Today marks the outset of my fourth week here in Vancouver. So far I have derived much enjoyment in both reacquainting myself with familiar areas of the city known to me from my initial family visit three years ago and exploring pastures new, particularly those comprising the landmass to the south and west of the downtown promontory, predominantly the neighbourhood known as Kitsilano. Hereonin, the tough gets going: I am due to commence my first job here within the next couple of days and I move into my own room in a small, cosy basement suite here in "Kits" (as Kitsilano is affectionately nicknamed) this very evening. I have taken some three weeks to find my feet, but find them I have done and now I can look forward to adventures of a slightly different kind in the run-up to my favourite time of the year - we are into December already; shocking!
My transition to a more settled existence here in Vancouver and in particular in the twin tasks of job- and room-hunting has been made far more tolerable, much easier by the kind generosity and fabulous hospitality that has been faultlessly displayed to me by my epic bike-ride friends Mike and Jenna. After picking me up in their car, bags and all, safely depositing me within their home with warm welcomes and beseeching me to treat the place as my own, I have remained here the full three weeks, enjoying their interest in my progression and relying upon their confidence in my abilities and fortifying encouragement. I have been given advice, space and time with which to plan my various sorties into the realms of employment and accommodation, all the while returning to a happy home-base afterwards, yielding affection and the odd glass of wine to accompany divine home-cooked meals and luminous conversation. Mike and Jenna have gone far, far above and beyond: they have been wonderful to me and I cannot thank either of them profusely enough.
Such an overwhelming display of love and kindness has once more set my mind thinking, reviewing the extraordinary good fortune that has so often befallen me in my life. I have spoken on this blog-site already of the titanic love and support that I am so lucky to know from family and friends back home: now, my attention turns more fully to some examples garnered from my time on the road and in finding my feet here in Canada. First, however, a little background is in order…
I have always enjoyed a dizzying degree of unconditional love from those who matter most in my life; from my Mum, Dad, Beth, grandparents and various other close family and friends. Nonetheless, for all of this powerful encouragement, I have found myself all too often shying away from the potential kindness of strangers: my natural inclination has been to avoid forging connections with perceived outsiders (a loaded term, by which I merely allude to those I consider to be outside my life, nothing more). I have hesitated to offer much more than a cheery 'hello!' in passing; a furtive glance remains just that, on a crowded train, at a bleak bus-stop, in a bureaucratically-inspired queue of never-ending proportion. I am open to random requests for help in a guarded way, relieved when such amounts simply to an indication of the time or quick directions to a well-known location. In short; I have often found myself fearful in some degree towards the unknown and this fearfulness has ranged in consequences from a simple silence to a complete paralysis of social capability, rendering the self-perceived me utterly useless.
At the commencement of my South American adventure, this social timidity, which I myself acknowledge can often be adequately concealed and is surely magnified noticeably within my own mind, rose to the surface: in a foreign land, with barely a rudimentary grasp of the accepted national language, perhaps understandably I hesitated to ask questions, instead preferring to rely upon my own flawed knowledge. If I knew not the correct bus to board in order to reach a destination on time, no matter; I would simply orientate myself to a street map and walk the necessary distance, occasionally arriving late for a meeting as a consequence. No matter if a kindly soul attempted to strike up some light conversation with me in a café or on the street: even if I could have resolved the interaction speedily with a check of the watch or consultation of my map, the language barrier invariably left me shaking my head, an inane smile pasted across my perplexed features. My personal favourite and one that I have observed and experienced countless times within innumerable instances: if one were to offer me a physical kindness - a sweet or a share of a drink - I would find myself instinctively shaking my head, dismissing the socially-engineered attempt to forge a connection with a wistful smile, my polite mind wishing only to save the person from a perceived inconvenience.
In time, I was able to diminish this natural predisposition towards awkward unease in such communions that required a degree of social confidence. I began to ask, however haltingly, for help from - well - just about everyone within sight. If there was a bus scheduled to leave La Paz for Copacabana and Lake Titicaca and I had only minutes to find its departure point, well then; I needed to swallow my fear and ask anyone and everyone: the more people that hear the question, the more chance an officious-looking figure can come to one's aid. Gone is the hesitancy that might previously have caused delay and left me facing an extended wait for the next bus to carry me on to my desired destination instead. Gone is the perceived shame inherent in having to resort to asking another person for their help, quite aware that my own abilities fall short in the matter. Not only that: in finally shedding myself of the burden of initial social interaction - which was in itself only ever an implicit barrier - I made a surprising and welcome discovery. By offering others the opportunity to help me, I found that much more often than not, this was precisely what people would do, their advice and guidance frequently accompanied by an open smile and warm words of camaraderie. Better yet, this forging of a communicative link soon reaped dividends, providing abundant opportunity to explore a local community that little more deeply and seriously, to practise my fledging ability with the Spanish language, to enable others to see a little more clearly this traveller within their midst: I had finally come to realize the importance of giving back - yes, I wanted to explore other cultures and see breath-taking new marvels, but I could at the same time afford an exciting glimpse into my own culture and background to those whom I met along the way, often characters who might never have such an opportunity to visit such a culture as mine other than through such social interaction leagues from my homeland itself.
There are many memorable instances of such exchange upon my trip, nearly always honest and without exception educational. My mind wanders back to the first proper experiment I conducted entering into a vocal exchange with a Spanish-speaking local. Disembarking from my first long-haul bus, at the end of the eighteen-hour journey from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, feeling more than a little exhausted, looking and smelling far worse, I bumped into that kindly old vagabond, leaning nonchalantly outside the bus terminal, who successfully accosted me so as to learn the time of day. From this inauspicious beginning, we managed to conduct a lengthy conversation. Although with the benefit of hindsight I am sure that I made next to no sense and was to a large degree simply tolerated (a feeling enhanced by the likeable rogue's parting effort to scrounge some money from my pocket), nonetheless this first foray into braking down my misgivings and my fear, to connect with a local rather than an English-speaking traveller, worked wonders upon my personality and opened the door to a much fuller, more exciting trip from thereonin. Many further, wonderful conversations and interactions followed during my months traipsing around the sub-continent and culminated in perhaps my favourite experience communicating with a local when I met Estrella in Otavalo towards the end of my time in South America and succeeded in speaking in Spanish for a full four hours during an extended hike up out of the city to a breath-taking panoramic view across two valleys from the famous 'lechero' tree. As I type up this memory, its strength of feeling brings a nostalgic smile to my face and sends a thrilling current through my body as I reflect upon how far I have come not only in my grasp of a foreign language, but also in my confidence to meet hitherto discomforting scenarios with calm faculty.
Besides engendering me with new-found power corresponding to interaction between myself and locals, the confidence that my experiences on the road unearthed aided me also in meeting and learning from fellow travellers. The ability to speak freely and easily with others favouring the backpack became a key asset for me: indeed, I have often had cause to ruminate that my only need for a guidebook has been recourse to a conversation with a fellow journey-person. A significant percentage of exceptional experiences - of locations offering outstanding natural beauty, fantastic accommodation and food or memorable entertainment - came directly from the lips (often backed up by the pen) of a well-informed acquaintance on the path of the footloose. Furthermore, such friendly travellers proved mind-bogglingly capable of more generous displays of kindness, which brings me back to the specific instance of Mike and Jenna at the beginning of this stretch of idle musing. I have been incredibly fortunate to meet many wonderful characters upon my adventures this past year and every one of the people that I have met have given me something: a sense of purpose, vital encouragement, an uplifting of the spirits, someone with whom to share a memorable experience, a tasty evening meal, the chance to smile, a warm glow in my belly through their kindness, a warm glow in my belly through a share of their alcohol… the list is near endless.
There is one final, very specific way in which a number of friends - most often fellow travellers met upon this past trip - have given me something and it is upon this subject that I wish to end for today. Mike and Jenna have become the latest in a humbling, humility-inducing list of wonderful, wonderful people who have shared with me their homes, their food, their drink, their experiences and their valuable time. In twenty-six nights spent travelling up the west coast of the USA, a mere two were spent in paid accommodation (one upon an overnight train carrying me north from San Francisco to Eugene, the other my final night of my trip, spent in a Hostelling International establishment in Seattle). The rest of my time was divided between amazing friends. I spent one week with Ben and Courtney, being introduced to the wonders of Los Angeles, among them the Getty Museums and Ben and Courtney's marvelous friends. I spent the best part of a week bunking in Palo Alto with Abra and Noah, interspersed with a night revisiting my first Anglophone friend made upon my entire trip, Dan, in the Sunset district of downtown San Francisco itself. All three of these beautiful characters aided me in discovering a truly exceptional city and in sharing some fabulous moments past and present. Sarah, my 'amiguita' from Cusco, was great fun and a great hostess during my three days in Santa Cruz, even driving me back up to San Jose in time for my aforementioned train-ride, a round trip of more than two hours, only half the time of which she was able to enjoy (endure?) my company. In Eugene, I had a super stay with Courtney, who showed me so many incredible sides to Oregon and lit up my spirit with her energy and enthusiasm. Jim and Maureen were brilliant, inspirational hosts during my time in Portland, convincing me to forego any designs I had planned for Seattle in order to remain as long as time allowed in their incomparable company: between these three people - Courtney, Jim and Maureen - as well as Jim and Maureen's son Ian, I was offered a truly privileged insight into the superlative beauty of Oregon, an idyll to which I shall doubtless one day return. All of the people mentioned here did far more than simply offer me warm and much appreciated companionship. They went far beyond this to actually invite me into their own homes and share with them for the duration of my stay. For all of this and especially for the time each person offered me, to develop friendships and to indulge in inspirational experiences, I am truly thankful and in each and every person's debt - I can think of no place I would rather be; my experiences count for so much.
Now it is time to say farewell, but not goodbye, to my latest guardian angels, Mike and Jenna. I have stayed with them, sharing in their household, for a full three weeks, during which time I have been showered with goodwill, kindness and benefaction. I owe Mike and Jenna a particularly large debt, that I hope to one day have the pleasure of repaying in kind. For the meantime, I am relieved and excited at the prospect of being able to continue our blossoming friendship here in Vancouver. Looking ahead, I shall all-too-soon (though not nearly soon enough!) once more find myself the lucky recipient of the generosity of a travelling friend, this time throwing myself upon the hospitality of Kelsey, with whom Seb and I are looking forward to enjoying a sensational Christmas. Thank you once again Kels for helping to alleviate the inevitable wretchedness I shall feel being parted from my family for the first time at this particular time of year when family takes on a meaning just that little bit more special.
Thanks once again to everyone I met during my incomparably awesome adventure this year: it has been the most amazing series of experiences and once again I am able to reflect upon my intense good fortune. Thanks to Mike and Jenna for all of their inspirational help and for their sublime kindness these past three weeks: here is to many magical moments ahead!
Best wishes to all!