Thursday 20 June 2013

Reverse Culture Shock

The Great Sausage Roll Quest.
 Taste testing down the Pacific
West Coast - looking for
 the best sausage rolls based
 unscientifically on taste,
 texture, grease, and hunger


Current Location: Sidney, Vancouver Is, British Columbia, Canada
Total Distance Cycled: 12,174 km
Nicest Campsite in British Columbia: Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park
Best Sausage Rolls so Far: Powell River Safeways
At Bangkok airport. Our world after 13 months
 on the road. The tandem in two bike boxes
 each weighing under the 23 kg maximum
allowed. No additional charges from
 Korean Air – they get a thumbs up from us.

Reverse Culture Shock

Deer graze at our campsite.
A fire keeps the spring chill
Deer graze on the edge of our campsite, Canada geese honk at the water’s edge and we have lit a wood fire to warm ourselves before we crawl into the tent.

Judy shows off her new shoes
as we cycle over Vancouver’s

 Lions Gate Bridge. Her old 
shoes were held together
 with Super Glue.
It’s a long way in more than just distance from the frenzy of Bangkok and the other places we have visited in South East Asia in the past seven months. Our return to the west has led to what we are calling reverse culture shock.
Where are all the people? Why is everyone so polite? Has the sky ever been so blue? Aren’t there a lot of rules here? My, isn’t it expensive? Why can’t we have better internet access? Why do we have to put coins in a slot to have a hot shower? Why are there no showers at all at this campground? Guess what? Lots of shops are closed on Sunday. And so on. We knew it would be much like this before we touched down in Vancouver, BC, but even after two weeks we are still adjusting.
Judy consigns her old pants
to the bin after shopping in

Mt Baker, Washington State, USA, in the distance.
We could spot its volcanic cone from vantage
 points around southern BC.

Sunset at Kin Beach Provincial Park, Little River, Vancouver Is.

Perhaps the one difference that disturbs us the most is the obvious wealth, and the comfortable lifestyle of residents here. The other day as we waited to board a big, comfortable ferry we fell into conversation with a young motorcyclist and his girlfriend. We compared notes about Thailand and he said when he holidayed there he didn’t like the people much.
“It was all about money, money, money,” he said. As he talked, he sat astride a new-looking 1,000 cc Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle and he was wearing expensive protective leathers. The contrast between him and his disposable income and the millions riding their 110 cc Honda Wave motorscooters in Asia (with up to five on board) couldn’t have been more marked. Somehow it seemed unfair, unjust and made me feel uncomfortable to be part of the First World.
Bangkok guesthouse – a first floor “balcony”.
 No rules, rotten planking, and no handrail.
Lots of rules.

And more ...
Ummmm. On the beach.
Coffee on the beach at Half
Moon Bay. The woman behind the
 counter asked Judy if she wanted
room at the top for milk - something
 that never happened in SE Asia
where the coffee often arrived laced
 with sweetened condensed milk.
View on our way to Powell

 Disparities aside, British Columbia is turning out to be an ideal cycle touring region. There are dozens of provincial campgrounds dotted around - often a day’s ride from one another. They are in scenic spots and are well designed with running water, flush or pit toilets and areas reserved for hikers/bikers. The only drawback is the lack of hot showers (something we always want at the end of a day’s riding) or the need to keep feeding “loonies” (one dollar coins) into the slot so the water runs for long enough to wash your hair as well as get rid of the day’s sweat.

Judy gets into the spirit. Cap backwards
 and tucking into New Brunswick sardines.
In the left of the picture are pistachio nuts,
 given to us by a fellow cyclist who
 found a huge bagful lying on the side
 of the road where they must have fallen
 from a vehicle.
Ferry crossing
 The region is littered with bike lanes so for the nervous there is a way to avoid the traffic. Some of them are engineering feats (for example, the Lochside Trail and the Galloping Goose Trail which begin in the provincial capital, Victoria). We can’t help but be impressed by whoever thought them up and by the enthusiasm of local cyclists to use them. A few paths have caused us difficulty. Sometimes they have short, steep climbs and descents and tight turns which don’t suit our tandem. And we can waste a lot of time trying to cross intersections where the bike lanes suddenly stop and then resume on the other side. It can be easier just to join the traffic on the road where there is usually a good shoulder anyway.
That causes a different problem. Canadian drivers are so polite it can be excruciating. On occasion we have stopped at an intersection to read the street signs and then realise that all around us drivers have also stopped and are waiting patiently for us to resume so they can give way to us. Once we notice, we try to wave them on but by then it is too late. Their politeness turns to an exasperated shrug as they surge forwards.    
Ferry to Newcastle Island, Nanaimo.
On the Trans Canada
As we approached Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Bridge we somehow left the bike lane and found ourselves in amongst the traffic. Drivers tooted angrily at us and waved their arms about, indicating we should get out of the way.

Part of a mural on a wall at Chemainus. The small town has transformed itself into a tourist attraction by bringing in artists to show off their painting skills.

Judy gives the thumbs up
after dipping her toes
in the tide at Island
View Beach Regional Park,
 north of Victoria.

The politeness on the road, we feel, is only skin deep. Once aroused these drivers grow impatient and indignant in equal measures, something that never happened in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia or Laos.
As the Captain on the front of the tandem, I have found it difficult adjusting to the riding conditions and have even wished for the frenetic days of Phnom Penh or Bangkok. In those places, the first and only rule of the road is that size matters - bikes give way to everything except pedestrians.
Campsite at Island View Beach Regional Park,
 north of Victoria. No showers and one tap, but a
 lovely spot despite the cold washes.
Drivers behave as if they are playing in an orchestra with no conductor. Everyone joins in but each is playing their own kind of free form jazz and the only skill comes in not hitting anyone else. It’s a crazy, chaotic, discordant shambles but it’s fun and can become addictive. Back in the west it’s suddenly tame, and orderly and not so much fun.
We are getting used to buying groceries and cooking food and discovering that in Canada you can’t buy a beer or a bottle of wine in a supermarket.  And we are having to put up a tent again. That said we have been spoilt as house guests on two occasions, and have been offered meals and drinks by other people - Canadians are a friendly lot and it is nice to be back in a country where English is the main language (exception, Quebec). Judy says with the invitations coming our way she is practising getting to the word “yes” more quickly - so we can take them up. 

With Jennifer and Peter, our hosts
 in Vancouver, BC, through
a cycling organisation. We had a
wonderful time and lots of help
 from them in planning our route
 through BC and buying
gear to replace some of
 that worn out after 13 months.
Judy with Byng and Liz Woo in Vancouver. A big
thanks for letting us forward our tent and
 other bits and pieces to you, and for a very special

lunch at which we discovered we had much in
common (especially books and opera).

With Kerry and Linda Vivian at Fanny Bay, Vancouver
 Is with whom we shared their roaring campfire
 and were introduced to pear cider.
Angus Beef - the dog. Enjoying
walkies in Chemainus.

With Ed and Pat Fougner, who invited us to
 stay after spotting us bedraggled
and wet outside Thriftys supermarket in
 Parksville. They were a mine
of information and we had the most wonderful stay.
Judy on the beach near Parksville.

 The scenery reminds of us New Zealand but sometimes it’s even better. Vancouver city seems to be an amalgam of the best of some of our centres - Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, Wellington’s waterfront, Queenstown’s snowy peaks and the volcanoes of the central North Island. It’s almost enough to make us homesick.
Judy the Stoker’s Quotable Quotes
On passing a winery:  “Look, wine tasting. We can get sozzled for free and come out and lie on our wet weather jackets in the grass and sleep it off.”

We watched this old sea dog clamber into his dinghy and with his pet row off across the harbour at Nanaimo.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Fawlty Towers


Departed Bangkok for Vancouver BC, Canada on 4 June 2013
The Plan: Cycle the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to the Mexican border


Judy leaves a Bangkok bike shop with two bicycle boxes in which we
packed our tandem for the next leg of our travels.
“I was shot,” he said. He twisted in his cane chair to show us the back of his left leg. There on his calf was a perfect circle of scar tissue about three centimetres in diameter.
Where did it happen? I asked. We had been talking about his time in Africa and he said Togo and stopped as if he had said too much.
Why did they shoot you? He looked at me as though I was mad to ask. He was silent while he sifted the possible responses through his mind.
“They didn’t like me,” he said quietly and stopped. It was clear he wasn’t going to be drawn and the conversation drifted back to how much he had enjoyed the rest of his time on the African continent.

He flew a small plane there and for a moment, as he talked, his eyes became alert and the lethargy lifted from him as he described how the flamingos rose in the air beneath his wings.
“Like the movie, ‘Out of Africa’”, Judy said and he nodded with that gleam still in his eyes.
We were sitting outside our Bangkok guesthouse. Judy and I were drinking Chang beers, he was drinking a large tumbler of milk. Strange and exotic plants provided a shield between us and the alley and, given the rest of the guesthouse, it wasn’t a bad place to linger. Inside we had discovered the roof leaked in the monsoon rains, several of the toilets and wash basins didn’t work and most of the staff were demoralised and disinterested. “It’s like Fawlty Towers but no-one’s laughing,” I told Judy.

Boss Man Number 1 (BMN1)

The Dutchman, for that’s what he turned out to be, was the most puzzling of the puzzling people we met at the establishment. He was of indeterminate age, not young but perhaps not old. His shoulders were rounded as if he had spent a lifetime driving a desk and when he walked it was a stiff old man’s walk - as though someone had poured glue into his joints and it was just setting.
He said he wasn’t the owner of our guesthouse but he did seem to be in charge. “Farang can’t own property in Thailand,” he told us in what was an over simplification of the reality.

Boss Man Number 2 (BMN2)

The next night we learned about Boss Man Number Two. He was a gentle, softly-spoken Chinese with a permanently worried look. Born in Los Angeles, he had moved to Thailand where his parents had lived until their late teens. Now he was the go-to person at the guesthouse - the one person who could arrange your transport to the airport or knew where the nearest ATM was located.
The fact that he was Number Two became clear when two young women backpackers arrived wanting a room and a discount. As we idled over our beers, the noise level behind us rose until eventually BMN2 emerged to appeal to the Dutchman.
“They want a discount,” he said. “But I can’t feed my family if we give discounts.”
BMN1 dragged himself to his feet and entered the fray. The price is the price, he told them. “If you want cheaper go and sleep in the railway station.”
 They stormed out to go who knows where.
By now we were fascinated. What were both men doing in a dump like this? It became a game with us to try to find out more.
Judy was the first to dig out a few nuggets of information from BMN2. He had, he said, surrendered all rights to U.S. residency. He couldn’t go back even if he wanted. It seemed odd given that he was born there but Judy couldn’t get to the bottom of it even though the inscrutable Chinese was by now singing like a canary to her - in English. He spoke hardly any Thai, which made him an outsider in his adopted land.
The next night BMN1 said he had bought a home in the “Dutch Caribbean” and all he wanted to do was retire there to listen to his music and read and look at the view over the water. In the meantime, here he was helping out at the guesthouse and supervising a small team of correspondents who provided copy to a major U.S. newspaper. He was up much of the night working on his computer, which helped explain why he looked so tired.
In a rare moment when he looked more forthcoming I asked him what it would take for him to retire to that home waiting for him.
“A replacement,” he said and I assumed he meant to run the guesthouse. But he meant a replacement to take over his newspaper duties. Until then he couldn’t leave.
“That’s very noble of you. Most people these days would just resign, say thanks and leave it up to their employer to find a replacement.”
He couldn’t do that, it was a question of loyalty, he said and I wondered if he had called in a favour from an old mate who had secured him the job in the first place.
There was something odd about it, but like BMN2 we were getting only part and not all of the story.

Jim Thompson Mystery Man

As a young man walking the lonely aisles of the Auckland Public Library I came across a book of beautiful photographs. They were taken by a New Zealand photographer, Brian Brake, whom I admired and were of a house built by an American living in Bangkok.

His name was Jim Thompson, and he went on to become a legend in Thailand and all of South East Asia as he turned Thailand’s silk manufacturing from a cottage industry into fashion garments which featured on the pages of Vogue magazine.
Jim Thompson's house - Bangkok
But there was much more to the story, which somehow I had missed until Judy and I were planning our visit to Thailand. In 1967, Thompson took a brief holiday in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, and vanished without trace. Despite an extensive search no clues were found, let alone a body which might have explained whether he had been a victim of foul play or simply slipped down a bank while out walking in the jungle near the home of the friends with whom he was staying. A good account of his life and disappearance is given in the book “Jim Thompson The Unsolved Mystery” by William Warren.

Today Thompson's Bangkok house is a museum showing off some of his art collection and his flair for design. It gives visitors an opportunity to reflect on a man who was not only an astute businessman but whose disappearance has never been satisfactorily explained.