There are several reasons for my trip to North America. One is because my cousin from the UK is visiting, so an important family reunion with my mom and sister, as the four of us have not been together for several decades. But also to open bank accounts in Canada and the US. I had a bank account in the US, but instead of emailing me notifications, which is free, they insist on the archaic postal system and, since my friends living at the address associated with the bank account were given instructions not to worry about post for me, I failed to fill in some new tax form in time and they closed the account. Without that I am not able to transfer money out of my PayPal account so I could use the bank’s atm card to withdraw cash. Generally all my income comes into PayPal, such as through its free tool to accept credit card payments, and without the means to the cash from a local atm machine, for a year I was forced to use the services of one hotel who agreed to issue me a cheque after I sent them funds from my PayPal account to theirs, minus a 10% fee. Considering that PayPal itself charges a 4.5% fee to receive payments, this is something I simply need to get sorted.
Visiting mom in Vancouver.
I arrive to Vancouver in my usual shorts and t-shirt, but since it was apparently the coldest April ever recorded, I am quickly forced to borrow pants and a sweater from my stepfather. I find the style of attire there rather amusing, even the hairstyle, which looks like locals had just crawled out of bed and slipped into their comfy pajamas.
It was so unusually cold that my beautiful hard feet from 12 years of
walking barefoot around the world cracked at the heals!
Contrary to the Philippines, where a large part of the population are children, the average age in Vancouver seems to be in the mid forties. Also contrary to Manila which I had just suffered, Vancouver has spacious and empty roads, cars neatly parked and the sidewalks completely free! I enjoy the two hour walk every day to my mom’s place for lunch, strolling through quiet neighbourhoods with rich houses, old people jogging slowly in their pajamas with their dogs. If Prague is called the city of a thousand spires, Vancouver should be called a city of a million trees. Quite the nice change from Manila.
Is this some humorous misspelling and subliminal message to the people?
Even the cemeteries are spacious.
Walk with mom and cousin.
As usual my mom loves to spoil me with her fantastic cooking, as per my request all the things I have been missing for so many years while traveling through Asia. She even gives me a Czech “uherak”, which is like a very heavy German-style sausage, to take to my airbnb place with other goodies. I happily munch on that as I work on my computer in bed, but I guess it is not the best move for my indigestion, as I experience a few emergencies during my long walks the first few days there and have to improvise in forested parks and back alleys, once even struggling too long to unravel the string belt of my pajama pants. My mother wonders why I show up with the pants inside out and my stepfather wasn’t pleased to hear the news, so my mom buys me a new pair from the local Cosco’s.
Easter lunch at mom’s.
Stepdad doing his manly duties of preparing the duck.
Typical Czech Easter meal of roasted duck with bread dumplings, different coloured sourcrout,
gravy, with hanging eggs in the background.
Closeup of the eggs which, traditionally, we paint ourselves.
Mom and sis joking around.
I visit some old friends, successfully open a bank account, assign my mother a power of attorney to represent me and off I am to Seattle, my sister renting a car for the three of us, since the main reason my cousin is visiting is because she will be joining a round the world sailing boat race.
Cousin showing us her fancy sailing race gear,
but according to the video below, I think I could do without!
Crossing the Border
Through my sister I manage to score a bunch of weed, which is quite welcome, having freshly arrived from a country where the president happily supports extra-judiciary murder for such use. I finished the batch but have a bunch of roach clips left over, so I rip them apart to roll together one last massive joint before crossing the border into the United (police) States of America.
But I am somewhat concerned having heard a story from my dad, a respectable businessman who was given 20 million dollars by the US government to invest into the Czech Republic shortly after the fall of Communism. We both have the first and last name and apparently his butt was once searched at the border on his return to the country. Through their grimace they did not reveal to him why, but he later deduced it must have been what I wrote on the net. I consider myself an activist and subscribe to various news feeds. One informed me that Bush junior had vetoed a majority vote in both the Congress and Senate to ban a certain machine gun. In the protest form I was offered a little box to write my own personal message that would be sent directly to the president. I merely commented that he might consider the safety of his family if he insists on keeping such deadly weapons on the street. I later learned that it is a criminal offense to threaten the president in this way.
So in this ultra stoned frame of mind I am approaching the border, worried what is in store for me. Of course I begin to get paranoid, but the car line is long and slow and there is enough time to go for a walk in a nearby park while our rental car snails its way forward and the girls jabber away in the front (need a break from that as well).
We finally make our way to the stall and are asked to put on our hazard lights, pull our vehicle over to the side and present ourselves as a group inside the building. While inching forward in the car, sis points out all the cameras aiming at us from different angles, carefully making note of our movements and analysing for potential rogue personalities. This predictably sets me less at ease.
Once in the building I see groups of various nationalities explaining their situation to the interrogating official. When initially crossing the border, the Canadian side has an empty field full of yellow daisies between the entry and exit lanes, but once crossing the border, on the US side there is a tall monument and various neatly trimmed bushes with a tractor lawnmower buzzing round and round between them, which I refer to as the daisy killer. The US side of the border is very neat and proper and, together with the big monument, has a very imposing feeling compared to where I just came from. In the building there is a great sense of power while police constables stroll variously according to their jobs with an air of “We wont take the slightest shit from anyone”.
After about half an hour it is finally our turn to make our way to the counter, where we are greeted by a rather jolly looking fellow. The situation seems more promising. Especially when we learn that the problem concerns my UK cousin, who had arranged all the particulars back home, but at the end of the day she is just now crossing the border from Canada and requires the proper entry stamp.
He asks us how we all plan to leave the country. My sister says in a few days once my cousin teams up with the sailing crew. His attention then turns to my cousin, who buoyantly explains in her colourful Cambridge accent how the boat will be freshly arriving from China, that she will be joining the next leg, which will take her through to Panama and back up the east coast, then on to the UK from New York.
This obviously perks his attention and he too becomes very colourful in the conversation, even drawing the attention of his colleague to his right, while his small group of Asians also gape at us with open mouths. I casually lean over the counter and even throw a few jokes into the conversation to lighten the atmosphere. Eventually his attention turns to me. I explain that I will be visiting friends while at the same time on a “business trip” (as instructed I should explain during my last traumatic entry into the country), that I will fly out of Los Angeles in two months back to the Philippines, where I run a boat tour company. To which he gruffly replies, “Well, that’s not so interesting,” and hands us back our passports.
Discussing this issue with some friends later, I was informed that apparently Obama had deleted the or a big part of the database of supposed terrorists who were automatically added four s’s (lets think of the German SSS under Hitler) to their flight ticket, since the procedure of adding dissidents to this list was somewhat arbitrary during the initial building of this police state. Since then it’s been rebuilt but I guess I should consider myself fortunate and I find my travels along the west coast quite pleasant thereafter.
Arbitrary stop on the way to Seattle.
One thing I find similar here to Vancouver is the drivers’ obsession to stop in the middle of the road as you step on it to cross. Polite overkill and it can be frustrating as you time yourself perfectly, staring at the rear bumper, only to find all cars in both directions have slowed down to a stop and are waiting for you to complete your crossing. Any conscientious person would feel guilty jay walking.
Pigging out at a fine Mexican restaurant in Seattle.
But in many other respects it is rather different. For example, vagrant zombies abound. Tent cities of homeless people set up underneath overpasses. The friends I visit all complain about this, how people on the west coast are so compassionate that they allow this in this moderately warm weather, but then have to suffer excrement in their backyards (lets ignore my accidents back in Vancouver). The government offers them food and shoes, the latter of which they might quickly sell for another hit. Walking the streets I’d see them talk to themselves, point up to the sky in wonder, one woman motioning with her hands with a splash against the wall every five steps while uttering “Touch!”, as if to protect herself from a curse.
Buzzed out on crack, meth or whatever, these zombies often stagger their way forward with outstretch hand asking for another handout, which I find a humorous contrast to the supposedly poor people of the Philippines, where during my three year stay I have very rarely ever been asked for spare change by an adult.
On my first day in Seattle I go on my usual mission and pass a loitering group of zombies, some of whom are passed out sprawled out on the pavement. One of them looks more sound-worthy so I ask him politely if he knows where I can buy some beer. To which he sarcastically responds, “From the store?” Obviously not as helpful as Vancouverites.
I meet up with some old friends from back in Prague and then it is off to visit another friend I had met in the same city, now living in…
This is one of many islands northwest of Seattle and to which I get a ride most of the way with sis as she was heads back to Vancouver. Since I have some time to kill I ask her to drop me off at the beginning of the ferry town. I check out my maps.me and see what looks like a nice park along the way, so I pack my bag with beers and launch onwards for another pleasant stroll.
But in this part of the world, a park is more raw nature. It feels great to get another whiff of God’s country, as B.C. labels itself just to the north.
Free tourist material to explore.
Still on the mainland walking towards the ferry (background and waiting).
I catch the 6 p.m. ferry and make a b-line to the bar recommended by my friend, one which brews its own beer. I was told by my sis that in the entire United States it is okay to drink beer in public. I later found that this is not true, so I guess I was fortunate not to run into any problems as I wandered the streets consuming blatantly.
Now on San Juan, public murals.
I walk into the bar with my beer in hand and ask if I can finish it inside if I order and pay for another one, but the bartender responds, “You’ve got to be kidding. That is against the law!” I finish it outside and come back in to the same spot. I sit down on a bar stool, order a beer and notice a gentleman sitting next to me who seems tickled by my introduction. Turns out he is a friend of the person I am planning to visit. We chat and soon enough we head to another bar, where my friend joins shortly thereafter after the fellow informed him where we are.
Above, the menu of micro brewery beers at the pub,
brewed right there, the good ol’ brewers below.
Jammin’ at the brewer’s pub.
My friend liked to take his doll out everywhere while traveling around the world
and figured my visit was worth the occasion.
I later learned from my friend that this fellow is a native American (falsely called an Indian because Christopher Columbus thought he landed in India when he landed in America), who they prefer to be called First Nations, and that he had served in Afghanistan for a few tours, murdering at least 57 in the process, some in meat grinders, some of whom were apparently still alive during the process.
Veggie burgers in organic country.
A two mile walk to the “bud hut” where I could legally buy dope. The girl working there was practically ecstatic when I pulled out all my ID on my second visit (Filipino and Thai drivers licence, Czech passport and so forth). They don’t get around much here!
Below is some local art at one of their shopping malls.
My friend is excited to have an old friend from Prague visiting him. Back in Prague he had worked as the personal assistant for the band leader of the Killing Joke, composing both heavy metal and classical music. My friend would often find himself standing behind this high energy genius with a ready glass of whiskey in one hand and a joint in the other, waiting for the next instructions, and would frequently brush shoulders with the likes of Vaclav Havel and other famous people.
My friend sitting across from me, his landlord to his left. Lots of doobie smoking here!
Like myself he had long been struggling financially, but now has stumbled on a good gig, working as a waiter in a high end resort on the island, pulling in tips of around $500 a day. He had grandiose plans taking me around the island, to neighbouring islands, and had even reserved a helicopter which he wanted to surprise me with, but somehow instead we always end up staying in his little basement flat chatting away and drinking beers. He was very glad to have another eccentric to talk to because the locals are the usual suburban family types with little worldly experience.
The locals are super nice, perhaps even more so than Vancouverites. Here, even as you approach an intersection and look as though you might want to cross, all traffic stops as they stare at you, waiting for your decision. I manage to open a bank account here as well, essentially accomplishing my North American mission, after which it is…
Off to LA
I take the skylight train from Seattle to San Francisco, a beautiful scenic ride through the mountains and along the coast. During the day I stay in the lounge car, with a domed glass ceiling, a free tour guide explaining some of the wonders, but where beer unfortunately costs $7 a pop. At the next big stop, in Portland Oregon, I decide to pick up for myself a 12 pack, but on returning it is announced on the intercom that it is forbidden to bring alcohol on board, that all must be purchased from the lounge car, and that failure to do so will result in immediate ejection from the train and that the next day a replacement ticket will be extra expensive.
I find my previous empty bottle that I had purchased still where I left it, and decide to buy another one just to be safe. I overhear one gentleman in the seat in front of me asking his neighbour if he can watch his seat for him, offering him a drink in exchange. His neighbour declines but I step up to the bat and graciously offer my assistance. He goes down to the restaurant and returns with a bottle of beer and a bottle of champagne for himself. I learn that he is celebrating his 80th birthday. In this way I accumulate three more bottles, and now having an arsenal of five empties on my table, I decide to risk it and surreptitiously transfer the content of the 12 cans into one of the bottles. Once it got dark I return to my seat and sleep like a baby, as the seat next to me is empty and the seats on trains can be stretched out almost as flat as a bed.
The famous Golden Gate bridge in background left with the famous Alcatraz prison island far right.
People picnicking by the bridge, below oyster bbq.
Just a playground for kids.
I certainly burned my thighs during this day long walk up and down these steep streets of San Fran!
In San Francisco I stay at the Green Tortoise Hostel, the same company I will be taking the famous scenic bus ride down to Los Angeles, and spend the entire day walking around town, to the famous Golden Gate bridge and through various parks. It turns out that as many as 30 people can fit on these buses, but fortunately there are only eleven of us, nine of whom are females, then a male and female driver taking turns. I was slightly concerned that over the next three days the prevailing conversation might revolve around cucumber peels on the face and other beauty secrets, but it actually turned out to be quite pleasant. While the girls usually do touristy stuff, I’d grab my maps.me and walk through parks.
Because I had originally anticipated opening a bank account in LA, I had arranged to stay for two weeks with an ex-girlfriend from Prague. She is now married with two children and her husband is totally cool about everything. To pay my rent I take their dog for daily walks (first time and unpleasant experience of having to pick up doggie poop with a plastic bag), treat them to some meals, help around the house, and it is nice to quickly become uncle Karel, as I always seem to get along great with children.
Some interesting things I learned while there. In the past every house would be adorned with all sorts of fruit trees and vegetables in their garden, but at some point the evil capitalists spread a rumour about a certain parasite, scaring everyone into cutting everything down. Now there is a slow comeback and my host has started growing a tomato plant on the public strip of grass on the other side of the sidewalk from her front yard. And then there is the “California Stop”, when you slow down to a stop sign but don’t actually come to a complete stop and count a full second in your head. Failure to do so will result in a fine and the requirement to retake a driving course, total costs amounting to roughly $500. As opposed to in Mexico where everyone completely ignores the sign and you just drive slowly straight through, carefully weaving through the cross traffic. Or in a lot of Asia where the vehicles weave around each other like fish in a turbulent river, often going the wrong direction. It seems the evil capitalists want every excuse to increase consumption in the form of replaced brake pads and fuel use. One irony is that I have generally witnessed car accidents in the west, but almost none in Asia. Seems that when you treat people like babies, they tend to become that way.
An accident I came across in Vancouver during my three week stay there and long walks to lunch at mom’s. Knocked over a lamppost. How is something like this possible when everyone drives so carefully??
Playing uncle Karel with my host’s kids.
Now I’m back up in the mountains with my friend in Coron ready to launch my big adventure of the Philippines. During my American trip I decided to change my strategy somewhat. Back in San Juan my friend had no shower and suggested I sign up for a short term membership at the local gym. Not only did I superbly enjoy their hot tub after every workout, but also getting slowly back into shape, as it was difficult to motivate myself back on the island. Also, I want to leave room for flexibility, so I decided I will leave much of my stuff here in the mountains and only take with me the bare minimum: my small backpack, viola and ukulele, so I can keep traveling around the country. If I do stumble across an interesting project and decide to settle down for a while, I can always come back and pick up the rest. But I like the idea of floating around the country indefinitely. However, in each larger town I’d like to stay at least a month, using their gym, take dance and martial arts classes and so forth. Do some research and make sure to hit all the tourist sites, documenting them for my own website in order to expand business. And why not start now? My mountain friend has graciously offered to lend me his motorcycle and tomorrow I will explore this island for a couple of days. Now I just need to reactivate my gopro camera, as it has laid dormant for three years, the battery might be dead, and last I checked the waterproof casing has cracked. Nothing that a little ebay purchase cant resolve, but with more than 7,000 islands to see in this great country, I am sure it will be a wonderful adventure spanning several years.