Monday, 19 December 2011

The Christmas Letter

In 2011 I left Melbourne, left Nowa Nowa, spent time in 15 different countries and in the process
said a lot of Hellos and Goodbyes; after many flights, bus rides, hostel beds, and adventures I am sending my Christmas greetings from wintry Scotland.
It was the year of big things, the year of flamingos and the year of too many firsts to list.

Instead I thought I would go for a recap of the year in festivals:

- New year was celebrated in Nowa Nowa with friends family and miscellaneous campers.
- The epicly attended 'festival of Sandy' was held In Kilcunda and Kongwak to observe my 30th.
- Easter saw Helen, Grant and I on a road trip that took in Nowa Nowa, Mt Beauty and Melbourne, before both Grant and I left Aussie shores for other horizons.

Helen and Grant enjoying a beer in Mt Beauty

- I celebrated the Swedish mid-summer festival in Cairo with much singing, eating, drinking and dancing around the may-pole.
- Travels in the Middle East had me a little anxious about Ramadan as I don't do so well without regular food and drink, luckily Ayvalik, the town I was staying in in Turkey when Ramadan began, did not seem overly observant and I have been able to learn about Ramadan without being an active participant.
- I love spending Christmas with my family and uncertainty over where I would be this Christmas has been hovering for months, exacerbated by uncertainty over how long my visa trip to Canada would take. Thankfully things got sorted- which led to a very festive beer, post ski lesson in Whistler, to celebrate being given my UK visa. 
- I have headed back to Scotland to celebrate Christmas, Hogmanay and beyond.

Aside from the obvious suddenly having no job and deciding to indefinitely become a backpacking bum the biggest surprises of the year have been:

Discovering how gross Hippos are.

Discovering that I can stand up on skis.

How welcoming so many people have been to this unemployed waif- many thanks to all, from Australia and beyond who have given me a bed this year.
Meeting the lovely Jon.
How much more sense Christmas carols, cards ect make once you spend the festive season in snowy climates.
That people have seemed to enjoy reading my little blog almost as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

My reading list has been a little random, mostly dictated by which books I could scavenge from hostels. My top books list has somehow ended up being almost all sci-fi:

- Never let me go, Kuzo Ishiburo- haunting vision of humanity gone awry.
- Making History, Stephen Fry- mr clever pants bringing history into the now and messing with it.
- Count Zero,William Gibson- not his best but he is so good that it still makes the list.
- And a non sci fi book to round it out- Jane Austen- A Life, Claire Tomalin- helped me indulge in my Austen daydreams in the English countryside.

No favourite places list, but the top adventures that come to mind just now are:

- Canoeing Lake Tyres with my mum, Nowa Nowa, Australia
- Boating, swimming, kayaking and fishing for Calamari in Turkey

- Night hike up Mt Sinai, Egypt
- Swimming in the dead sea in Jordan and Israel
- Walking to Beer with Pip and Fin, Devon, England
- Of course I need a Flamingo highlight, so biking to see Flamingos on Lesvos, Greece makes the cut
- Epic walking trip in the Scottish highlands

Glenfinnan Viaduct- or THE Harry Potter bridge! Scotland
The Quiraing, Isle of Skye

Dinner on a Felluca with Fraine and family on the Nile, Egypt.

Being 'teacher' in Jambiani, Zanzibar.

This year, as with last my last words are borrowed from my Grandma Ruthie; for food, for friends, for love I give thanks. Much love and best wishes for the new year, Sandy. x

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Must Do!

 Whistler - Blackcomb

As I mentioned in my last Ski blog, learning how to ski was a must do for my trip to Canada, the question was when and where?

Like Petra in Jordan and the Pyramids in Egypt, Whistler is a must do when you visit British Columbia. And like all must do tourist sights there is (for me at least) often something a little tiresome about the constant insistence that you must do them- until I visit and then I become one more in a long line of people who will now tell everyone I meet that they must visit!

Whistler and its brother Blackcomb are only two of many mountains stretching farther than my imagination can take in. Highway 99, otherwise known as the Sea to Sky highway takes you from Vancouver to Whistler Village and the road itself is now on my must do list. In fact I stayed an extra night so I could do the return run in daylight. As I sit in the Greyhound peak after white topped peak flash by in the December sun and the big deep waters of Horseshoe Bay reflect it all back, doubling the wondrous panorama. When we break the drive in Squamish the whole area is ringed with the lacy up and downs of snow capped mountains. As is so often the case when man and nature mix, the town itself seems squat and almost squalid in comparison to the natural surrounds. And then we are off again up to Whistler.

After spending quite a bit of time tramping along public footpaths and mountain tracks in the UK it took a while for the slowly shifting gears of my brain to realise that when I visit Whistler- Blackcomb I was not visiting mountains exactly but a resort.

The resorts physical infrastructure marks out how visitors will interact with the mountain; there are cafes at varying altitudes, chair lifts, gondolas, moving carpets, snow machines and of course ski trails of varying difficulties.

Along with the physical infrastructure to get people up and down the mountain and feed and water them the resort requires man power- and in mid December as it gears up to service hordes of snow tourists the resort attracts job seekers like honey to a hungry Pooh Bear. And why not with such a spectacular location. While staying at a backpackers almost everyone I meet is looking for work and or accommodation for the season, and everyone is anticipating a blessed life of hard work and hard play at the snow.
And it is absolutely true that Australians are in the majority.

This Australian however is not here to look for work, I am on the other side of the fence: I am going to ski school.

Gearing up on the first morning I soon discover that while there are bonuses to coming prior to the official season (in the form of discounts) there are trials as well. The very new staff don't quite seem to know which way is up. Luckily the blanks in the knowledge of those dealing with gear hire do not translate into deficits in our teachers. We were well provided for by our instructors knowledge, both of the mountain and of skiing in general.

Because of my half day on Grouse I start out as a Level Two skier and we spend a sunny day on the long slow training slope where I ski with poles for the first time, manage to keep myself upright, perform both left and right hand turns and occasionally almost ski parallel.

The Carpet on the teaching slope at Whistler.

 I graduate to Level Three for my second day. We have sun again and although there is some complaining about the lack of new snow, I personally am happy to have blue skies and sunshine as we explore the sights, slopes and challenges of Whistler and Blackcomb the best way possible, whizzing by on our skis. In between runs we trundle about in high enclosed gondolas and rocky ski lifts, with me still chanting 'stand up' to myself every time I exit in case I forget and accidentally get stuck on the lift Bridget Jones style. 

Chair lift on Blackcomb

 The mountain's infrastructure is imposing but I cannot imagine how we would get about without it, as I have enough trouble just carrying my skis and poles over short distances and still have not mastered the art of moving over flat snow in my skis.

Although it is a grey day, life is good on day three. My body is still functioning, I have hardly had a tumble and although I can feel the fatigue of two days skiing I am keen to have another day on my skis. Fog and all.

On our last day we get a taste of what it is like to be on a busy run. On our longest and possibly highest run there are skiers and snowboarders rocketing in from everywhere.
I do finely take a couple of tumbles after lunch and I discover the difficulty of righting myself on a steep hill while trying not to slip off the edge, but I am comforted by my brother's statement that: 'a few good tumbles usually indicates that you are pushing your limits at least a little.'

On the most part even our little troupe of novices manages to navigate successfully. Something I thought I would never master- avoiding other people on my ski's while moving at speed is now coming quite naturally.
And even my one collision with a snowboarder is navigated by both parties without incident. It was not until after I have turned to the boarder, smiled, said 'nice' in relief at neither of us tumbling over that I realise he had a camera strapped to his helmet. Our almost crash at slow speed probably wont make it to a snowboarding video near you but you never know.

At the end of day three I have a new bruise or two, confidence on my skis and a smile on my face. I have enjoyed myself immensely and having always thought of myself as a fairly uncoordinated lass, the discovery that I have inherited some of my families sporting abilities is quite a nice feeling.
I don't suck!

And I will be quite happy to tell anyone who asks that they must visit Whistler and they must learn to ski.

New Convert

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Colour me Whistler

This afternoon I arrived at Whistler, BC. The sun is shinning, the sky is blue, the air is crisp, the snow seems plentiful and the village is bustling. As I sit eating my tasty all day breakfast and watching the world go by I grow more and more disappointed.  

In myself.

All around me there is a sea of colourful outfits, and out of all the rainbow of choices available in the world of ski gear somehow I have ended up acquiring silver grey waterproof pants and a black puffy jacket.
Sure sitting at the Cafe I have on my salmon pink cords and flamingo jumper, but when I get out into the snow I will be Ms Monochrome.

Even a raspberry beret does not cut it next to this kaleidoscope of mismatched far out gear.

an Aussie and some 'locals'

the Italian boys
more locals and a Swede

the Swedish boys  tell me: "everyone looks like this there"

when the guy from Seattle in red and pink looks a little dull you know you are going to have to work hard to stand out from the crowd.

All I can do is gaze in envy and ponder if I should spend all my ski dollars on a new outfit instead- but then perhaps that would defeat the purpose.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Rover Ski Lesson: number one.

Grouse Mountain and I have been eyeing each other off since my first day in Vancouver. The snowy peak, just across the bay, has been watching me run round Vancouver headless chicken style trying to sort out the bureaucratic hurdles in my life. On Thursday I jumped a significant hurdle and although it was by no means the final one it has allowed me to get away from the city and finally visit Grouse.

I have come to Canada with a few missions, one is the dull aforementioned bureaucratic one, and another is the far more fun project of learning to ski. So, sun shinning, on Friday I had a date with Grouse and a date with the skiing instructor.

The first step, after I put on my sunscreen, wriggled into my waterproof pants and puffy (second hand) jacket was to rent skies. The rental girls and guys were very nice and patient with me:

'What is your height?'   'No idea.'
'What is your weight?'   'No idea.'
'What is your shoe size?'   'In Australia it is 7 ½ in Canada I have no idea.'

After some guess work I pushed my foot into some size 9 boots and the nice lady set up my skies to her estimation of my weight (apparently it needs to be semi-accurate or you will pop off the ski at inopportune times). She must have known her stuff because I only ever popped off at the appropriate times, ie when crashing.

Lesson one for the day: when you are learning to ski they wont let you have any poles as you are liable to stab yourself with them. You have to learn to navigate and stop with the skies alone.

Lesson two: Don't tuck your waterproof pants into your boots.
We learned how to get the skies on and off, how to slide about on one ski then two, we learned how to climb a snowy hill with no poles- an odd sideways walk thing involving digging the edges of your ski into the snow- possibly the most exhausting part of the day; and then we learned the really important stuff:

how go slow and stop.

This involves a rather unnatural inward knee bend thing where you angle your skies into each other while avoiding actually crossing them over. Basically you make a slice of pie. I was occasionally wobbly at this stage and had a tendency to end up to the left of where I was headed.

Lesson three: don't forget to look in the direction you want to go and don't look at the thing you are trying to avoid or you will be more likely to navigate into it.

Then we tried to do turning. I was fine going left, but right turns, which involved navigating towards and then stopping before you got to a steep drop were a little beyond me.

After an hour of playing on our little hill our instructor seemed to think we were ready to go down the bunny hill.

The first section involved a small incline which levelled out quite nicely, so even if you were still not so good at stopping you were ok.
happy bunnies going slow

The second section was steeper and led directly to a tight turn into the ski lift area.
At this point my inability to stop, and or navigate became a problem. I hurteled towards the fence, attempted a rather tight turn and hooked my leg around the fence, thwacking my inner thigh quite nicely and making a bit of a noise.

going to fast

no ability to turn as yet

crash and burn

The noise was actually worse than the crash and although I was a little bruised nothing was twisted, broken or dammaged beyond repair- Physically that is.

Mentally I was a little worse for wear and about to tackle perhaps the scariest feat for the day- the ski lift.

Lesson four: do not hang about near the exit of the ski lift unless you want to be crashed into (by me).

Lesson five: don't forget to get off the ski lift. On my second turn on the lift I forgot that it was not going to do all the work for me and ended up having to do a little hop -jump off the lift as it continued on its merry way. Luckily our instructor was on hand to give me a hand to hold onto.

At the end of the second hour our instructor told us that we had now graduated to being level two skiers (I think this really translates as knowing which end of the ski goes towards the front), then he told us not to go anywhere other than the bunny slope, and then he left us.

So my fellow L plater and I (a Mexican gal with as much snow in her veins as this Aussie beach bum) nervously set off to tackle the slope on our own. It was just us, the small children and the face planting snow boarders. We did ok- eventually even taking on the slightly steeper section of the bunny hill and I am proud to say that no children were injured by me.

The positive result of my first run down the bunny hill being a disaster was that my fear of a repetition made me learn how to go slow, and after a good hour or so of nervously navigating down the hill I had my first run of the day which felt more parts fun than fear.

Grouse Mountain bunny hill, with a view of a steeper slope.

As the afternoon wore on the we improved, and occasionally regressed. I made my final run of the day very carefully, then concentrated too much on how tight the last turn was and ended up ploughing headlong into a man waiting for the lifts. Luckily my warning cries of 'Shit Shit Shit' alerted him I was coming and he was stable and solid enough to catch me.

Going up on the lift my pal and I decided we needed just one more run for the day; and this timeI went a bit faster and I nailed it.
Then I decided I needed just one more run for the day. By this time the sun was sinking, the clouds had come in and the lights were on. I was going down blind, the now familiar hill just revealing itself one meter at a time. 

And I nailed it!

Grouse Mountain Gondola cables- view from the top 

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Lists for Today

Today I have been waiting for:

the internet to load
my fingertip to regrow
my bank statement

Today I have been looking up:

Arabic words for my short story
nice backpackers in Vancouver
the world clock
couch surfing
at the sky

Today the things that have helped are:

friendly faces
a sneaky lunch bagel
my red hat

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Don't Worry Mum!

As of tomorrow (27th of November) I will have been travelling about the globe for six months. During that time my Mum has been incredibly restrained in her worry about me, or at least she has been very restrained in expressing her worry for me- to me.

I was on a bus near the coast in Turkey back in August when she called me to chat, during our conversation I mentioned I was thinking of going para-gliding that afternoon, there was a pause during which I cursed myself for telling her, and after a few beats of my heart she burst out with:

'Sandy, you are going to turn into a Flamingo!'
Like I said very restrained.

After I posted my Turkey Blue blog about getting up close and personal with the waters of Turkey she emailed me from Vietnam to say:

'Your story of swimming alone in the Turkish sea as you said came close to being every mothers nightmare - so it was good to know that you were safe on shore writing it!'

So I thought I would share a few other slightly hairy adventures, some recent, some a little older so she can read about them after the fact and know that I am safely tucked up at the Vancouver library.

There was the time I went in a Peace March in Jerusalem, everything was just fine, and it really did not feel any different from being in a rally in Melbourne- people were there with their kids and the worst thing that happened (apart from too much sun) was one man driving past and sticking his finger up at us. But... then in a place so riven with conflict it could have become a flashpoint. Happily all was well- though my photo with a placard might be on a list some place.

There was also my accidental hitch-hiking incident in Greece. It was going fine until the man driving me said he needed to make a quick stop and drove us into a quarry. I sat there making uncomfortable small talk to my illegal Albanian driver wondering what on earth we were doing and if I should be making a run for it. After five very long minutes a tip truck drove up and dumped a load of stones in the tray of my drivers Ute; and I realised that we were not in a quarry for a seedy assignation- but to get stones!

And then there was last week when I was road tripping about in the Rockie Mountains in Alberta, Canada. There was spectacular scenery, heaps of fun to be had in the snow and some rather scary roads. Even on the first few days of our road trip, when we had sunshine, blue sky and magic views there was always an element of danger; you can't drive along a road that has regular warnings about avalanches, and actual avalanche shelters built over sections of the road without your heart rate raising a little.

Still the newness of a snowy winter landscape dulled the reality of the danger, and even having to dig ourselves out of the snow added to our sense of adventure.

And then mother nature turned. The road between Jasper and Banff passes through the icefields, and in the right conditions you can stop off at pretty regular intervals and view glaciers; in the wrong conditions you don't drive, or you leave early before the roads close (as we did) and you grit your teeth the whole way and hope to make it through. On the first scary driving day our normally jovial driver, and boisterous passengers were both equally silent as we drove slowly along steep iced up roads drifting with powdery snow.

It was possibly ill-advised to overtake the snow- plough.
It was possibly ill-advised to stop and adventure off into the snow- but if we didn't I wouldn't have gotten to wear my new waterproof pants and really what is the point of being at the snow if you cannot get thigh deep in powder?

And we made it safely through the day.

Then we had a full day in Banff to recover and enjoy all that was good about the very cute Canadian mountain town: sparkling Christmas lights, snow shoeing, cheap drinks, slippery side walks, sulphur hot springs and of course snow galore. 

Oh and there was a also a slightly ill advised solo climb up the side of Tunnel Mountain where I thought there was a path but ended up having to hoist myself up a steep snowy slope from tree to tree. 

The next day, on a sparkling clear morning, with the pink morning light showing off just how beautiful the mountains were we had to leave. Even though the doors were iced shut we managed to get on the road. Fortunately, or unfortunately our engine had made it through the freeze.

On our second and third scary driving days things got a little better and a little worse, we were back on the Trans-Canadian Highway, more traffic, more regular snow- ploughs, but this meant the iced roads were even more chewed up, plus we had big trucks to contend with and dirt galore. I was sitting up front on the second scary driving day and was a close witness to the constant bombardment of filth being thrown up at us; our windscreen wipers failed absolutely and the attempt to fix them using paper bags from the doughnut shop only helped for a short time.

The last day was a repeat of the day before, clear patches followed by slippery, dirty conditions, only this time we ran out of water for the broken windscreen wipers and we saw the wreckage of far more vehicles than we had on any previous days. 

But we made it out of the mountains and back to rainy Vancouver safe and sound on our snow tyres.  So... Don't worry Mum!