The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Amtrak, Greyhound and drug busts

We completed the bike a bit earlier than expected and so used up the remainder of our US visa exploring the US tandem free. We jumped on the Amtrak for overnight trips from Seattle to San Fran and San Fran to Denver and did a 46 hour slog on the Greyhound from Denver back to Vancouver.

Before embarking on this loop of America's West everyone warned us about the trains – full of weirdos and not very comfortable. The opposite was true. Trains are pretty up market in the states, which is not surprising given they cost 4 times the amount of the Greyhound and most domestic flights. Even if you don't opt for the luxurious all meals included sleeper car you have plenty of space to spread out. Weirdos were of the soft and harmless variety – eco warriors, old couples looking for an adventure, those afraid of flying and those that are simply too large to fit on aeroplanes. In front of us were three ladies discussing the benefits of 'erbs' and bragging about eating dandelions from their garden for 5 hours, whilst behind us an obese women fed her children chocolate to shut them up whilst telling them off for how fat they look. Between such eavesdropping delights, an observation cart with live commentary about the intriguing and stunning places we travel through and some good books the journey pases incredible smoothly and quickly.

From the moment we walked into Denver's central Greyhound station we knew the bus was going to be considerably weirder than our Amtrak experience. The first person I laid eyes on pretty accurately sums up Greyhound clientèle. He had grey hair that merged into a food ridden beard which hung just above the collar of his white wife beater, equally food ridden and covered in holes that resembled bullet marks. He wore a cap that announced he was an Iraqi war veteran across the front, that he supported McCain and Palin on the right and that knowledge was power on the left (oh the irony). As he sat waiting for the bus he was mumbling to himself in a variety of angry tones in between munching on the contents of his nose. I later grew rather sorry for all the US army recruits on the bus who had to sit for 46 hours watching their possible future in this man. As it happened they spent too much of the bus journey worrying about their next fag to notice. I turned to Nick, 'I think baby carrots and humous was the wrong choice of food for this journey'.

As our eyes wandered beyond ex-army hobo man it became clear it wasn't going to be a relaxing journey. Hugely obese guys crammed in as many last minute burgers as possible whilst their girlfriends screamed at them for looking at 'skinnier bitches' asses'. Angry men bragged about just being back from the war zone whilst little old ladies (lord help them) put on their hygiene masks and loaded their walkmans. Mexican families prepared their worldly belongings whilst their kids hammered on vending machines in search of free candy. Within 5 minutes of standing in a Greyhound Station I saw more of America than most do on a two week holiday.

After 30 minutes or so its time to get on the bus. We instantly longed for the luxury of Mexican buses. The difference between being rich in a poor country and poor in a rich one suddenly sprang to mind. As we were all crammed into our seats we headed for the front of the bus – choosing the troubled elderly over the troubled youth. The next 46 hours was a blur of trying to take in all that was going on around us without looking too much like visitors at a zoo. Within 15 minutes of leaving Denver one of the guys just back from Afghanistan threatened to shoot the driver for not letting him off to have a ciggi. At every stop girls with everything and anything hanging out of their hot pants flirted with whatever guy had the loudest mouth. The bus quickly filled with rotting fag, burgers and piss smells. Drivers swapped shifts and all looked like they had seen a bit too much of life. Conversations were often about why people were on the bus, which invariably led to gory accounts of dramatic truck collisions and drink driving incidents. The crowd seemed to get more juiced up as we got nearer the end of the journey. At one gas station in Washington one of the guys tried to throw some punches at a local and about 5 people had to pull him off, reminding him about how close he was to doing more time. He couldn't have been older than 20 and had returned from Iraq a year ago.

About 2/3 of the way into the journey our sympathies for our fellow passengers grew. Age, race and sex didn't matter to these guys. They were all up against it and that made them stick together throughout the 46 hours or so. Everyone chatted to everyone else and were in it together, it was a temporary team and old ladies even commented on what 'good hearted' boys the younger lads were. And to some extent they were right, these guys had just come back from war and were now lost in a world of poverty and boredom. Even if the bond was through fags, war and car crashes, at least everyone was getting on and making the most of a pretty shitty journey. I quickly sucked up my middle class judgment and regretted staying in my own bubble. Sadly when you are stuck with the same people in claustrophobic circumstances for a while the excitable wanting to know and experience everything and everyone can sometimes give way to a desire to keep heads down and just get through it.

So we arrived in Vancouver knackered and dazed. All we wanted was a shower and a quiet bed to get some horizontal time in. Little did we know it was only going to get weirder. We had booked a weeks accommodation through a random website that lets out rooms in houses. Off we headed into the depths of Vancouver's suburbs only to realise that the address we had been given didn't exist. The house number we were given was a crossroad, not a house. Up and down the road we trundled knocking on houses looking for 'Paul Waikong with rooms to let'. After 4 hours of scratching our heads and somehow fighting off extreme tiredness related moods we found the house that matched the photo on the website. We had knocked on the door of it earlier and a small Chinese man had told us to go away. This time two Canadians opened the door.

'Hi we've got a room booked here for a week.'
'Ha ha good luck!'
'Er ok... We came along earlier and a Chinese guy told us to go away but we're sure this is the house. Are there any rooms?'
'Yeh that was the landlord. There are rooms here. You know there's no power here right?'
'Yeh a week ago the police busted this place for growing $1 million worth of marijuana plants in the basement and have cut off all power.'
'Well is there a room for us? We're a bit knackered.'
'Come on in!'

So we have spent the last week staying in what must be the closest to a 60s squat house I have ever experienced. The basement has been ripped out, there is random crap lying everywhere and at night a BBQ is our kitchen and candles our light. The house is home to about 15 people. The Canadian couple are the most long term. Hannah laughs hysterically one minute and screams at people for using her things the next whilst her quiet musician boyfriend sucks up abuse left, right and center. Two other Canadian guys seem to be involved in some kind of swinging activity with Hannah and boyfriend and both seem to like the drink a little too much. Next is a Hungarian couple with a baby who are out here for work. They suffer the brunt of Hannah's anger because they don't recycle, even though I tried to explain to her that with a small baby in a strange city with no power you can kind of understand why sorting rubbish is not their priority. Then there's the landlord, Harvey, a small Chinese man who doesn't know what is going on and has a variety of Chinese children walking in and out of the house daily. The living room is also home to three Lithuanian guys who like to hang out on the web or working out in their boxers. Nick bonded with this lot early on after seeing photos of them dressed as Hawaiian girls on a night out and spending the next couple of hours discussing fancy dress and motorbikes. All in all its been much weirder and entertaining than a hostel and though a quiet bed will be appreciated we'll be quite sorry to leave tomorrow.

After such a weird and slightly exhausting few days we are now blessed with some family time. Papa, sister Gee and her fella Al have rocked up in Canada for a two week tour of rainforests, wild beaches, lakes and mountains. So far we seem to have spent most of our time admiring 'produce' in Vancouver's grocery stores and searching for the biggest starfish amongst the harbour rocks. Not a conventional tour of the city but each to their own. I have no doubt that the weirdness will continue but at least it is now of the familiar variety.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Having spent the last 9 months with almost exclusively each other's company, Hol and I are pretty good at passing the time on our own. For example, we recently purchased a challenging cross-word book and yesterday, whilst awaiting the kick off of our 43 hour Greyhound extravaganza from Denver to Vancouver, we spent an enjoyable hour or so perusing novelty underwear in TKMaxx. I like to think we can find a thriftily good time in any city we come to. However, last week it all changed with the arrival of 7 friends from University. They were accompanied by bicycles, outsized bottles of Bourbon and were surprisingly dis-interested in helping us solve 57 across: 'some game endings' (5 letters)*. Looking back at the last 7 days it is a hazy blur, but it was truly epic.

Traveling on a budget for a long period of time makes you stretch out the excitement in everything you do. If you are going out for a meal you plan it well in advance and savour every last mouthful. If it is a movie you wait for exactly the right gloomy, rainy afternoon and the right film before parting with your dosh. 7 people straight from successful London jobs with only a week to spend their hard earned cash reminded us how much you can pack into a week, and also how good it is having your mates around.

When Angus, Henry, Reevo, Smithy, Scotty, Hutch and Steph arrived off the plane they had already been up for around 24 hours. However, a quick shower, a sharpener in the bar and burger later and any thoughts of an early night were rapidly dispelled. Before we knew it English accents had attracted Hen parties from across the Midwest and sambuca was being sipped from certain people's belly buttons. Classy. There was never any real let up from there. Up at 6.30 the next morning to watch the British Lions, off to Boulder to put bikes together and ride up the first of several mountains. Back for a shower, dinner, everclear laced Margaritas, a nightclub, a late night invitation into a deserted art gallery by some 'friendly' young men, all finished off with splashing in public fountains before bed.

The reason we were all out there together was because one of the group, Justin, grew up in Longmont and also had a cabin out in the wilderness of South Park. Cue 3 hours of drive-by moonies, water fights between cars and a final leg down a dirt road until we hit the cabin. This was truly one of the most beautiful places we have been on the trip so far. In rolling green plains with snow capped peaks all around us we unloaded 3 days worth of booze, BBQ meat and supplies. It was the perfect setting to catch up with friends over long evenings interspersed with lung busting high altitude exercise.

Over the week we climbed passes on the bike over 12,000', we summited Mt. Oxford at 14,000' and managed to get significantly better and then worse at horseshoes. It was non-stop adventure and chat for 7 days all topped off by going to a Colorado Rockies ball game. But all too quickly we were in the cars driving back to the airports to wave goodbye to everyone. It seems strange that leaving England last September I felt strangely un-emotional. The excitement and adventure lay out ahead of us and had been building up for so long that there wasn't really a hint of sadness as we pedaled off. Then when my dad came out, saying goodbye seemed really hard because you realise in that sudden contrast what you miss from home. It was even harder saying goodbye to everyone flying off last Saturday.

We were stood there in the airport just 9 hours from England. Having just listened to planning for all the weddings, stag parties and good times we would miss back home we felt miserable. All too soon Hol and I were sat on a windy bench waiting for the bus nibbling on carrot sticks and longing for the week not to have ended so quickly. I always told myself it would be hard being away for so long, but I have very rarely felt it so acutely as the other day. There are usually challenges to be met, the next place to think about and the knowledge that the novelty of getting home will wear off very quickly. However, there was something about saying goodbye the other day that had me choked up pretty badly and I found it hard to shake off the feeling.

However, I am glad to say that having now left Denver it feels a lot better. Since then we have got our first proper experience of Greyhound buses which Hol will do justice to in a full blog soon, and also accidentally got involved in auditions for American Idol. We went in to the theatre just needing a pee and were almost thrown on stage in front of the judges. I figured something from Manowar's back catalogue would shake things up but mercifully we were too late to sign up.

Now the sun is out, we are headed West again and Hol's family is due out in a few days. I even have a new pair of flourescent yellow pants from our wanderings in Denver. Roll on the next ten months!

* the crossword answer is 'mates'