Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wherein the Dilettante begins to learn the Role of Travel in this modern World, and begins likewise to worry about Her own Role, and begins to travel, therefore, ever so slightly down the Path that will cause her to be less of a Dilettante and more of a Global Citizen, even if that means staying Home.

Yes, folks, it seems that yours truly has recently developed a global conscience, or at least the beginnings of one. This is not a complete about-face for me; Ian and I recycle, we compost, we drive one of two cars using biodiesel, we eat organic, we don’t water our yard (really at all, which means that once in the spring we plant, and once in the fall we pull out everything that didn’t make it). I work from home and Ian bicycles to school . . . but even taking into account these ascetic living conditions, it still seems likely that the planet will run out of reasonably obtainable oil in about 30 years. This number is not set in stone by any means. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a return to pre-industrial life—we have developed alternate energy sources, and dependable energy storage (i.e. batteries), in the last 150 years. However, nothing is likely to easily replace the oil we’ve become addicted to, so it’s probable that any of us who are going to be alive in 30 years (and I certainly intend to be) will lead vastly different lives than we do at the moment.

What does that mean for me today? Well, I recognize that intercontinental travel, any air travel in fact, takes a lot of resources. An incredible amount of energy goes into keeping planes in the sky (and boy am I glad!). So, do I travel as much as possible, as far away as possible, while I still can? As long as planes are flying and I can afford a ticket, should I go? Guzzle down martinis until the gin runs out, and I don’t remember my name or where I came from, but at least I’ve had a great three hours?

So far, I do intend to continue traveling—addictions are hard to quit cold turkey—so how can I make the expenditure of oil worthwhile? The world has shrunk almost alarmingly in the last couple decades, with 7-Eleven and Coke and Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere, creating markets for foot-long rolling hot dogs, corrosive soda, venti mochas and sugar-laced Big Macs (it’s true!) where previously people ate sticky rice or black bean stew and drank green tea and local fruit juices—and vice versa, of course. In our neighborhood alone are at least five sushi restaurants, two Thai places, a Malaysian curry house, an Afghan restaurant, an African restaurant, and of course Mexican and European options galore. As it becomes more expensive to travel, though—and ship things all over the world—the planet will begin to grow again.

As a writer who travels, I am in the somewhat unique position of being able to document these changes in a global sense—society’s last push to homogenize the earth, the inevitable failure as the earth cuts off our means of homogenization, the slowing of the hamster wheel we’re so desperately trying to keep spinning, the reverse of the trend, and the slow re-expansion of our world and a return to localization. It’s a fascinating time to be living, and, I realize, to be one of the Americans who’ve made this whole crisis possible. I’m sure if I were one of the Tuvaluans who are being relocated because even breadfruit can’t grow on their swamped atolls anymore, I would be much, much angrier and much less fascinated.

But for now I’m not going to stop traveling. I am going to take advantage of the denial for at least a couple more years—see Cape Verde and Senegal; Tasmania and the rest of Australia; New Zealand; and revisit friends in Portugal; London; Greece if possible; Kenya again if it’s ever again safe. But while I’m home, I’m going to make more of an effort to educate myself about alternatives for the future, and to reduce my ecological footprint so I can afford (at least a little), in the ecological sense, to see these places and meet these people and experience these myriad cultures that might so soon be out of reach.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Rainy but atmospheric Gastown in Vancouver. Posted by Picasa

Ways in which Vancouver, BC is not like a US city

At first glance, British Columbia seems a lot like Washington, except for being slightly darker in the winter and slightly lighter in the summer, and with a little more maple sugar candy (yum). But surfaces can be deceiving, as savvy travelers find if their eyes are open. Here are some of the differences I noticed:

  1. Packaging is written in French as well as English, which is an excellent way to, at the very least, expose speakers of one language to some vocabulary of the other. Unfortunately, the translations do not necessarily extend to product names. I would love to know, for instance, what “Canadian Beaver Droppings” would be in French; alas, I know merely that they are composed of amandes grill√©es au sirop d’√©rable.
  2. There is not a Barnes and Noble, nor a Borders, to be had anywhere in Canada (I double-checked this online—both bookstores are US only). I understand that giant, Wal-Mart*-like booksellers have their drawbacks, namely destroying the livelihoods of mom-and-pop or genre-specific shops, but they have their benefits as well, particularly if it’s 43 degrees and pouring down rain outside for two days in a row. No large British chains, such as Waterstone’s or W.H. Smith, make an appearance either, and there doesn’t seem to be a Canadian counterpart. Indeed, one large underground mall in which we spent an inordinate amount of time had no bookstores at all. We had to take a bus all the way to another part of town to find even one general interest bookstore, Duthie’s Books, which nevertheless was a comfortable, dry place which yielded many fine reads.
  3. There’s a Starbucks on every corner. No, wait, that’s a similarity. Actually, several of the corners housed Canada’s own espresso chain, Blenz, which we enjoyed. Oh, and americano is pronounced ameriCANo.
  4. In produce markets you can buy tropical fruits grown other places than California, including Thai favorites such as longan and other lychee relatives like rambutan, and the glorious fuchsia-and-white dragon fruit.
  5. Tylenol with Codeine can be bought without a prescription. I think this is true; alas, I am not a savvy enough traveler to know how it’s done. It doesn’t seem to just be in the aisle with Tylenol PM and regular old Tylenol.
  6. City buses are exotic and foreign so I’m more likely to take them—three times!—than I am here where they just seem dismal. And last,
  7. When Mom and I run out of steam shopping—and, more to the point, talking non-stop—but don’t yet want to head back to our hotel, and I say “Let’s get a cocktail,” she thinks I’m brilliant and it’s a brilliant idea, instead of thinking I’m a borderline alcoholic and it would be enabling.

*Wal-Mart does exist in Canada . . .

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


George Vancouver was here Posted by Picasa

Damn you, George Vancouver

In June of 1772, the ships Discovery and Chatham, captained by Dutch-born George Vancouver, entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca between what are now the state of Washington in the United States, and the province of British Columbia in Canada. Ever since, travelers meaning to go to southern Washington have ended up north, and travelers dying to go north to BC have found themselves with tickets leading them south. And sometimes, people expecting to find themselves on a lovely island for a short train jaunt find themselves instead in the wilds of the mainland for eight hours or more, ending in a town known only for its hockey team (and not really for that if you’re not a Canuck).

Three destinations in the Pacific Northwest bear witness to the mighty sea captain. Two are cities, a small one just inside Washington from Portland, Oregon, and a large one between Seattle and Whistler (where people go to ski and/or shop year round). The third, Vancouver Island, is just off the coast from Vancouver, BC. This does not help matters.

Personally, I have only ever been involved in one case of a mistaken Vancouver. When I graduated from college, Mom took me first to the Edmonton Mall in Alberta (the largest mall in the world until the Mall of America in Minneapolis opened soon after) where we stayed at the mall hotel and didn’t go outside—literally didn’t—for 48 hours; then on a train trip in BC. The train trip she had asked the travel agent for was about 4.5 hours, leaving from Victoria on Vancouver Island, stopping for the night in Courtenay, returning the next day. The train trip she actually bought started in Vancouver city, and went for about 8 hours up the Fraser River Valley to Prince George, a, well, town with a hockey team that the Canucks know the name of.

We enjoyed the ride—in part because the Fraser River Valley is craggy and dramatic, with rushing waters and soaring boulders and deep-green trees—and in part because we met an elderly couple, the male half of whom was a retired civil engineer with a geology background, who entertained us with natural history—and the fact that they, too, had meant to be on Vancouver Island, rather than traveling north from Vancouver city.

Not long after this star-crossed graduation present, Mom invited Gma B (who has recovered well since her previous appearance in these pages in September) to see a musical in Vancouver city. She bought train tickets through the same travel agent, a cousin of my father’s (god rest both their souls) and niece of Gma B. On the big day, Mom and Gma arrived at the train station in Seattle, with plenty of time before departure.

“Where should we catch the train to Vancouver BC?” Mom asked one of the ticket agents, just to make sure she was on top of things, having been burned before.

“The train to BC left 20 minutes ago,” said the agent. “Besides, these tickets are to Vancouver, Washington.”

“They’re to go to Vancouver Washington?” asked Mom, incredulous. “But I went through a travel agent and everything. How could these be wrong?”

“Lady, I recommend you get a new agent,” said the ticket man. He did, however, exchange their tickets for seats on the next bus, and they had a fantastic time and enjoyed their show.

For these two reasons, though, when Mom and I decided to come to Vancouver to celebrate my 33rd birthday, Mom suggested we drive. We at least knew that we wanted to go north. And I do love to drive, but the thought of sitting behind the wheel of a car for 3 hours each way, plus whatever endless amount of time the border crossing took, plus the potential for the trip, this time of year, to include snow-driving but the absolute non-chance of any skiing also being involved, all made me think the train would be better. Mom agreed, cautiously, and was much reassured when I had to call her mid-online reservation and get her passport number. As far as we know, northern Washington and southern Washington are still the same country.

There was some potential for mishap when all the rains caused major mudslides over the tracks north of Seattle, but the replacement bus was specifically ours, and large and comfy and had a spotlessly clean bathroom—complete with a drawing of a man in an Indiana Jones hat standing with an X drawn through it and the man in the Indy hat sitting in a big circle. Yeah, sitting is key.

At customs, we all filed off the bus and collected our bags from underneath, and were genteely queuing for check-in when an older couple, clearly not American of any country, asked a girl in broken English why we had to go through customs. “We’ve just arrived at the Canadian border,” she replied, or something equally electrifying. The man immediately dropped his bags at the feet of the woman and leapt out of the hall, racing for the bus which was starting to pull away, to meet us in another country. Vancouver Washington,” he yelled, “VANCOUVER WASHINGTON!”