Feeling Gravitys Pull

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 1, 2010

EVER since this blog started nine months ago, one part of the home page has been flashing orange, asking for one simple piece of information – the date it all ended.

For months it remained untouched because there was no end date. The day we arrived in New York was set in stone, but that wasn’t absolute zero.

That little piece of stamped paper in my passport, obtained after much explanation, a lot of form filling and one endless day sat in the confines of the American Embassy in London (give me a day on the pot-filled road from St Petersburg to Moscow any time), enabled me to stay in the USA until mid-November.

All that, plus explaining it all over again when we re-entered the States in Washington and, fortified by a good few beers, at Niagara, was not going to waste, so the plan was to stretch that final date out as long as possible.

And putting up a date would have been too much like a full stop. The end of this adventure. A bloody great stop sign in this new, much-cherished section of my life. Putting a finishing date up seemed like cutting that off, the end of this life, the return to normality and whatever comes next.

Don’t bother looking for that bit of orange text. It’s not there anymore. Finally, after a couple of weeks back in the UK – having returned just before the need for that infuriating visa actually kicked in – the question this site has been asking for months was answered by the flight home

It’s not as long in the States originally planned or hoped for (the visa will just have to be used sometime before it expires).

If that original plan was still in operation, it would probably have taken me to the west coast again now. Or exploring some small town in the south, explaining exactly where my ‘pur-etty’ accent comes from and why Wales isn’t really a part of England. And almost certainly watching baseball.

But coming home is not the full stop it originally seemed. More of a semi-colon – breaking up one part of my trip and laying the ground for the next part of an ongoing tale.

The next few months could have been spent clocking up even more miles in America, to go with the many thousands clocked up on the bus/train/boat/Green Tortoise in the previous 13 weeks.

But it began to dawn on me, quite early on after branching out from the safety of the trip family, that stretching this single trip out for quite so long would have ended with the largest, most abrupt of full stops imaginable on this odyssey.

The bank balance would have been exhausted, the credit card bill would have been out of control and travelling overkill could well have set in. There would have been little alternative than to return to the daily grind, both for financial reasons and to get some grip on reality.

Not that it has been easy coming back. Still living out of the same rucksack and, with my house still rented out, relying on the kindness of others to put me up, being back has been totally disorientating. It still is.

There’s a strange feeling of being out of place, out of time, out of synch with everything and everybody.

From a world inhabited by like-minded souls, be it swapping gossip and kit on the bus or swapping tales from the front line in a New Orleans hostel, it’s back to a world that doesn’t belong to me any more.

People’s lives are going on at a different pace, in a different direction and it’s hard to fall into place.

The closest is that lost feeling after coming out of a relationship, where your idea of normal has been skewed and there’s a constant sense of something missing. Well, apart from the urge to listen to a load of miserable, introspective music – at least, no more than normal.

I’ll get there, it’s just taking a little bit of time. And I’ve got no intention of shaking off the wanderlust. Not yet.

A few days back freelancing in the old office have helped get some semblance of normality – and helped to pay for the seemingly endless trips to the bar which go with this carefree, not working life – and, hopefully, more of the same will help to keep the bank balance in reasonable health and chip away at the credit card bill.

But the long-term plan is not to answer the oft-asked ‘what now?’, but ‘where now?’.

That earlier than originally planned return from the States means never reaching a point where the desire to travel, explore and generally get to know people and places all over this world was quenched. And there’s still enough money sat in that bank account to pay for another trip. For now.

So that’s the plan – or at least the fledgling part of one.

Having headed out to New York this time, top of the options list at the moment is another epic trip, this time veering south east after central Europe and ploughing on down through Asia and on to Australia, ending up in Sydney.

From there, well…. who knows? There’s always the option to get sensible and return to the daily grind, but we’ll worry about that when we get there. The plan has changed, been ripped up, recycled and tweaked so many times in the last month or so, who knows what it will look like by the time some form of decision is needed?

So top of the agenda, with some form of income needed in the meantime is to work out exactly what comes next.

The first couple of weeks back have been largely looking backward, editing the blog, collating an album of pictures from the trip and a variety of reunions – Nick (who lives here, of course), Mike (who also does now), Julie and Gerda, Dave, Pam and Phoebe (who I’d already been reunited with twice in New York) have all made it to Cardiff in the last couple of weeks.

And while more of that remains on the To-do list (yep, that old pre-trip favourite has returned and is breeding), it increasingly involves things throwing my life forward. Earning money stands near the top of the list. Just below not spending too much of it.

But there are a couple more items of business to settle before this blog gets consigned to the past).

First up is the next entry in which the Green Tortoise gets swapped for a little white Pontiac and I head out onto the wide open roads of the USA.

Then it’s time to sort out another date – the start of the next trip…

Next time: Life In The Furnace with John ‘Cougar Soddin’ Mellencamp

NB This entry originally appeared on the original version of this blog on another website (www.travelpod.com if anybody wants a simple way of cataloguing their own travels), which includes the start and end date mentioned in the opening paragraphs.

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The Carnival Is Over

Original posted on London to New York blog, June 22, 2010

New York, New York

WHO would have believed that arriving in Manhattan would provide something approaching a return to normality? The city that never sleeps as the place to kick back, relax and draw breath?

But after 94 days, 21 border crossings, six birthdays, two May 10ths, one rampaging bug and temperatures ranging from about minus 10 degrees C below to up in the 90s, we have arrived in New York.

And after 13 weeks living in each other’s pockets, we are having to adjust to life on our own again.

New York
End of the line – Toasting arriving in New York (well, Jersey City over the Hudson) with Phebes

Well, almost. There are still seven of us staying in the same hostel and there’ll be a select gathering in Boston at the end of the week, but numbers are gradually dwindling.

The first overland trip from London to New York is over. We are out on our own again, left to plan our own travels, our own destinations, our own futures – which, in my case, means working out just what to do next.

Don’t worry, there’s going to be no musing at length about my options (although if any travel editors or anyone looking for freelance writers stumbles across this…).

But having given non-committal answers (or long, rambling ones that don’t really address the question, depending on how many drinks have been downed) to any questions about my future over the past few months, the time is drawing near when some sort of plan emerges from the vague outline in the back of my mind.

Not yet though. For a little while longer at least, the USA is my backyard to explore.

And having gone through the rigmarole of getting an American visa, it would be churlish not to use it.

The Bean
The Chicago skyline (and me in there somewhere) reflected in The Bean

It lasts until mid-November, although the chances are the Atlantic will be crossed well before that.

But between now and then, there’s a lengthy stop in Boston to join in the July 4 celebrations, toss some tea about and cheer on the Red Sox.

After that it’s a bit sketchy, although a road trip down to Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans and, possibly, Austin, Texas, is on the cards before the coast starts calling – just haven’t worked out yet whether it is back to the east coast or head on west to spend some more time in the cities we flew through on this trip – San Francisco, Seattle and, maybe, back over the border to Vancouver.

But that’s all in the future, this blog is supposed to be reporting on what has already happened – starting with the fight to remove the smell of cheese from our laundry in the small town of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The good news is the smell appears to have gone (not that you want to unzip my laundry bag to find out), but the bad news is the impact the whole drama had.

The second wash and several cycles in the dryer to dispel any lingering cheese odour stranded Phil and myself in town long after the bus had gone back to the park.

It all meant a very pleasant, if hot, walk back through the suburbs wearing sandals which don’t really fit me properly and are more often used for short journeys to the shower or around the bus.

Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, Chicago

The end result was that while Phil was racing the children of New Ulm to be first into the open-air pool when the lifeguard returned to duty, the huge blisters which had appeared on the soles of both feet were attracting my attention.

Just what you want when the next day’s task is to cover as much ground as possible around Chicago in little more than 12 hours and more of the sweltering temperatures which have accompanied us over the last week or so (tomorrow’s forecast, up to 96 degrees C).

Patched up and joined by Phoebe, Pam and Nick, we headed into the centre of Chicago from the suburb of Lincoln Park – via the lovely Nookies diner where Phebes and I were left debating whether that was Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody on the adjacent table.

The rest were not much use as they had no idea who he was, but Phoebe claimed the sighting as genuine and as we split up to do our own thing, there was an extra little spring in her step.

My step was not quite so bouncy but, with the help of the open-top tour bus to eat up some of the miles, managed to cover a fair amount of ground.

Four years ago, on my first visit Chicago didn’t really rate that highly on my road trip – it was all a bit too concrete, stifling and vertical.

But its charms began to seep in a bit more this time.

John Hancock Tower
Cocktails on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Tower

Millennium Park has undergone a bit of a facelift (and provides a perfect setting for a break from sightseeing, even getting me to experience a bit of open-air opera) and the whole lake front area buzzed with activity.

A little too much activity by the Shedd Aquarium where free entry had drawn two-hour long queues which ended plans to visit what memory tells us is a must-see, but at least getting off the bus saved me from the breakdown which stranded Julie and Gerda on the top deck.

The initial four Chicago raiders reconvened on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower for a quick cocktail before coming down to earth or, more accurately, under it for a few rounds at the Billy Goat Tavern.

Made famous by John Belushi in a Saturday Night Live sketch and a curse on the Cubs baseball team, the bar has few frills, even fewer niceties and was once the fabled hangout of the Chicago Tribune’s sportswriters. My kind of place.

Enlivened by the tavern, we headed back uptown and, via a brewery pub and dingy blues bar we stumbled back onto the bus for another night on the road.

Canada
World’s second biggest country. Just in case you missed it.

We awoke somewhere in Austenburg Ohio for a quick breakfast in a Waffle House ahead of a complete contrast to the previous day, a lazy afternoon on the beach and swimming in Lake Erie before heading to the banks of the Allegheny River in Pennyslvania to set up camp.

It provided the base the next morning for our final bus clearance and kitchen clean before the final sprint to the finish, accompanied by a flurry of card signing and form filling as we rolled into Niagara Falls.

Having been to the Falls before and instantly impressed, the underwhelming reaction from several travelling companions a little strange, even when we’d walked over the Rainbow Bridge into Canada to get the more spectacular view of the Horseshoe Falls.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled over the past three months and have come to expect a little bit too much from places.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Don’t expect too much from the town on the Canadian side which is a neon explosion of casinos, tacky tourist traps and attractions – like Blackpool if it was modelled by Americans. Phoebe loved it.

But we did find one dive bar to belatedly toast Freddie’s 19th birthday freed from the drinking laws across the border, although what the American immigration staff thought of us as we crawled through our final border in dribs and drabs is anyone’s guess.

Somehow they let us all through and we settled down for our final night drive, waking in Jersey City on the banks of the Hudson River, complete with the classic vista of the Manhattan skyline for the obligatory end of tour pictures.

And that, pretty much, was that as the group began to fragment – some taking the ferry across to Manhattan, others riding the bus to the hostel with the bags and then heading to wherever they were staying.

Those of us who opted for the ferry, meandered our way to the hostel via a Times Square brunch and waved goodbye to Freddie – the first of the gang to leave as he jetted back home in the evening.

Times Square
Times Square marks the end of the trip

The rest of us reconvened in a Times Square bar for one last supper as more goodbyes were said.

And one by one they peeled off until, just after midnight, left alone playing darts in an Upper West Side bar with drivers Lukas and Charlie and life outside the group became a reality once more…

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Where Did You Sleep Last Night?

Original posted on London to New York, June 6, 2010

Arcata, California

IT has always been a mystery why scriptwriters insist on using people’s birthday recollections as ways to introduce important plot details about their past.

Countless films or television series use a major character revealing something that happened to him on their 13th birthday which has shaped the way he feels about God/clowns/Battenburg cake or the early works of Simon and Garfunkel.

Apart from the fact that it is a lazy piece of writing, it is difficult to identify with if you struggle to actually remember past birthdays.

Yes, there was the one (my 10th?) when large chunk of my front tooth was smashed out while climbing out of a swimming pool.

Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday from Phebes

And my 18th, sandwiched on the day between my sister’s wedding and my first A Level, sticks in the mind.

But very few others – even my 21st is a bit of a blur, think we might have had a barbecue in the unfinished extension – remain distinct, although  several of them (dependent on age) were definitely spent in The Brunswick or Dr Fosters in Gloucester or The City Arms or O’Neills in Cardiff.

My 40th, however, might just stick in my mind a bit longer (once various details have become clear due to pictures and the testimonies of eye witnesses).

It began sedately enough, curled up on the back of the bus in Seattle, listening to Nirvana. Yes, it is obvious, but hey, when in Rome. Or Seattle.

But let’s rewind to find out how we got from a campsite in Banff to snuggled under my sleeping bag in the shadow of the Space Needle in Seattle, listening to Kurt Cobain tear his voice to shreds.

Banff
The view down the mountain-ringed Main Street in Banff – First time I have seen it without piles of snow

Having experienced a couple of bitingly cold winters in Banff (contact lenses frozen to shades, anyone?), it has always been a place on the list to go backto  in the peak summer season and after a couple of hours wandering the familiar main streets, it certainly comes with a very different vibe.

It remains a very pretty little town, but the tourist trap feeling kept slightly in the background during the ski season comes right to the fore and smacks you in the face.

Want anything practical, or even something cold to drink without going in an expensive bar, and you are out of luck. Want a T-shirt, a cuddly moose or expensive trinket with Banff plastered all over it, your luck is in.

The Fudge Shop also needs better signing, judging by the amount of Americans who wandered along shouting “where’s the fudge shop?” to their compatriots across the street.

Via a brief stop in the ski town of Revelstoke, we hit our pre-night drive stop Kelowna, which holds more of the vibe from those previous trips to Banff, more real people in real, relaxed surroundings.

Kelowna
Waiting for a bus in Kelowna

They do, however, need to brush up on their comedy after our meal was interrupted by a comedy night which consisted of a bunch of students swapping tales which must have seemed hilarious late at night after a few ‘cigarettes’.

Originally unable to drag ourselves away from the car crash in front of us, we eventually found ourselves a comedy free pub, albeit plagued by the concoction that is Clamato Juice (yes, that really is tomato juice with added clam) poured into lager.

Phoebe’s weirdo magnet, whichattracts the more bizarre clientele of any bar over to us, kicked in again as Donald – who appeared to have been taking his cigarettes a bit too strong – explained his theories on life, the universe and coffee.

We finally crawled back onto the bus to hit the road and begin a whistle-stop tour of major west coast cities – Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco – inside five days.

That itinerary has prompted some disquiet in the group as we were in and out of three major ports of call so quickly in favour of more time spent out in the American wilderness.

Vancouver Exchange
Not quite sure how the Scottish pound is at a different exchange rate in Vancouver

There are reasons – the sheer logistics of getting across the States for starters – and the National Parks are simply stunning and do justify the time spent there, but as we have rolled out of each city, the overwhelming feeling has been that we have not come close to seeing all it has to offer.

That was certainly the case in Vancouver where our first hostel since Anchorage provided a much-needed opportunity to catch up on some laundry.

Instead of exploring what appears to be a vibrant, fun-loving city without too many airs and graces, much of the afternoon was spent fighting for a place in the queue for the washing machines – although Nick, Mike and I did manage to get out on foot to explore Gastown (think a scruffier Greenwich Village in New York) and get lost in a shopping arcade.

We did at least get a proper night out in the city and a group of us headed out to have the curry we had promised ourselves for some time.

Vancouver
Let off the leash for the first time in a few nights in Vancouver. Chaos inevitable.

Not sure it was worth the wait, but a fun evening was had in a local bar amid the randoms.

But far too soon, certainly far too early, the next morning we were back on the road to Seattle and our final major border crossing.

Remarkably, most of our border crossings have gone very smoothly and this was no great delay, but there was a slight anxious moment as the border guard asked for a few documents not to hand (return flight details for starters) and being the only one on the bus with a full US visa became a handicap.

It wasn’t a major problem, in the end she got fed up and waved me through, but if anyone from US Immigration does stumble across this, perhaps your different offices should get their heads together.

What they said at the US Embassy in London was at odds with what they came up with when on arrival at Whittier (when they were convinced the visa in my passport was specifically for preachers), which was all completely different from what they wanted heading into the Lower 48.

USA Border
Welcome to America – The not altogether welcoming border at Seattle

There’s no return flight because there’s no return date. There’s no return date because, until actually in the US, there’s no way of knowing 100 per cent how long they would allow in the country, whatever it said on the visa. London, and all guidebooks and expert advice, said one thing. At the border into Washington, they said another.

Having reached Seattle, we parked up under the Space Needle, caught the monorail into town and wandered around Pike Street Market, which even a confirmed non-shopper like me could have wasted hours in.

But the high spot of the last day of my 40th year was our evening trip to Safeco Stadium for baseball.

It was, to be honest, a pretty awful match. Seattle Mariners are fairly dreadful and the LA Angels are not, waltzing away with a 7-1 win which was never really in doubt.

Baseball
The starting line-up at the baseball in Seattle – Guy in front less than happy at beer spillage over his son

But a good time was had by all as the cold descended, including confirmed non-sports fan Phoebe who was less than impressed that her giant bag of popcorn was sweet and not salted.

And so my 40th year came to an end, back on the bus listening to Nirvana – my actual birthday managing to span three states as we crossed out of Washington overnight, breakfasted in Oregon and careered into California and the Redwood National Park.

Having trekked into the trees in the afternoon and spent much of the day chilling out, we headed into the town of Arcata in Humboldt County – the acknowledged pot capital of the USA – for birthday shenanigans.

After a bit of a false start via the only quietish pub in town, we stumbled into a rammed dive bar off the town square and it all began to get a bit hazy.

Space Needle
Space Needle, Seattle

There was Guinness, tequila, Jager-bombs and other alcoholic delights passed my way. They were downed. After that, details are hazy.

As with the previous birthday party on this trip, there were repercussions, but more of that next time, when we’ve worked out exactly what happened.

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Teach Yourself Overland

Originally posted in London to New York blog, June 5, 2010

APOLOGIES for the lack of updates in the last week, but there has been very little chance to write or file copy as we careered south through Canada and into the United States.

Normal service should be resumed in the next few days, but until then here’s the Unofficial Abridged Overland Dictionary – designed to provide outsiders (see Randoms) with the slightest idea of what we are talking about when they bump into us.

200 metres – Measurement used by Phil to describe the distance from the bus. New Zealand metres are obviously a lot longer as the walk, laden down by gear, is invariably considerably further than 200 metres. 

Bag Explosion – The phenomenon which ensures that, however hard you try to keep your stuff together on the bus, your belongings will end up scattered all over the place, including ones you have never been (see Phebes; see Tortoise Orbit). 

Bag Party – The long-awaited moment when everybody’s main bags are unloaded from the luggage hold to give full access to the stuff you only think you need. Some will not wait for the party and take every opportunity to get their stuff out (see The Oirish). 

Bear – Creatures we have either been trying to avoid or desperate to see (depending on whether we have been out walking or on the bus). Or large, bearded Kiwi. 

Bear Bells – Worn by hikers on their bags to scare off bears – or to irritate their fellow travellers. The same walkers are also likely to carry pepper spray to ward off bears. Local joke is that you can tell black bear pooh because it is full of fruit and gopher fur. Brown bear pooh is lined with bells and pepper spray. 

Bear Bin – Secure metal bin used to store food when camping to prevent Yogi and his mates getting at food. Anything that smells must be kept in the bin when not in use (that’s toiletries and stuff, not my socks, a pair of which were forcibly wedged outside the window in Anchorage). Failure to do so can end in death – either for a camper who has attracted a bear into camp or for Yogi as bears who get the taste for human food are routinely shot. We received a slap on the wrist from Mr Ranger, Sir, for leaving out beer cans. 

Bigger Than Jesus – Nickname for Marlo, the world’s coolest man (inevitably shortened to Jesus). 

Buddy Check – System which ensures everybody is on the bus before we head off. I have to check Mike and Marlo are on board. Nick cheated and picked Phil (tour leader) and Matty (the driver) as we ain’t going anywhere without them. Not sure who, if anybody, is checking I am there. 

Clam – Officially, a type of sea creature used to make a Canadian drink called Clamato Juice (inexplicably drunk by Phil in a pint of lager). Unofficially, schoolboy sexual innuendo.

Crème Brulee – To be said in as posh an accent and loud a voice as one can manage (think Kenneth Williams crossed with Stephen Fry). Ordered by Freddie in such a voice in restaurant in Juneau, just before he got hit by the stomach bug (see What the bloody hell is going on?; see Rothschild). 

Cubby Hole – Only sleeping place on the bus which will not result in somebody standing or leaning on you during a night drive. Underneath the two tables halfway down the bus, originally thought to be dark and uncomfortable, now much sought after.

Cwtchy Coo – One of several contributions from the ‘Welsh’ contingent. In its simplest term, a description of a pretty young lady. In more vulgar form, a description of what would happen if any of us were to get together with said young lady.

Day Bag – Small bags containing essentials, designed to prevent constant raiding of the luggage hold. Supposedly the only things we have on the bus with us. Yeah, right.

Dippy Eggs – Fried eggs with enough runny yolk to dip bread into. Americans would call them Sunny Side Up, although runny yolk should also be available from eggs cooked Over Easy.

Drunken – Early nickname for Duncan, possibly deriving from slip of the tongue. Stuck because it was strangely apt.

Drunken Lords – Early description via Google translate from Spanish to English of Mike, Nick and I on Enrique’s blog. Not sure if the Spanish version is more or less polite about us.

Frangipani – Much-hyped hair treatment at the spa during the cruise. Or nickname for Fran. Not sure how we managed to have a nickname three syllables longer than her actual name. 

Fuck No – Phrase beloved of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he a) spoke; b) joined us for a few drinks (see Fuck Yes; see Marius). 

Fuck Yes – Companion phrase for Fuck No uttered by Martins (not to be confused with its unofficial brother fuck yeah, which he never said) (see Fuck No; see Marius). 

Green Tortoise – Our transport throughout Canada and the USA and bed for much of the last five weeks. Company formed in 1973 so do not believe any passing hippy who wanders up and says: “Oh man, I rode the Tortoise back in the 60s…” 

Growler – Evidently some form of beer container belonging to Jane which has gone missing on the Green Tortoise. Her constant pleading of “has anyone seen my growler?” met with schoolboy sniggering. 

Has anyone seen…? (also Where’s my….?; also Have you got my passport/wallet/camera/hairbrush?) – Plaintive plea from Phoebe as she attempts to find whichever item of hers has joined the list of her belongings which have been strewn around the bus (see Bag Explosion; see Tortoise Orbit). Followed by looks to Phil, Nick or me to see which of us she entrusted said item to sometime in the last 24 hours. 

Kenny Thomas (abbreviation, Kenny) – Named after obscure singer Kenny Thomas’ solitary hit single Outstanding and used when something (see Dippy Egg) has reached that level. Quite possibly Nick Machin’s finest contribution to the English language (only serious competition coming from Dippy Egg). 

Juggasoraus Rex – Direct steal from The Inbetweeners. Best used to describe when Pam’s cleavage almost caused me to go blind in Vancouver. 

Legal Team – General threat from Freddie, first issued on the Trans-Siberian, to get a high-powered legal team onto us when we were winding him up about plans for his birthday. Only served to make us even worse. Actual legal team believed to be at other end of phone ahead of Freddie’s birthday in Chicago. 

Marius – Alter ego of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he was able to join us for a few drinks (see Fuck No; see Fuck Yes) and the day after when he was even less capable of speech than normal. 

Night Drive – Form of transport used to get us from one place to the next overnight. First on board should take the beds at the back and work towards the front, leaving the stragglers to fall into bed at the front. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. When we are all on board, Matty (or his successors) head to the wheel, start rolling and await the first request for a toilet stop (normally within the first half hour). 

Ongaru – Ancient, mystical term originally thought to derive from West Wales. Shouted as term of encouragement or pleading for somebody to get on with something. Also worked, albeit just the once, to summon a waiter on the Diamond Princess. 

On Top – One of the least popular sleeping berths (except, strangely, with Mike and Nick) on the luggage racks of the Green Tortoise. Comes with unexpected bonus of being groped in the darkness as people search for bags they thought were on that bunk. 

Phebes – What Phoebe officially likes to be called (see Phoebe Kate; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel). 

Phoebe Kate – One of the things Phoebe is actually called (see Phebes; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel).

Puggle – A baby echidna (small, spiky, Australian creature). As revealed by Phoebe (small, spiky, Australian creature) in bus quiz in the opening two days, hence earning herself a nickname which has stuck for the rest of the trip (see Phoebe Kate; see Phebes; see Skanky Weasel). 

Randoms – Name given to all outsiders. We may communicate with them, but they will never understand. They weren’t there maaaaan… 

Red Lines – Dangerous shot consisting of tequila, Tabasco and vodka and featuring a red line halfway down the glass as fed to Mike in Vilnius by a strange Icelandic bloke. Resulted in Mike losing much of the next day. 

Rothschild – High-class wine. Entire group left in suspense when Freddie did not attend second wine tasting session on Diamond Princess to find out the answer to the burning question of the entire trip: “How are they going to deal with the Rothschild?”. 

Roy – Strangled shout, initially issued by Mike, as a tribute to former Republic of Ireland manager Jackie Charlton’s summoning of midfielder Roy Keane. In no context to be confused with anybody else of the same name (see Soy). 

Shitfight – Phil’s term for anything that involves a lot of people attempting to do the same thing in a limited space or length of time (used often when loading/unloading bags, entering hostels or – at its best – when boarding a train in Moscow). 

Skanky Weasel – Yet another nickname given to Phoebe after four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with no access to a shower and limited range of washing facilities. Variation: Cranky Weasel 

Soy –Variation of Roy in restaurants in China (see Roy). 

Terrible – Mike’s verdict on any act or phrase which he deems inappropriate. Most often used after something he has done or said himself. Often followed with the phrase: “I think I may have got away with it”. 

Thank you my friend – Term of address used by Mike. The rest of us were using it without realising within days. 

The Oirish – Easy catch-all name for Leila and Dave. Find one, the other is not normally far away. 

Tortoise Orbit – The strange void into which belongings vanish on the Green Tortoise, only to turn up (hopefully) in a completely different spot from when they were last seen (see Bag Explosion; see Phebes). 

What the bloody hell is going on? – To be said in the poshest possible voice (as only normally heard in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster) when woken during the night on the boat by rolling into the wall (see Crème Brulee; see Legal Team; see Rothschild). Late variation: What the fuck? – Used when Freddie was prodded in the arse while asleep in Vancouver, accompanied by leap and full turn in the air. 

Whiffy – Spanish for Wi-fi. Invariably Enrique’s first question when we arrive at a new destination (see Wi-fi). 

Wi-fi – As much as there may be plenty of sights to see and experience in our new destination, the one thing guaranteed to get half the bus excited is the presence of wi-fi access. Laptops are reached for far quicker than maps, guide books and cameras (see Whiffy). 

Wow moment – The times that make going without showers, changing clothes or much sleep worthwhile and the reason we are all doing this in the first place. 

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Laughing On The Bus, Playing Games With The Faces

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 1, 2010

Banff, Canada

OVER the past 11 weeks, we have learned to accept a string of new travelling experiences as a matter of routine.

Across Europe, we took long days on the bus and the constant checking in and out of hostels in our stride, across Russia and Mongolia we became seasoned train survivors and on the cruise we accepted the luxury of a freshly-made bed and all the creature comforts we could want.

And since disembarking three weeks ago, we have become experts in living on a bus and embraced a new sensation – the night drive.

Inside Passage
Sun goes down on the rear deck of the Inside Passage ferry, our bed for the night from Petersburg

As we have ploughed southwards through Canada and America to San Francisco (around 4,600 miles according to Matty, who bid us farewell this morning), 19 people crashed out in all reaches of the bus has become something of a norm.

There are five basic rooming options for the discerning traveller, each of which has its advantages and drawbacks. They are:

Up top on the bunks – Essentially sleeping on the luggage racks, albeit slightly wider and with a mattress. Advantage of not being trodden on, but the ever present danger of falling off adds an air of danger to proceedings.

Opted not to head up there with my record of falling off top bunks (drunken incident in Irkutsk) and after all the bunks were filled on the opening night drive, only a few hardy souls have ventured up since.

'Ksan
One of the totem poles at the Indian village at ‘Ksan

On the tables – The other option not high on my list of places to try. They are the two tables either side of the aisle halfway down the bus with the seats lifted up to provide a sleeping platform.

The cubby hole – Originally not fancied as it is a bit dark and cramped down there, but having spent a couple of cosy nights down there, it is now my berth of choice.

Admittedly you are a bit close to the pile of stinky shoes and it takes a bit of effort to get in and out, but it is the only place where you can neither fall off nor be trodden on.

The back area – The mattress-covered area at the back which provides the major seating (well, more sort of slouching and lying down) area during the day, it is certainly comfortable.

But with up to seven people on there it can get a bit cramped one point found me completely trapped with Pam and Dave managing to lie on the opposite edges of my sleeping bag.

Hazleton
Room with a view – Our campsite at Hazleton

The front area – Largely the same as the back with the front benches extended out to the full width of the bus.

My place of choice when we are camping and it is not fully converted, it is a bit of a pain during toilet breaks while driving as you can get trampled in the rush to get off the bus.

It also rules out any chance of a lie-in as it is always the first place to be packed away to let people off and give full access to the food cabinets beneath.

There is a sixth option with the small bench and table at the back which Freddie claimed as his own from day one. Quite why somebody who is 6ft 2in would want the smallest sleeping area on the bus is anybody’s guess, but he seems to like it.

A night drive hits the road any time between 10pm and 4am when the driver emerges from his personal cubby hole and sets off into the night.

Twin Falls
Twin Falls at Smithers – Excellent

The bulk of us disappear off into whatever town we have set up shop in and find whatever the locals do to amuse themselves – basically, an open invitation to sit in a bar until we have to clamber back on the bus and go to bed.

The general rule is that the first on board go to the back and we work forward until the last one on gets the space right at the front.

At least that’s the plan.

In reality, Mary and Duncan obey the rules and head to the back early, only to be woken when the late arrivals turn up to find people sleeping at the front, beds not made up and sleeping bags nowhere near where they were left.

It can be quite amusing to lie back and watch the chaos unfold.

But enough of that, let’s rewind to where you left us with another strange sleeping option looming – a sun lounger on the aft deck of a ferry.

Not too many stuck it out all night on the trip from Petersburg to Prince Rupert and back into Canada as it proved a fair bit colder and less comfortable than the previous ferry.

Icefield Parkway
Mt Fryatt on the spectacular Icefield Parkway

The reward for those who did – and we even let the others join in – were the delights of Prince Rupert which don’t amount to much, so after about 45 minutes walking its largely quiet streets, we jumped back on the bus.

Our destination was the small town of Hazleton, where the first evening in North America where it got fully dark at a relatively normal hour was whiled away playing frisbee golf, cribbage and stoking our addiction to wi-fi whenever it is available.

An early morning trip to the neighbouring Native American museum was followed by a short-ish drive to Smithers (excellent!) and the chance to yomp up to a couple of waterfalls, followed by a much longer drive to the much larger Prince George, our base before driving off into the night.

With free rein to spend all night in the pub, we were fairly restrained in Shooters Bar as we munched on massive portions of food, watched the second game of the Stanley Cup finals and took part, scandalously, in a trivia quiz.

Sad to say, our two teams’ solid performances in the general knowledge section was let down by our complete inability to identify most of the songs in the musical sections – apart from Freddie.

Icefield Parkway
View from the Athabasca River running alongside the Icefield Parkway

His encyclopaedic and surprising knowledge of nauseating modern pop trash and bland American rock ensured one of our teams walked away with the prize – free beer – in the first round.

It was only later that our youngest traveller confessed his perfect score had been achieved with the help of an application on his all-singing, all-dancing, all-cooking, all-knowing phone.

Having gone to bed in Prince George sometime after 1am, we awoke rather late in Jasper National Park at the Miette Hot Springs.

Apart from the delights of swimming, hot springs are greeted with glee as they come complete with showers and, on this occasion, a decent fry-up.

Icefield Parkway
Stutfield Glacier on the Icefield Parkway

The rest of the day was spent on the bus as we clocked up mile after mile en route to our next destination, Banff.

If around seven hours on a bus sounds boring, this was anything but as we glided down the truly spectacular Icefield Parkway, the undoubted new leader in any competition to find my favourite road in the world.

For mile after mile the bus windows were filled with spectacular views of mountains, rivers, lakes, forest, glaciers, icefields and, for a few magical moments, a bear.

Sightings of wildlife in the last couple of weeks have been fairly regular, but this black bear stole the show as he meandered along the side of the road seemingly oblivious to the cars, RVs and big green buses parked up to take his picture.

He was also an obliging soul, saving the day when one latecomer backed his huge 4×4 between us and him, crossing the road to give the Green Tortoise inhabitants a perfect view.

BearA stunning highlight to a wonderful journey and there was more wildlife on view on the banks of Lake Louise.

Whether it was a big porcupine or a wolverine is still up for debate, but he too hung around for the cameras as we decided that Lake Louise does not live up to its billing as the prettiest lake in the world.

Bear
The bear poses for the cameras after crossing the road to give us a better view

It’s pretty, yes, just not that pretty. But it is somewhere which has been on my places to see list since skiing at the resort just down the road back in my younger days.

Those two trips to Canada were based in Banff, so it was with some excitement that, after a whirlwind meal and setting up of the tents, a group of us waltzed into town to see what it has to offer.

Plenty of bars were as remembered – although the Barbary Coast has sadly been renamed and reborn as the Elk and Oarsman and the Rose and Crown was a bit dead – but we settled on one which had previously carried a fear of line dancing, Wild Bill’s Saloon.

Line dancing was, happily, off the menu, replaced instead by a night of karaoke as the locals unveiled a penchant for soft rock, Bryan Adams and country.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

But very hospitable the locals were, even applauding and dancing along to Nick and Dave’s rendition of Sweet Child of Mine.

Strange these Canadians.

Mossie update: Thankfully, we are out of their territory for a few days, although still seem to be finding new bites in strange places.

My hands, head and arms are, on the whole, clearing up, but my legs are now home to some really lovely scabs where my trousers have rubbed the top off the bites.

And how those two huge red welts got on my foot is anybody’s guess.

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