(Em) We were mildly nervous as we waited in the long line for immigration at Vancouver airport – such a fuss had been made about us not having proof of onward travel when we’d departed Singapore that we were fully expecting to be given the third degree, or even to have to buy an onward flight just for the sake of appearances. Halfway up the queue, James cursed the fact that our immigration officer looked the least likely to own a bike and thus the least likely to be sympathetic and we pretty much resigned ourselves to being in the for the long haul… However, all went smoothly and we were waved through with, not a smile exactly, but at least a courteous nod. It wasn’t quite the laid back atmosphere that had greeted us in Australia though, and we had to laugh at the increasingly irate security guard who was insisting that passengers must come through to the baggage reclaim with the rest of their travel party – woe betide if you got split up from the family member carrying the immigration card. Marvelling at yet another cultural change, we made our way through amid much tutting and head shaking to find our friend Laura waiting in the arrivals lounge. It was an excitable reunion – after several years in London, Laura moved back to Vancouver a few of years ago and we’ve only seen her a couple of times since – so there was a lot of hugging to be done before we were ready to head off towards her car and get our first glimpse of the city.
What can I say?! We pretty much fell in love with Vancouver from the moment we entered Kitsilano, the suburban district that Laura call home and which simply exudes understated cool with its quirky cafes, Mediterranean style delis and yoga aficionados. Laura showed us into her pretty, airy apartment and we had a good old cup of tea (the first of many) before heading out for a stroll. Walking around the local neighbourhood, we were further charmed by the tree-lined streets and pretty clapboard houses, not to mention the fact that the sea is right there on the doorstep, accessed via rugged, drift-wood strewn beaches. And the best part is, no one seems to be trying too hard to be ‘cool’; Vancouver is, for the most part, a ponce-free zone, and all the cooler for it! Without exception, everyone we met was friendly and down-to-earth, chatting to us with genuine interest or just going about their day to day business in their own ultra-healthy, happy way! It’s like the perfect town! (Aside from the weather, I guess; it was a little on the chilly side!)
We knew by now that our bikes had survived the crossing from Kuala Lumpur and had already been delivered to the port in Vancouver, but our arrival coincided with a bank holiday weekend so we had a few days to chill out before getting the ball rolling. That evening, encouraged in no small part by Laura who had slipped effortlessly back into English pub-going mode, we valiantly fought off the various stages of jet lag and chatted our way through one beer after another (not forgetting the whiskeys!) before stumbling home to her apartment in the early hours of the morning… Needless to say, plans to go into town the next day to watch the ice hockey on the big screen (James: the Vancouver Cannucks had made it the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their history – this was the first of a best of seven game series. For those who don’t know, ice hockey in Canada is something of national obsession!) were somewhat thwarted when we woke up to discover it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon – the game had started at 1pm!! Whoops! We spent the rest of the long weekend falling yet further under the enchantment of the city as Laura and her boyfriend Tony gave us a tour of the town, and nearby Stanley Park, and took us for a small hike through lush green forest where we enjoyed a packed lunch on a rocky outcrop overlooking an inlet in a deep part of the bay – perfect! Vancouverites really do have an idyllic lifestyle with their picturesque location and access to the great outdoors and, more importantly, they seem to have an appreciation for what they have and the lifestyle afforded to them. We really felt at home and, unlike other places we’ve loved on the trip where we’ve imagined we could live for just a few years, Vancouver had us wondering how we could wangle permanent residency! We’re still thinking on that one…
While we were in Australia, we’d contacted Yamaha Canada on the off chance that they might be able to provide some advice to help us clear our bikes at this end: we’d elected not to pay for freight forwarding with Crown Relo (thinking that surely if we’d managed on our own in Bangkok, Canada would be easy in comparison) but we did have the problem of getting our crates from the warehouse to a location where they could be dismantled and the bikes put back together (unlike in Bangkok, health and safety laws made it impossible to do this on site at the storage warehouse). Well, you can imagine how chuffed we were to get an email back from Yamaha saying that they’d not only get their logistics people to deal with our cargo but they’d also arrange the delivery of our bikes to a local Yamaha dealer for us once the bikes had cleared customs (James: It’s fair to say we were pretty shocked at such generosity. We asked if there was anything we could do to repay them and were told ‘You’ve already done it, you bought a Yamaha’… What can you say to that?!) All we can do is say a big thank you to Bryan at Yamaha Canada! Customs itself did actually take a few days in the end, not that it was a particular palaver but we needed to arrange a soil inspection which put everything back a bit, and it wasn’t until early the following week that Laura gave us a lift down to a local Yamaha dealer where our crates were waiting for us. The guys down there were really friendly and happy to offer assistance (thanks Brendan and Huey!) but all we really required was space so, in a sunny spot out the back, we set to dismantling the crates and getting the wheels back on. Laura was amused by how excited I was to be getting our babies back on the road; (wo)man and machine have clearly bonded for life! It had been nearly six weeks since we’d boxed them up, after all! It was great to get back in the saddle, and we immediately felt like we were on our adventures again – straight away people were waving as we passed, taking photos, or pulling up next to us at the lights to ask where we were from (we’ll be gutted when we’re riding around at home again and don’t get this sort of celebrity treatment!!)
It’s a testament to how much we were loving Vancouver that, despite our eagerness to get back on the road, we couldn’t quite tear ourselves away for another few days. Our affinity for the city only developed further as we visited trendy, historic Gastown (so named after Geordie Jack ‘Gassy’ Deighton who opened the first saloon there back in 1867) and Granville Island with its vibrant farmers market and traditional handicrafts. We were also incredibly lucky to have a boat tour of the harbour organised for us by Laura’s sister Monica through some friends of hers. It was a fantastic opportunity to see Vancouver from an off-shore perspective and once more we were struck by the city’s unique position: a neatly contained urban pocket amid an abundance of green, which seems protected somehow by the mountains to the north and east, whilst its peninsula shape provides miles of picturesque coastline. Our little trip took us further up into the bay, past the bustling port with its huge tankers and cargo ships, and round to quieter, more residential inlets with gorgeous but isolated houses perched on the rocks and where all sorts of healthy, out-doorsy activities could be observed – kayaking, windsurfing, rock climbing, cliff jumping etc. To live in Vancouver, you basically have an ideal holiday destination right on your doorstep which means that weekends can easily be spent on these sorts of pursuits without having to go too far afield. Did we mention that we’d love to live there?!……
Another thing we were enjoying about our time in Vancouver was meeting so many lovely people. Yves and Mike who took us on the boat tour were great company and their sense of humour just cracked us up, plus Yves is a biker too so had lots of tips for us on potential routes in the Vancouver/Washington area. Laura’s family and friends were equally warm and welcoming and many a late night was spent discussing anything and everything under the sun over a glass of wine or cup of tea; to me, it felt a bit like being back at uni again when you stay up all night having in-depth chats and gaining new perspectives from being thrown together with a new bunch of people who aren’t yet bogged down with the practicalities of life. The difference here is that the practical issues– jobs, children, finance etc – are now a part of people’s lives, but don’t become the ‘raison d’etre’, there is still room for dreaming, speculating and, essentially, living. I hope this doesn’t come across as a load of airy-fairy claptrap. We just really did get this amazing vibe during our time in Vancouver and felt that people, or at least the ones we met, really had a good handle on what’s important in life. And it was so refreshing to have real conversations about politics, science, religion etc – we’d met so many amazing, wonderful people on our travels through central and southeast Asia but obviously, with the language barrier, conversations were often limited to what could be conveyed with the help of hand gestures! Needless to say, we were certainly given food for thought and our determination to achieve balance in life in whatever we end up doing after the trip was reiterated by spending time with Laura, Tony and numerous other Vancouverites.
Our time in Vancouver was touched by sadness when we got the news that Pop, James’ beloved grandfather, had passed away. We’d been worrying about him since he had a stroke several weeks earlier, and James had been particularly preoccupied thinking about his family back home and whether he should return to the UK to be with them (you may have noticed, he hadn’t written so many diary entries over the last few months). Getting the news of Pop’s passing when we were so far away was really tough, and in many ways felt, and still does feel, unreal. Riding all day gives you a lot of thinking time and it’s fair to say that Pop enters our thoughts on a regular basis; an avid history buff, it was often with Pop in mind that James would go into historical detail about the places we’ve been when writing for the website, and we had been looking forward to discussing Singapore with him (Pop had served there over a period of several years in the Navy during WW2 so would have been amazed at the change). It’s going to be hard adjusting to a world without him.
Eventually, we had to make a move from our new favourite city – we were already a bit short on time for the US leg of the trip and there were a hell of a lot of miles to cover in the next eight weeks! We sorry to leave, and were hugely appreciative of everything Laura had done for us: we pretty much took over her apartment for a fortnight, ate all her food and drank all her tea… and she seemed entirely happy with the arrangement! It was such a shame that we couldn’t take her out for a ride in the end – the Yamaha dealership had lent a spare helmet and the plan had been to do the much recommended ‘Sea to Sky’ highway that runs north up to Whistler. Unfortunately though, the weather just wasn’t playing ball and we had a couple of days of rain once we’d picked the bikes up (just typical; it brightened up the day after we left!) So, after a sad goodbye to our roomie, and Vancouver itself (it just remains for us to wangle a way to live out there…), we hit the road and began the windy and chilly, but thankfully relatively short, ride to the USA border. America here we come!….
(More photos of Vancouver in our Canada gallery.)