My trip consisted of three parts: two days in Vancouver, six days in Squamish and then three days back in the City and, though I hadn’t even landed, I already hated my destination. The lovely Vancouverite lady traveling next to me said: “your first hotel isn’t exactly in the prettiest area. Squamish? There’s nothing to do there! And you return to Vancouver in the middle of the gay district.”
Then, just as I landed, the immigrations officer though that ‘being an engineer and coming to backpack by myself around Vancouver to see if I finish my novel’ was not a valid reason for travel and questioned me for forty minutes. Together with the stress of ‘knowing’ my hotel was in the Canadian ghetto (oxymoron, I know) and the heat (heat in Canada, really?), was the fact that I couldn’t find my hotel, the appropriately named Urban Hideaway. Great hotel, by the way. When I arrived, sweaty, tired and stressed, I flopped in bed and tried to sleep.
The next morning I embarked towards Granville Island at the 9:30 am. The hotel’s owner, Ken—a Finnish astro-physicist with two PhD who got fed up with his corporate life—told me: “it’s safe and calm. This is Canada.” He shrunk his shoulders and smiled. Sure, why would I doubt that? But Granville Street was abandoned. Occasionally cars drove by, the stores were locked and those roaming around seemed like the cast of The Walking Dead. I reached an overpass from where I located the island when two drug addicts started following me: “you look at me again and I’ll break your face!”
I hurried my pace and tried to reach the island; I saw it but didn’t know how to get there. The heat, the cars buzzing by and Cheech and Chong a few meters behind me; the paranoid thoughts began: “This trip is a waste. You come to Canada to clear your head and write? Idiot! Go the park and smoke weed. You’ll hate this trip. They’ll say you are crazy.” But here I was. I’ve traveled in four continents, raked up hundreds of thousands of miles, I’ve gone to trainings, conferences and even sporting events. Then, why was I scared of this journey?
For the first time in 28 years I was completely alone in another country, with no heading, not even an emergency contact “just in case.” My only purpose: listen to myself. It was a concept totally new to me. May this was what scared me.
I decided to give Granville Island a chance: markets, music, food, sand and even a theater on the beach. As it is common in this fitness-crazed city, there were canoes, bicycles, surfboards, roller blades and kites. While I had lunch, elbowing with locals and tourists next to the bay, I chatted with an English tour guide, well in his sixties. He recommended activities, places and concerts. We spoke of travels, our homelands and of Costa Rica he said: “beautiful, pity it’s so expensive.” Then he asked me of my reason behind this journey.
“It’s good to do that. That way we stop running.” He fixed his hair, put on his hat and got up. “We run too much, so much so, we forget were are going.” He firmly shook my hand and transitioned from English to what seemed a perfect, fluent mandarin to herd in his forty tourists.
I walked past the canoes, the boards, the violinist on the beach and arrived at a bench, far from it all. With pen and notebook in hand and no compromise, I started writing, reaching amounts I had not seen in months. I rested only to avoid the punishment of the sun. Then I went to the theater for a little Shakespeare and took the ferry to Stanley Park; I alternated between walking, gazing and writing. I even fell for the Starbucks addiction (the bastards are finely located). I dined in a small Vietnamese restaurant packed with cigarette smoke and steam, ordering from a menu with little English written on it. Vancouver wasn’t so bad after all.
Squamish was still to be seen, was it true that there was nothing to do?
Well, yes: it was. A town with less than 18 thousand people, with a big mountain in front, two supermarkets, less than ten restaurants and a Starbucks (a plague). As if taken out of a movie and with the planet’s best publicist: “Welcome to the outdoor capital of the world.” My room was on top of a bar, the Ruddy Duck, and had everything I needed, nothing else: a microwave, a fridge, a T.V. and a small, noisy fan. The bed was shorter than be and the shower reached my shoulders. This would be my home for six days.
After taking an hour to walk around Squamish Downtown, I understood how easy it is to get “bored” in a small town. By 9:00 pm the streets were practically abandoned, but I could walk in complete ease. After dining in the only Mexican restaurant (and the only open business at that time), in a radius of 80 kilometers, my mind’s gears began moving. Solitude was effective.
We say we are bored not because we have something to do, but because finally we are free of distractions and we can tend to the things on our to-do list. We put excuses to ourselves, even for what we “want to do”, especially if it means changing something in our lives. In these desolate streets, my questions took center stage and I didn’t even have to answer, just revisit them.
When I reached the hotel and landed on my bed, I could feel the tremor of the base coming from the Ruddy Duck. I could also hear the panting and moaning of my neighbors on room 207. Even between the jazzy beats of the bar and the screams calling “Oh Omar, Oh Omar,” I managed to sleep with ease. The next day, on my way for breakfast at the corner diner, I bumped into the lovers from 207. She had potent hips, short stature and a full body. Omar was lanky and had arms resembling branches. His beard was full and his build almost weak. He couldn’t stop smiling. Congratulations, Omar.
My stay in Squamish consisted of a balance between mind and body. In my trips exercise rarely becomes a priority, much less an indulgence. It feels rather as an obligation to visit the gym at the plastic towers with the latest technology. However, exercise here came in by momentum, by indulgence and without a single
I trekked trails and beaches, biked until reaching lost lakes and admired constellations of windsurfers at the horizon.
My last challenge was the Chief: 660-meter ascent, 9-km trails, very little supplies and I was completely alone. I soon as I got off the taxi, I ran into a sign: please notify someone that you are traversing the trail. Proper physical condition required. Well, I told the hotel receptionist. I walked over to the starting point and was greeted by a vomiting tourist, exhausted and strained. I have a pretty decent physical condition, I don’t smoke and just occasionally drink. I’ve hiked several trails, even alone, and yet, I couldn’t avoid it: What the hell was I doing? There was no turning back.
Two girls my age started simultaneously with me and by the quarter mark, we had begun a conversation. Samantha and Kelly lived at 100 miles an hour in everything: from the professional to the hobbies. They had addictive energy and willingness to meet people (at least I didn’t get mazed; a good sign).
I was surprised with how much I sweat; my legs felt the effort on certain steps and natural gradients that demanded my utmost flexibility. I was two steps away from repent—perhaps I didn’t out of peer pressure—and returning, citing some pain on my knee. But as I got closer, the idea of quitting got farther and farther. For the almost vertical sections, we used chains and ladders, and reaching the top I ran into a polish granite incline just asking for a slip. Just right for me and my fall-history.
But the view and the silence were worth it (must do it early, to avoid the tourist tide).
We spoke for hours and after our descent we had lunch in Whistler. It interesting to see how the challenges are the same, they just change geographically. Being afraid of the future, not having certain answers, not knowing what our role in this planet, all these had gone through the minds of us three. And the three of us had turned to traveling alone for answers.
After saying goodbye, and as the sun set, my body asked for rest. The next days were calm. I wandered the beaches, saw a movie under the starts and heard Spanish.
The question came up: Where are you from? Martín, Óscar, Paul and Enrique had just met an hour before I walked up to them. Laurence was also there, a Quebequois who was enjoying the cinema and dinner. I learned that there’s an unspoken backpacker code: no story is too weird, no life too strange to be untold.
From an aspiring writer looking to clear his head to cherry pickers saving all their income to travel Canada; a young girl who didn’t want to settle nor work from 9 to 5 and an anthropologist who hated his career and loved music. I was alone, like them, and I felt in company.
One day later I ran into Martín; someone stole all of Oscar’s and his belongings except for passport and money. They still had two weeks to go. The town’s police was so embarrassed they gave them free hotel stays for one night. I didn’t know what happened to them. I had to return to Vancouver.
In those last days I frequented the Library, a place I know look at differently: a sanctuary for many, shelter from the wind, rain and loneliness. Communal tables were used for domino, computers for videos and solitaire, story-telling rooms and far from everything individual desks where I wrote for hours, forgetting about hunger and thirst.
In the hotel I met a woman, a Rumanian mechanical engineer, working as a cleaning lady to test her luck as an actress. I felt identified. I witnessed the Vancouver Triathlon, local artists singing in the streets and wound up in museums (few for this city). When I visited the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was lost in the genius of Douglas Coupland and how simple phrases made me think: how did I think before the internet?
Nancy and Tuang, a Vietnamese couple, met Coupland at one of his shows. I couldn’t have told, judging from their humble attire and simplicity in their speech, that both owned millionaire businesses in Vietnam, none over thirty-years-old. Natalie, from Germany, had traveled to Vancouver and had been living with her aggressive, drug-addict, alcoholic boyfriend and didn’t escape out of fear of lacking a roof at night. She was moneyless and this was her last night in Vancouver. She’d longed to go to the exposition for a long time.
My last day, after a long run in the Library, I walked to Yaletown. The cold had arrived, along with rain and gusts. Amidst hip bars and restaurants with the latest culinary tendencies, I established a conversation with Fred, a diner, and Amanda, a bartender at the Parlour about the life of an athlete: sacrifice it all for the least chance of success. I entertained myself more than needed and walked back to the hotel, with complete tranquility, slightly drunk, through all of Vancouver Downtown.
By three in the morning of my departure day, I loved this city that balanced the hippie with the urban. I realized that traveling alone changed everything. The famous line: “get out of the comfort zone” has a new meaning when you are in another country. Eating alone at a restaurant or bar stops being a taboo. Owning your destiny (even for a few days) is liberating and intimidating. Talking to complete strangers is only a way to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes. I would have traveled with my girlfriend I would have most likely spoken with 10% of the people I met. If I had traveled with a group, I would have had even less conversations. In the end, I will most likely not see anyone again and that’s fine. In regards to the questions, some I answered, others came up, but I visited them.
So travel. Travel alone. Travel in group. But travel.
Wanderlust: travel tips:
– Public libraries offer plenty of free services like internet and tourist information, aside from a roof and shelter. And books, lots of books
– A phone chip is great, especially on your own.
– Instead of withdrawing from your home country and exchanging, try withdrawing from a local ATM at your destination. Use state banks as they usually have lower interest rates.
– Search for recommendations wherever you please (Tripadvisor, Yelp, etc) but always make your reservations in a private window, hopefully somewhere else, so your IP isn’t tracked and you get the lowest prices. Oh! Trivago is good as well.
– See your country as tourists. After traveling I realize how much I still have left of mine.
Here’s a video of my trip and my first steps into video editing. I hope you enjoy it! Be sure to subscribe on the link below 🙂