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Wild Wild West … Welcome to Vancouver Island

Posted by on August 10, 2013

20130810-124646.jpgWhen we first worked out our round the world trip itinerary, the original plan was that we would ‘do Canada’, starting on the West Coast in Vancouver Island and working our way east, including the train ride through the Rockies and staying with relatives as we went. You see, not only do I have loads of relies in Australia, there’s also quite a few in Canada as my Mum’s parents emigrated to Canada in their later life. From Vancouver to Toronto, Windsor and right over to Nova Scotia the family dynasty stretches. As it was we never did this and the Canada part of the trip strangely become more about Britain and going home than Canada!

A London connection….
It’s in Nova Scotia that my aunt Pippa lives with uncle David. Pippa and David played a vital role in my life. When I was 18 I went to study fashion design at the London College of Fashion. David, a colonel in the Canadian army had just been given a posting in London. It came with a swanky flat in St John’s Wood. I lived not far away, in Kentish Town and Camden and really struggled during the years I was there. Looking back, I think I was depressed and the college was a hard, snobby, expensive and competitive place to be for a northern lass with no money. I didn’t fit in. During my school years I had been bullied for being posh and having a locally famous father; at the London College of Fashion I was ignored as a common northerner nobody. It taught me a lot about not judging people by exteriors.

My London student life all changed for me when I got involved in student politics and started to have a more normal student experience which my 9 to 5 course at LCF, a place which then (until I became the student union president) had no social facilities and no social life, had not been. But until then Pippa was my saviour. I would stay in their flat most weeks. Her and David looked after me, mothered me. We laughed, talked and we argued about politics and the world, me filled with my new found Green zeal and radical politics. I still miss them now years later. Getting to see them in Nova Scotia has been high in my list ever since. This trip would make it happen.

Just soooo big…..
But, alas all good plans and all that. Traveling the width of the world’s 2nd largest country would cost far more money than we had. In fact, as we had run out of money at one point we thought we wouldn’t make it at all until Pat received a surprise tax rebate. So instead we decided to stay out west and then fly to the USA East Coast for a few days, finishing in Philadelphia staying with Cousin Charlotte and her family. Having so many cousins I can’t count them (my Mum one of 7; Dad was one of 12; catholics) has really been amazing on this trip. As I would make contact with cousins I hardly know, I would often smile recalling a story another cousin told me. He is a musician, previously touring a lot. His band were playing a festival in Bradford so I popped down to the front of the stage to ask if he was there. He told us that the band laugh about this. “Wherever we go people always come up claiming to be your cousin” they exclaimed. “Yes” he replied “and the thing is, they all are!”

So it’s family out west first….
So plans are made for us to go and stay for several weeks with my cousin Susan and her 4 daughters in Duncan, a small town on Vancouver Island. Also there are more cousins on the island – Peter and Fran, and my aunt Frances.

Strangely, we are actually related on my Dad’s side but there’s a neat tie up. When my Mum’s parents left Scotland for the UK, she stayed behind with 2 of her sisters including my aunt Dinny who we stayed with in Australia. Before Dinny left Scotland for Australia with her archaeologist husband Bill, she had been really good friends with my Dad’s brother Mickie. Mickie decided to leave the UK and the only people he knew abroad where my mums parents in Canada and Dinny in Oz. Susan told me that he hadn’t decided which country to go to, just what day he would travel. The day he chose the boat went to Canada; had he gone the day before it would have been Australia….

A ‘small’ island …
We arrive on Vancouver Island by boat from Seattle. When sorting travel plans I was a bit mystified about how Susan didn’t know much about the various ferry options to the island. We had assumed it was just a commuter island for Vancouver itself. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The size of England, it’s very much it’s own place and pretty much self contained. It’s too far to commute to Vancouver, unless you have a float plane which, to our delight, were really plentiful there.

Victoria, the capital, which is on the southern tip of the island, may also be the capital of British Columbia (a historically strategic move to keep it with Canada), but most visitors seem to be tourists. Right at the bottom there is a Point Zero where the Trans-Canada highway starts. Finishing on the east cost just short of 5000 miles later, it’s one of the worlds longest roads alongside the Trans-Siberian Highway. I would get to know part of it very well, driving it almost daily. Americans like Victoria as they think it’s very like Britain. It’s a really nice city, a population about the size of Bradford, with a beautiful waterfront but, of course, to us, it felt more American than British. But you can get afternoon tea in the main hotel, the Fairmont Empress, or queue with the hoards of tourists for fish and chips on the harbour. For once Patrick didn’t want to try them. Our trip could have been called Pat’s global quest for decent fish and chips. Time and time again he would be disappointed – from Turkey to Thailand; Australia and New Zealand. By Canada he had finally learned his lesson. They may be fish and chips Jim but not, coming from Yorkshire, fish and  chips as we know them.

It’s also a very beautiful island covered in forest, just on the 49th Parallel it’s about level with France and has a climate similar to northern France. Its main industry is logging. On a day trip to the weird Botanical Beach – which has all these rock formations that look like the moon – we passed huge swathes of hillside that had been logged, leaving just very messy ground behind; the logging companies are supposed to clean up and plant more trees. Driving around you are constantly passed by huge, very long logging trucks stacked high with precious wood being taken off the island.

In Canada you buy the land and then build our own dream house. You can even literally move house!

In Canada you buy the land and then build our own dream house. You can even literally move house!

Houses are huge, made of wood and houses next door to each other can be quite different. We walked through a new housing estate in the process of being built. You don’t buy the house like the in the UK; instead you buy the lot and then build your own specification house on it. Perfect I reckon. My cousin lives in a house she calls a ‘BC Box’. Loads of them around she says. It’s upside down with the living room and kitchen on top. She says it’s small; we point out that our entire house would fit in the living room.

Much of the land, like much of Canada, now belongs to First Nations bands (or tribes). The First Nations land we saw tended not to be built on so loads of the island has been left as mountainous, forest or ragged beaches. Duncan, the town we stayed in (population just over 40,000) calls itself City of Totems and there are totems places around the town centre. We particularly loved the sign on the Duncan section of the Trans Canada Highway that said “Turn left for totems”. Sadly, Duncan may be small but like many other north American towns there is precious little going on in the town centre; everyone shops at the huge shopping areas at the side of the Highway. Duncan is very low rise and very spaces out. On our last day one car journey was taken up with a most amusing conversation about Duncan’s tallest building. Susan’s family was convinced there’s a 4 story building somewhere but for the life of them they couldn’t think where!

A family home…..
So we settle into life at my cousins. As well as Susan there’s her 4 daughters, two teenagers and two girls 8 and 10. Also staying is Kim, a 9 year old Korean who has been living at Susan’s for 5 months. It’s a common set up in Canada where students from Asia come and live with Canadian families, go to Canadian school. The day we leave two Chinese student arrive. Kim is a really lovely girl and I am very taken with her. Very quiet, she only really speaks with her completely fluent English in a broad Canadian accent when spoken to. She loves it in Duncan but I can’t help feeling what a lonely experience it must be. Me and Patrick are feeling very homesick whilst there; my heart really goes out to Kim. One day there’s a real clash of cultures moment. Kim wants to do something but when Susan asks what she seems almost physically incapable of telling her. Her mouth moves and there’s a mnnmmm sound, but it doesn’t open; in Korea children do no speak to make demand of adults. Susan though just wants a straight answer from her so she can plan her day. “Kim, I’m not a mind reader” she says “just tell me what it is you want”.

Schedules play a big part in our lives in Duncan. With an incredibly busy life – work, active involvement in the church, kids activities, home schooling for all four girls – Susan manages this by being exceptionally organised. Many schedules work on a weekly cycle, activities and events, and food which is also always served at the same time each day. They all also get up really early; I regularly tell Susan its too ridiculously early! She never stops and is often out or on the phone to friends till fairly late, then up by 6am! When we arrive I just assume that as Susan is a member of my extended family she will be quite laisez faire and a bit haphazard. I don’t think we realised how much me and Patrick would disturb the family routine. They were all too polite and kind to say.

On our first morning we, like the lazy sods we are, drag ourselves out of bed about 9.30, which is slightly early for us. We find breakfast laid out for us on the table, a plate piled high with pancakes as its Wednesday. I laugh looking at the plate saying to Pat how we’ll have trouble eating that many. But we make a good inroad into the pile, taking ages as we check Facebook, generally pass time without a care in the world. It’s only later I realise one of Susan’s girls was waiting till we had eaten to tidy up breakfast, too polite to ask us to hurry up. By the time we finish it’s not far off lunch which is 12pm each day. They were also all too polite to mention that the pile of pancakes was so large as it was also tomorrows breakfast, now sitting in our bellies! We will be ever grateful to the whole family for letting us disturb their routine so much.

We join in their activities. On our first full day Susan so kindly takes us to see a performance of Singing in the Rain which we love. Its at the theatre in a local town. Signs welcome you to the “World famous Chemainus”.  That evening we stay with the kids at a scouts and guides event. Something called pot luck (which we’ll go to a few of) where everyone brings something to eat and vegetarians generally end up eating bread – sorry I’ll stop being catty now but I don’t think vegetarianism is that well understood on Vancouver Island! We watch a ceremony where kids move up a year. We overhear a child say she is 6, can she move from Cubs to Beavers? Patrick whispers to me, “I’m 45, can I move up to beavers too?” We watch Kelly, 15 or 16 years old and moving up a rank, do a totally unwitting excellent impression of Perry or Kevin as she physically moves between groups. Clearly teenagers are the same the world over.

Church plays a big part in the lives of everyone we meet in Duncan. Susan’s family sing grace before each meal; towards the end of our stay she asks if we have learned the song yet. We just smile.


Bizare but ace things we never thought we would do – staffing a fairtrade stall at a blue grass event in a field in Canada

Susan’s oldest is also fundraising whilst we are there for a trip to Bolivia she is taking with a whole group of other young people from the church.  We lend a hand. Pat takes part in a fundraising golf event, his only second game of golf since we left the UK; I’m supposed to be helping with organisation but there is nothing for me to do so I sit and read and wait for them to come back. I am asked to go to a bottle drive (or boddle drive as its pronounced there), going from house to house collecting old pop (or pawwhhp) bottles. It’s a heat wave and even at 5pm boiling hot. I turn up for duty but luckily I’m not needed. We also agree to help out at family blue-grass event but on recent track record I’m expecting another easy evening. This time there is a job for us. Me and Pat ended up in the hottest part of a field staffing a fair trade coffee stall. We loved it. We met loads of people – from a scouser Man United fan who is now a teacher and wanted to talk about Moyes’s appointment, through to an Austrian couple who had lived in Brighton and came to Vancouver Island for the Steiner School, to a bloke who had lived all over the world and wanted to share stories of Asia. We loved it; one of our best nights in Duncan. The dancing is just like a ceilidh, the same dances, just to blue grass music. Patrick, of course, refuses to dance.

It wasn’t our only great night or time out. Quickly we become part of the furniture and Susan so generously shares her friends with us. We host a BBQ for Susan’s friend Naomi and her family. By this stage me and Naomi are laughingly calling ourselves BFFs on Facebook; I know that had we stayed in Duncan we would have been as thick as thieves. I hope life enables me to spend time with Naomi and her family again. We go to another BBQ at my Cousin Peters. We are just sad we will miss his wedding to the lovely Tanya whose grandparents come from Halifax in August. We go to waterparks and the river with the kids and my aunt Frances and her two boys.

Looking after kids…..
The day after Kim left, Susan also left for a week, going to ‘the interior’ to work for a week, up in First Nations mining country. As agreed before we arrived, me and Pat are left in charge. More than a little nervous at first we soon settle into a routine and we actually have a fabulous week. The girls are so easily to be with and look after. I get up early and do the breakfast shift, sort meals, ferry kids around. Patrick cops for lifeguard duty, watching the huge above ground swimming pool we helped put up and which took 3 days to fill. Watching it fill reminds me of the waterbed I used to have which burst not long after me and Pat met. But that’s a whole different story….

It’s a heatwave and the kids love the pool. We get to know their friends and try to be as strict as Susan would be but, I fear, fail miserably. The youngest is a wonderful girl but likes to push it. I tell her sternly not to imagine because I laugh a lot I’m a pushover. She just smiles knowingly at me, clearly disbelieving, until I tell her one evening about 6.30 no, she cannot have a friend over now to make peanut cookies! Me and Pat fall in love with all four girls. We relish getting to know each of them and their differences. We discuss baking with the eldest; I go shopping with the next one us both enjoying Duncan’s mystic shop. I listen avidly to another as she excitedly tells me about her day and we love they youngest’s singing and guitar playing. I have an exceptionally proud moment one evening when I know my work is done as I overhear one tell another they need to look up something “on the t’interweb”.

The girls’ entrepreneurism astounds us. Used to working for their pocket money, one day I am asked by the two youngest if its OK to set up an iced-tea stall at the end of the drive. My management head kicks in – what about food hygiene rules? They say they often do this. I say OK and me and Pat laugh scornfully to ourselves thinking it’s a plan destined for disappointment – selling tepid iced-tea and melted wagon wheels on a quiet cul-de-sac. Guess who’s laughing an hour or so later? With a mark up of 600% on the biscuits they make over $33 dollars in less than a couple of hours. Roll over Alan Sugar and Donald Trump. I tell them to make their young apprentice application straight away.

We take the two older girls on a day out to Victoria. We go in Susan’s 3 row people carrier van and all is easy till I decide to park in a multi-story car park, forgetting that we have a massive roof box on the top of the van. I’m all giddy as I pull in to the car park. Next thing I know a parking attendant comes running out of his little booth so fast you cant believe as I literally stop the car just inches away from smashing the box open on the carpark roof. I cause grid-lock trying to reverse the van. We later tell Susan about the near miss and she laughs, in return telling us about a friend of hers who had put several top quality bikes on the top of their car, forgot about them and drove into the garage…..

We get to know Naomi’s kids who are older than Susan’s a bit too. I think they quite liked the fact that we are so linked into British culture and things they love but which are so distant to them living where they do – like explaining references in Arctic Monkeys songs or my tales of how I once stayed at Mark Gatis’s flat….. They are all talented. We particularly loved watching one of them enter Duncan’s got Talent, taking joint first place with his musical numbers. He was ace. We, in turn, were so tickled to go their house for a meal and find a full scale, working genuine Bat Mobile!

But mostly about going home…..
So as we live this life which in some ways is very British – but also so very different to our own, it being a small town and a community based around a church – much of our headspace is taken up with coming home. We now realise that it’s time to sort the final date to finish our trip. We realise we can’t ‘do Canada’ and decide instead to just go to Vancouver, and New York and Philadelphia before heading home. We spend hours sorting the best and cheapest flights, trying to find couch surfing in New York to save money. We surf AutoTrader looking for cars as we will need to get a new 2nd hand one when we get back as ours is no more.

We ask our friends if anyone can help put us up when we come back. We are inundated with offers and we are so touched and amazed. Because life in many ways in Duncan seems so familiar we get very, very homesick. One night I found myself crying at night, sobbing my heart out thinking about all the wonderful friends we have at home. We see everyone posting clips from Glastonbury on facebook which we can’t watch and follow the different views about the Stone’s performance. We spend a morning listening to the Wimbledon final and I cry and feel stupidly British and proud when Murray wins even though I don’t even like tennis. Both of us feel ready to go home and had we been able to we might have just gone straight back to the UK much earlier on.

It could have been the fact that we were around so many different kinds of families that made us so homesick. One reason we wanted to spend time in Canada was to spend some time with my aunt Frances. Frances is an amazing woman who has adopted and fostered children all her adult life. She currently has two young boys, both First Nation heritage and wonderful kids. One has physical disabilities.

As you will know by now our own story is one centred around adoption. And it was the toll that an adoption approval process took us on that was the major cause of our deciding to go on this trip. The process is hard and we were bruised. One aspect we found so tough was that it was an entirely negative process for us. At no point did we have any discussion about the positive aspects of adoption, or until the end about us as potential adoptive parents. It was just all about all the things that ‘will probably’ go wrong. Add into the mix also issues about dual heritage adoptions and difficulties of this. You can imagine how difficult this had been for both of us, but particularly Patrick as a person of mixed race adopted into a white family. Spending some time with Frances was really important to us, being around someone who is so positive about adoption and takes issues of mixed heritage families in her stride. Patrick probably wouldn’t admit this but I loved seeing him bond with Frances current youngest. He became a role model very quickly, I think the child just loved being around a man who looked like him. “Grandma, can I have a beard like Patricks” he asked on more than one occasion.

The unwelcome travel companion….
Now for reasons which will become self evident, there is another part to our global tale which we have not made any reference to so far. This particular story first comes to our attention in Singapore on the 1st April at the very posh Marina Bay Sands hotel where we have huge mirrors in our room. I tell Patrick that I have a really sore mosquito bite on my bottom. I have a look in the mirror and it looks very red and very much like a bite. I’m not worried unduly that it’s so painful. That has been par for the course for me. I react really badly to bites and the pain is terrible. A couple of mosquito bites and I feel like I’m on fire and have to take pain killers and anti histamines. That’s why I have insisted on mossie nets wherever we went. So painful as it is, and it is, I just get on with enjoying the hotel’s infinity swimming pool and we have one of the best days of my life.

But the itch doesn’t go away. In fact gets worse, clearly the bite is infected. Throughout Australia I stop sleeping, waking most nights in agony and unable to get back to sleep. I take pain killers to get to sleep and use various skin creams to get temporary relief. But its not getting better.

When we get to New Zealand I decide I need to seek medical help. Our host at the work placement suggests honey. Now Patrick often calls me honey-bun. In New Zealand I start putting organic honey on my bum at night. Night times were a nightmare at the workplacement  and to add to all the other problems I have to contend with a sticky arse. Patrick literally says I am now his honey-bum. I don’t laugh. I go to see a nurse as it’s far cheaper than a doctor. She thinks it’s a non-infectious infected spider bite and I am prescribed a course of antibiotics which I duly take. The spot doesn’t go away; neither does the pain. By the end of our time in NZ the pain is getting worse and we agree I need to seek more medical help before we go to the USA. I make a doctors appointment this time.

Patrick comes with me but waits whilst I see the doctor. He takes a look, asks me about the pain and confidently diagnoses. I am horrified. It can’t be I explain. I’ve been with Patrick for over 5 years. I have tears in my eyes. He explains that it can be transferred childhood or be dormant for years before heat can bring it out. I say I need him to tell Patrick that. So poor Pat is called into the consulting room, looking more than a little scared. What is the doctor going to tell him? I cant help but shout out Tubs Tattsyrup way almost as soon as Pat walks in  “He thinks I’ve got herpes!”.

I’m prescribed a month long course of anti-virals and told not to worry about infecting places we stay; you can only pass it on through skin on skin contact. I’m told I’ll have it for life but pills can help control with any flare-ups. I start the pills. Of course they make no difference. I try to stay stoic. I am thoroughly ashamed at the diagnosis and worried I’ll have this pain for ever. Patrick is brilliant. We call it my “Steps” (as in H) and we try to make a joke of it. I try not to think about the long term, instead thinking about just managing the pain. By this point I am totally used to sleeping in small single beds with a variety of creams, anti-bacterial wipes and liquid, and painkillers under my pillow.

The worm that turned…..
By the time we get to Canada the pain is just as bad. But Susan has a large mirror in her bedroom so I take the opportunity to look at my evil, nasty thing. Fucking hell! Its got huge, and its right across my bum in a big red streak. Trembling and in tears I say we have to go and see a doctor. This appointment will mean I’ve seen a doctor in 4 continents!!

So I pay my £50 or so and I see a doctor in Duncan. He is rather unconventional. He spends most of the time looking things up on his iphone and he gets me to bend over and takes a photograph of my arse to show me. “Its definitely not herpes” he says. My sigh of relief can be heard in Nova Scotia. “Its a tropical worm!” He prints me off some pictures from the internet. Turns out it’s a worm that I will have picked up on a beach and it is moving underneath my skin; the red marks are its trails. Some of these worms can move up to 1cm an hour! It’s totally non infectious. I’m actually rather sanguine about it and find it quite funny. And apposite. He tells me the name of a drug but says its not available in Canada – I’ll have to buy it over the internet. Only 3 pills and it will be gone. I rush home, order the drugs. I’m told it will take 3 weeks or more to arrive. Every day I check the post; no drugs. The pain gets worse. I cry more at night. Wormy is having a right good old time leaving trail marks all over my right bum cheek!

When we leave Duncan for Vancouver the drugs still haven’t come. I decide I can’t take any more. I find an expert in tropical worms in Vancouver and he confirms the diagnosis. He tells me not to worry and it could be worse. The day before a man came to see him. He’d been on holiday in the Caribbean. His children had buried him in sand to his neck. He had crawling larvae all over his chest and back! The doctor diagnoses some cream which he says will kill it in days. So over 4 months after I remember seeing the marks for the first time, and about £250 worth of treatment later I finally get the drugs. The worm dies within days. The first drugs I ordered turn up at Susan’s the day after.

Life is short – go for it….
Whilst we have been on our travels hearing terrible news about friends being very ill has been something sadly far too prevalent. We’ve been incredibly upset, worried for people with very serious illnesses. In New Zealand we had a family bereavement. Whilst in America we heard about another sudden death in the extended family. The most shocking, though, was some news I received through facebook.

For the last year or so I have followed someone I knew from the Green Party on his trip around the world, mainly on boats. I can’t claim to know Matt that well but we kept in touch electronically and I remember many good conversations and chats with him at Green Party events. When we were in New Zealand we had a Facebook chat – we were both around Auckland at the same time and we nearly managed to meet up. But alas we missed each other by a few days. He would be going off on a sailing boat from NZ to Oz and we would head to South Island.

Whilst in Canada on Facebook we heard the dreadful news that the boat Matt was on had disappeared, all the crew missing, presumed dead. For several days Green Party members kept each in touch. It looked very grim and after a couple of weeks with no wreckage found, the coast guards called off the search. Matt was just 35.

It’s just not possible to hear news like this and for it to not make you think about your own mortality and also about the decisions we make in life. Matt’s decision to go traveling the world, after being an active politician and senior in the Green Party, will have influenced my thinking about travelling as I’d watched his progress. I’ll never forget one post which really stuck with me. He was somewhere like Panama and he put up a post asking should he finish his trip or start a new phase of the trip somewhere new? Loads of us said carry on. I loved his posts, seeing where he was, making the most of life.

It was the same for us. The idea of travelling first came about because Patrick was kind of offered some work in Marbella in Spain, which never in the end materialised. When we told people about it about half the people we spoke to sucked their teeth and made very discouraging noises. Are you sure? What about the Spanish economy? How sure is this job and company? But when we said we would just give up our jobs, with no income, and go traveling the world, no one sucked, they all said how wonderful and to go for it.

That’s been one of the most amazing things. How supporting, envious in the nicest possible way and admiring people have been about our decision to go on this trip. Sometimes we have asked were we just stupid; most people have said no, brave. All these thoughts were going round and round our heads as the trip was coming to an end and we started to prepare to come home.

But first, we had the matter of what we began to think of as a little holiday in Vancouver and the East Coast of the USA……..

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