Cherry Blossom Tango
When you live in Santa Cruz, don’t have a car, and travel via San Francisco International Airport (SFO) you get the feeling that, in California, not owning a car is deemed unconstitutional and subject to punishment whenever possible. I live about 15 minutes bike ride from downtown (or a nice 45 min walk at a leisurely pace on a sunny weekend afternoon). When I lived in Linköping at a similar distance from downtown, there were three different busses to choose from and rarely would you have to wait for more than 10 or 15 minutes on a weekday afternoon for one. Here in Santa Cruz, the one bus that serves our area within reasonable walking distance runs once an hour. Much to the delight of the Yellow Cab company, I’m sure.
Once you’re in downtown Santa Cruz, which really only consists of a single street stretching for about six or eight blocks, so it always seems a little pretentious to call it “downtown” since there isn’t that much for it to be “down” from, you catch the Amtrak bus to San Jose. There used to be a train service running along the now disused tracks, but legend has it that the locals would sneak out and pour sand on the tracks to stop the train in an attempt to make it too inconvenient to commute to and from Santa Cruz, as a sort of crude measure of population control. This happened so many times that eventually they stopped the train service and widened Highway 17 to four lanes instead, at which point the Santa Cruz population tripled. Assuming you manage to avoid the rush-hour traffic, the 35 mile journey over the Santa Cruz mountains takes about three quarters of an hour. From there, you board the Caltrain bound for San Francisco and sit back.
The train runs between Gilroy in the south and San Francisco in the north every twenty minutes or so, serving 22 stations along its way. If you measure the distance between Gilroy and San Francisco, split this into 22 roughly equal parts, and figure out how long it takes to accelerate and stop a train consisting of three to six double-decker cars, you won’t be surprised to learn that after the 1h 40min ride from San Jose to San Francisco you feel like you’ve just experienced the public transportation equivalent of “Begin the Beguine”. On weekend they work on the track and have replaced the train with a bus service. Despite having to contend with the traffic along US Highway 101, the bus is quicker. There is an express version of the train too: they leave out four stations and shave a whopping 20 minutes off the journey.
Going to SFO, you get off before San Francisco at Millbrae, where the airport has generously provided a free shuttle bus service to the various terminals. While the oversized van they selected for this duty provides adequately sumptuous seating for passengers, someone appears to have forgotten that said passengers often travel with more than just hand luggage. My suitcase is medium sized, yet would not fit onto the luggage racks provided, so I moved to the back of the bus and kept it in the aisle. At the next stop, a guy with a mountain bike stuffed into a 2.5m long, flat cardboard box sat in the front seat and completely blocked anyone’s passage into or out from the bus. By the time I managed to get my suitcase past his legs, the mountain bike, and several unattended small children, all of which occupied more than their fair share of the narrow aisle between the seats, my arms felt like they’d been transplanted off an orangutan.
US–Canadian relations are a little confused at times, mostly because many Americans appear to be a little unclear of the concept of Canada as an independent nation. About a week before my journey I was in the Wilson Leather shop in Capitola Mall looking at jackets. They didn’t have the model that I was interested in, but suggested that I try one of their other shops. Upon learning of my trip, the woman serving me suggested that I check both SFO airport shops and in Vancouver. I asked her if she could give me the address or phone number of one of their Vancouver shops and she dug out a three inch thick ring-binder and started flipping through it. From my vantage position across the counter, I could tell that it was ordered according to US state abbreviation. She flipped past Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas (I guess they don’t have Wilson Leather shops in American Samoa), Arizona, and California, and hit Colorado. She paused.
“I can’t find Canada,” she said, confused.
“Wouldn’t it be after the US states?” I offered. North American business directories have a tendency to stick Canada after the US and forget about Mexico entirely.
“Well, Canada... that’s gotta be CD, right?”
I carefully suggested that Vancouver was in British Columbia and that the province name often gets abbreviated to BC, but that Canada as such doesn’t have an abbreviation. Certainly not a two-letter, US state abbreviation. What with it being an independent nation and all.
“I can’t find it—it should be here, right? After CA, but they’ve forgotten to put it in,” and with that she slammed the directory shut and suggested that I look it up online.
I mention this because I was planning to do a little tax-free gift shopping, since I was on an international flight. However, SFO suffers from a similarly deplorable lack of geopolitical awareness and United Airlines’ flights to Vancouver depart from the domestic terminal. Finding a tax-free shop involves walking through the airport to the international terminal and then back again. While the walk didn’t bother me, the prospect of having to go through another two security checks was enough to convince me that I’d be able to find any gifts I needed in Vancouver itself.
Having travelled for the better part of four hours to get from Santa Cruz to SFO, flying from SFO to Vancouver takes just over two hours. Somehow it feels all wrong when the “preparatory” part of the journey takes longer than the journey itself, as though the appetizer and main course had been switched around.
In Vancouver, Miri’s and my flights arrived ten minutes apart. Because of the US visa laws, it’s significantly cheaper and easier for Mexicans to fly directly from Mexico to Canada than to stop over in SFO and change planes, as was her initial idea. (In the mind of the US Justice Department, there is no such thing as a single, Mexican woman who has no desire to live in the US.) As it was, my flight arrived a little early and I passed through Canadian immigrations and picked up my bags, then waited for Miri who arrived shortly thereafter looking as radiant as ever. After ten minutes of hugging and kissing, we found her bags and piled them up on the same cart as mine. The luggage carousels are located right next to the exit were the Canadian Customs people stand to receive your customs declaration. Travel tip: If you wait for someone on another flight close to yours, don’t pile both of your bags on the same cart. We were quickly whisked off to an off-stage area where our bags were x-rayed before we could enter the airport and were greeted by Tom and Tuulikki.
I had booked a room in a bed and breakfast recommended by Tuulikki called “Between Friends”. The name seemed appropriate enough, as I gathered that’s how Simone—our host—got most of her business. Hearing her rattle off names of people that Tuulikki had steered in her direction sounded like a reading of the Leica Users Group roster. The house itself is located on Arbutus and 4th in Kitsilano, which places it two streets across and three avenues up from T&T’s apartment and—more importantly—the Viva café on Yew. In a previous life, Simone lived and worked in Japan, and the old wood house was decorated with eclectic mix of Japanese silk screen prints and porcelain.
As the name implies, one of the featured highlights is breakfast. Simone’s approach to this is different to other B&Bs that I’ve stayed in. As we were sitting down to the table the first morning, I was rattling off breakfast options in my head. The full Canadian breakfast, with hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage links, t-bone steak, pancakes, and maple syrup, or the light version, foregoing the steak? Simone walked in, wished us “good morning” and before I could place my order, announced with gusto:
“Today, I’m making Eggs Benedict: Poached egg on an English muffin, with smoked ham and Hollandaise sauce. Would you like tea or coffee with that?”
The prospect of eating Hollandaise sauce on anything at nine in the morning was daunting, but the enthusiasm with which she’d announced the menu cowed me into simply responding “coffee, please”. Each morning we’d be greeted by a new menu of culinary delights. I’m sure she would have accommodated any special requests—a boy in a Mexican family staying there during our first two nights apparently refused to eat anything other than huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) for the whole duration of their trip—but it was too exiting to see what she would dream up that I was spared both the traditional Canadian loggers’ breakfasts and the attendant heart attack.
One morning we emerged from our upstairs room to find Dirk sitting at the breakfast table. Hailing from Toronto, Dirk was an entrepreneur who’d started a toy distributing company. He’d buy toys from individual manufacturers and sell to independent toy shops who wanted more interesting products than the latest politically correct minority Barbie doll, or politically incorrect PlayStation 2 first-person shoot-em-ups. It was a recent start-up, but in the few months it had existed, business had been booming and he had already signed fifteen manufacturers and was busy promoting their products to eager toy stores. Miri has the ability to make anyone feel like they are the most fascinating person in the world, so over breakfast, under the influence of her gentle prodding, Dirk was invited to share his life’s story. By comparison, doing research in human–computer interaction at San Jose State University appeared woefully unglamorous and it’s a testament to Dirk’s social skills that he was able to sustain an interest long enough to ask three questions about what the hell it meant anyway rather than just pronouncing “that’s cool” and excusing himself from the table, which is probably what I would have done had the roles been reversed.
Breakfast that morning consisted of croissants which had undergone a light French toast treatment, filled with cream cheese, fresh strawberries, and covered in powdered sugar and maple syrup. For some inexplicable reason, I had decided to only have tea and toast, but injected into the anecdotes of a day in the life of a modern toy entrepreneur battling the mega-toy-conglomerates were “Ooh”, “Aah”, and “Mmm” as both Dirk and Miri devoured the contents of their plates. Towards the end of our stay, Miri asked Simone if she couldn’t make them again so that I could try them and they were so good, I had to have two.
Simone and her partner had bought the house next to the B&B too and were in the process of renovating it and turning it into a second B&B. More often than not when we returned from our various expeditions, we’d find Simone toting tool bags, or poking around in the garden. It was on the return from one of these trips that Simone handed me a small bar of dark, Lindt chocolate and a set of car keys with the name “Betty Krueger” on the fob that turned out to belong to a rather well-dented, gold paint Pontiac of late 70s vintage parked on the street.
“A guy called Chris dropped these off while you were out. I told him that I could eat the chocolate and you’d never know, but he said that there was a history between you of chocolate and cars.”
I told her about Eric the Red and we agreed that the chocolate should probably stay with the car for any emergencies that might occur.
About a month before this trip, I’d been talking to Tom on the phone and lamenting (again) the lack of a car in California. While it is certainly possible to live in Santa Cruz without a car, it limits your mobility. Since I have a perverted love of road trips and a desire to see as much California as I can, the absence of personal motorized transportation is frustrating at times.
During that phone conversation, Tom had mentioned that Chris was thinking of buying a car. I know Chris as someone who rides his motorcycle regardless of the weather and was intrigued to hear what kind of car Chris would buy. It’d be cheap, that much I knew.
“It’d actually be a perfect car for you. It’s a 1978 Pontiac Le Mans,” he told me.
I had visions of driving along Hwy 17 and the entire exhaust system falling out from under the car. Ignoring me, Tom continued.
“It’s had one owner.” My ears perked up.
“A Little Old Lady who maintained it religiously by taking it to the dealer every year for service. It doesn’t look fantastic, but it runs great. As she got older, I think her eyesight started failing, because the bodywork looks like she parked by braille.”
“Canadian!?? That’s like $350 in real money!!” I’ve lived long enough in California to feel comfortable about making casual condescending remarks about currencies north of the border.
“I’ve told him that if he doesn’t buy it, I will”
“Forget that, you have a car. For $500 Canadian, I could buy it. Hell, I will, sight unseen!”
As it turned out, at that price even Chris could afford it so he ended up buying the car, presumably under gentle cajolery from Tom. However, by the time we’d arrived in Vancouver, Chris appeared to be reconsidering this purchase and was delighted to lend us the car for the duration of our trip as a sort of two week long extended test-drive.
The tactic worked. Later during that trip, as we one day we were sitting in our golden chariot, zooming along twisty Vancouver Island roads, I was warming to the idea of driving the car around California. But it needed a name. While Eric the Red had unmistakably been male, this car clearly called for a female name. “Pontiac Le Mans” suggested American origins, but with European pretensions, an aspiration to refinement and culture. I had flashbacks of New Orleans and Savannah. Throwing names out more or less at random, Miri suddenly remembered the name on the key fob.
Perfect. Not that I ever met the previous owner, but it had just the right connotations. From that day on, the car was always referred to as Betty. I knew from my previous car buying experience that I could import Betty to the US without any problem (since she was 25+) but discovered upon returning to California that the state smog laws require all cars younger than 30 to fulfil the US EPA emissions and pass a CA smog test. Betty had passed the British Columbia AirCare smog test in January 2003, but a phone call to GM Canada with the VIN number provided the sad news that she didn’t pass the 1978 US Federal emissions standards and that it was therefore unlikely that she’d pass a CA smog test. Poor girl—I guess she won’t be retiring to California after all.
There is a long standing tradition among Vancouver photographers—especially among Vancouver’s Leica photographers. Friday mornings, you have breakfast at the Zen café on Yew street. This is the kind of “breakfast” that mainly consists of piling cameras, cups of latte, and plates of scrambled eggs onto a table too small to seat the number of photographers present. This is aided by the fact that everyone tries to outwierd each other with some new piece of equipment they bought at a swapmeet, on eBay, or found in the dusty basement of some Little Old Lady who was using it to keep folded laundry from blowing away. Thus it becomes necessary to engage in a carefully orchestrated ballet of passing around cameras so that vacant spots materialize on the table just in time for coffee cups to be put down. Of course, this becomes particularly challenging when one of the pieces is a 4x5″ wooden field camera, or a twelve foot high tripod (Hi Henning!).
Of course, Miri had to see this. I figure that it’s a good strategy to show what truly deranged examples of Leica-collecting behaviour can look like—thus casting myself in more favorable light as a balanced individual. One morning, Tom shows up with an old Periflex 3 camera that had a unique feature. Upon winding the film, a little periscope was lowered behind the lens in front of the shutter curtain. Peeking through a viewfinder at the back of the camera shows you the centre of the image through the lens and thus allows focussing. To my delight, this evokes exactly the kind of spontaneous yelps of incredulity and joy accompanied by repeated examining and exercising of the periscope mechanism that only true diehard anoraks can exhibit. I stopped when I realized the sounds were emanating from me.
A block down from Zen towards the beach lies Viva. Until relatively recently it used to be a quaint little bakery owned by a Swedish couple, but was sold and has now been turned into a fine café, but they’ve kept the Princess Cake on their menu. Their bakery is superb, their paninis fantastic, their spicy curry rolls splendid, their tarts terrific, and the coffee is smooth and rich. It’s also a hang-out for the local dogs on the way to or from Kitsilano beach. A portrait by Tom of the owner’s black lab hangs on the wall and a stainless steel water bowl sits outside the door. Miri and I had quickly fallen into the habit of dropping in on them during the afternoon for a couple of lattes and an amaretto tart or two, when we were joined by Tom one afternoon. As I was daydreaming about having a car in California, Miri was busy asking Tom about all the places he and Tuulikki had travelled to, which included driving across the Sahara Desert. Apparently, this includes a six hour stop during the middle of the day, because the sand becomes so hot that the tires blow if you try to drive on it.
“So, what do you do? Take pictures?” I ask.
“No, it’s too hot for that. And you don’t want to move because that uses up water.”
“Guess you must read a lot then.”
“No, it’s too hot for that too. You’re brain doesn’t really work that well in that kind of heat. You just sit as still as possible.”
“For six hours!?”
“So, I guess you drive at night then?”
“No, you sleep at night. You drive for about four hours in the morning before about 10am and then for another few hours in the evening until the sun sets.”
I tried imagining what it would be like to sit in 50 °C heat doing nothing for six hours in the middle of the world’s largest desert and concluded that, given a choice, I’d rather sit for six hours in 35 °C heat next to a pool in a Cancun resort holding an umbrella drink. I guess that makes me a tourist and not a traveller.
Chris’s big weakness is chocolate. Armed with this knowledge I’d bought some bars of Ghirardelli chocolate at an SFO airport shop, partly because it hails from San Francisco but mostly because I couldn’t get to the tax free where I suspected they’d stashed the really good chocolate, but upon trying one of the smaller bars I decided that it was unlikely to be up to Chris’s standards. As it turned out, Chris’s birthday was on the same day as my sister in Sweden and a friend of T&T’s in Japan, so we’d been invited by Tuulikki to their apartment to celebrate the occasion. Tuulikki had previously requested that I cook a Swedish specialty Janssons Frestelse and so it was decided that this would be the evening’s course. After calling my sister in the morning, Miri and I set off along 4th Avenue to the Purdy’s shop we’d seen earlier and purchased practically illegal amounts of truffles.
Janssons Frestelse (or “Jansson’s Temptation” in English) is an oven dish. It’s ridiculously simple to make, but it takes forever. For four people, you need to take eight large potatoes and cut them into matchstick-sized little sticks, which are then layered into a greased, oven proof dish. One chopped, sautéd onion and 100g (3.5 oz) of anchovies are then laid on the potatoes, after which the rest of the potato sticks go on top and finally a light sprinkling of bread crumbs. 100 ml (1/2 cup) of milk and 200 ml (1 cup) of whipping cream are poured over the whole thing and it goes into the oven at 200 °C (400 °F) for about 45 minutes, or until the top goes golden brown and your kitchen starts smelling really good. Being eight people, I just doubled everything.
Tuulikki cooks with the same enthusiasm that most cats take a bath. Oddly enough, this hasn’t prompted Tom into learning how to make anything more complicated than a cheese sandwich, so the Abrahamssons’ kitchen is somewhat underutilized. This includes the 1970s vintage Elektrolux stove and oven. I should have realized where we were heading when, having chopped 16 potatoes into matchsticks, I switched on the oven and Tuulikki announces:
“Ooh, good. I didn’t know if it was going to work or not. We had the kitchen remodelled some years ago and I couldn’t remember if we’d connected up the oven again.”
It would probably be prudent to mention at this point that Miri and I were running on Mexican time, which meant that having agreed to turn up at 4:30 we finally arrived somewhere around 5:10. Miri brought a bottle of El Toro tequila which she presented to our hosts.
Mexican’s take their tequila seriously. According to legend, some particularly inquisitive and, one presumes, junior member of the Nahuatl people discovered that the centre of a blue maguey agave plant that had been struck by lightening was a sticky, fermented liquid that induced a “pleasant feeling” if ingested. Since waiting around for lightening to hit a nearby plant is an unreliable way to get a drink, should the desire overcome you, this practice has been abandoned in favour of more modern methods. After the spikes of the agave are chopped off, the heart of the plant (called piña because of its similarity to a pineapple) is chopped into smaller pieces and roasted. Once roasted, the piña is then shredded and the juice extracted. This then makes the raw material for tequila.
Tequila comes in several different versions. The lowest is Tequila Blanco which, by law, must consist of a minimum of 49% agave tequilana juice. To those 49% are added various sugars and chemical yeasts before the concoction is allowed to ferment, is then distilled twice, watered down to 80 proof, and finally bottled by people wearing protective equipment. This is the stuff that gets exported to the US and Europe to be drunk by 20 year olds in bars along with copious amounts of salt, lime, and a beer chaser, simply because there is no other way to get it down otherwise. More often than not, it follows the inverse of the law of aviation: what goes down must come up. Whatever is not exported I suspect is used to clean VW Beetle engine parts by the mechanicos. Unfortunately, this is the kind of tequila that most people outside of Mexico know about. Or, on second thought, maybe that’s a good thing.
The good tequila consists of 100% agave tequilana juice, with no added sugars. The really good stuff is still processed using stone ovens, grinding wheels, wooden tanks rather than more modern machinery. Gold tequila is just the same as Blanco, but has had colouring added to it. Then there is the Tequila Reposado, or well rested tequila. This is a considerably finer grade of tequila and very enjoyable. It has been aged between two and twelve months in either vats or oak barrels. Finally, there is Tequila Añejo which has been aged for one or more years.
As the name suggests, Reposado cannot be rushed but needs to be enjoyed fully at a more graceful pace. The El Toro which Miri had brought was, of course, a 100% agave reposado. So, by the time I started chopping potatoes, it was closer to six o’clock and by the time I had finished, Chris, his daughter Dominique, and his date had arrived, and we were past the time when dinner was initially supposed to start.
The unknown factor in all of this was, of course, the oven. The poor thing had probably not been switched on in years and, I’m sure, had become quite accustomed to sitting silent, and cold, beneath the cooker rings that saw occasional use. As a general rule, ovens that have not been used in a few years have unreliable thermostats and this was no exception. The 45 minutes that the recipe called for quickly turned into an hour. By seven o’clock we were all getting pretty hungry. By seven thirty, our diet of tequila and truffles was beginning to get to us. By eight o’clock, murderous looks were being thrown in my direction. Finally, at around eight thirty, the luke warm oven had managed to cook the dish into something that could be eaten without too much of a risk of food poisoning—and I figured the tequila would take care of the rest.
Despite this less than illustrious start to its Canadian career, I gather that Jansson’s Temptation has a great future there. Tom, hailing originally not only from Sweden, but from the southern-most county were they take their food seriously, pronounced it successful and subsequently found ways of dropping references to it into the most varied conversations. One of these was with Sylvia who mans the coffee shop at 1000 Parker Street where Tom’s workshop is. She determined that it would be the perfect post-hockey game food and so I recited the recipe to her. Should the Canucks make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs again, I predict a potato shortage in Vancouver.
To get to North and West Vancouver, you have to cross water. The easiest way is to drive through Stanley Park and go across Lion’s Gate, a splendid suspension bridge once built by the Guinness family and a sort of green cousin of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Stanley Park itself is worth visiting too, although Vancouver weather makes this an unpredictable affair. On the first day of our having Betty, we assembled a packed lunch from the offerings of the delicatessens in Granville Island Public Market and then headed out to Stanley Park. That day it was pouring rain and as we sat parked overlooking parts of the Pacific Ocean, the windows misted up (though not for the reasons you may be thinking) and after about fifteen minutes we couldn’t see out of the car at all.
If you have ridiculous amounts of money and enjoy sitting in traffic jams during your morning and evening commute, West Vancouver is a great place to live. Other than that, the main reasons for going across Lion’s Gate is because you’re on your way to Whistler, or to see one of the parks in the foothills of North Vancouver. On a day with substantially better weather, Chris invited his friend Kit and us to a picknick in Lynn Grove Canyon. Chris and Kit acted as backseat drivers providing at times contradictory directions and discovering that the “no options” version of a 1978 Pontiac Le Mans not only omitted rear power windows, they couldn’t be opened at all. One of the features of Lynn Grove Canyon is the suspension bridge on the footpath. There are actually two parks, but Lynn Grove is a free public park, not on the tourist maps, and therefore generally to be preferred. We made it across the bridge without fainting or falling off and found a perfect picknick spot by a small waterfall cut into some rocks. A tiny pebble beach provided a perfect location in the sun and we dug into the basket.
We arrived at the perfect time. Shortly after we got there, the beach area filled up with people looking for a spot as idyllic as the one we’d occupied. Having enjoyed sandwiches in the sun, Chris announced that it was time for desert and pulled out a bag of fresh strawberries. Kit had brought a chocolate egg that had been left over from Easter celebrations, but due to the sun beating down from a clear blue sky on that afternoon, it had melted and was liquid. It took about two seconds for us to dunk the first strawberry into the melted chocolate.
People around us couldn’t believe our audacity. To come to a public park, plonk ourselves down in the best spot available, and to then start eating chocolate dipped strawberries in full view of unprotected women and young children. Several vocal comments to this effect were made—the kind made in a not-quite hushed voice, just loud enough so that those it concerns can hear what is said. That, of course, just made the strawberries taste all the better. The whole experience was enhanced by the entertainment provided by both dogs and stray children who took turns trying to drown themselves in the ice cold water in the stream. On the whole, the dogs exhibited both greater proficiency and better judgement than the children where aquatic activities were concerned, but on the other hand enjoyed both more encouraging remarks from the audience and, I suspect, an advantage in experience.
By the way... we did go to Whistler (highly recommended), and stopped by Brandywine Falls on the way. This is home to a 70 m waterfall, which can be viewed from a platform that juts precariously over the edge of another 70 m drop. If you, like me, have a centre of gravity that relocates itself to just above your eyebrows when you’re on tall structures, the whole grandeur of the experience is diminished by every fibre in your body trying to maintain the vice-like grip on the railing. On the way back to the car, Miri decides to rest in the glorious sunshine while I attempt to make use of the public facilities... until I actually go into one and discover the most unsavory loos outside of English campsites I’ve ever seen. I find myself torn between disgust and fascination. On the one hand, I have no desire to come in any kind of physical contact with it. On the other, there is a strangely pleasing aesthetic to the decay. It’s almost as though someone has arranged the lines of the broken branches to gently envelope the smooth, round curves of the toilet itself. I struggle with the concept of “appropriateness”, before abandoning it and taking a picture. When I finally emerge, Miri asks:
“What took you so long?”
“I had to take a picture.”
Some things just cannot be explained in words.
I had been to Victoria on Vancouver Island on a previous trip, where I’d met Ted and Irene Grant, and Sandy Carter. During that trip, I’d been about a week too late for the salmon migration so as Ted and I drove around armed with a 280mm telephoto lens we’d mostly seen seagulls feeding on the left over, semi-alive salmon which, even without the 1.4x focal length extender, was more gruesome than I cared for. I could never be a war correspondent. I’d sit in the hotel bar and make up stories for fear of actual exposure to the stuff. But then I guess that’s why Don McCullin takes those hauntingly beautiful, yet oddly disturbing Somerset landscapes.
For this trip, Miri had asked if we could drive to the north end of the island and go whale watching. They were supposedly in season—or whatever whales are. We figured we’d drive up one morning, spend the following day there and drive back that afternoon. This was before consulting an actual map and learning that the drive itself is probably on the order of eight hours in either direction. On the recommendations of friends, an alternate plan was formed and we’d turn left after Nanaimo towards Long Beach and Tofino. We filled up Betty, picked up a spare wheel from Chris, packed emergency supplies (marshmallows and Evian) and set off.
According to Sandy, we should take the ferry from Tsawwassen (yup, they really do spell it like that). Consulting the map Tuulikki had handed us already at the airport, resplendently labelled with coloured dots marking important sites (the B&B, T&T’s apartment) and carrying multiple business cards with telephone numbers to anyone we might have reason to call, it appeared to be a pretty straight forward drive. Down Highway 99, then right onto Highway 17 (perhaps a Canadian sibling of my commute) which would take you straight to the ferry.
Something strange happens to me once I get behind the wheel of a car. No matter how much I’ve studied the route along a map, no matter that I’m able to draw a perfect facsimile blindfolded using only blunt, coloured crayons and waxed paper, I appear to instantly forget this knowledge upon putting the keys into the ignition. This trip was no different. As we were driving along Highway 17 (having got there by an entirely different route than the one I’d picked out on the map) we found ourselves at some traffic lights at an intersection with Route 56. There was a signpost pointing left stating “Tsawwassen”.
“Tsawwassen. That’s got to be the ferry, right?” I say to Miri, who looks up with momentary confusion from the issue of Cosmopolitan she’s reading.
“I don’t know...”
“Well, isn’t that what Sandy said? ’Take the ferry from Tsawwassen’?” I plead.
This last statement is code for “We both know that you’re about to commit a monumental screw-up, but since nothing I can say will make you realize this at a conscious level, you might as well just go ahead and get it over with”. With that, I turned left.
We puttered along at 25 mph through a tiny town that seemed to consist of the single street we were driving on. The houses thin out, a little hill, and suddenly I’m confronted with a very official looking building that has “Point Roberts, WA” written in big, block letters on the side. I slam on the breaks.
“SHIT! We’ve reached the US border!??” I exclaim in disbelief. With the Orange Alert on in the US, the last thing I want to do is tangle with US border officials.
Fortunately, there is a signpost pointing to the left that reads “Return to Canada”. I figure that’s the prudent thing to do, so I swing Betty around the Canadian building and pull up to the window. There’s a young Asian-looking man dressed in a navy blue uniform with a bored expression on his face peering out.
“Hi,” I say in the most casual conversational tone I can muster, “ we were heading for the ferry to Victoria, I was following the signs for Tsawwassen, but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Could you direct us to the ferry, please?”
“Where are you from?”
“We’re staying in Vancouver. We’re just heading over to Victoria to meet some friends and stay with them for a night.”
“Are you Canadian?”
“No, I’m English...”
“And you, ma’am?”
“Do you have your passports?”
“Eh... no. We’re only going to Victoria.”
“You’re supposed to carry your passport on your person at all times,” he informs us. Then he notices Betty. “Is this your car?”
“No, we’re borrowing it from a friend in Vancouver.”
“The one you’re staying with?”
“Actually, we’re staying at a B&B...”
Until now the guy has more or less been looking down at the pad he’s taking notes on, but now he looks up. I smile. He doesn’t. He looks at his watch.
“Well, you’ve already missed the eleven o’clock ferry. Please drive around to the back, park the car, and come into the building. Bring some ID with you.”
We do as instructed. We’re met inside by an older uniformed official who looks at Miri’s Mexican voters registration card and my Ohio driver’s license.
“You live in Ohio?” he asks me. I wince.
“Well... no. I live in Santa Cruz, California. I used to live in Ohio, but I haven’t changed my license yet.”
Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, he hears a story of a single English man and a single Mexican woman, living in separate countries but travelling together in Canada. One carries an Ohio ID, but claims to live in California. They’re in a Canadian registered car, which is claimed to belong to one Chris Cameron, although the name on the key fob is “Betty Krueger”. When asked how long we’ve been here, I get the dates wrong, claim to have arrived on the 28th and stayed a week, although the current date is the 29th. Not two pieces of our story support each other.
They spend another twenty minutes going over the car, our luggage, phoning the B&B, phoning Chris (who was just about to go and visit Tom), and checking the vehicle registration. Meanwhile, we sit first indoors, then outside on a freezing cold, metal grid bench and thank higher powers that we didn’t get stray into the US border control. While we’re indoors, our position affords us a view of the younger guy by the window. Occasionally a few people trickle from the US side of the border into Canada and the check seems to be very routine. Almost as though the guards know these people.
“Just you and the flatbed? Nothing on it?” the guard asks one mustachioed gentlemen in dusty jeans and a worn flannel shirt.
“Yeah, just me and the dog,” comes the reply as he taps a few keys on a computer and with that he’s off again.
The older guard returns our keys and documents to us and thanks us for our patience.
“I’m sorry we caused you so much trouble,” I say, mostly because I can’t get away with turning the meaning around.
“Not at all, " he replies, then smiles and adds, ” it’s our job.“
With that, we set off down the hill again, when it occurs to me that I still don’t know the way to the ferry. The border guards never did tell us. We stop at a local hardware store and get directions. ”Just turn left at the lights, stay on Highway 17, and it’s at the end of the road."
Just like the map had said.
Later, upon returning to Vancouver and recounting our experiences to a rapt audience, we learn that Point Roberts is little more than 1.5-by-2.5 mile peninsula that juts below the 49th parallel, a quirk of border negotiations between Canada and the US, yet somehow they’ve managed to cram an 18 hole golf course, including a 584 yard par five, onto it. In fact, draw a bit too much on the 14th and it’s going to be an international flight.
With such an expansive land mass to guard against, we must have provided more excitement for our two Canadian border officials than they see in six months. No wonder they were so thorough.
From my previous trip, I remember Victoria as a quaint little town consisting of Victorian wood-frame houses and I had been telling Miri about how small and cute it all was. I’m not quite sure which parts I visited last time I was there, but it wasn’t downtown, that’s for sure. After getting lost several times, we finally found a parking house near the centre that didn’t want a kidney in return for two hours parking and we ventured out. Victoria seemed like many other major cities and I noticed a distinct lack of quaint Victorian wood-frame buildings which I found increasingly difficult to explain away. There are, however, lots of bars and souvenir shops. My favorite has to be the Christmas shop. Nothing but Christmas decorations in a place larger than the house I live in, including fake snow made in, of all places, Santa Cruz, California. I suppose it makes sense. If you spend six months of the year shovelling it, you wouldn’t want to make any more.
Sandy had contracted a cold and could unfortunately not join us for sushi with Ted and Irene. Ted has coined the immortal expression “Real Photographers shoot B&W, drink [single malt] Scotch, and eat sushi” and you understand the depth of his conviction when, handed a menu by the waitress, Ted hands it back with the words “The usual” and moments later gets a five-course meal served. Following the sushi we were treated to a private preview of both Irene’s ladybug collection (you wouldn’t believe some of the things that have ladybugs on them) and Ted and Sandy’s current work for the forthcoming book “Women in Medicine”. Anyone seduced by the digital hype who thinks that B&W documentary photography is a thing of the past is going to have a big surprise.
Miri and I proved to be exceptionally poor guests. After having abandoned Sandy for most of the previous evening, we then proceeded to sleep in so late the following morning that Sandy almost missed us altogether. She wished us bon voyage and we raided her fridge in return before setting off. The weather was glorious and we reached Nanaimo pretty quickly (advertised by BC Ferries as “a fun-filled, energetic centre”), turned left off the four lane highway and pointed Betty towards Port Alberni (which I to this day cannot say without a fake Italian accent; my apologies to any Italians who may be reading this; I blame it on the Olive Garden commercials). There we found a nice little restaurant that served stupendously good pasta and managed to bribe the waiter into taking our picture.
From Port Alberni the road narrows, twists, and turns towards Long Beach. Along the way we stopped at Cathedral Grove. This is one of several “interpretive forests” on Vancouver Island. I was a little unsure of what kind of interpretive services a forest might provide, but it turns out that this is the colloquial for walks with plaques along the way that point out and explain features of the landscape in front of you, in this case, the life cycle of trees. Both Cathedral Grove and the temperate rain forest we visited in the Pacific Rim National Park on the way back are carefully orchestrated exercises in information management. The picture presented is one of untouched, resplendent nature. The reality of Vancouver Island is that originally 70% of the island was covered by ancient forest. It’s been estimated that by 1999, logging had reduced this to something like 30% of its original coverage. While new trees are planted, it’s at a slower rate than the logging and biodiversity suffers in the process.
Having spent a good part of my youth eight kilometers removed from civilization in the middle of a pine forest, it’s not something I feel I necessarily need more of. Yet Vancouver Island is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited on this Earth. Snow capped mountain peaks watch over cedar, spruce, and fir growing on the slopes. As we drove towards Tofino on the Pacific side of the island, we’d come around a curve in the road and more often than not find our breaths taken away by the overwhelming magnificence of it all. A few days earlier when driving up to Whistler for the day we had experienced similar sensations. In fact, the narrow, winding road from Vancouver to Whistler is so staggeringly beautiful you wonder whether they haven’t moved a few mountains just to make it picture-perfect. It’s really a shame that there are plans to destroy the whole thing by widening the road to four lanes for the 2010 Winter Olympics (if Vancouver wins the bid) so that the nouveau riche with bloated luxury SUVs can get to their seven million dollar ski chalets 30 minutes quicker than before.
We arrived in Tofino just in time for the sunset. Being the lazy tourists we are, we didn’t even go into Tofino (other than later that evening after dark, to get pizza) but contented ourselves with renting a room in the first motel we came across. It turned out to be five minutes walk away from parts of Long Beach and so we hiked down to watch the sun slide below the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. It’s something that I took to doing in Santa Cruz during the winter—after a fun-filled, invigorating, and stimulating day of reading excruciatingly uninteresting research papers, I found that it replenished my will to live and rebalanced my soul in a way that few other activities squeezable into a twenty minute period were able to. As we hiked down to the beach we were met by young guy carrying a guitar who, upon seeing us, enthusiastically announced that he thought he’d seen a whale just off the beach. We picked up our pace, but upon getting there, it didn’t look like the kind of place where whales would hang out. Nevertheless, the guy returned a few minutes later, minus one guitar, plus one pair of binoculars, and asked us if we’d seen anything. We made some sceptical, non-committal noises which he ignored in favor of bouncing off down the beach—oddly enough away from the spot where he’d claimed to have seen the animal.
We stayed for about half an hour, me waiting for the sun to illuminate the clouds from below so I could play with a new lens and Miri freezing her arse off. After several pleas of “Just a little longer” and ever increasingly lavish descriptions of how fantastic the light would become in just a few minutes, she finally announced that I’d have to catch another sunset because this one wasn’t going to happen and we set off in search of food and warmth. City girls. Her ultimate revenge comes when I, weeks later, look through the negatives from this trip and discover that her shot of the sunset is orders of magnitudes better than anything I imprinted on silver crystals that evening.
We never did see any whales.
What little we saw of Tofino the previous evening was enough to convince us that we probably were not missing much. Tom had described Tofino as a sort of cold-weather version of a hippie commune, but I gather that that description is at least twenty years out of date. The Tofino we saw consisted of prefabricated wooden houses, all carefully designed to look quaint, supposedly unique (to Tofino), and identical (to every other wooden house in Tofino), but without actually running the risk of offending anyone who’s never set foot outside of Ohio. The experience was reminiscent of Key West: Commercial forces had capitalized on a desirable reputation of off-beat independence, but in the process of turning something into an easily accessible, family-version of itself, had destroyed the very thing that brought people there in the first place. Tofino is, as yet, harder to get to than Key West, but it’s probably just a question of time before the future owners of the tree-filled lots for luxury homes we saw being sold off start demanding a four-lane highway and conveniently placed helipads.
The smaller town at the south end of Long Beach is Ucluelet. Having spent the morning gaping in awe at the temperate rain forest in the Pacific Rim National Park, we decided to head to Ucluelet for breakfast, or more appropriately, lunch. The rain forest itself is an interesting experience. On the one hand, you’re awe struck by the unbelievable diversity of life that exists in untouched nature. On the other hand, you’re walking on a carefully constructed, elevated, wooden path with railings that follows a presumably meticulously designed route—of just the right length and variation—intended to maximize your visual delight, without boring you with uniformity. This cuts like a rude swath of civilization through the thicket, its straight, angular lines in sharp contrast to the organic shapes surrounding it, even its pale wood in stark relief against the rich, deep hues of vegetation below on either side. Transported along this, from viewing platform to viewing platform, albeit by your own locomotion, you’re given an orchestrated glimpse of nature, yet oddly removed from it, constantly cocooned in the safe assurance of not having to actually come in contact with anything untouched by human hands. This is trekking for an MTv generation reared on Discovery Channel documentaries.
Once in Ucluelet, our haphazard approach to travelling is rewarded by the appearance of the Cynamoka Coffee House which served possibly the best paninis I’ve ever had. Their location along Peninsula Road affords a view of the bay below, so we sat by the panoramic window, eating our food and dividing our attention between the view outside and a display copy of a local photographer’s book of black and white landscape photography. After a while a couple pulled up in one of the new Mini Coopers in dark, metallic blue, complete with a Union Jack painted on the roof. I instantaneously develop an intense desire to own such a car, if for no other reason than to provide a counter-balance to the people in California who drive pick-up trucks with 5-by-3 foot American flags flapping from a sawn-off flagpoles bolted to the truck bed. (It’s interesting how behaviour which would get you arrested in Sweden for recklessness in traffic goes celebrated here.) But then, I’d drive a Renault R5 Turbo with the Tricolor painted on the roof and “Freedom Car” along the flanks if I didn’t think I’d get shot at.
We did more, of course. The Anthropological Museum boosted our self-esteem as culturally sensitive travellers, counter-balanced by screenings of Confidence and X2: X-Men, the latter of which we chose in favour of Tuulikki’s suggestion to see Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without A Past—Tom’s characterization of an earlier film of his as “A son shoots his father in the opening minute of the film and it goes downhill from there” had something to do with it.
“Oh, you mean he’s like Lars Norén then?” I ask, referring to the modern Swedish playwrite who makes Ingemar Bergman seem like Sweden’s answer to Robin Williams.
“Good heavens, no,” he answers, “Lars Norén is a well-adjusted, easy-going individual by comparison. You have to remember, Kaurismäki is Finnish.”
While X2 indeed was 133 minutes of Hollywood fluff and special effects, it did have the redeeming effect that neither Miri nor I desired to slit our wrists with existential angst, although I was contemplating poking out an eyeball during some of the more laboriously dense plot points.
Interjected among these experiences were visits to Sophie’s Cosmic Café, Hell’s Kitchen, Kibune Sushi (another Vancouver photographers’ tradition), the Tree Café (which only seemed to have Aussies on its staff), the Vancouver International Tax Free shop that’s actually located in downtown Vancouver (they won’t let you in the store unless you present an airline ticket first), Viva Fine Foods and Bakery, Truffles night café (where the guy serving us stated “I know, you don’t have to tell us” in response to my complementing them on their raspberry chocolate cake), the Aldo factory outlet (where, to our mutual delight, Miri and I discovered that we share an altogether unhealthy interest in shoes, matched only by the look of genuine lust in her eyes when I, a few days later, announce that I have far too many bags and cases), and more than one visit to the gloriously modern-retro styled downtown crépe café located right next door to a leather shop in which I was waited upon by a gay man who took an instant dislike to me, for no apparent reason other than that I tried on probably thirty leather jackets without finally buying one. Some people are so easily upset.
But the most enduring memory from this trip is being able to look up and see Miri’s gorgeous smile whenever the fancy hit me—which was often—a pleasure that I shall have to wait far too long to be able to indulge in again.
Text copyright (C) 2003 by Martin Howard. Photographs copyright (c) 2003 by Martin Howard and Miriam Flores Luis. All rights reserved.