Monday, August 31, 2015

Confession: My Imaginary Friend

I haven't seen one of my best friends in 6 years.  It seems weird, but time passes.  What's weirder than that is that we've only actually seen each other for 3 days.

My friend Kev & I met when we shared a raft to whitewater together in Uganda.  These 3 guys & I had a connection - perhaps forced upon us by the other group in the raft who all knew each other.  With the exception of Kev & Mario, myself & the other were travelling solo.  (Somewhere out there there is a photo of the 4 of us together - the only picture of us together.)

Kev & I hit it off by talking shit at the bar & chatting about music.  Later, he was giving me music recommendations which introduced me to legendary Aussie bands like Cat Empire & Hilltop Hoods.  Later I left them at the airport & we hugged twice.  Later still, I was sending him ska & punk music while he was stationed in Sudan with the UN.  Over the years, he would call from Riga or the Netherlands, sometimes from Afghanistan or Dubai, or I would be in Halifax, Tahiti, Mexico or Zanzibar; at this point it seems like we've skyped from everywhere on Earth.  I would always stay awake for his middle-of-the-night calls - they sometimes seemed like his last resort. 

We have tried to meet since then.  The year after we met it was going to be in Israel for a concert just before christmas - now that's the style of travel I can relate to!  When I had plans to live in Mexico I invited him to visit...  I was going to meet him in Australia for my 25th birthday - his first time back in many years - but my boat never set sail & I ended up staying in New Zealand.

This week I am going to Greece for his wedding.  I am so excited simply at the prospect of putting a backpack on to head out & see what happens! (Albeit for a short time - 14 days.)  I am super excited about the idea of seeing my friend again.  I think the wedding is at a posh hotel, which are different  circumstances than the ones in which I expected our reunion.  I half expected to meet for drinks while we were both on a layover in the Hong Kong airport.

Actually I've tried to convince him for years that I'm just a figment of his imagination.  "Who is this person who think you've been talking to all these years?  Some woman you met at the bar in Uganda?!  Really?  You think she gives a rat's ass about you?"  ...and other variations of this just to fuck with him.  That projection is reflected from my own doubt.  I left for a big East African adventure with the idea that I might just design a tattoo & make up a story about this legendary explorer I met overseas, just to have some amazing stories to tell.  I came home with stories all right.

Only one person, Mario, has seen the both of us together.  He might be the only proof that neither of us is making this up.

This time next week, we might be properly caught up.  Although I DON'T THINK HE'S AWARE OF THE FULL EXTENT OF THE QUESTIONS I HAVE.

And then maybe we'll go rafting again in Greece, or never see each other again.
I hope his wife is as interesting...

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hitchhiking: The Strangest Day

November, 2014

The border guards just laughed at me.  I'd given myself 10 days to get to Florida & back to Winnipeg; a 6,500km round-trip that included 2 nights in Chicago, 2 nights in Nashville, 3 nights in Gainesville & one night in Kansas City.

Needless to say, I went slower than anticipated, had to skip a bunch of stops & spent Halloween at a rest stop in Georgia instead of enjoying the first night of Fest.  Although hitchhiking in a rush defeats the purpose of enjoying the ride, I always end up doing that to myself.

Fest is renowned as the best punk festival in the world.  Hosted by the college town of Gainesville, Florida, it is designed to be as inclusive as possible by spreading the acts between 20 venues and a massive outdoor stage for headliners.  It's got a homegrown feel to it, as if we would have all been venue hopping downtown anyway.  As an added bonus, the Florida Gators played in Jacksonville that weekend, so the vacancy of college kids & sports bros was nicely filled with punks.

Who played?  The Descendants, Hot Water Music, 7 Seconds, Lifetime, Less Than Jake & more than 350 other bands unheard of outside the punk community.  Bands are stoked to be there to see their favourite bands.  A weekend of moshing to great music, & high fiving other sweaty folks who made the pilgrimage makes for an epic festival.  Fest lives up to the hype.

When it was all over, it was already time to head North.  I had spent the morning looking for alligators & most of the rest of day wedged on the side of concrete turnoffs onto the interstate.  Momentum is important, and the first ride out of an urban area can be worth more than a bus ticket, but Florida's infrastructure is particularly unfriendly to pedestrians of any kind.  My saving grace was a grandmother with her grandkids.  When I explained that I was going to Tennessee, the boy exclaimed "Good Lord!"

I wasn't at the next stop for more than 2 minutes when a woman in a pickup truck did a U-turn in front of me & pulled over.  She shoved a McDonald's bag out the window & said "Here's a sandwich in the name of Jesus."  Just as suddenly as she'd stopped, she was gone.  

Amused & confused, I went about my way baiting my sign to catch the next ride.  Within minutes, a dude ran over on a bicycle.  At first he was taken aback that I was a woman, but soon enough we were chatting about Fest & the hitchhiking life.  He gave me some local advice about the area - where the closest truck stops were, and some good spots to camp if I needed.  I was still making my sign, when he came back with his arm extended & said "Here.  Take this.  I used it when I travelled to jimmy open locks to abandoned buildings.  It's good luck."
Some themes in life are so pervasive, they follow you everywhere.  In this case, as an apprentice bike mechanic, I had just been handed a part for a bicycle.  I was staring at it in disbelief, as he rode away saying "May you have fair wind in your sails..."

Hitchhikers are optimists by nature, and today southern hospitality has yielded me lunch & a quick-release lever for a seat post clamp.

I was flying the flag of Fest, in the form of many wristbands, hoping to attract some likeminded punks.  Julie was so excellent to give me a dose of normality on this strange day.  It was her first Fest too!  It was so nice to gush over the experience together!  She used to run an infamous venue in a trailer in Mississippi, & knew most of the headliners.  She drove me as far as possible without going too far out of the way, & for a moment I entertained my idea of heading west through a few new states with her.  Unfortunately I still had so far to go in an impossible deadline.  She was so rad!  A breath of fresh air for sure!

My next ride was a strange exchange from two fellows willing to help me head further North.  I was happy to keep moving, but I could barely understand their accents over the blaring music.  I understood when they asked if I was cool, but it was the next 50 times of asking some derivation of "how cool are you" that I started to feel like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.  (I originally thought it was harmless conversation, but gradually began to think maybe I didn't fully get what they were asking.)  They dropped me off at their turnoff - the most podunk town in Southern Georgia.  There was tumbleweed.

I had been stifling the feeling of getting sick.  They called it 'Fest AIDS'; brought on by the influx of punks to worship in Gainesville, Florida.  It was an absolutely amazing weekend, & we all paid for it with our health.  I've never hitchhiked sick before, & hadn't thought of the implications.  Even more so than a dirty, smelly stranger, no one wants to pick up someone who will make them sick.  I was trying to be charming while I focused on repressing the rotten feeling of contagion.

Since no one has a reason to turnoff there, I wasn't in a position to refuse when the same two incomprehensibles returned.  The passenger was more paranoid this time around, afraid of cops at every turn.  I was happily eager when they dropped me off at the only sign of life in a world of concrete - a gas station.

Luckily, it wasn't long until I was picked up by Harriet & Mike from Atlanta.  They were genuinely good folks, riding high after a weekend getaway.  We shared an outsiders perspective of some Georgian nuances - confederate flags, cotton fields, chicken & waffles, & general conservative religious values - and it was a good opportunity to ask questions, since they'd been living in the area a few years already.

Meanwhile, my condition was deteriorating.  I was trying not to expose my new friends to whatever was setting up camp in my esophagus.  They offered me a swig of vodka to help cure me - it felt so good in my chest!- and asked me to open the window because of my sneezing.  I couldn't hold it back.

Dusk was soon approaching & it was time for an ultimatum.  I was feeling like crap, & was offered a bed at their place in Atlanta.  I knew that if I wanted to make it to see Matt in Nashville, I only had a short window to catch another ride before darkness let the crazies out.  (Although I have hitched a couple times at night, it is a circumstantial decision; the risks are greater, including drunk drivers & getting hit by traffic.)

My poor body just wants a bed to curl up in, but I gambled on the road & it paid off, once again.

Dwayne, a trucker from Florida, was happy to drive me into the heart of Nashville.  He enjoyed the company on the road, & although my charm was caving in from illness, he didn't seem to notice.  He dropped me at the truck stop downtown - literally downtown, which also happens to be across from a massive wreckage yard - where I had time to change & freshen up before my friends whisked me away to kareoke at the famous Santa's Pub.

***They didn't serve vodka so I had hot water instead, & still smashed out a version of Intergalactic at kareoke, although I feel bad for whoever used the mic after me.  The next day when I woke up, I'd felt like I had been thrown up & out of the belly of a snake.  Only 2,100kms to go.***

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Losing My Nerve

This has happened many times before - particularly on our canoe trip, when we had to turn back.  We were both disappointed.  We'd agreed that nothing would stop us short of a brick wall, which emerged in the form of thick trees choking the river for kilometers.  Matt seemed shaken, unable to to release the goal from his imagination.  I tried to save face; this was a possibility I had originally anticipated as a likelihood, but being forced to quit was bitter.

We had been enjoying backtracking through the trail we'd made.  Through the maze of fallen trees, we could decipher broken branches on one side, and flecks of paint on another; snaking our way through the easiest route.   It took us a mere few hours to cover what had been a day's distance upstream.  We were so close to the end when I could feel my nerves failing.

Carrying the canoe is not easy for me.  It's slippery, hard to get a good grip of, heavy & the ground is always uneven.  Matt doesn't seem to mind, so I try hard to keep up.  This was one of our last portages, the first one we had designed ourselves.  First we had to ferry our gear by wading through the river; skillfully slipping & tripping on the rocky bottom, hoping not to dunk the cargo.  I was having trouble finding balance, getting anxious & walking slowly.  Carrying the boat was shaky, so I told Matt my fear; "I think I'm losing my nerve."

This normally happens when struggling as a beginner at something; you haven't got the skills yet, and find it hard to trust yourself & your equipment.  It's unfamiliar territory.  You suck, & sucking is unfamiliar territory.

Saying it out loud already made me feel better.  Like I'd already passed the denial stage of my sickness.  Matt reminded me that our last portage was one of my best ones yet, and we completed this one smashingly.  (We didn't really have a choice.)


Last weekend, despite the fact our winter festival was on, heaps of concerts, ice climbing, wall climbing & a myriad of other things to do, I didn't leave the house for several days.  I was anxious about going out alone, although this is a fear I thought I had gotten over long ago.  I've gotten involved with enough communities that being alone in Winnipeg is never an issue; I see a familiar face wherever I go, and it always makes me laugh at my original hesitation.  Yet almost every time I still have to get over that compulsive gasp you get from heights and before I am rewarded by the plunge.

My dad says I bore easily.  Keeping busy is important for me, it's important to savour the moment.  Days with nothing to do make me look at flights, contemplate a big shake up, and write articles like this.  Every other day seems this way.  Friday I was bent over this keyboard, then was too busy giving thanks for life all weekend to even imagine that this was primed to happen on Monday.

The gym where I used to work is like a social club to me; I compare it to the Legion for my grandfather - yeah I go to work out, but mostly socialize.  When they refer to my life, they still use the adjective "crazy," and I haven't even worked there for 5 years!  They are so unsurprised as I nervously tell them about my deciding to do a winter bike race last minute.

The point of doing things over & over is that you're supposed to get used to them.  Yet, travelling still takes my breath away the day before I step out the door.  They are more used to my doing "crazy" things than I am!

This evening I met a paddler who was recovering from an injury from last year.  He had been hyper-cautious all last season, and wasn't sure how to proceed.  He said "It's something I've done before, but I'm afraid of hurting myself again."  "It feels like you're losing your nerve," I said.  "Exactly!"  I have this feeling often.

Just like our canoe trip, it's about perspective.  When you're approaching rapids on the horizon, they seem daunting, but when you can see the whole picture from the other side, you can prepare yourself.  I defend the fact that paddling to Churchill was a well-planned venture over the better part of a year, but I also pride myself on normalizing these fun, "crazy" adventures.

I know what I need to move past this.  Acknowledge it, write about it, and don't get strung up on it.  It helps when people join the fun, but trust thine self.  I rarely wish I'd stayed at home, so why would I deprive myself from something that's always worked?

Fortune favours the bold.
Come adventuring with me.

Friday, January 16, 2015

No Road to Churchill: When the Tides Turned

Day 11 

There is no substitute for good gear.  I was waking up & relaxing in my tent.  Between thoughts, a stream developed underneath me.  It was early July & still warm at night, but I was thankful to be dry.  Years ago, I had the foresight to get myself a good tent when I had a government job & spending money.  If I hadn't, I'd be using a beaten tent designed for warmer climates, like Matt's, & I would be wet.

We had to learn quickly on Lake Winnipeg.  Also known as the Inland Sea, it is the 12th largest freshwater lake in the world.  It's shallowness - absurd for its size - allows 6ft waves to kick up with little warning.  Our collective sailing experience saved us, as we learned effective coursing with the winds - which often meant waiting for them to change.  We developed an understanding of the conditions around us, & were able to adapt before they gave us a swift slap to the backside.

There had been some rough activity the day before.  Our eyes were sharpened, keeping a close eye both towards the waves, to avoid whitecaps that could flood us & turn us off course, and scanning for rocks that would jut out in the troughs of the waves.  Progress was negligible; our minds were silently focused on dodging the elements.  After a couple very close calls, Matt was the voice of reason to say "This is stupid; let's find a place to land."  There was a landable beach nearby, and dark clouds approaching.  Within seconds of setting up our tents, it rained so hard we couldn't hear each other 3 feet away.

The storm had blown over, but headwinds insisted we were to stay there overnight.

After dinner, we were doing dishes when a black bear decided to come share our snacks.  We'd had bears on the brain, since we hadn't seen any large animals yet.  Our combined surprise & admiration ('this is so cool!') gave him enough time to decide to stick around & become a feature in our adventure.  I've since been told that apples are like honey to bears.  Sure enough, he was persistently trying to steal our picnic baskets.  Bear protection was high on the preparation list, & although we were venturing into polar bear territory, we decided on bear bangers, flares & bear spray over a gun.

This guy seemed fairly harmless.  He wasn't a full grown adult, but old enough to be away from his mother.  As we tried to scare him away, he would feign running off, then stick to the perimeter & try again from another angle.  He was non-threatening, but delicious snacks are enough of an incentive for him to become a pain in the neck.  We tried bear bangers, which are supposed to replicate a gun shot, to no effect.  We had the same issue with the flare - how do you hold a bear's attention long enough to frighten him away?  He finally disappeared when I ran towards him holding a stick over my head.  Matt laughed; all the 'recommended' defenses were no match to the threat of an old-fashioned hiding.

Lake Winnipeg is so big, it has a tide.  It is a fake tide, but when the wind blows from the North, the Southern basin's water level rises, and visa versa.  After the emergence of the stream beneath me, I heard expletives coming from the direction of the canoe.  I held my breath.  The only thing that makes me lose sleep is the possibility of something happening to the boat.  We were less than 2 weeks in to a 60 day trip.

Nothing major; when the water level rose, the canoe had been pulled into the water, flipped, then pushed back on shore.  We were at the edge of a swamp, where there weren't any strong trees to tie up to, but we had pulled her all the way up onto the beach.  This was not a great situation, especially because our olive oil spilled in the boat & covered everything, but realistically this was the best case scenario.  If the boat had gone adrift during the night, I would have lost my shit.

The Great Oil Spill of '14

Although we'd recognized our position near the swamp when we decided not to tie up the boat, this didn't seem of consequence until the water level rose.  On the one hand, we were directing streams from the odd wave that would break over the beach, and on the other, we had to start constructing a dam from the rising waters of the swamp.  What is the water equivalent to "between a rock & a hard place?"

After a few hours of futility, fighting back one of the biggest lakes in the world on a spit of sand, the winds had died down enough that we could take our ark to higher ground.

It was already late in the day & we could only paddle 10km before we hunkered down for the eve.  Our new camp was overgrown & jungly - we planted our tents on top of a few saplings - but it was high ground.  We definitely had pasta for dinner (our comfort food.)

During another wet evening with no dry firewood, while replenishing in silence, I laughed at something Matt had said earlier:
"I don't know anyone who would do a trip like this, except you."
"Look at what we've just been through & you wonder why no one would do this!"

Matt's response makes me a hypocrite.
The only better thing than good gear is a great travel partner:
"This is what makes it fun."