Day 76-78: Vancouverrr and Bye Bye Canada

Ughh. I felt heavy writing that title. It’s been a joy being in you.

Not to get all sentimental on you, but I have learnt a lot being here. First and foremost, I’ve learnt that you can have someone’s best interests at heart before you’ve even met them. There doesn’t have to be anything in it for you to help someone out. It took a long time to feel comfortable in a couchsurfers house, because I didn’t understand why they were so willing to give a bed, a lift, a meal and even a sightseeing tour to a stranger. I felt like I had to be someone amazing to be worth their time and resources, or what’s the catch? Canada’s taken my cynicism and covered it in maple syrup.

We’ve done a fair few cliché things since being here; playing cribbage, smothering stuff in maple syrup, wasting time in Tim Hortons, driving through excessive snow, BBQing in sub-zero temperatures, bumping into someone and profusely apologising, seeing bears and mooses (?!meece, mice, moossen?!) in the wild, getting to know not only our hosts, but their neighbours, asking a stranger one question and talking to them for half a year…..

The point of that list was that there was something very significant missing from it that we had to fulfill in our last 48 hours here – Hockey!!!

Before we made it to said hockey match, we had a couple of hours to kill and spent them in Science World British Columbia. It was fun and I highly recommend it to families. One beautiful gift it gave us was the ability to see what we looked like in infra-red.

You know what they say – cold cheeks, warm heart.

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Infra-red Dan is basically Shrek.

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After the joy of seeing ourselves as The Predator sees us, we moved on to the big event of our stay in Vancouver – Vancouver Cannuccks vs Carolina Hurricanes!

First impressions was that the arena was loud! The arena was filled with the music, interviews and adverts that were being played on the big round screen in the middle, as well as tweeted pictures of fans as they piled in. We turned up a good 45 minutes early, but were entertained the entire time. It felt a little like there were a few in-jokes in the way the sirens blew and some of the slogans that appeared on the screen, but we didn’t mind. It was our last opportunity to be in Canada and we wanted to soak it in as much as possible.

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On each team there are only 6 players, including the goal keeper. That’s a stupidly small amount compared to most other team sports, and we thought it was funny how this massive arena (try as I might, I couldn’t get it all in one shot) was needed for only 12 people and some sticks.

Turns out, man, they needed that room. They moved fast!! The perspex sheets that went all around the arena looked all big and tough before the game began, but soon strained under the force of these guys crashing against them. The game was split into three 20 minute segments, yet the game needed to stop much more frequently than that, because the ice rink was being torn up continuously by these guys thrashing around on it at high speeds.

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I’m not a good sports fan. I just find it hard to follow and it doesn’t appeal to me beyond the rugby six nations in a pub. This game though, I understand why people are into it more than most. It didn’t stop for a second, and these guys must be tough! There was no rolling around on the floor waiting for the ref to molly coddle them – they wiped away the blood and teeth and got back up to play some more. Several hockey sticks smashed and the puck rarely stayed on the floor of the arena.

It was the perfect end to our time in Canada. I feel like I want to continue blabbing about how much we loved it here, but at some point we have to stop. There’s no more words now.

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Day 74-75: Last Train Journey

Apologies, but there will be no photos in this blog. We didn’t take any. What would we have taken a photo of, the chair?!

Travelling across Canada by train has been up and down, but mostly up. The journeys have been a nice chance to stop and watch shitty TV shows, while talking to people we wouldn’t have otherwise bumped into. For Dan, it’s been his major opportunity to play endless games for however long he’s wanted to. During one particular stretch of us ignoring each other and being glued to our own device screens, Dan shook me and signaled behind him. A 10 year old boy had been watching him play Counter Strike the entire time. He made no noise, didn’t fidget and it became clear very quickly that he didn’t speak English.

After a lot of coaxing from Dan, this boy politely accepted the controls and began playing Mario Kart. The boy’s sisters, who were also angelically  behaved, came to watch him play. After a couples of hours, a woman tapped me on the shoulder to let me know that the children were Syrian refugees and if I wanted to, I could talk to their parents a few seats away. This is where my smart phone came up trumps and showed it was capable of a lot more than playing shitty TV shows. I downloaded Arabic onto Google Translate and before long, we were able to ask them yes/no questions by typing them onto the screen and letting the mother and father read. Turns out the mother was past the point in her pregnancy where she would be allowed to fly, so a 2.5 hour plane journey had become a 2 day train journey. They were travelling to a place that had accepted many refugees before, so they said they were lucky to already know people.

The father was an incredibly gifted technician in an international business that had branches in Europe and beyond. As soon as possible, they are going to work, pay taxes and contribute to Canada’s economy. Yes/No answers weren’t enough to establish how they felt about having to move to somewhere they’d never seen before, but they seemed incredibly upbeat about the whole situation, and continued as a family, while some others around them were complaining about how late the train was (45 minutes). It’s definitely no co-incidence that the people who are most likely to vote against immigration are those that live in areas not heavily affected. I know who I’d rather be neighbours with.

Another lady we met on the train was a lady in her 70’s who was travelling across Canada alone. She definitely falls into an uncommon demographic, so I was curious as to what drove her. She told us about how her home in Manchester had been burgled the day before, but she couldn’t find it in herself to care too deeply. It turns out that she was a widow of nearly two years, to a man who’d needed her care increasingly over the last decade. They both had wanderlust in their lives but towards the end, they had to stay at home more often and just talk about where they’d go and what they’d see. He had been registered blind since he was 25 and talked a lot about growing up, when he had full vision. He was a Canadian man who lived in the Prairies, so when he passed away, it felt obvious to her where she should go on her first venture alone. 

It was touching to hear her speak with enthusiasm one minute, and with a cracked voice and tear rimmed eyes the next. The emotion was raw for her and she had tried everything to ease her grief. She told us about how she found the widower meetings far too depressing, and felt too restless to join in any OAP activities. She had tried discussing things with a counselor and with her family, but found that her grief only increased with time instead of easing like everyone around her kept assuring. This journey was her last straw to try and come to terms with what she had lost. I hope she manages to make peace with his death one day.

Day 73-74: Banff and Jasper National Parks #4

We’re very sorry to draw our time at Banff and Jasper to a close, but move onto Vancouver we must. We can’t get 90% across the country and not see what the last 10% has to offer. Apart from adding as many scenic photos as possible, the last thing we want to mention was that the wildlife really was spectacular. We did not see a grizzly or black Paddington hanging around as it was the beginning of hibernation for them, but we did glimpse one giant of the forests.

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This gentle baby of a Moose had no parents in sight, but clumsily went about his way anyway. We watched him go about his day from afar, but some people (who were out of their mind) got out of their car to get a closer look at the boy. He didn’t appear phased in the slightest. Over the course of the four days, we saw a whole array of animals. With only an ounce less luck than the Safari Parks we’ve been to, and at a fraction of the cost (approx 6GBP to enter each day), we managed to get really close and person with a whole host of wildlife.

Another species we saw were (according to a local sign) ‘horned sheep’. These guys cared as much as the baby moose when it came to tourists.

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He definitely had a well practiced “and what do you want?!” face. The rest of the wildlife that we saw seemed a little milder, but just as cute.

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So to wrap up our stay in Banff and Jasper, we just found the place to be the perfect get away. Just when you think you are done looking at the stunning scenery, something catches your eye and holds you for a while. I know I’m falling short when I’m trying to describe this place, so just go there if ever you can. I don’t apologise if I’ve accidentally doubled up on some photos in this post and the last.

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Day 72-73: Banff and Jasper National Parks #3

Today was a great day of Lakes. We saw three of  the many possible lakes, Lake Louise, Lake Moraine and Lake Maligne.

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The urge to kayak through these crystal clear waters was was very strong, but nearly everywhere we went had just shut up shop for the end of season, to be re-opened in May. We were very lucky though, as the road leading to Lake Louise was to be closed the next day. Driving through it, I understand why. Canada has some mean looking snow-blowers, but I think winter will eventually win here.

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Growing up in the UK, we’ve always seen pictures like this on post-cards and TV (below).

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Before Halloween has come and gone, we feel like we’ve had Christmas day. We could almost see Santa getting his sleigh revved up as we looked at the dusted tree branches droop under the weight. We could almost picture George Michael in loud skiing gear. We’ve also gone from 30 degree weather to minus degree weather in a matter of weeks, so time has time has warped for us. It’s sped up in the sense that we’ve seen the seasons change so quickly, it’s slowed down in the sense that every day feels like a week, and it’s stopped in the sense that I feel we are still in an extended summer holiday. Our phones tell us its October, but with the dramatic weather and scenery change, October means nothing.

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Anyway, back to the lakes. Water and steep inclines, what more could a girl (and boy) ask for? The weather graced us with some beautiful skies today so we could see some mirrored reflections in the water, doubling the size and magnificence of the mountains surrounding us. We missed a little of the snow fall, so we tried our best to recreate it by gently shaking some of the branches to release the trapped snow. Being so close to water, I justified going deeper into a walk, with the mindset that I could jump into the waters if I saw a bear. It wasn’t logical, but we haven’t re-enacted that scene from ‘The Revenant’ yet, so all’s good.

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It was ethereal walking through the trees. You could hear nothing, but your own footsteps and the occasional mass of snow fall from the trees. The sun reflected off the snow to create an incredibly bright scene which bored into your eyes. It’s surprisingly challenging to stop for a minute and just be there. Not taking photos, not talking, not even walking for a minute. It was worth it though, as I captured a strong mental picture of the place that I think will last.

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I’m going crazy with photos on this post, so I’ll end with just a few more and a story.

Once upon a time, Dan saw a big hill.

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Not satisfied with seeing it from the bottom, he decided to climb it.

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It’s not easy to see, but here he is, half-way up.

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And here he is at the top.

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He went up a hill, and came down a mountain.

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And it was good.

Day 71-72: Banff and Jasper National Parks #2

The night before Banff Hot Springs saw us staying in our first hostel of the entire trip. We’re not totally against them, but for a couple or more people, AirBnB makes way more sense money wise. Why pay $50 each, when you can pay $55 (or less!) between the two of you? Even better, why not CouchSurf and makes some friends with the host for free?! I’m not high-maintenance when it comes to accommodation as being safe and warm is enough to make me happy, but it makes sense to me to go for a private room for less money than to share for more.

In Banff however, there were no CouchSurfing or AirBnB hosts to be had, so we stayed at a hostel called ‘SameSun’. This place was pretty cool. It had a bar as soon as you entered the building that sold evening meals from $8 and local beers on tap, while the hockey played on the TV. There was also a common room for guests to cook their own food and sit in more of a chilled space. People sometimes stay here for weeks at a time looking for work, as we soon found out from our dorm-mates. Three German girls and one Irish girl were all staying there before working season began, with a couple still looking for jobs. This meant that they were happy to have lights out at 11pm and go to sleep quietly, which helped us greatly the next day. The next morning, the self serve breakfast in the bar was awesome, with waffle makers and pancakes. The last great thing that we noticed while we were there, was that they do day trips every day for solo backpackers who want to be part of a group. I would definitely recommend staying here, as it has the perfect mix of stay-up-and-party and get-up-and-go. When we booked, it was apparently 75% off, and we were charged $102 dollars for both of us for the one night. Staying in Banff is not cheap, but it’s worth it for a short while.

After a surprisingly good nights rest for all 8 of us in the room, we got up and make our way northwards on the 93 highway, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful highways in the world. There is no doubt as to how it got that reputation.

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I’m not suspicious of anything here. I was actually smiling under all those layers of scarf. Need to work on my ‘smize’.

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To say I was being selective when choosing which photos to use is an understatement. I easily could have put up hundreds, as every corner revealed a scene more beautiful than before. Forgive the over-use of scarf and matching coats here – it was cold and they were on sale.

After what was meant to be an hours drive, but was probably two with all the stopping, we arrived at ‘Upper Banff Hot Springs’, which is a beautiful heated pool, surrounded by hot springs and mountain ranges.

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It cost about $7.90 each to enter this beautiful pool and swim around in its 40 degree water for as long as we wanted. We got to sit back, relax, and catch snowflakes in our hair whilst being completely saturated in warmth. We treated ourselves to a GoPro before leaving, and used this as the perfect opportunity to take photos.

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I’ll keep these photos small as I go from liking them to cringing over them in a matter of seconds. Mermaid Liz and Dan…

Our last stop of the day before heading to Jasper was the ‘Marble Canyon’. This is one of those places that requires just a little walking, or a lot of walking, depending on how large a group you are and how you’re feeling. We opted for the little, because I am not equipped mentally to handle running into a bear, and Dan was getting sick of me screaming; we were told to make as much noise as possible to keep them away.

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This place was as glorious as the others. I’m slowly running out of adjectives to describe these National Parks, and I’m only on day 2 of four. The next stop is the lakes.

Day 71: Banff National Park #1

Iceland and Canada are like day and night. Sure, they’re both beautiful and provide mankind with a much needed glimpse into what the world might look like if we didn’t shit all over it, but that’s where the landscape ends for having anything in common. Iceland feels closer to Mars than earth, whereas Canada is teaming with life. In Iceland, you are pretty safe to go wherever the hell you want for however long you want to in the summer, with the long days and moderate temperatures, provided you have enough water and some sense of direction. In Canada, however much you might want to, most National parks are a big nuh-uh for going it solo, because of moose, bears, coyotes, caribou etc. In Banff and Jasper, they advise that you go in groups of four or more, to ensure that you are both large enough to be intimidating to the wildlife, but also large enough to get help if something goes wrong.

I could keep going with comparing the two countries, but I’ve listed enough to justify why I prefer Canada. I was in awe of Iceland and will always have fond memories and utmost respect for the place, but I’ve loved the thrill of staring into the trees and seeing something move.

We started off in Banff, with the plan to head north and see all as many sites as daylight will allow along the way to Jasper over the course of four days. Let me tell you now – we barely scratched the surface. You could easily spend a week here!

On day one, we visited a historic site called the ‘Cave and Basin’. This site was most likely discovered over ten thousand years ago, as humans were known to have been in the area after the retreat of the last Ice Age, and any source of natural heat would not have gone unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1883, when three railway workers used a tree trunk to get in through a hole at the top of the cave, that this cave became a site of national importance. It was so important, that it set in motion the creation of the first National Parks in Canada, which began in 1885.

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Surrounding the cave were several interesting things. First was a large patio, that outlines where a naturally heated pool used to be. It was open until the 90’s, where it became too costly to maintain.

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Secondly, were some model tents that are similar to what the railway workers would have used when the cave was discovered. Both were cosy, but one was for your standard-Joe worker, and the other was for an important surveyor.

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Thirdly, were the beautiful walks that surrounded the building. Most of the pathways smelt all-too-similar to Iceland with the strong wafts of sulphur hanging in the air. It was worth pinching your nose to see the steam rising to meet the snow falling. It’s the kind of life that I love in Canada, where the nature doesn’t always stand still in a stoic pose, but dances before your eyes, hypnotising you for a time.

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After ‘The Cave and Basin’, we drove around before heading towards our hostel for the evening. I’ll have to bunch up some photos in a moment, but I wanted to share one with you just before I do. It’s no more or less beautiful than the others, but it transfixed me for a while.

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This is arguably not the most beautiful photo in this post, but this scene really caught me and made me look for the first time on this segment of the trip. This magical site was on the highway into Banff, before you get onto the 93 which is the road that links Banff and Jasper and is considered one of the most beautiful roads in the world. If being in the moment is our main weapon against the cruel passing of time, this place is definitely an ally. If you’re there at the right time, when no other cars are around, then the soundtrack to this site is complete silence.

One of the best things about the highway 93 and others directly connected to it, is the wildlife you see on the road. This was by no means the only wildlife we saw that day, but just to give you an idea.

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These animals seemed un-amused by the cars at most. Five or more cars were pulling over to snap the deer and elk, but they didn’t move on from their grazing area. Our cars, with their alien sounding engines and fast speeds didn’t phase them in the slightest. It’s as if they knew that this was their land, and we were merely visitors; there to take hundreds of pictures and get in their way, but not to harm them.

Day 67-69: Calgary

After the massive 48 hour train journey, a mere 20 hour one seemed like nothing. Someone has since told us that after working on the train lines, he would never get a train across Canada, so now I’m glad we only have one more night to go before our last Canadian destination – Vancouver.

We arrived in Edmonton and went to get our hired car straight away. The plan was to head straight to Calgary before Banff and Jasper and spend our last night in Edmonton so we didn’t miss it completely. I know that I’ve just thrown out a load of West-Canada cities here, and it probably doesn’t make sense. That’s because we spent so much time going back and forth to Toronto at the beginning of our Canadian stint, that we now have to squeeze as much out of our time in the west as possible.
We quickly learnt that our car had cruise control which could be adjusted. Dan went for ten minutes at a time without using his feet to control the car at all! In fact, the car had such nice steering, that I could take over for a little while, while he looked around and did no driving what-so-ever. Before you think we’re stupidly reckless, let me justify ourselves by saying that a lot of the roads would have speed limits as low as approximately 30mph in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t going to cause an accident.

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It cost us $383 to hire this car for six days with insurance from Enterprise. We did get a free upgrade, so don’t necessarily expect such a great car for so cheap.

It was Thanksgiving Sunday and we weren’t holding out any hope of finding a host when, at the eleventh hour, someone accepted our request on CouchSurfing. Our host was called Matt and was in his thirties. He just happened to be working the next day, and was the type of Canadian person we’d become accustomed to; the kind that cares about people he’s never met. He didn’t want to leave travellers out in the cold, so he accepted both us and a French girl called Sonia into his flat.

It makes me feel sad and hollow to think about it, but all of our amazing experiences on CouchSurfing may not be the same once we leave Canada. We’ve been treated like old friends and family, and experiencing that level of acceptance in a place so far away from home has been wonderful. We’ve been given lifts, gifts and home cooked meals without any expectations of us. Looking at California, I’m already seeing profiles full of “will only host gay men” and “nothing in life is free, so bring a gift”. I have not been through every CouchSurfing host, so I might be (hopefully) wrong!

Matt was extremely laid back, yet was very quick to suggest making us food and getting us settled in. Four of us fitted into his living room fairly cosily, so it was funny to imagine Matt hosting seven people there at the same time. Apparently the weather was stormy outside and he didn’t want to turn anyone down so, with a big grin on his face, he told us about how he made food for seven people, all from different countries. One of his most common sayings was “I know that when you’re on the road you just want some sleep/a cooked meal/time to chill out”. It wasn’t long before he was outside, putting on the BBQ. I thought he was joking as it looked like this outside:

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He wasn’t joking and he didn’t even put on a jumper.

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A few Canadians have proudly told us that they would BBQ on Christmas Day, and don’t seem to understand why we think they’re mad. They have ovens indoors where its nice and warm!

After our food (which was actually hot and really good), we played Mario Party for a few hours and talked. He told us about how he went travelling around Europe at 33 and slept on the street in Russia in sub-zero temperatures. He’s had things stolen from him (which I know is common, but hasn’t happened to us yet) and was deported somewhere he didn’t know for having the wrong Visa –  in the middle of winter, with no English signs. Most travellers (us included) we’ve met haven’t had to deal with half of that, let alone dealing with it on their own. He batted away the idea that he did anything extraordinary, and put those scary situations down to experience. As with anyone who goes outside of their comfort zone like that, I quickly got the impression that finding his limits was important to him; that he needed to know what he was capable of, even if he didn’t plan to be in so many sticky situations. Most people (myself included) don’t really ever seek an opportunity like that and would happily live our lives not knowing how we’d react when facing a seriously bleak situation. Maybe Matt now has an advantage over the rest of us, knowing that he can handle seriously shitty situations without crumbling. I don’t know who he was before he did these crazy things, but I was glad of the opportunity to get to know post-travel Matt for an evening.

Because of Matt’a charming stories and how comfortable we felt in his flat, we never got round to seeing anything in Calgary, so this post should probably be called “Matt’s apartment and going to get a milkshake”, because that is literally all we did here. The milkshake was amazing though – if you are ever in the area, you have to go to ‘Peter’s Drive-In’. They had those milkshakes that would take forever to drink because of how thick they are, and burgers that would make McDonalds cry!

Day 65-66: It made no sense to make the cent, Winnipeg.

I know that there are plenty of people out there that are capable of learning far more and taking more in than I am, but I am noticing some small things. For example, the earth itself. I always thought mud was the colour brown. Sometimes light brown, sometimes dark brown, but brown. Going to another country which formed thousands of miles away with dirt of its own has shown me that its not just brown. It can be reddy-brown, orangey-brown, tan coloured, grey and sometimes even coal-black. I could go into the different shades of sand, but I think you get the picture.

Where we went yesterday had no real relation to mud, but it was still interesting to see. Stephen, one of our previous hosts in Winnipeg who very kindly offered to have us back, took us to see the Mint in Winnipeg. Winnipeg’s Mint makes coins for 75 countries spread across the world, and is capable of making 15 million coins a day.

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We were tossing up whether to go here or the zoo, and oddly enough found the place to have zoo-like qualities, as we spent an hour watching people make coins in a factory behind a pane of glass. We were asked not to photograph the machines or the people while they worked, because of legal issues of photographing coins being printed and also because its rude to take photos of people without their permission. It was mesmerising and very satisfying watching them make the coins and package them with perfect efficiency. They must have really stamped down on making mistakes, because faulty coins are now a collectors item as they are so rare.

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I did manage to get some photos of the different varieties of coins they were making, and one of the big developments in coin printing was injecting colour onto the surface. It was deemed as so innovative, that one of the first people to leave the mint with these coins was deemed as suspicious – as if these coins were carrying information of some kind, making the man a secret spy for Winnipeg. After seizing these coins and analysing them, it became evident that Winnipeg just likes pretty things and wanted to jazz up their currency. So, to make a segway to the mud, what used to be gold, silver and bronze, could now be red, blue, while, yellow – any colour in pretty much any shade! To celebrate this invention, they’ve made a series of limited edition coins dedicated to Disney, comic book heroes and so on.

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As the woman talked us through the process of how vending machines detect the different types of coins, one of our tour brought up a tricky subject. A man who used to work at the Mint has recently been charged with stealing a significant amount of gold over a long period of time. They started to suspect him, because the metal detectors would always pick up more on him than anyone else walking in and out of the building. After searching his belongings, they found several tubs of Vaseline. His argument was that he got away with doing it so many times that he almost felt allowed. The last fact I’ll give you is, out of all the 75 countries that Winnipeg makes coins for, only one has legally demanded that their identity is kept a secret. The country’s acronym is SGP – work it out!

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To explain the title of this blog, we’ve noticed that a lot of people have been talking about the fact that they’ve recently stopped making the one cent coin. Apparently there was no way they could make it for under 1.5 cents, and you can no longer buy anything for one cent anymore, so they stopped making them.

In the evening, we decided to chill out at Stephen and his wife Kirsten’s place. Nearly every Canadian person in their twenties seems to like this show called ‘Bones’. I haven’t watched it enough to be hooked, but it seems better than a lot of shows I’ve seen.

The next day, I went around town by myself, because I needed to buy socks and I fancied mooching around. One thing I did want to do, and I wanted to do it whilst in a place that I trusted, was to have my nose piercing changed. I didn’t like the bulky silver stud I had, so I went and got myself a ring. It’s a pretty insignificant thing to do, but it’s something I didn’t have the courage to do back home in case it looked silly. Out here, we very rarely know anyone for longer than a week, so looking stupid just doesn’t matter.

In the evening, we took Stephen and Kirsten to a tapas restaurant called Segovia. The food was beautiful, and worth the slightly higher bill than the other places we’d been to, and had all the fancy/weird decor you’d expect from a posh place.

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We’d had plenty of time to see different places in Winnipeg, but we wanted to squeeze out as much from our last night as we could, so we had four small dishes between us and went restaurant-hopping to another place. We ended up going to Kawaii, a place that specialises in crepes, just because we could, and they were again beautiful. Our last stop for the evening was a cafe/bookstore which is a little out from the centre of town. It had beautiful desserts and a massive collection of books and other things to browse. It even had a self-publishing machine, so you could print out your own book and became an author in one night.

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As I predicted, Winnipeg seemed much bigger after Churchill than it did after Toronto, but I found it just as lovely. Our next challenge is going to be trying to find a couchsurfing host who is willing to take us on over Thanksgiving weekend!

Day 62-64: Sleeping on Public Transport for the 14th Night in a Month!

So this blog marks the two month anniversary since leaving Wales. I missed the first one because I’m not the most sentimental person, but I figured the second month-a-versary should get a mention. Before I left, people were commenting on how brave we are doing this. Any element of bravery has just not been necessary yet, and it’s been pretty easy because we’ve had each other. I’m sure without a doubt that coming back home and starting over again will be far more difficult than anything we’ll encounter on our travels.

Just before heading back onto the train, we were waiting in reception when we heard some voices that sounded very familiar. It turns out that they were Welsh people – the first that we’d met since leaving Wales ourselves! They were a couple from Port Talbot but had lived all over the world, working for global companies. You forget that some of your mannerisms and cultures are formed by the people around you and they’re not necessarily universal. Some of the smaller eccentricities of being Welsh is something that I wouldn’t have picked up on before we’d left. It was also interesting to get an insight into how Welsh people sound to the rest of the world. When we first came to Canada, both Canadian and American accents sounded pretty much the same, and you had to have a very strong Welsh accent for it to sound out of the ordinary to me. Now, I’m finding it easier to pick up on the subtle differences between American and Canadian, and Welsh sounds almost foreign! 

You can only get to and from Churchill by plane or train, because the roads come to an end 100 miles or so below. According to the ticket officer, the people on nearby reserves need this train to commute to work, school, shops and even doctors. When there used to be three trains running weekly, there is now only one, so the locals have to pile in. Then night time rolls around and you have to play the game of trying to find a comfortable position to sleep in, like Tetris with your limbs. As far as washing is concerned, in economy you have to do the best you can with a sink as a shower is out of the question. You also lose any contact with the rest of the world, and have to make do with the people around you, while the tube of metal you’re all in makes it’s way through the wilderness. It presents a good opportunity to get to know the people travelling with you, but it doesn’t allow for much privacy. 

The last ailment of this trip was the conductor was a complete asshole with a superiority complex, who forced everyone to cram into one carriage instead of opening a very available second. At one point, he was demanding that me and Dan sit with two people that we met on the train when there was no need whatsoever, just because he saw us talking to each other. Not fulfilled with us telling him that we were two separate parties, he began moving our neighbours things over to our area without asking him. I’ve enjoyed going on the train and I’m glad we did it, but it’s only fair to list the downsides that are all part of the package. We’ve now spent 10 nights on different trains, so the novelty of them are wearing off slightly and the downsides are becoming more prominent.

Both on the way up and the way back, we stopped at a place called Thompson. I didn’t know anything about this place before getting off the train, so my reactions to it were purely instinctive. The place felt a bit jarring if I’m honest. I want to portray all of the places we visit in as best a light as I can, but I don’t want to be dishonest about how I felt when I was there. When we went to the mall, the community board had several ‘Missing Person’ and ‘Crime Report’ cases, with pictures of young people who hadn’t been seen in weeks. A couple of people have told.me that Thompson is the “murder capital” of Canada. I’m not sure how true that is, but something seemed wrong. 

Two people that were on this leg of the journey with us were called Doris and John. I’d already made some small talk with John in Churchill while out looking for bears, so I knew there would be someone interesting to talk to (apart from Dan). John was an actor, who had a 42 year career behind him and no intention of stopping. You know in Star Trek, when they say “beam me up Scotty?” – he was Scotty.

He had also done a few episodes on crime shows playing judges, and had a few roles in commercials. With all of this, and a business on the side, he still only earned just above the poverty line in the US.

Doris was a retired map-maker who also lived in the US. She was a big part of the Hillary campaign; not because she believed in Hillary, but because she found it to be her duty to stop Trump at any cost. She was adamant that people had to do something to stop the madness and accompanied everything she said with waving arms and wide eyes.

Any Trump supporters on the train would not have dared own up to it around her. One idea that she had was everyone in the US spending no money for one day. No clothes, no food, nothing and all as a means of protest. It seems like such a simple idea, yet I can see how that would cause chaos for the people at the top and it would get people the attention that they need. She told us all about her protesting in the 60’s and how she feels that people have forgotten how much power they have. It was inspiring to say the least to be reminded that, if we’re serious enough, we can make change happen. And like the museum made clear – if we are not happy about something, then doing nothing makes us guilty.

Doris did not seem it in the slightest, but she was an 87 year old woman. John was also in his late 60’s, and neither of them seemed ready to slow down. Both of them were agitated at having to sit on the train for so long and thought people who went on all inclusive holidays may as well be beached whales. John had a quieter approach to getting his point across, whereas Doris was enigmatic and loud, but they usually met in the middle with what they had to say. Doris also told one of the noisy children to either be quiet or she’d kill them – so her passion ran into the small things as well as the big.

Day 58–61: Churchill. Home of Polar Bears, Northern Lights and Beluga Whales

Churchill is the third best place in the the world to see the Northern Lights, and it offered so much more.

On our first day there, we rented a car to give us the freedom to safely explore the land. Churchill is like no other place, because the village has to adapt to the seasons and the migrations of the bears. The place is constantly being patrolled, and every night an alarm goes off at 10 o clock, which sounds a lot like the World War 2 emergency alarm. Someone told me that this alarm is only a throwback to the days of the residential schools, where it would act as a curfew for the children. Someone else told me that it was a curfew for everyone to signal when the area would stop being patrolled so heavily and it was time to stay indoors. Indoors doesn’t have to mean your own home, but most of the bear attacks happen at night, so its always a good idea to be near a vehicle or a front door of a house/pub and to only walk home if its just across the road. Apparently there’s a rule that no-one is allowed to lock anything, in case someone needs to make a run for it to the nearest truck or house.

The village has approximately 900 inhabitants and the numbers are slowly falling, but every October and November, the numbers almost quadruple with tourists and seasonal workers. This  happens because the bears gather close by, waiting for the ice to form. The numbers were low during the 70’s, but in recent years there has been as many as a thousand bears close to this village which is only a 15 minute walk end-to-end. We saw a lot of guns during our visit, but they are mainly used to scare and only to harm in extreme cases. If, as a tourist, you antagonise a bear by getting too close without supervision and the bear needs to be killed, then you are held accountable to the law.

The Northern Lights

The train up to Churchill was a mixed bag, and very different from the Canadian train that runs along the bottom of Canada. There was less to do, and the journey to and from Churchill is a whopping 45 hours each way! We did get a chance to see the prairies however, which was incredibly flat and differed greatly from the endless forests in Ontario. The staff were a tight nit group that gave you impression that they would be happy to bend the rules slightly. For the first night, there were only 8 of us on the train, so we got to know each other fairly well. They were telling us about the northern lights, and I couldn’t contain my excitement when they told me just how possible it was to see them from the train. I asked them to kick me in the head if they saw any that night.

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After about two hours of being glued to the window, that was my first sight of the Northern Lights. They wouldn’t grow to be much bigger than that on the first night, and they didn’t do the famous dancing across the sky, but it’s been a dream of mine to see them ever since I saw a programme on the BBC about Joanna Lumley travelling to Alaska to get a glimpse so it was enough to be amazed. I thought Iceland would be our only feasible shot of seeing them, so I was happy to have seen even a little of the lights.

By the second night, we were completely spoilt for how much of a display we were given.

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The lights just grew,

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and grew,

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and grew.

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I always wondered how fast the lights moved across the sky, because I was never sure whether the TV programmes sped them up or not, but they can move pretty fast! This show lasted about an hour, but moved all across the sky in that time.

Our aim in Churchill was to see the big three:

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The Northern Lights, Polar Bears and Beluga Whales. I couldn’t believe that before we even got there, we could check one of those things off the list. It didn’t stop us from searching for them the day we arrived, however, as a bartender at a local pub informed us that the sky was promising another amazing display that night. There’s a website called the Aurora Service which predicts how strong the lights will be. They grade it from 1-9, with 1 being no visibility to 9 being a strong magnetic storm. You are meant to be able to see them fairly clearly from as low as 3, and that night the forecast was showing a 6. Both the website and the bartender predicted correctly.

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Our camera is not equipped for photos of the night sky, so it’s focus was a little off, but I hope you get the impression of how amazing it looked. Before the sun had even set, the sky was lighting up and the next 90 minutes saw the northern lights grow and grow before the sky was filled with green light. I love how this phenomenon is yet to be completely understood and is still difficult to predict as the website changes it’s readings fairly frequently. Your best chances of seeing them is the old fashioned way of waiting for a clear night and keeping an eye out.

Polar Bears

Another custom which I found really weird was the idea of a ‘Bear Jail’, more formally known as a ‘Bear Holding Facility’. If a bear is seen wandering around the town, they are tranquilized and taken to a holding cell for anywhere between 10 days and all season to encourage them to never come so close again. Apparently they are held without food to make the message clear! It does sound cruel, but a lot of work is put into ensuring the survival of both humans and polar bears, and it’s the most effective method they have of controlling the boundaries without shooting them.

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As for us seeing them, our first day proved to be a small success. We drove up to a husky dog farm, where the bears were reported to have been trying to steal the dog food. We did see a tiny ball of white shoot across the land, but never managed to see it close enough or get a photo to prove what it was. In the pub later that night, we were told that the dogs were tied to a post, so anything being able to run that far had to have been a bear. We were happy to have seen a bear, but it was bitter sweet only knowing for sure after seeing it.

The next day we were determined. Armed with food and water, we were ready for a long steak out next to the dog farm and surrounding areas. We spent all day with our eyes peeled and barely spoke to each other so as not to distract ourselves. It wasn’t the most entertaining day and we were getting pretty fed up by around the fifth hour, and if I was a little less concerned for my safety I would have started waving my food in the air to try and attract one. We went back to Churchill and had dinner in a cafe, where the manager proceeded to make us feel worse by telling us how it must have been difficult to miss him. We decided to drive out for one more attempt to see the bear, knowing that it would probably be in vein. Finally, a distant speck of white in the horizon started to move.

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He was a tiny dot in the distance, but he moved enough for us to be sure that it was a bear. You could see that he saw us and was keeping a safe distance, and we had no intention of advancing on him. It was enough to see him in his own habitat; a land that he ruled. I’m resigned to the possibility that I won’t ever see a Polar Bear again. I don’t have any strong opinions on zoo’s, but as far as polar bears are concerned, I don’t think I could go and see one in captivity now. Both me an Dan managed to get a photo of him and we’re really proud.

Beluga Whales

Apparently they are the most curious types of whales, coming right up to your kayak to see what you’re all about. Even stroking them is fine, as they have no intention of harming you. We didn’t see any, but as Meatloaf once said – two out of three ain’t bad!
A few quick facts about our stay for anyone who wants to know:

Where we rented our car: A comoany called Tamarack

Where we stayed: The Tundra Inn 

How we got there: VIA Rail train from Winnipeg