My time in Vancouver ended, but a new dawn broke nonetheless and with it a new adventure as I commenced upon my journey from west to east. The first stop upon my way I chose to be Kelowna, a large, lake-side community in the midst of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, home to the largest wine-producing region in all of Canada and the fruit-basket of the west, home to an abundance of vineyards and orchards, laden with bushes bearing cherries, oranges, all manner of berries and trees dripping apples, pears, figs in cornucopian quantities. My route at this point was decided rather easily: there are two major routes east through British Columbia towards Alberta. The first of these, driving north-east through Kamloops and Revelstoke I had already enjoyed on my previous trip out west with my family in 2006 and so it was to the second of these routes that I committed myself, remaining further south, closer to the border with the US.
Surmounting my desire to simply remain in Vancouver for what was shaping up to be a glorious summer, I finally chose to leave the city on the single day that week in which I was unable to hop aboard a ride-share to Kelowna. Ride-sharing is a simple yet successful community project that sees both vehicle owners and potential passengers post notices online in forums and on websites advertizing intended routes, dates and circumstances. I had been checking a couple of sites in the hope that I could join such an expedition heading out of Vancouver mid-week, contributing to fuel expenses and conversation, whilst still travelling far more cheaply than if I was to take the bus. I dawdled in Vancouver, then rashly struck upon a date with no such ride available. I could have delayed further, but impatience and a slight fear that if I waited then I might never leave forced my arm: I took the bus.
In a country such as Canada, ride-sharing is an interesting, exciting and cheap method of covering vast distances without boredom successfully wresting one's hold on life or finances one's grasp of travel-funds; in Kelowna there awaited me another social experiment of a similar nature. Various friends and acquaintances made upon my travels had spoken to me at length and enthusiastically about a worldwide internet-based project known as 'couch-surfing': I am sure that the concept is familiar to many of you also. The simple, worthy aim is for travellers of all colours and creeds to find a forum, first online and then - hopefully - in person through which to make contact with one another, should they so wish. Principally, users declare themselves either hosts or surfers, depending upon whether or not they are travelling. Hosts then offer up their homes to surfers in the local area, for a limited period of time and with all the customary protocols of guest-behaviour expected. I decided to experience this new, rapidly growing social networking tool for myself and jumped aboard the couch-surfing bandwagon just before leaving Vancouver. Now, en route to Kelowna, I was heading not just to my first destination of many on my trip east, but also to my first experience lodging with couch-surfing hosts. The profile I found for Cyrus and Ginette upon the couch-surfing site suggested that we were people of similar minds, each interested in a wide array of sports, outdoor activities and the exploration of both local areas and places further afield. Their description of themselves read nicely and I liked especially the earnest and yet modest voice in which they wrote. After a brief flurry of e-mails in which we became acquainted, agreed upon a meeting and arranged the decided date and time, I was on my way, accompanied by my hopes, anxieties and, though I tried to focus otherwise, tentative expectations. How would my hosts behave? What expectations might they hold of me and would I fulfil them or disappoint them?
My time in Kelowna passed as a marvellous dream. Cyrus and Ginette proved every bit as wonderful as my initial impression of them suggested: they were warm, welcoming, exceptionally friendly and staggeringly generous. I did not once feel awkward in their home, not once did the constant knowledge that I was a stranger in their home become a point of contention or of conflict: indeed, in the very short time that I spent with Cyrus and Ginette, we moved swiftly from the barest of acquaintances to firm friends and I hope very much that our paths will cross at some future date. Cyrus and Ginette have a splendid, extensive travel-plan upon which they hope to embark this September, which will bring them to my home shores at about the time that I shall return there at the end of this trip - the world is a small place indeed! How wonderful it would be if I could repay something of the kindness that they displayed towards me in Kelowna, if I could guide them proudly around some of the plentiful sites of interest in my home nation, expose them to something of our rich heritage, our picturesque countryside, our notorious weather.
Of course, this was but my first experience of couch-surfing, as indeed it was for Cyrus and Ginette as well. One reading does not prove the rule and yet, if every other experience on this trip should fail, then still; what a marvellous opportunity I have been granted to have befriended Cyrus and Ginette. In fact, at this future point in the 'real world', I can write with satisfaction that whilst a very special initial experience couch-surfing, my time with Cyrus and Ginette has not remained isolated as a single gratifying instance. I understand well some of the trepidation with which some might read of this social movement: alas, in any circumstance there will always be a small minority who seek discord amongst the harmony of the community. The advent of the internet, with its facelessness and its vastness and its intangible qualities, simply magnifies such misgivings and not without cause. I seek to be mindful of the dangers and yet I remain convinced that it does no good to over-analyze risk, to worry oneself constantly with scenarios that may or may not transpire: road accidents are an unfortunate and alarmingly commonplace part of modern life and yet people cross busy roads every day. It would do no good at all to avoid ever crossing a road because of what might occur: one is cautious, makes sure to look both ways before stepping out into the road, uses the senses vigilantly. I approach travel and numerous aspects therein similarly, looking both ways and proceeding with caution (most of the time at least: I am still young). One of the greatest aspects of travel for me has been the wealth of opportunities that such movement presents to meet a variety of fantastic people. Whilst lodging in hostels has doubtless provided me with fabulous occasions, meeting diverse and interesting fellow travellers, couch-surfing is offering another angle to the interest I have for meeting others, this time guiding me more towards meeting local people. Canadians remain amongst the friendliest, most exciting people that I have ever met and factored into that now, meeting them invariably offers unparalleled opportunities to explore little-known places of interest and participate in truly Canadian pastimes and experiences. Rather than replace hostelling completely with couch-surfing, I have simply added the latter to my already rich arsenal of possibilities and widened my potential for capturing memorable moments, events, peoples and locations within my journeying.
Cyrus and Ginette offered me a compelling manner in which to explore Kelowna whilst simultaneously enhancing my time there through strengthening ties of friendship with the locals that I met during my exploration; namely, themselves. Regretful that they both had to spend the one full day that I was in town working, Cyrus and Ginette lent me a bicycle, a rucksack filled with lunch and water and a map filled with thoughtful suggestion for how best to spend my day sightseeing. I set off early, the sun already glaring balefully down at me. Kelowna lies towards the northern extreme of a huge desert that stretches all the way from Mexico in the south to break into southern British Columbia, terminating slightly north of Kamloops, which is in turn a little above Kelowna itself. Whilst the majority of the desert is semi-arid, Kelowna lies beside a large lake and is well-irrigated, forming a splendid oasis surrounded by great dust-bowled hills and sparse, stunted bracken. The hot climate and extensive hours of sun visited upon the area contribute profoundly to the popular viticulture of the region and it was with these vineyards in mind that I had planned my route, following a quiet road along the lake-side for some twenty kilometers out of the centre of the town and into the foothills, populated by the tell-tale rows of vines and offering spectacular panoramas out over the sparkling, azure lake.
I broke for a hasty lunch of whole-wheat pita-bread, crammed with peanut-butter and strawberry jam (how very North American) at a picnic bench, accompanied - mercifully - by a small roof offering glorious, shaded respite from the tyrannous sun. I allowed myself a satisfied smile in contemplation of the taxing pace that I had set atop the pedals that morning and also of the tranquil, virtuous scene now splayed out before me; of the sun-drenched waters shimmering below, broken by the wake of a boat's prow or a sea-plane's floats, of the happy shouts of children frolicking in the waves, of the delicious feel of the breeze playing lightly across my brow, teasing hair that exploded as wildly as ever atop my head, a frenzy exacerbated by the humid condition beneath my helmet that day. I revelled in the fatigue that perpetuated a slight shiver in my legs, causing me to stand still momentarily when I rose from my bench, affording my belaboured calf muscles chance to prepare themselves for the effort of walking, so unnatural after the rhythmic cadence of the pedals in their circular motion, up and down, up and down. I closed my eyes against the glare of the sun and the heady rush of blood to my temples, seeking to fix behind my lids the natural beauty of the scene that had so absorbed me upon my impromptu lunch-stop. I gathered myself, opened my eyes, squinted into the harsh light reflecting up from the gravel underfoot and swung my leg back over the frame of my two-wheeled companion. I settled back into the slightly discomfitting sensation of riding, legs chafing against the edge of the saddle, posterior numbed alarmingly by its unforgiving shape (the unforgiving shape of the saddle that is...). All of this physical unease served a purpose of course: it was time to visit some vineyards.
I have visited vineyards mulitple times already on this adventure and written something of my experiences here. I have mouthed Malbec in Argentina, sipped Sauvignon (Cabernet and Blanc) in Chile and quilled Zinfandel on the west coast of California. Now it was time to pillage some Pinot out here in one of the best Pinot-growing regions on the planet. I visited two vineyards that afternoon, the first a charming, small, family-run affair and the second a quite paradoxical establishment, attempting - with some small degree of success - to combine demanding popularity with rather untraditional methods: the wine at this second vineyard is aged onsite in a giant pyramid that has become the symbol for the winery. This is not due to any scientific reasoning, so far as I was told; rather to the quite eccentric personal beliefs of the vineyard's aging owner. The winery encourages sustainability and ecological awareness, even as its commercial success explodes, a noble message indeed and one that seems, hearteningly, to be synonymous with its popularity at present. The winery was bustling with activity during my visit, its wide array of guests including the reception party of a local wedding ceremony. I struck up a chat with my affable host, a student with a passion for wine who was indulging this good taste whilst acquiring further knowledge, contacts and, importantly, money through a holiday job at the winery. After a stimulating conversation encompassing a little of the history of the vineyard, the infamous pyramid, a mutual love of history and - inevitably - a word or two on travel and Canada, my youthful host surprised me by assuredly announcing that the tasting was his treat and that he hoped I would continue to enjoy my stay in his fair country: wonderful! This came after slurping my way through five generously-sized taster glasses at the first friendly vineyard, where I had also been prevented from paying for the privilege, whilst simultaneously fielding lovely compliments concerning my accent. Have I mentioned how much I love Canada?
I tottered my way back to Cyrus, Ginette and their lovely home feeling warm, happy and slightly inebriated: I suppose that cycling swiftly, the blood pounding, did not help matters especially. I arrived back in time for a delicious home-cooked meal courtesy of Ginette's prodigious skills, served up in the cosy, tasteful surrounds of their spacious apartment. We sat at a beautiful wooden table in an open-plan living-room, in full view of the kitchen area, Ginette weaving her magic at the stove. The ceiling vaulted high above, creating a marvellous space, airy and light. We ate companionably, each bite punctuated with compliments (mostly from my unaccustomed tongue) towards Ginette, concerning the food. Afterwards, we gathered our beach gear and sauntered across to the lake-side beach, a mere block from the apartment. Here Cyrus and I braved the fresh (slightly chilly) waters of the lake, the sun setting over the hills rising up from the distant, opposing bank. My limbs fluttered, pulled from the lethargy creeping in after a good day of riding by the crisp temperature of the water embracing me within its fluidity. I stayed in the lake for a commendable length of time, mindful of the need to form a favourable impression upon my hosts of the hardiness of an Englishman in the face of harsh weather conditions (I believe that the lake's waters were in the single degrees Celsius). I soaked up the moment: tomorrow would bring a change of scene, a trip as far east as Nelson, but that was another day and so I gave myself to the tranquility of the dying day, floating on a lake, in genial company, nestled in a perfect oasis within a dry desert. Nelson can wait and with it, another entry.
Best wishes to all!