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Friday, January 21, 2011

[872] portland to vancouver on a single tank of gas.

I hadn't anticipated great changes in crossing the border from the United States into Canada. I don't know whether I was excessively ethnocentric, or whatever the exact opposite of that is. Either way, I expected a friendly border officer to ask us a few questions ending in "eh," check our passports, and send us on our way to what I was sure would prove to be North Washington.

The first hint that this wasn't going to be the case was when my sister called her phone company and realized that she'd need an international calling plan to be able to use her phone on our trip. That's right. This arbitrary line on the great land mass of North America instantly bricked my phone - which has a similar effect on me to severing an appendage. I have no problem leaving my phone in another room and refusing to check it throughout the duration of a day or two, but I have to know that, should I need it, it will send a tweet or call 911 (in that order of importance).

The next indication was the surliness of the border agent. I realize that they kind of have to treat everybody like potential terrorists, but this guy either hated his life, his job, or us. Maybe all three. He was incredulous of our every plan. "What are you coming to Canada for?" "Just for fun." "Why?" "Um... y'know. We had a break." "Right. Open your trunk." Brother would not crack a smile for anything, and ended up sending us into the big border control building, where a slightly friendlier agent asked us the exact same questions, and at least acted amused when we told her we were visiting Canada because it was either that or a kidnapping tour of Mexico. It did take all my self-control not to tell her I had just picked Ed up on the side of the road somewhere in Oregon when, looking at our passports with our identical and incredibly uncommon last names on them, she asked how we knew each other. I really was looking forward to seeing more of Canada than the duty free shop on the way out, however, so I refrained.

Next, as I had briefly considered but, for whatever reason, disregarded as a possibility, the speed markers on the freeway were labeled in kilometers per hour. When the first one we saw said 50kmh, I figured that the speeds must be pretty close. When the next one said 100, I began to question my deductive reasoning. My sister retrieved from my bag a little book with conversion charts in it, and we quickly realized that miles per hour are like, half of kilometers per hour. So, as we were happily cruising along around 50mph, we were going a good 20mph over the speed limit. No matter, however, 'cause Canadians be crazy. There really is no such thing as a speed limit in Canada. No matter where you are, including the middle of the city, you're on the freaking Autobahn. While taking advantage of the wifi at a Starbucks in Vancouver, I took a moment to look up some driving tips for Americans in Canada. It basically verified what I already knew: Canadians are extremely aggressive, frequently dart around each other and run red lights, and adhere to no discernible speed limits. Furthermore, there is very little enforcement of traffic laws. Of course, we managed to find the exception to that rule, and, while I was looking up these tips, somebody was busily enforcing the street parking laws and leaving a $35 ticket on our car for neglecting to feed the meter.

Or is that metre? 'Cause everything here is written in British English. Hadn't accounted for that either. I mean, I get that the province is called BRITISH Columbia, but I kinda took that in the same way that the region of the U.S. I grew up in is called New ENGLAND. I was surprised to find Queen Elizabeth's visage not only imprinted upon the monopoly money we were given at the currency exchange, but also proudly displayed in various establishments throughout the area. This surely is what we fought the revolution to avoid: Images of the royal family and the unnecessary addition of the letter "u" to words that certainly do not require it.

Anyway, I'm learning to drive the Canadian way, and trying to figure out what all the signs mean. I'm sure that they're all very intuitive to the Canadian people, but when I see a sign that looks to me to be proclaiming, "No octagons," it takes me a minute to decipher it. But I'm doing okay. I've given up on following the speed limits, and I'm learning to swerve around anyone I deem to be in my way at a given time. I even casually rolled through a red light in front of no less than five emergency service and police vehicles, albeit completely by accident. Nobody was fazed. All signs are suggestions.

After discovering our ticket, we decided that we'd save money by not paying for a hostel. So we bought some blankets at Wal-Mart and slept in our car in the parking lot. I'm pretty sure I get a special jewel in my crown in Heaven for having slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot. That and a special hepatitis shot, probably. But it actually wasn't so bad. Having human bodies in the car all night meant that we didn't have to spend 45 minutes scraping inch-thick sheets of ice off the car in the morning like the poor Wally World employees had done when they got off work the night before. It also meant waking up to run the heater every three hours or so to prevent hypothermia. It wasn't so bad, though. For Ed and I, it made us modern day Huck Finns. This is adventure for the girl of the 21st century. This feeling was only validated when, upon waking our second morning in the parking lot, we discovered that we were covered in an ever-increasing layer of snow.

Vancouver is really a wonderful place. The city is huge - like L.A., but without the perpetual eau de urine and purple haze of smog lingering overhead. Every time you pass into a new area of the city, it feels like you've passed into a different U.S. city. It's like they squeezed all of America's biggies into one super-city. And the best part is that they managed to do so while largely avoiding the slums that make up the majority of most of our urban areas. We drove through an area or two with some graffiti and bars on the windows, but they lasted for all of a block or two before becoming nice again.

Perhaps my favorite experience of the whole trip was seeing beluga whales in the park next to the aquarium. It was even more mesmerizing than the fruit bats at the Portland Zoo, and presented me with the very rare experience of seeing an animal I had literally never seen in person before. I could've stood there staring all day, but our parking permit was going to run out, and another ticket would most likely break both my wallet and my spirit.

You know that feeling you get when you find out an actor is Canadian? Like, whoa, this changes everything I know about them all of a sudden? I've always considered that thought to be unwarranted, but I'm less convinced of that now. I don't mean that in any Team America sort of way. I am not a particularly patriotic person unless the Olympics are on. I just mean that I get now that there actually are considerable differences between "Americans" (which always seems weird to say when discussing other people who live upon the continent of North America) and Canadians. They have their own musicians, their own artists, their own film industry, their own signs and symbols, and their own society that functions completely separately from the United States. It sounds like a silly observation to make, but I think it takes experiencing it to really get it. After all, I've only begun to scratch the surface of the extremely obvious shifts here, and that's the surface of just one region of one province. I'm sure it's like describing American society when you've only been to Dallas or Chicago or Seattle - woefully ignorant and inadequate.

2 comments:

krista said...

haha, as a canadian I can only say please don't judge us by what you saw in vancouver. it is a city unto itself, much like LA, new york, or toronto. also, all my speeding tickets speak against the non-enforcement of traffic laws... they just have bigger things to deal with in vancouver (illegal immigration, gangs, drugs, etc) than a bunch of horrible drivers... which you will see pretty much anywhere you get a bunch of people together on busy roads. if you want truly crazy drivers, try mexico. I'm not normally scared for my life in traffic, but weaving in and out of lanes of cars in a cab where the speedometer didn't even work made me glad for the minor traffic infractions I live with at home!

the queen is just a giant figurehead here... I dunno, we don't put past presidents' (or prime ministers, as the case is here) faces on mountains, but we do keep her around. guess we gotta stay different from the US somehow ;)

the CoR said...

I would never EVER drive in Mexico. Haha. I've been a passenger down there many a time and usually just cover my eyes and hope that death comes quickly.