Making the Most of a “Forced Vacation” p2: Avalanche Lake Hike, Montana

The mountains are calling and I must go.” It’s all over the region and really resonates with me. I love mountains. I tried to leave my mountains once. Went all the way to Australia and Taiwan and stuff, but ended up back at their feet the second they called to me. It’s like how some people are sea people (my parents for example: the first thing they did after retiring from serving on Coast Guard ships was buy a waterfront property, kayaks and two sailboats; and unlike most boat owners, they’re actually out on the water at every opportunity), me, I’m a mountain person.

I looked up the quote and it is attributed to John Muir, the Scottish-American nature writer/engineer/botanist/ecologist. If the name sounds familiar, it probably is. He was a key influence in preserving the US west coast’s most well known wilderness areas and national parks. There are a lot of places named after him, especially in California.

Back to Glacier National Park, for day 2, upon recommendation from the great front desk staff at our hotel, we committed to the Avalanche Trail Hike.

Given the limited parking around the trail, we opted to leave the car at the Visitor’s Center and take the free shuttle. We didn’t realize until much later that it was the first shuttle day of the season. Because of that, there were some kinks in the scheduling (it was a fairly long wait to get on the shuttle, then on the way back, there were about 30 of us waiting and about 6 empty shuttles going the wrong direction went by before one finally arrived to bring us back down) but the other visitors were excellent, many were very interesting to listen to, so it never felt like wasted time. Besides, we only wanted to do the one hike so there was no hurry.

The shuttle dropped us right in front of (ok, actually, right across the street from) this sign. As you can see, Trail of the Cedars is a prerequisite to reach the Avalanche Lake Trailhead.

If hiking’s not your thing but you still want to enjoy nature, this is a great trail for you. It’s flat (even wheelchair accessible!), it circles a beautiful creek and there are great information panels describing some of the surrounding trees and plants. It’s a busy trail, but didn’t feel crowded.

There were some kids (with an attentive adult) playing in the creek who informed us that the water is very cold. Also, lots of couples hanging out along the way, enjoying the romantic setting.

There are signs everywhere warning about wildlife and lots of visitors are carrying bear bells and bear spray, but this is such a popular trail this time of year and day that I’d be shocked to encounter anything other than deer and squirrels. We did see this lady (or possibly a fellow, the picture didn’t turn out well but from what I remember it was a mom with a little one playing nearby) searching the forest floor and totally ignoring us.

It doesn’t take long, 15 minutes perhaps, to reach this part.

I must have looked at this sign a dozen times before realizing that it shows a picture of the lake at the end of the trail.

It’s a fairly easy trail with a bit of uphill. We’re out of shape (a consequence of my newfound laziness and refusal to leave my house) so we huffed and puffed, yet along the way we came across countless moms sporting babycarriers (with actual babies or toddlers inside) who hadn’t broke a sweat. One was even carrying TWO babies. Consider me impressed.

This rapidly moving water confirms suspicions of an incline.

One of the things I love about mountain hikes are the lovely rivers. There’s this wildness about them that really speaks to me.

There’s some interesting flora.

This plant has big leaves. See Ed’s hand for comparison.

Most of the hike is through the woods, with cliffs and peaks hiding behind the trees.

I didn’t time our hike, but I think it took us about an hour to reach the end of the main trail.

See it looks just like the pictures on the sign!

I caught the lake from a few other angles as well.

Like pretty much everyone else hiking that trail in late morning (and those who had the misfortune of being in my photo), we picked a log to sit on and eat lunch. (We had talked about bringing our chairs, but there was no room. After the hike, we went and bought Ed his own day pack so that our chairs can improve our comfort in future hikes).

I want to take this moment to talk about the quality of visitors here. I’ve lived in and traveled to touristy places for big chunks of my life and I’ve never seen such exemplary park guests. Our local National Park attracts idiots who get up close and personal to bears (for every moron who makes the news, I would guess there are 100+ who go unreported) while leaving their cars in the middle of the road and their children running around in traffic (especially scary given that there is a lot of reckless driving and speeding happening on national park highways). The National Parks in Malaysia were full of disgusting jerks (foreigners by the way) who tossed their trash everywhere and encouraged their children to feed the monkeys. And for the record, the only thing that pisses me off more that people who litter, is people who litter in other people’s countries. I still can’t wrap my head around how many foreigners I cleaned up after while we were Asia. My blood boils just thinking about it.

Back to Glacier, most of the visitors were families, many of them quite large with 5+ children. I counted one family with 9. While we were waiting for the shuttle, there was a dad with 7 (mom was probably getting a few hours break). And these kids were calm, polite and helpful. Like, to an extent that I didn’t know was possible. No one littered, no one ran off trail, no one mutilated the trees. Everyone looked before crossing the road, everyone patiently waited in line for the shuttle. All around, I saw parents gently teaching their (many) kids about how to respectfully enjoy National Parks. I actually felt inadequate about my parenting skills and I don’t even have kids. Incredible. I don’t know where Glacier finds its visitors, but it’s more than welcome to send some of them our way.

After lunch, we wanted to see the end of the secondary trail (if you scroll back up to the trailhead sign, you can see that there is a darker dotted line and a lighter dotted line, I call the lighter part the secondary trail) so we hiked it to the end sign.

Honestly, not really worth it.

It’s pretty, but somewhat of a letdown after the breathtaking lake scenery.

Too celebrate our rare day of physical activity (gotta replace those burned calories!) and partake in a different sort of tourism, we stopped by Burger King to enjoy their featured not-available-in-(our part of)-Canada dish, the Mac n’Cheetos.

I don’t like Cheetos, but I approve. There actually is macaroni in the Cheetos-like sticks.

More to my style, I later enjoyed a creative cocktail at MacKenzie River Pizza (which is a chain, but still a Montana company with headquarters in Whitefish). IMHO, one of the best ways to end a good day.

I should have taken picture of the cocktail description because I don’t remember what is in this. The specials list in the background is facing the wrong way. It is whisky based with cherry wood smoke (that is actual smoke in the bottle) and huckleberries (huckleberries are a big deal in this part of Montana, everything is huckleberry flavoured).

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Making the Most of a “Forced Vacation”: Going to the Sun Road, Montana

Since the Epic Journey came to an end and I settled down in my house, there is nothing more enjoyable to me than being in my house. Whenever a friend/customer/random person on the street (it’s a really small town) inquires whether I have plans for my days off, I always suppress a feeling of “If I had plans, then it wouldn’t be my days off, dammit“. So when we realized that importing Ed’s car to Canada involved bringing it to the US for at least 72 hours, maybe longer, I was furious. I have to take time off work to leave my house. Uggg. Forced vacation!

Then again, I have always wanted to see Montana. “Home on the Range” was one of my favorite songs as a kid. (I think the song is actually about Kansas, but the images in the lyrics would fit what photos I had seen of Montana. Wouldn’t mind seeing Kansas too, though.)

Willing or unwilling, we eventually found ourselves in Glacier National Park in front of this:

If you look carefully, you can see a road crossing the park map from west to east. This is Going to the Sun Road.

Our first day at the park, we opted to try one of the lesser physical effort attractions (especially for me since I wasn’t the one driving for once), Going to the Sun Road. We were actually quite lucky with our timing. The Road is closed during snowy times and had only opened for the season a few days before.

We started at the West Side Visitor’s Center (actually called Apgar Visitor’s Center). You can line up to talk to the rangers about planning hikes, sightseeing points and stuff like that, but the line is LONG! We just took a picture of the map and left.

The park extends into Canada (but we didn’t go there) which is why there’s a Canadian flag in the middle. Also, person in pink jacket looks very excited.

The road starts off as a pretty but also pretty boring drive through the forest. We even had a “Why is this road an engineering marvel? Our mountain park is so much better than this mountain park.” talk. It picks up, though, and you quickly see how back in 1932, building this road was an incredible feat.

Starting off slow (and this is actually about 30 minutes in), but it gets better.

As the scenery gets more dramatic, there are pullouts where you can stop to take photos. Most of them were packed, but we managed to find a few decent spots.

Most of my pictures are just taken from a moving car with the window down, all of them were taken with my phone. Phone cameras have come a long way since my little Nexus 4. Obviously, not enough for real photography folks, but innocent, lazy me LOVES my phone camera. And despite Ed’s complaining, having him drive was the perfect scenario. When I drive, he’s either deathly sick (apparently my driving is just that crazy) or sleeping. When he drives, I collect nice souvenirs (or proof of holidays, if that’s how you prefer to look at it) to show loved ones (mainly, my parents).

This spot was so crowded. Was very hard to get through. I believe it was also the site of a deadly fall a few days before I type these lines. Remember to be careful when visiting mountains! The water makes the rocks extra slippery and Mother Nature is not merciful.

I like this peak. It’s pointy.

The road behind us.

By now you understand why the road is referred to as an “engineering marvel”

The highest point on the Road, Logan’s Pass feels like a halfway point. It’s buzzing with cars and people, making parking a nightmare. There was also a news crew taking up a lot of space, probably talking about how the Road was now opened for the season.

Before our trip to the park, we had stopped at an outdoors store and bought these 40$ ultra light, ultra tiny, ultra comfy chairs. Best purchase ever! While everyone else was eating stuffed in their cars or on the ground fending off ants, we held our picnic in luxury, totally able to concentrate on admiring the views.

Near me, there was this great sign. They should share these signs with our mountain park.

There are a number of trailheads around Logan’s Pass, though many of the hikes were still impassable due to the earliness of the season. We wanted to make it to the end of the Road and back before collapsing from exhaustion, so we saved hiking for another day.

This gorgeous lake is east of Logan’s Pass.

We did eventually make it to the other side (in case you doubted us)>

A very cool thing about Glacer National Park is that the two sides of the Divide look totally different. The West Side is reminiscent of British Columbia with its big tall trees and rainforest layout. The East Side is all prairie, with few trees and plenty of grasses and short shrubs.

The West Side (St Mary) Park Entrance

See? Totally prairie.

Then we turned around and went back to our hotel. It was a lot of driving, but with plenty of scenery and interesting things to discover. I look forward to bringing my (still unborn, unconceived) children, though I think we would camp/lodge in the park instead of in one of the surrounding towns because doing the Road in both directions, plus the to-and-from the park is a lot of driving.

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Learning To Garden

My mom was an accomplished gardener. Our house sat on half an acre in the suburbs and there were gardens everywhere. Heaping flower beds in front of the house and around the back deck and a vegetable garden larger than my current yard. Her gardens were always impeccably tended and store-bought vegetables were so rare that I actually envied my friends whose parents purchased greens from the grocery store. Weeding and harvesting were obviously part of my brothers’ and my summer chores. Like normal children, we hated it.

Once I moved out on my own, my gardening adventures were limited to the occasional potted plant from the grocery store that survived long enough to need water a few times. Oh, and a basil plant I grew from a seed and harvested regularly for about a year. I gave it away to a friend when I left for the Epic Journey. We don’t speak of it, but since I don’t see the plant in her house, I would guess the ownership transfer did not end well.

It wasn’t until I was working for a farming family in Australia and found myself kneeling in the dirt, surrounded by weeds that I discovered that somewhere in me, buried really deep was an urge to grow my own stuff. Not have a garden (let’s not get too crazy here!), but you know, grow more basil. And tomatoes.

We bought our house too late in the season last year to consider growing anything outdoors. And I was pretty overwelmed from the move and going back to work. And we mostly get our sun in the front of the house. And, most importantly, our lot is tiny. (Well, actually, it isn’t, but the usable lot is tiny.) If we cut away any of it to accomodate a garden, we’ll have like 3 blades of grass left.

So my mom, the ever helpful gardener, send us a book about growing vegetables in containers.

Brilliant! Now I don’t have to rip up what exists of my lawn, I can use the front deck sunlight and I can move my plants indoors when the frost hits! I started paying closer attention to my neighbours as well, and it turns out everyone gardens in containers. One of my neighbours is even so hardcore that she dedicated her entire front yard to wooden boxes. So it turns out that getting beds and planting food instead of flowers isn’t weird at all!

Planting the herbs

I started on my last days off. Ed helped despite having yet to overcome his childhood gardening hatred. The book says to go slow, so we figured we’d start with the herbs we wish we could get fresh.

We bought one of those coconut lined thingies you can hang off your balcony, along with thai basil, cilantro and green onions (yes I know, not an herb).

We had no idea what we were doing – had forgotten the gardening book at home while shopping for supplies – so we filled it with this seeding soil that looked really fancy. We are seeding, yeah?

Then we totally ignored the directions on the seed bag about plant spacing and hoped stuff grows.

Add some water.

Finally, pray. If all else fails, we have a nice decorative pot on our deck.

Taking it further: Planting spinach, garlic and onions

Since this is our first summer trying to grow our own food, we wanted to keep it small. I figured I could grow onions and garlic in a former kitty litter bucket.

I drilled holes to drain excess water. My first drilling experience! We had bought it shortly after buying the house but I never got the chance to use it since Ed always hogs it.

I cut a larger hole in the center, mostly because the book told me too. I think you only need the bigger hole if you’re making a self-watering container but I wanted to be safe… Plus, we might have to make this improvised planter self watering in the future.

All filled up with soil! I did notice that the planter is way too small to grow a useful quantity of garlic or onions, so I ended up planting spinach instead. Apparently, spinach does better in self watering but we do get a lot of rain, so we’ll see if I have to convert the bucket.

I ran to the store to find larger containers for our garlic and onions, particularly ones that could nicely line the front of our deck but the selection was atrocious. Even online, planters that would fit the bill are rare and expensive. Almost feel like my next project will be wood working. But anyway, in the meanwhile, we’ll have to make do with this cool find:

Still a bit small to grow any substantial quantity, but it’s a start. And it looks great.

All that’s left now is to keep watering and hoping, I guess. Oh and composting! I bought a composting bin off Amazon, should arrive tomorrow. It’ll hardly be the giant composting troves of my childhood, but maybe we can make some good stuff for next year.

I doubt I’ll ever reach my mom’s level of gardening proficiency, but it’s a start, right?

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Home Ownership Lessons

We bought a house! How exciting!

Our house! The front already doesn't look like that though. We had to dig up the lawn for foundation repairs, and the stairs were falling apart so we're in the process of replacing them with a deck.

Our house! The front already doesn’t look like that though. We had to dig up the lawn for foundation repairs, and the stairs were falling apart so we’re in the process of replacing them with a deck.

I think I’ve returned to my pre-backpacking weekly routine as well: work 8:30am-ish to 9pm-ish then pass out on the bed/couch/floor, spend off-day 1 staring at a wall, moaning about how exhausted I am then spend off-day 2 cleaning and running errands. I really wonder how people with kids do it. There just aren’t enough hours in the day or enough energy in one body to go around.

But anyway, despite it all, we’re mostly settled in. There are still a few things we need to buy for the house to make it presentable but it appears that backpacking for two years, then getting married, then buying a house leaves you on a pretty tight budget. So we’re getting the house ready one step at a time. One day we might even have a guest room!

Instead of going into details about our house-buying adventures, I figured I’d go with a different format, one of listing wisdoms we discovered the hard way.

1- If you’ve never bought a house before, find a good realtor.
I didn’t know anything about realtors before we accidentally stumbled across ours. He ended up being our guide, our teacher, our house-hunting manager, our advocate and even my therapist whenever the process became overwhelming. I have no idea what we would have done without him. Maybe you won’t be as lucky as us, so call around, interview a few people and find yourself a realtor as awesome as ours.

2- Get a mortgage broker. I didn’t consider one because I was afraid of the word “broker”. By the time I realized the error of my ways, I was knee deep in banks guilt-tripping me for my business. Between foreign investors and a struggling economy, the housing market is tough in Canada and apparently not-too-awful buyers (like me) are a hot commodity. I can’t say no to people, and the tug-of-war between the bank I’ve been with forever (and who was awesome to me while I was overseas!) and the friendly mortgage specialist bank in town ripped me apart. Then there was the difficulty to deliver on our deadlines, the communication breakdowns, the misunderstandings… ALL WHICH COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED WITH A MORTGAGE BROKER. I will, never, ever, ever make that mistake again. The mortgage-induced holes in my soul will forever haunt me.

3- House shopping advice sometimes seems silly in a small town. The one that keeps getting to me is “shop around for a home inspector and don’t use the one your realtor recommends“. Um… and how many home inspectors are there? Our town has one. I suppose if you don’t like him, you can ask the next closest one to make the 5-hour round trip to your house. Shopping around for a house inspector! How quaint! (Luckily, though, our local house inspector is great. He’s thorough, explains really well and makes nice, detailed reports for you. He also got the report to us without an hour of doing the inspection.)

3- A buyer’s market does not mean a cheap market. The average provincial house price in July (when we bought) was 403 666$ (SOURCE: Canadian Real Estate Association) and the median price for our town was 372 000$ (SOURCE: Canadian Real Estate Magazine – can’t make the link public since my town is small, but if someone really wants proof, I haz link). Keep in mind that like 1/4 of the listings for our town are in the various trailer parks, which charge rent comparable to that of an apartment and the roads are so bad you need 4 wheel drive. We wanted to stay under 300 000$ and avoid any condo-type properties that had maintenance fees over 150$/month. Which left us with about 5 houses to choose from. Those houses (and even some of the ones above our budget) all needed at least three of the following: new roof, new windows, new water tank, water damage repair, extensive drywall repair, new retaining walls, new floors, fixtures that don’t date back to the 80s. I remember how much work my parents had to put into their house before they put it on the market. Here, it seems like people neglect their house for 40 years and still expect to sell it for 10X what they paid for it! We ended up finding a house within our budget that had modern fixtures (was flipped about 6 years ago – cheaply, but it’s pretty if you don’t look close and the roof and windows are good), 900 sq feet, 60 years old, 2 bedrooms and an office, 2 bathrooms with nice tubs, gorgeous big open-concept kitchen (clearly the selling point!), small but acceptable yard and 10 min walking distance from my work (yay!). Still, by the time we’re finished the necessary repairs and upgrades to bring it to code, I estimate we’ll have spent about 10 000$ extra.

Our lovely kitchen. Sorry for the ultra-shit photo quality. I've been using my old phone since my modern one died and I took the pictures quickly to send to relatives who helped us afford our house. One day I'll get around to taking pictures with a proper camera.

Our lovely kitchen. Sorry for the ultra-shit photo quality. I’ve been using my old phone since my modern one died and I took the pictures quickly to send to relatives. One day I’ll get around to taking pictures with a proper camera.

4- There’s a lot to learn about home maintenance tools. A power drill? How complicated can shopping for one be? A lawn mower? I know how to mow lawns, I can buy a mower. Vacuum cleaners? Can’t you just buy one for 40$ at WalMart? …I feel like during our first few weeks in the house, we went to a hardware store every. single. day. Getting our power drill took at least 6 trips alone. My parents, who are accomplished DIYers, also picked that time to go sailing to the middle of nowhere, so we were on our own. As time consuming as it was, though, I learned a lot and I’m super excited about my cordless mower and embarrassingly fancy Miele vacuum cleaner.

5- Furniture ends up being very living-space specific. My old apartment was big and empty so I bought a lot of bulky furniture. Getting it to fit in our little house was quite the challenge. It felt like every room was about 1 foot too small. Our bedroom is 1 foot too small for my dresser (we crammed it in anyway, the door just doesn’t open all the way anymore), the guest room is 1 foot too small for a full sized bed (I think we will squeeze one in anyway…who needs closet access?), the living room is 1 foot too small for my couches and desk (again, crammed it all in, it’s, um, cozy) and the office is 1 foot too small to comfortably fit a nice chair between the futon and Ed’s desk (which is actually my kitchen table that we didn’t manage to cram anywhere else). I’m getting used to it now but moving in day was quite flustering.

6- You realize how times change and that your kids won’t have the same experience as you growing up. For barely more than the price of my down payment (not taking into consideration inflation, of course), my parents bought a long bungalow on a half acre lot with 3 bedrooms on the top floor and a basement that they eventually finished to create 3 more rooms, a den and a large playroom. Growing up, we had so much space to play and run around! There was even a forest behind the house to build forts in once we were old enough. My kids won’t have that. Yes, I know, for over a year I was around people who spend their lives in one-room houses with 3+ generations of their families. However, those kids have entire neighbourhoods or villages to run around in, here you can’t let kids outside without supervision until they’re too old to run around. Plus, people in one-room house cultures tend to watch a lot of television (at least the ones who have electricity). Really, a lot. The minimalist fantasy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m noticing that my narrative is getting more and more negative. I think, though, that it’s less me being a downer and more me coming to peace with the fact that home-ownership for me won’t be what I observed with my parents 30 years ago. There are advantages to the small house – cheaper utilities, less maintenance and cleaning, less urge to buy stuff. Even once we have kids, perhaps having them play in the main room will be a good thing. It’ll be easier to supervise and clean up after them. Maybe living in close quarters will bring the siblings closer together (though that never worked on my brothers when they shared a room). We also have a super nice park not even 300 meters down the road to give us something to do as a family several nights a week. Plus, we’d like for our kids to attend bilingual school (English and Chinese – I figure it’s best they learn Chinese as early as possible so they don’t have to spend all their money on language schools in Taiwan like me) which means we’d have to move to the city in 5-6 years anyway.

The best thing about having our own house, though, is kitties! Ed’s cat Rock seemed lonely. I know you’re not supposed to project human emotions on cats, but he loved my parents’ cats (and by loved, I mean loved to torment) and shows interest cats outside as well as friends’ cats. So once we were settled enough, we adopted a kitten. He seems a little confused, I suppose it’s the first time he meets a cat who isn’t afraid of him, but they seem to get along ok. They take turns playing with toys and chase each other up and down the stairs in the evening. One time I even saw him let the little one give him a walk-by grooming lick.

Here they are, sharing a window.

Here they are, sharing the front windows.

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The Journey to Being an Adult

With youthful wandering around the world completed, it’s been time to grow up and start adulting.

So I found a job.

Then I got married.

We haven't received our official photos yet so I stole this one from someone's Facebook.

We haven’t received our official photos yet so I stole this one from someone’s Facebook.

Then I packed up and moved across the country (or back home, depending on how you want to put it). I switched car registrations, insurance, all that good stuff.

Now I’m looking to buy a house.

Honestly, the transition from overgrown-quarter-lifer to lives-like-a-grown-up happened so naturally that I didn’t even notice it until the other day, after a morning and afternoon of talking with my bank, sorting our car stuff, visiting houses and playing with my wedding ring, it occured to me that, man, I’m a long way from lugging my backpack to Australian surf camp. Before I know it, I’ll be doing something even more adulty, like researching day cares and stuff (no, don’t worry, I’m not pregnant!)

On Getting Married

It’s funny how Ed and I spent like 14 months putting ourselves in bizzare, stressful situations in exotic, far-away lands, yet planning a wedding was way more testing on our relationship. Maybe it’s just that we had lots of time to figure out how to backpack together but by the time we felt we understood how to wedding plan as a couple, it was over.

Neither of us are big party type people, so we originally just did it to please our families. In the end, though, I think it was worth it. It was special, after all, to have our families and some close friends with us to celebrate saying our vows and taking this step in our relationship. Plus everyone (except my parents and the people helping out) came from out of town (Ed’s brother came all the way from Taiwan!), so it was a solid three days of shuttling people to and from the airport and partying till all hours of the night. Going to bed at 4 am and waking up at 8, too excited to sleep any longer. Looking back, the days before and after are blurry but happy, and the wedding itself was a lovely evening.

After planning a wedding, I think I understand the meaning of tradition. Tradition is for when you don’t care enough about something to come up with a personal way to go about it, so you have something to fall back on. For example, you don’t care about the structure of the dance portion of your reception. So you look up traditions thinking “well, what will everyone expect?” I’ve never been one for traditions, but I’ll admit they helped us poor non-big-party-people a lot with the stuff we couldn’t make up our minds on!

Also, in case anyone is wondering, our outfits are authentic. Ed is wearing my family’s kilt (and socks). The rest of the outfit was rented from the kilt maker’s shop. My dress is a qi pao (pronounced chi pao – I have no idea of the tones), made by a professional dressmaker in Taiwan. It was the best wedding dress shopping experience ever. I showed up without warning at an artist’s tiny workshop in Taipei. The seamstress took my mesurements, asked a few questions about my preferences and took my money. Three weeks later I had a gorgeous custom-made dress for my wedding. (And if anyone was wondering whether we felt any glee at the thought of perhaps upsetting some disturbed internet slacktivists by appropriating each other’s culture, the answer is, yes, yes we did.)

On Moving and House Hunting

Once the wedding was over, well… once I recovered enough from my pwvs (post-wedding-viral-syndrome – where after being exposed to germs from all over the world while your body is way too exhausted to use its immune system, you get really, really, really, REALLY sick), we packed what belongings we had with us into our cars and drove for 8 consecutive days. I had planned to camp along the way, but I was still too sick from my pwvs for that to be an option. Even in warm, dry motel rooms, my constant, violent, barking cough seriously interfered with my sleep. The worst thing, though, about being sick during a cross-continent drive? Not being able to sing in the car. Now that’s torture.

Otherwise, the drive wasn’t too bad. We had to do it in seperate cars (which, given how badly I was coughing, was probably a blessing to Ed), but we had walkie-talkies to stay in touch.

Nova Scotia has a lovely but not scenic highway. New Brunswick had awful roads, AWFUL, but the drivers were pretty nice. Southern Québec was perfect. From Montréal northwards, the scenery was great but the other drivers were assholes. Like, they go out of their way to be assholes. Northern Ontario was boring as heck, empty one lane highways through the woods with speed limits of 90 km/h. That’s really freaking slow.

Around Thunder Bay, the scenery gets better. We had to spend an extra morning in Thunder Bay getting Ed’s windshield replaced. Luckily, the company we found was awesome. Like, highlight of our trip awesome. Epic customer service. Thunder Bay as a whole was a pleasant surprise. I’d always been prejudiced against that part of Canada, but everyone was so outgoing and kind, and the areas surrounding the city are so beautiful that I’ve definitely realized the error in my ways.

Then once you hit Manitoba, the highway opens up to two lanes per direction, the speed limit rises to 100 and it’s smooth sailing. Regina has shitty traffic and poor highway layout, Saskatoon had sketchy speed limit changes (we were super careful but we’re still fearing photo-radar tickets showing up in our mailboxes) and Edmonton’s roads are all ripped up for construction, but outside the cities the drive is boring but simple. Also the stretch of highway between Regina and Saskatoon is unexpectedly pittoresque.

Since arriving in town, we’ve been living at a hotel. Everyone takes pity on us, although it’s actually pretty nice. We get big, seperate beds so that I don’t bother Ed while coughing up my lungs at night, someone cleans our room every day, breakfast is served in the morning, I get unlimited baths and the shower is fantastic. However, the costs aren’t exactly conducive to saving for a house…

The house shopping, to my greatest surprise, has proven to be extraordinarly fun. It was intimidating at first because we were worried about saying the wrong things, offending someone or getting ripped off, but as we figured out how the game worked, I discovered I loved playing it. It’s so exciting to visit homes and discover what you like and don’t like about potential living arrangements. We also visited a few owners selling independantly, which was a great learning experience, and, as I found out, a lovely way to meet interesting people (sadly, though, these people are moving so we’ll probably never see them again). After visiting a few of different price ranges and, um, levels of habitability… we fell in love with a house. So now, it’s the pre-approval waiting game with the bank to find when we’ll be able to make an offer.

On Looking to the Future

Soon the next step to live as an adult is starting work. I’m nervous, but looking forward to it. After two years without commiting to a regular schedule, I’m ready to get back in there and try again. I’ve taken extra courses and read up on potential projects so I’m quite eager to jump in. I’m also really looking forward to getting involved in the community. I’ve already resumed hanging out with dogs and cats at the SPCA (and dragged Ed along with me!) and I’d like to volunteer at the local Learning Center with ESL students. Maybe actually get some use out of that TESOL!

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Returning from an Epic Journey

It is done. On March 19th, 2016 at about 10pm local time, after almost 20 months of happily wandering the world, I crossed the border into Canada. The following evening, I reached my parents house. I’ll be calling it home until I go back to work.

VIew from the bedroom. Mother Nature had to pick the day of writing a blog post to be ultra shitty. When the sun is shining, the view is way nicer.

VIew from the bedroom. Mother Nature had to pick blog post writing day to be ultra shitty. When the sun is shining, the view is much nicer.

Since last time, we backpacked through Cambodia, which was great. The country is really just one pleasant surprise after another. We saw so much awesomeness and potential there. Like in every developping country we visited, I was continuously frustrated at how all these good people are stuck with such shit, corrupt governments. (If there’s anything I picked up on the trip, it’s a deep, deep hatred for corruption and poor ressource management. I know there are a lot of factors at play in why some countries fall behind in development, but I feel like the obvious common denominator is that there’s a handful of greedy, incompetant assholes who have all the power. Reduce corruption at the top, develop solid way of distributing ressources and quality of life will improve dramatically.)

After Cambodia, we spent 10 days in Tokyo. Amusingly, our digestive tracts HATE Japan. We travelled carelessly through so many unsanitary developping countries with only rare discomfort, yet ultrahygenic, superclean Japan had us clutching our bellies and howling in pain for the entirety of both of our visits there. I was less affected so I loved Japan anyway, but Ed made me promise to never let him go back.

Shibuya Crossing! The light was red, which is why there aren't that many people. But other than commercial hotspots like this one, I found Tokyo to be actually quite calm. (Granted, it WAS the dead of winter!) Our neighbourhood in Sumida even had a small town feel. If you arrived there blindfolded, you'd never guess you were in the most populated metropolitan area in the world.

Shibuya Crossing! The light was red, which is why there aren’t that many people. But other than commercial hotspots like this one, I found Tokyo to be actually quite calm. (Granted, it WAS the dead of winter!) Our neighbourhood in Sumida even had a small town feel. If you arrived there blindfolded, you’d never guess you were in the most populated metropolitan area in the world.

On our flight back to the US, we were able to stretch our layover in Hong Kong out a few days. To me, Hong Kong looked like Singapore, if Singapore let itself go for, like, a decade. It seemed like the city was build up in the 20ish years following WWII, and then never touched again. I was still fascinated and would have happily stayed for a week. We were rushed, trying to explore the city, learn about its history and eat its famous food in just two days. It’s expensive, though. Even the cheapest, shittiest rooms were above 40$CAN (and Hong Kong shitty is shitty. Probably safe from crime and pretty clean, but in scary, decrepit buildings, with rooms so small you can’t even get the door open.) Our interesting discovery in Hong Kong is that locals like foreign food so much that it’s actually hard to find traditional Hong Kong restaurants, and even harder to find ones you can afford. After it was too late, an avid traveller friend of mine explained that the good places are like on the 10th floor of an unmarked building, so if you want to taste Hong Kong, you have to ask the locals.

The view from Victoria Peak is really nice, although not exactly representative of the bulk of the city! Stingy traveller tip: avoid the silly overpriced tram and viewpoint, take the super cheap city bus and get your photos from the shopping mall's free observatory.

The view from Victoria Peak is really nice, although not exactly representative of the bulk of the city! Stingy traveller tip: avoid the silly overpriced tram and viewpoint, take the super cheap city bus and get your photos from the shopping mall’s free observatory.

After walking around all evening trying to find a Hong Kong restaurant, we settled on McDonald's Hong Kong exclusive meal, the Crunch McPepper. It was even Kung Fu Panda themed! Unfortunately, unlike most region-specific McDonald's foods, this one wasn't quite as good as it looked.

After walking around all evening trying to find a Hong Kong restaurant, we settled on McDonald’s Hong Kong exclusive meal, the Crunchy McPepper. It was even Kung Fu Panda themed! Unfortunately, unlike most region-specific McDonald’s foods, this one wasn’t quite as good as it looked.

And on March 1, we arrived in the US. The flight was uneventful. Cathay Pacific was a comfortable airline with excellent in-flight entertainment. Between watching the full 10th season of Friends and drifting in and out of sleep, I didn’t even notice that I was crammed into a plane for 15 hours.

In my mind, my time in the US was going to be boring and relaxing (to me those words are often synonyms), but it really wasn’t. We had Ed’s immigration and move to worry about, and wedding planning, and my job hunting. I did get a lot sleep in the beginning, but the days were full of researching stuff, making invitations, visiting friends, packing up belongings, shopping for things we couldn’t get in Canada, and fulfulling obligations to Ed’s family. It was pretty fun, I really can’t complain! But it certainly wasn’t boring! The closest I’ve come, even now, to picking up gaming again is catching up on silly Farmville-style phone games.

In my down time, I've been hanging out with the cat. He got kinda fat while we were gone (just like us!), but otherwise, he seems alright. Even the 3 day drive from Ed's parents' house to mines followed by an introduction to two new cats didn't ruffle his feathers too much.

In free time, I’ve been hanging out with the cat. He got kinda fat while we were gone (just like us!), but otherwise, he seems alright. Even the 3 day drive from Ed’s parents’ house to mines followed by an introduction to two new cats didn’t ruffle his feathers too much.

These days I’m still working on the job hunting. There isn’t a huge rush on it yet since I don’t want to start until after the wedding (it would be bad form to ask for a week off to get married within the first two months of a new job), but I would like to know where I’m going so I can start planning the move. The main ideas right now are up North (my first choice – it’s a unique adventure, but the jobs are rare and the move will be annoying), begging for my old job back (great location, great team, great money, lots of improvements since I left, but no new experiences) and hospital job in rural Newfoundland (not the Arctic, but still an experience I’d enjoy, easy to drive to from where I am now and I really want hospital experience. The pay cut is steep, however, more than half of my previous income. It would be fine if I was 15+ years into my career, but after travelling for two years, I feel like I have to save back up before I can stop thinking about money.)

And then there’s wedding planning. It was really frustrating while we were on the road. I didn’t want to think about decorations, caterers, cakes or even colours! But things are slowly coming together. It’s an ultrasmall (pretty much immediate family only, so dear friends, please don’t be hurt), nontraditional ceremony and reception, which helps with the last minute stuff (getting food and accomodation for 30 is infinetely less complicated than for 300!), but I feel until we have everything squared away, I won’t rest easy. All of our guests (besides my parents and the hired help) are from far away, so I want to make sure they have a good time. And, as adverse to traditions as I am, I have to admit that I am excited to party with our families.

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Back to Backpacking

In the last 10 days, we’ve said our goodbyes to our friends in Taiwan, filled up our backpacks again and have been making our way through Cambodia.

We decided to come to Cambodia instead of flying straight home because, well, I have to admit it, I had a ton of malaria pills to use up. I’d originally planed to include Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Timor-Leste (all malaria endemic countries) in the epic journey, but ended up with a much needed extended stay in Taiwan instead. Given that Malarone isn’t cheap, I felt heartless letting it go to waste. So I insisted we add another country to our journey. Out of our options, Cambodia was the most appealing, and so here we are.

I knew a little about the country before researching it. Incredible ruins, recent genocide, little development, beaches. Then I read some. Good forests, good rivers, good islands, more ruins. Fantastic! I love nature! (Ed, on the other hand, is picky about his nature, but perhaps added exposure will get him more used to it?) I booked our plane tickets and started researching a place to say in our first stop, Phnom Penh.

I didn't get any pictures of Phnom Penh proper, so here's the entrance to the National Museum.

I didn’t get any pictures of Phnom Penh proper, so here’s the entrance to the National Museum.

Discovering the Rumours

Reading accommodation reviews, however, had somewhat over a sobering effect. It seems like every guesthouse or hotel had at least one review along the lines of: “our bags were snatched/we were robbed and this is how they handled it….

Um, what?

One thing we noticed early on about South East Asia is that, despite widespread poverty, theft is pretty rare. We never heard any direct stories of thefts, only the occasional “friend of a friend of a friend with bad luck in Kuala Lumpur/Manilla/Bangkok”. In fact, we were stunned at our first bus station in Thailand to see locals plug their phones into a wall of the waiting area and leave it as they went to the bathroom. On occasion we saw ladies leave their purses on benches and walk away too. Over the next few months, we saw plenty of tourists leave their cameras on tables, wave big stacks of bills or walk around with their wallet/phone/passport hanging out of their back pocket. While we would never do or recommend doing such things, it seems that taking what doesn’t belong to you isn’t really part of the general mentality.

It was crushing to read that Cambodia sounded far riskier than anywhere else we’d been. The more I researched it, the scarier it seemed. Bag snatching reaches epidemic levels, everything’s a scam, local rich kids pick fights with everyone, drinks are drugged, the expat community is comprised solely of drunk, violent pedophiles, etc. We were starting to regret our decision!

The Reality

We landed, terrified, in Phnom Penh and rushed into the first taxi we saw, not remembering the fixed price. We were too unsettled to worry about overcharging! I did looked it up after. Our driver actually didn’t overcharge us, and he did a great job.

Our guesthouse was in the central part of the city, but on a small side road. It was quiet and the shady common area had tropical design, comfortable seating and gorgeous plants. The building was secure and guests lounged about happily. Not a bad start.

The first few times we explored the city, we jumped at everything, constantly looking around for bag-snatchers on motorbikes. What we saw, however, were plenty of tourists walking with their phones out, their massive cameras and their flimsy, easy-to-grab purses. Never one to wish misfortunes on others, I was still reassured by the thought that if opportunists head our way, they’d be distracted by these giant targets.

And in the end, really, our fears proved to be greatly exaggerated. The city had beautiful architecture (I think Manilla has really made me appreciate other South East Asian cities), service was pretty good and people felt genuinely friendly.

Sunset dinner cruise on the Preak Piphot River

Sunset dinner cruise on the Preak Piphot River

10 days in, it feels like we’ve been hopping from relaxing place to relaxing place. I happily chilled for a few afternoons in the common area at our Phnom Penh guesthouse working on my TESOL papers, while Ed was recovering from a meal his stomach didn’t agree with. Even though we lazed around a lot, we still managed to see everything we wanted in the city. Then, without much effort, we found ourselves remote village of Chi Phat, enjoying the river, admiring farm animals, sleeping the afternoon heat away in hammocks and sipping delicious yet cheap cocktails. And now we’re in Sihanoukville, in our ultra comfortable hotel room, enjoying the fantastic service and tasty food. Shortly, we’ll be heading to our bungalow on a deserted Koh Rong beach.

In past countries, backpacking felt like an endless circle of get on the bus-get off the bus-find our guesthouse-go to the park-go to the museum-get back on the bus. Cambodia, on the other hand, has been more like smooth drifting from place to place.

I suppose a difference is that the country is relatively small and has relatively few cities (and, for the museum junkie that I am, relatively few museums!). By now, we’ve also had a lot of experiences (we’ve been to spas, we’ve visited rustic villages, we did the resort thing, we’ve learned about textiles, UXOs, tea, we’ve ridden in tuktuks, songthaews and overcrowded vans, we’ve seen temples, mosques and churches), so my urge to “SEE ALL THE THINGS” doesn’t overwhelm me like it used it.

While I am ready to get back to real life, I feel like this calm, relaxing backpacking journey is the perfect last hurrah before the hectic grind awaiting back home.

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