challenge of mass proportions being the culmination.
By the way the presenter is a Spurs fan and he was featured in a pre match video at the ground taking a stadium tour and breaking down into tears when he saw the pitch - crazy Americans!

The great thing about technology these days is that you can Google Map Man vs Food restaurants in your chosen city and it will all be there for you in an instant. The internet was invented purely for this reason.
Man vs Food restaurant number 1 of the American west coast tour was The Crab Pot - a restaurant famous for its Sea Feasts - a tub full of sea food steamed to perfection and then literally poured out over the table. The diners are given a  bib to eat their feast with.
Unfortunately I am not the biggest seafood fan so we didn't partake in the signature dish, plus it wasn't exactly in the backpacker price range but we still devoured an entire Dungeness Crab and Calamari and were able to tick off the first restaurant.

We felt as though we had let ourselves down a little by not having the Sea Feast so the next day we ensured that we did the M vs F properly.
Man vs Food restaurant number 2 was Beth's Café; a greasy spoon located a good 30 mins north of the city (we are dedicated to the cause) and known for its 12 egg omelettes.
I can assure you that attempting to finish a 12 egg omelette accompanied with a bed of all you can eat hash browns and 4 slices of toast is no mean feat; and we shared it! We decided to have American cheese, ham and jalapenos as our filling and whilst we waited we were given crayons and paper to draw pictures with to add to the rest that decorated the walls.
We were a little taken aback when the omelette was placed before us; it was massive. I expected shredded ham like something back home but this bad boy contained sliced up ham chunks from a sausage - it was a beast!
We got our heads down and ate - I reckon I got through 7.5 eggs and Arancha the remaining 4.5 - too much. We ate at approx.11pm and I could only manage a small meal by 9pm - it stuffed me.
Tick number 2.

For our final day in Seattle we just bummed about in our glorious room which I forgot to mention had a rocking chair! As the sun set on the day we noticed that the light was the best it had been since we had arrived so we rushed out and climbed to the top of the hill next to which we were located. From there we had the perfect view of a) the sun setting behind the Rocky Mountains to west and b) the last of the failing light spreading across the skyline of Seattle; a skyline that was so stereotypically American - huge glass skyscrapers bunched together with the Seattle Space Needle in the foreground looking every part of its 51 years but lit in a way that perfectly gave off that shiny metallic futuristic look that was synonymous of the exciting pictures you would associate with the USA back in the sixties.

Our next port of call was Portland, The Rose City. The Greyhound would again be our chariot but this time we had Van the bus driver (how ironic). Van introduced himself to us all with a southern drawl (think male Dolly Parton) and delivered all sorts of amusing ditties in between losing his line of thought and having the odd word with a passing driver or himself.
I have never known the use of cannabis to be as prevalent as it is here in North America (US and Canada) and it is in fact legal in the state of Washington (Seattle) for medical use. I think a few people on our bus must've had had bad backs because you could certainly smell it and this did not pass Van by. As we approached a service station he came onto the tannoy to announce that there would be a small window of opportunity to gets some food and "For all of you who have the munchies and I think there are a few of you this is the place to get your burgers, fries and cherry pies".
It sounded so American, we loved it.

We arrived into Portland just after midday and I doubt I have yet to come across a city that is so easy to navigate around. The city itself is split into 4 quadrants which are unofficially Downtown, University, The Young Hipster and The Edgy Indie sections. The bus arrived into Downtown and it was simply a case of jumping onto the electric tram which passed through the entire length of downtown and dropped us into the university area in a mere 15 minutes.
We ventured out to explore the city and immediately felt at ease in a city that emanates a complete openness and relaxed vibe. There were all sorts of life congregated together on the streets milling around the street markets and enjoying the festivities of the complete over the top St Patrick's Day celebrations. The architecture of the city was a perfectly combined mix of old historical builds meets new modern shiny structures and the old town where the major drinking takes place was probably more full of edgy young alternative types as opposed to image conscious twenty-somethings; being both in my thirties and scruffy, I was at home in the crowd.
The north-west of the US is also birthplace to a lot of good music (depending on your taste) with such names as Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Jimi Hendrix hailing from Seattle and that influence had spread south into the state of Oregon and the city of Portland.

As mentioned, it was St Pat's weekend and the town was awash with green and live music. There is not much more to tell of this day except that we enjoyed the live music and Irish dancing and found a pub that sold a pint of Guinness and Gin & Tonic for $6 (£4) and had pub game classics such as PacMan and wooden bowls for 25 cents (17p)!

The Sunday was spent doing the sights of which there weren't that many - Portland is really more of a 'take it easy and just chill' type of place as this list testifies:
1) Powell's City of Books - the world's largest book store covering an entire city block and storing over 1 million titles
2) Lunch from one of the many street vendors - every type of cuisine, cheap and scrumptious (yes I did just type scrumptious)
3) Portland Central Library - the building itself felt very palatial with high ceilings, spiral staircases, chandeliers and oil paintings and just to top it off there was a live recital from an orchestral quartet which was simply delightful, oh yes
4) Checking out the rest of the city such as the Courthouse and Federal Bank

Our final day though was the day that counted - Man vs Food Restaurant number 3.
We had attempted to visit Voodoo Doughnuts on both the Saturday and Sunday but the queue to get in honestly stretched around the block. I cannot imagine what this gaff is taking in considering that the place is open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.
Even at 11am on a Monday morning when the population of Portland should be at work or school there was still a queue but it was doable.
Voodoo Doughnuts is a fat persons nirvana and a chunky person's wet dream - a choice of 60 different doughnuts all on display in revolving glass cases and each one less than $2 each.

Now it would be unfair of us just to taste 1 or 2 because then we wouldn't be able to give you a fair opinion of the joint so we took the calorie hit and ordered 6; they were:
1) Portland Cream
Raised yeast doughnut filled with Bavarian cream. Topped with chocolate and two eyeballs, representing the vision of our great city

2) Triple chocolate penetration
Chocolate cake doughnut with chocolate frosting and coco-puffs

3) Marshall Matters
Plain cake doughnut with vanilla frosting and mini M & M's

4) Tangfastic
Plain cake doughnut with vanilla frosting, tang and three marshmallows

5) Voodoo Doll 
Raised yeast doughnut filled with raspberry jelly topped with chocolate frosting and a pretzel stake

6) Bacon Maple Bar 
Raised yeast doughnut with maple frosting and bacon on top

Now I can tell you that they were all good but the Bacon Maple Bar was a revelation, the salty bacon mixed with the sweet doughnut was perfect.
No matter how hard we tried we couldn't make all 6 disappear in one sitting so we were able to take the doughnuts away in the signature pink voodoo box that declares "All good things come in pink boxes". Amen brother Voodoo!!
The rest of the day was idled away looking around the artistic quarter and observing statues of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt whose nickname unbeknown to me was Rough Rider - hello sailor!

I hadn't realised until I had updated my FB status that we were in Portland that a travel friend of mine who I had met in a bar in southern India and had spent a couple of days with actually lived in Portland so it was a very pleasant and welcome surprise that she had made contact and we had arranged to meet that evening.
We met in a downtown bar and then via a great move on Alicia's part to whisk us over to the other side of the river to a diner specialising in chicken wings we spent a great evening catching up on travel stories as well as learning more about the city and country that we were sat in.
Alicia, as iterated at the time, once we finally settle in a chosen country you are cordially invited to stay with us!

And with that meeting with travel buddy number 2 we reached an end to our time in Portland and the US North West. Now it was time for the sexy stuff - San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles but that will have to wait until the next post.
I think the next post will be worth reading based upon my time so far in San Fran and only if you read it for our flight there and being in the middle of an enthusiastic American crowd with nowhere to escape to.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Canada; gone but not forgotten

Howdy partners, I am now in the US of A writing from the very rainy city of Seattle.

Country number 1 has come and gone and it passed me by in a blur of snow and maple syrup.

So let's recap on the final few weeks of our time in Canada.
It goes without saying that there were more days spent on the slopes testing ourselves amongst the moguls and the jumps and for those of you who haven't yet seen our fabulous success with those aforementioned snow skills then click on the link below:

We were now at the weekend of Feb 16th and this was a Canadian public holiday meaning 'Family Weekend' in Banff ie. shitloads of tourists and snotty nosed kids getting in the way. Fortunately for us there was not one available hotel, B&B or hostel room in the whole town so we were forced to relocate to nearby Canmore for the Saturday night. It had been quite a while since I had been on a decent Leo Sayer (all dayer) so for me Canmore would be the perfect opportunity to get on it. After a short 20min bus ride between towns, checking into our hostel and then a wasted hour whilst AJ looked around the shops we hit our first pub of the day at about 3pm.
The bar was full of interesting locals, some of which made themselves known to us such as an ex-pat from the UK who had been living here for some 30 years and no longer keeps in contact with his family because "why should I visit them in the UK if they can't be bothered to come and visit me?" Once he had downed yet another beer off he went to his night job at the liquor store! Hmm, I reckon some of the stock may disappear from time to time.

In the early evening we slid from our bar stools and made our way down to the Drake Inn and this is where the real characters were to be found.
We were quite content to sit there and people watch but it turned out that we had been the ones under the microscope. A young twenty-something girl approached us from behind and declared that she thought we were such a cute couple and that is was great. As I turned to face her she looked a little perplexed and it soon became apparent that yes, she thought we were a cute couple, but a cute lesbian couple. Obviously we found this funny and it has not been the first time that I have been mistaken for a girl because of the hair but I am now thinking that maybe I should trim the locks as according to someone else in the Drake Inn it wasn't surprising that I was mistaken for a girl as I did have a very unique look! Still not sure if that was an insult.

It turned out that this young girl was herself a lezza and she introduced us to her ex, a fifty-something real estate millionaire who even though had been dumped by the pretty young girl still insisted on being around to 'look after' her once she had had too much to drink. Hmmmm, sounds like date rape without the drugs.
Later on that evening a complete random stumbled over to Arancha who was sitting on a bar stool and she plonked her ample handbag onto AJ's lap and asked her to hold it whilst she sorted through it. This woman was completely bonkers and ranged from touching and stroking Arancha's face to showing us photos of her boyfriend's arse and photos of her sons in a stoned state who she had been to jail for, but was so very proud of them! WTF.

We awoke on Sunday morning to the perfect winter scene and the snow did not stop falling for the entire day but as it was still public holiday we would need to wait until the Tuesday to enjoy the freshly fallen powder.
When we did get back to the slopes it was a nice to change to find ourselves on the yet to be explored Norquay mountain. The conditions were not the best as there had been limited snowfall on this side of the valley which meant that we were in for an icy time on the lower slopes leaving us with no alternative but to finally test ourselves on double black diamond runs - those allotted for experts.
Standing at the top of these slopes and looking down unable to see the bottom because they seemed to bend over themselves is very daunting especially as you have to carve a path down through moguls that are 2 to 3 feet tall but carve our way down we did and with some relief when we finally arrived at the base of the mountain. There was a real sense of achievement once we had completed the once untouchable double diamond run knowing that there was no longer any part of any ski mountain that we could not attempt (apart from those hardcore runs where personal avalanche alarms are required), so we spent the afternoon doing the same runs with each one becoming that little bit easier

For the rest of that week we continued to push the boundaries of our snow capabilities as we tackled numerous parts of the mountain that we didn't believe possible at first, many of which were practically uninhabited because the majority chose to ski / board the standard runs. To me it felt as though we were now really skiing and having daily adventures that would long live in the traveling memory. The only problem with launching yourself down a slope that feels vertical in its tangent or weaving in and out of tall and sturdy pine trees whilst on a 70 degree downhill is that the percentage of time spent on your back, arse or sprawled out on your front is increased dramatically, none more so than when I lost it on an ungraded slope and began to slide uncontrollably and headfirst down the mountain towards a worried looking Arancha who was perched on the edge of the precipice (not quite but it felt like it). Somehow I did manage to come to a stop and then completely knackered myself by scrambling back up to collect a ski that was left behind.
Fun though!

We were back around to Saturday and that meant 2 days off the slopes away from the weekend crowds.
After a lazy morning we took a gentle stroll out of the town to the Banff Springs Hotel, a sister hotel to the Chateau Lake Louise mentioned in a previous post. Basically it was the dog's ball-bags of a hotel with a view across the mountains and wilderness to match.
A superb fish and chip lunch was followed up by a few drinks and a some pool back in Banff. The resulting tipsiness led to Arancha making a 10pm Canadian time call to her sister in Australia (4pm the next day local time) and singing Lionel Richie's "Hello, is it me you're looking for..." as the receiver was picked up.
We had no idea who the groggy sounding guy was on the other end of the line but it seems that AJ entered the UK dialling code and not the Australian one. Result: AJ drunkenly singing to a random bloke at 5am UK time, and it was a Sunday morning. Poor man.

The following Wednesday was Arancha's birthday. I won't say how she was but I can say that she is getting on!
We celebrated by not taking a packed lunch up onto the mountain! Woo hoo.
We continued the celebrations by not having a Lean Cuisine microwavable meal for dinner. F*ck yeah!
Instead I took her out for dinner to the Grizzly Fondue Restaurant and we indulged ourselves in a 4 course meal and a bottle of wine. It's weird, when you are working you take eating out for granted but it is strange how quickly it all changes once you are a bum. This was a real treat for us and for that reason we probably enjoyed it all the more.
Course 1 - salad, who cares
Course 2 - cheese fondue with fresh garlic and bread
Course 3 - I had the 'Hunter' fondue - Venison, Buffalo and Wild Boar
                 AJ had the seafood fondue - Lobster, Prawn and Scallops
As always we shared our food so that we got to try it all
Course 4 - chocolate fondue with fresh fruit for dipping

All in all a great meal and it was topped off by 2 mini birthday cheesecakes and candles back in the hotel room. Before you think that we are pigs we ate the cakes the following day!

Friday March 1st was our last ski day in Banff after 6 great weeks but it was now definitely time for us to move on; we were becoming stagnant.
Our last day on the slopes was such good fun. The snow was falling like I have never seen before which meant bad visibility so we were forced to spend our day cutting and carving in and out of a brilliant tree route.
It snowed so heavily that day that 41cm fell over a 24 hour period. Trust that to be our last day so that we couldn't reap the benefits of such a snow dump!

Our final day in Banff was just an exercise in time wasting before we boarded the 8:30pm Greyhound journey from hell - a completely full 14 hour drive throughout the night to Vancouver. We of course had the seats with the limited leg room, even for 5 footers like ourselves and I reckon I got between 3 - 4 hours of broken sleep; which in the grand scheme of things isn't all that bad when you don't exactly have to get up for work any time soon.

We arrived mid morning and fortunately the hostel was only a 5 min walk from the station; unfortunately it was a complete shithole but it would have to do.
We moseyed around the city all day and I have to say that on first impressions Vancouver has it all. The city itself has a real look and feel of Melbourne combined with Hong Kong (due to its harbour but of course without the balmy climate), it is based over numerous pockets of land with the Pacific Ocean gently lapping up against the numerous beaches, national parklands and harbours with the all important Rocky Mountains up close and personal to the north and east of the city providing great ski access.

We stood around watching the sea planes coming into and out of the harbour and visited Gastown, the founding area of Vancouver. We had already noted that Canada's homeless population seemed to be here in this one city, and that is not surprising when you consider that Vancouver is one of the country's most temperate cities during the harsh winters; however we did not plan on walking into the middle of what seemed to be a homeless only market. They were literally haggling for a dollar over this piece of shit or that piece of tat and I have no idea where they get it from but they all seemed to be wasted on a number of substances.
I don't know why I found it so funny but I heard one guy asked how he was and in one sentence he replied; "..don't know, erm good, er, not bad." Clearly covering all the bases!
The only other thing worth mentioning about that day was walking around the Chinese garden and a bird dropping a large piece of soggy bread into my hair which got all tangled - yuk.

This particular visit to Vancouver was only a stop over and the next morning we boarded yet another Greyhound bus and made our way to the infamous ski destination of Whistler Village. If the drive from Banff to Jasper is one of the top 5 in the world then the drive from Vancouver to Whistler must also be in the top 5 or least the top 10. The coastal road along the Pacific Ocean dotted with pine covered islands with the snowy Rocky mountains rising up in the distance was spectacular.
We only got around to booking our accommodation in Whistler 5 minutes before we boarded the bus and it worked out perfectly for us. For 4 nights we stayed in the woods in a Yurt, a portable, bent wood-framed dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. Essentially it looked like a circular tepee with the added bonus of a perspex roof top allowing views of the nightly skies. Now a tent in the snowy woods does not sound like the best way to spend a few days but it was pure luxury as far as we were concerned. There was ample heating, a sofa, dining table and the most comfortable bed to date. Also due to its location it is quite common in the summer months to share the path with brown and black bears which would be a sight to behold.

Whistler itself is a snow sports lover's heaven, so much so that you can ski down the mountain for 2,000 metres and literally step off of the snow straight onto the village high street. The village is very alpine European in style and has that same feel to it as a ski town in Austria - especially when it comes to the après ski!
Whistler was also the location for some of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and based on what we saw I can only imagine what the atmosphere would've been like during that time.

For the next 2 days we enjoyed the delights of the twin mountains. Day 1 was spent on Blackcomb Mountain and the sheer depth of snow made it very difficult for me to get down with any grace. A sign of how confident we were now getting was that for our very first run on an unfamiliar mountain we got off at the very top and then hiked up a little further so that we could ski the Blackcomb Glacier and then 10.5km back down to the start - what a run!!
The next day we explored Whistler Mountain but only after we took the world record breaking Peak2Peak cable car that links the 2 mountains and anybody with a fear of heights would not enjoy this ride.
Whistler Mountain had some of the best tree runs that I have ever been on but it was also a pleasure to ski the Olympic run from peak to base.

Whilst in Whistler we also had the seriously good fortune to stumble right into the path of the first moose to be spotted in the village in a number of years; an impressively large beast.

Before we knew it our ski time had officially come to an end and we were back in Vancouver for a final few days in Canada.
There was so much to do in Vancouver that we were spoilt for choice but we did as follows:
  • Day 1 - walk over to the public market on the arty Granville Island - there we had possibly the best fish and chips ever, watched a seal frolic in the harbour and bought some fresh produce so that we could finally have some healthy dinners. From there we took a gentle 2 hour walk back home along the waters edge in the setting early spring sun
  • Day 2 - we hired bicycles and rode around the perimeter of Stanley Park, situated to the NW of the city centre looking out over the Pacific Ocean before cycling through the interior to explore the rainforests within. We also explored Beaver Lake but unfortunately the actual beavers were sleeping the day away in the huge lodge situated in the middle of the lake. Still, the local turtles were visible basking in the afternoon sun as well as a number of eagles circling high above us 
  • Day 3 - we met up with a Canadian friend, Francoise whom I had met when I was in Nepal in Dec 2010. She was someone that I met on my first trek in the Himalayas and who I travelled around the Chitwan National Park with to hunt (purely to view) rhino's. It was really nice to catch up with someone that I had met in another time and place in another completely random location
I must also mention one particular guy who was staying with us at our hostel. For those of you who read my blog from my previous worldly trip and my time at Mt Everest will recall a chance meeting with an inspirational guy who was determined to become the first cyclist to make it to the top of said mountain.
Well Demche, a Macedonian born Canadian could have ben his older brother. This 'mature' traveller was just ending his 6 month cycling trip that took him through the mountains of Pakistan, through western and central China, across to Hawaii where he spent among other things 45 days camping on the side of a mountain because he could and then finally around western Canada. This guy had some real stories to tell, such as sliding uncontrollably down a glacier to certain death before he remembered to spread his body out to control and stop his slide before slowly but surely edging along to the safety of some more rigid rocks. As far as I am concerned he should be writing the blog and it is always good to see that no matter what age you are you can keep doing it!

And there we are, just 4 days short of 2 months in Canada was at an end. I managed to complete 26 days of skiing, skied in 5 different locations, saw glaciers, ice fields, walked through an ice canyon, saw coyotes, elk, moose and Muse in concert but what I didn't get to see was the northern lights, any species of bear or wolf or a bleeding maple leaf - so I guess I will have to come back.
Canada is country that has it all for lovers of the outdoors and nature at its most raw and beautiful and we only saw the south western quarter of the world's second largest country. There is so much left to explore but it must wait for the foreseeable future as we are heading south and south some more!

I will leave you with some final footage of our time in the snow although it isn't quite as entertaining as the one above, laters: