Travel Europe blog
Take a few pictures of the Rockies I did, but the driver’s licence seemed a bit more difficult than I had first imagined. A friend of mine in Vancouver told me that, with the onslaught of Chinese immigrants due to 1997 in Hong Kong, and their supposedly notorious terrible driving, insurance premiums sky rocketed while I was away, and in response to that the driver’s examinations have become so much more stringent.
Or I thought perhaps because of another reason. I was told many times how East Indians (please, don’t call me a racist, I know I’m not) had this system where, in Vancouver, they would buy a dump truck and each member of a family would take turns driving it for a period of 9 weeks – long enough to be eligible for their unemployment benefits. As you can imagine, soon enough, each member of a family would be collected maximum unemployment insurance, with one person actually working (officially), all of them living in tight quarters, until they save up enough money for another dump truck, and perhaps some plane tickets to invite other members of their family on board. In Vancouver it’s dump trucks; in Alberta its taxis.
Or another friend of mine tried to get a plumber’s licence in Vancouver. A Czech friend who already was a plumber in the Czech Republic but who tried to get his licence in Canada. Well, the plumbing industry in Vancouver is apparently also monopolised by East Indians, and my friend complained it was rather difficult to get a licence, considering the instructor was speaking mostly in Hindu. He is no dummy, but he managed to fail three times, the maximum allowable, and he is no longer eligible to apply for the licence again.
Well, the get-a-driver’s licence industry in Alberta is certainly monopolised by East Indians, and I found myself having to take the test FOUR TIMES!!
Not only did I have to point out that two of my “mistakes” on my written exam were certainly not mistakes, the road test seemed to be subject to various nuances and inclinations by the examiner. I am certain that nowhere in the road manual is it written that the speed limit in alleys is 15km an hour, or that a “full stop” at a stop sign means stand still and count “one thousand and one, one thousand and two”, before commencing. Or if I am driving down a deserted residential neighbourhood, approaching a stop sign, I must activate my right blinkers to get into the right lane (in case another car appears and needs ample room to get by me in the opposite direction), but make very sure to shoulder check to my right and look if there is a driver in the last parked vehicle along the curb and who might be ready to start moving forward.
Okay, I can see some validity in this, but does anyone ever drive like this? And all they would have to do is say so in the manual – I can certainly manage something silly like this if instructed so. I was getting so nervous with all these minuscule “mistakes” of mine that, at one point, the examiner told me to stop trying to impress her with my perfect parallel parking. Just do it and get it over with.
Besides, one of her applicants accidentally rolled up a bit onto the curb – deserving an instant fail, of course! Or in Calgary the pedestrians seem worshipped like gold (there is apparently a 500$ fine for not giving them the right of way). I was approaching a red light. I stopped. And then proceeded to make the requested right turn. After the road test, the examiner said she was not too happy with that, that it would have been better if I did not turn right at all but rather waited for the green, but that she “let me get away with that”. But as I was turning right, the light turned yellow, and then green (that’s the way it does it there), turning green just as I was already half way across the pedestrian crosswalk on the street I was entering. In that moment a woman across the street stepped onto the street. I continued sailing through, as any normal person would. Well, that’s a major mistake, deserving a fail, of course!
Anyway, I think these people are just trying to employ themselves. So, what was supposed to be a simple 15 dollar operation, the savings of which compared to obtaining a licence in the Czech Republic almost paying for my entire plane ticket, escalated into a 400$ migraine. I failed twice in Calgary. I already cancelled one bus/train ticket and was soon due in Vancouver for Christmas, so I continued on to Edmonton to visit an old high school roommate and try my luck there. Yup, still East Indians.
Since my friend’s car in Calgary tended to stall and contributed to my persistent failures, I now started renting vehicles from the examining offices (aaah, falling right into their plan).
The examiner ended my road exam curtly and said I needed to hire an instructor (his brother, perhaps?). So I paid for a one hour lesson by an instructor, to learn of all the things I had to look out for, and took the test a fourth times (renting their vehicle a second time, of course). The third time, one of the reasons I failed was because I was too “hesitant”. I mean, how can they expect me not to be hesitant? By this time I was absolutely paranoid of the slightest “mistake” I might make… Anyway, I managed to pass the fourth exam with flying colours and off to Vancouver I was. Unfortunately, I still needed to hand the proof of passing the road test to a registry office, which was opening half an hour after my train was departing the next morning (I could have accomplished this if I didn’t fail my third test earlier that day).
So off I was on the magic train through the Rockies to Vancouver, and then to Whistler. It was a beautiful ride, except for the fact that I killed half the day over the prairies before hitting the Rockies, and the fact that it gets dark so early this time of the year (hence I could not see anything). So next morning I rolled into Vancouver and off I was to Whistler.
It was supposed to be the best opening ski season in almost a decade, with a rich blanket of excellent snow. Apparently many stars (why does Bruce Willis seem to be everywhere I am?) flew in and the road up there was quite slow.
Huge globs of snow settled incessantly from the sky and Christmas with the family was truly magical. Managed one full, butt hurtin’ day of snowboarding, and I must say it is nothing compared to my snowboarding experience on the mole hills in the Czech Republic.
New Year’s was approaching and, as usual, the government is consistent in its failure to catch up to the twentieth century, where such things as faxes, emails, FedExs and notary statements exist. So it was back to Calgary by gruelling 18 hour bus ride (is there a reason Greyhound had to design the seats so they would not tilt back far enough to be able to rest your head, it always bobbing forward and waking you up, forcing you to try to get some sleep by leaning in an awkward position on the seat in front of you?), to hand the government there proof of my passing the road test.
I must mention that Vancouver and that whole area was experiencing its worst and longest cold spell in something like 50 years. Seattle was also under a heavy blanket of snow. So here I am trying to escape the cold winter, for the first time in my life, and it is not working very well. In any case, I am proud to say that I stuck firmly to my principles and kept my shorts on the whole time since my departure from Prague.
So back in Calgary I was, by now about –17°C, to hand them this piece of paper. I already paid the 15 bucks to have my picture taken the last time (why couldn’t they wait with the picture until I had passed the road test?), but of course that was erased from their computer and I had to have another one taken. That done with, I went back to my friend’s place and helped him with packing (he was making a move eastward at that moment, to Morocco, just as I was making my move westward, and then southward). While at his place I received a call from Ottawa that my signature was too light and “incomplete”. Apparently the scan settings of my signature were not set right, so I had to go back to the registry office for a resignature and for a better scan. At that moment, the thought that I would have received this message once already back in Whistler did not appeal to me too greatly.
So I pressed the pen real hard, quadruple checked the scan on the computer, received firm assurances that everything should be okay now, and the next morning I was off, a second time, to Vancouver. But now that my friend was soon (the next day) to fly off to Morocco, there was a new problem – how to get the licence to me once it arrives at my Alberta “residential address” (his flat). So I bought his brother a fancy bottle of Scotch and the matter was apparently settled.
Finished with Whistler and now to hang for a bit in Vancouver.
Different things to do in case you get
bored in Whistler.
It is funny sometimes how small things remind us how long we have been away from somewhere. I arrived at around 8:30 in the morning, and the whole day I was amazed to see all the Chinese tourists, not realising until around 3:30 that they actually live there (over half are non-white, around a third Chinese). So back in Hongcouver/Vankong (as they say) I was, partied with my sister and some friends, and eventually made my way south to Seattle. There I planned to do most of my setting up.
The first order of the day: a vehicle. [Tips on how to buy a used vehicle]
Official handing over of the keys! More pics of my van (after the trip, tried to sell it through my X-girlfriend in LA, but she sorta lost it, boohoo)
After communicating with several people, I was recommended to buy my vehicle in the US, if I planned to sell it later there before flying out of LA. Usually a painstaking process in itself, but fortunately for me (at least something is going smoothly), the neighbour of the friend I was staying at was trying to get rid of a van. A van he used to travel and live in himself. A van with built-in bed frame with mattress, a shelf system for my clothes, and a secondary, boat battery which can be drained to nill (unlike car batteries which should only be drained to about 80%), with all the necessary wiring to get going right away.
Gotta test it out before heading out! To the right, a new Coleman portable camping shower. Never actually used it yet. Youth hostels and friends’ houses are easier.
Well, that certainly seemed like a gift from heaven! So, with a 2,250$ purchase, another thousand to bring it up to travel and emissions standards, I was set to embark on all my remaining errands: buy camping gear (portable shower, cooker etc.); register and insure the vehicle; crowbar and car tools; sheets, pillows and blankets; open a muchly needed bank account for my business…
One major problem was that I determined there was absolutely no mobile signal on the west coast of the US above California – almost no people living there but only a few Indian reservations.
I surfed the web and the nature, with its old growth forests, and it looked absolutely beautiful. So this was one leg of my journey I was not willing to forgo. I researched heavily concerning a global satellite internet solution, or internet through satellite phones, possibly wifi by wardriving. I seemed to be a bit ahead of my time, as a reliable global internet service was only just in the making (there were many different global satellite internet solutions for different continents, ranging in price from 5,000 to 25,000$ for each region, but no global solution yet). For a “mere” 8,000$, I found one in Canada that seemed a good candidate to become global by the time I was to launch my world trip in the fall out of Europe. But since it would be a major money expenditure, as usual, I would first consult with God. A big no from him. Okay, next strategy.
One of the dogs of the dudes I was staying at.
The wifi wardriving thing didn’t seem so feasible, since I would be aiming my antenna at a bunch of dead-poor Indians, who probably would not be set up with such fancy equipment, so I started emailing everyone I could think of along the coast (forest rangers, park wardens, Indian tribe committees…), asking if any of them would be so kind as to let me use their telephone line once in a while to make a local call and hook up to my AT&T global internet roaming account. After a few responses like, “Yes, your request is rather bizarre. I will pass your letter on to other tech heads who might understand your language”, I finally received a response from one seemingly very cool Indian, who turns out to be half Czech!!!
Don’t bite me!
All this while still no news regarding my driver’s licence!
I didn’t have the telephone number of the landlord of my friend (who no longer lived there, by the way, and the flat was being repainted for new, incoming tenants), so I was dependent on his brother. The one I gave the bottle of Scotch to. It was getting very late in the game, my stay at my friends’ place in Seattle was beginning to wear thin, and this licence issue simply needed to be resolved. So I started making phone calls late in the evening, managed to get the telephone number of a very disgruntled landlord, and offered to pay people extra just to get this licence to me. My friend’s brother finally made his tail down there to pick up the licence, which had been laying in the foyer for two weeks, even though the landlord left a message at both the brother and father informing them of this fact. The landlord did not know me personally and was growing increasingly impatient to have to deal with this headache at all.
However, when the brother did finally show up, even though the landlord said it was there only just yesterday, my driver’s licence had mysteriously disappeared! The brother rummaged through the garbage and everywhere, but still nothing.
The friends I was staying at.
The next morning, all these continuous problems with this piece of paper made me that think that perhaps the hand of God was against me. But why would it be? After all, didn’t I consult with him back in Prague for his approval of my North American trip? Sure, perhaps I made my own conclusion that, having approved my North American trip he also approved my world trip, but why all the fuss? So, on that day, when I was supposed to accomplish so much and bring so many things together, I started it by consulting with God for two hours about my trip in general.
To my horror, I determined that he wanted me to abandon everything, I guess sell the van, and immediately go back to Prague to return to that legalistic church I once escaped from, and help them spread the gospel to that, oh-so-aetheistic nation. I was horror struck.
I must have confirmed these firm instructions a million times, and it was irrefutable. So, there I was, on the way back to G.I. Joe’s to return all the camping gear, after having made a few emails in preparation of my prompt return. Well (I thought), I won’t be able to leave from Seattle until Monday anyway, so I can return it all then, drive up to Edmonton, get my friend to sell the car there for me, and fly out of there (I wanted to get this licence resolved once and for all and this seemed a feasible solution).
However, over the duration of the weekend, I guess I decided to do something I almost never do – to go against the strict instruction of God. I’ll just finish my North American leg and see what happens once I get back to Prague. Too late in the game now.
Oops, ran out of pics, so I’ll fast forward ahead of the story. This should be somewhere west of Seattle, along the coast.
I was bummed out for having lost his support and having to do this on my own. Now I had to muscle my way forward by my own endeavours, to venture in the den of Mexican car thieves without the guiding light of the Almighty, and to travel down the coast of Arnie’s town and American rednecks in darkness and without the sweet support of his wing.
Now rather frustrated, I made several phone calls and sent a nasty letter to the Albertan government trying to convince them to FedEx me a new permanent licence to Seattle. That having failed, I made plans to drive to Edmonton, change my mailing address to someone more competent, and get a new licence sent out from Ottawa, extending my temporary licence an additional 30 days in the process (it was due to expire in less than a week) and have my permanent one sent further down the coast once it arrived at its new address.
But lo and behold! The day before I was set to drive out to Edmonton, I got a call from my friend’s mother that her husband had been there to pick up his mail only a day before, and hence the reason why my friend’s brother could not find it.
That now being sent to me by courier, I seemed well on the way to having the growing mess of loose strings tied together once and for all, with my final departure soon to follow. I made arrangements to rent a satellite phone, considering that my world trip could very well be cancelled (now that I discovered God’s disapproval), and only a few more things left to arrange. Oh yes! My international driver’s licence.
Having a translation agency with ads all over the internet, I am constantly bombarded by spam, much of which are assurances how easy it is to get an international driver’s licence. With this in mind, I naturally delayed this process until I was in the states, rather than deal with the additional bureaucracy back in socialist Canada. But I chose to research the internet more to make sure I do not become victim to some scam, stuck in some foreign and distant country, one day, with a useless piece of paper.
After extensive research, I determined that in fact it was a scam, and that I must return BACK to Canada to get this piece of paper. Fortunately, my temporary licence (which had about three days left before expiring) together with my Canadian ID was sufficient for this, and that with a minimal investment and only a few minutes it should be a rather painless operation.
Having set up an appointment with the satellite phone rental people and making many other arrangements that morning, I set out in the early afternoon for a brisk drive up to Vancouver – in my fancy new van – to arrange one of these last few paperworks.
I was excited. I was on the road. Not just driving around in the city doing various errands, but actually doing some long distance coverage on the highway! My stereo system still wasn’t set up, so I was joyfully singing to myself, looking for hitchhikers to add to the adventure. It was the first time in my life that I drove like this in my very own vehicle.
Approaching the Canadian border, I oozed into line, ever so diligently and perfectly within the speeding limits. Just another hour and I’d be on my way back to Seattle.
I rolled up to the counter and there was a friendly Canadian woman. I thought I’d be smart and tell her that I only intend to cross the border quickly to get my international driver’s licence, and if she could be so kind as to put some comment into my passport to make my journey back into the US more effortless.
She looked up at me, raised an eyebrow, and said, “Excuse me?”
So, after answering a few questions, I obediently pulled over to the customs. On request, started pulling out all the papers and receipts I had with me.
The big customs dude was rummaging through all my things.
Example of the much clear cutting I saw.
“Hmm, I see you withdrew seven thousand dollars in the last week. You really expect me to believe that you only spent 2,250$ on that van? Where is your receipt of sales?”
Much of the clear cutting looked like old growth forest. Large stumps nevertheless.
Well, of course, I didn’t have one, since I paid for it in cash to my friend’s neighbour.
So, this turned out not to be a simple operation at all. Apparently I was a Canadian trying to import a car into Canada. After some fancy smoothtalk and negotiating, the customs dude conceded and let me do a loop around the building back to the US.
So loop around I did and rolled slowly towards the US counter, on the other side of the building. Hmm, I guess I’ll just park my van somewhere and take a Greyhound the rest of the way. The last thing I want to do is drive all the way back to Seattle. Nope. No backtracking for me. I’m only going forward baby!
So I roll up to the US window, answer a few questions, an orange paper is slapped onto my window shield and I am asked to pull over into their customs.
Obediently, I bring all my paperwork and was directed to “Immigrations”.
Now, this being my “pilot and test trip” in North America for my world trip, I started to come to the conclusion that perhaps driving through all these borders might not be as easy as I thought. I mean, I AM Canadian after all, and I AM only going to the US!!
So, after answering a few more questions, I guess I wrongly worded one of my answers by saying, “I just wanna drive around your country and live and ‘work’ out of my van”. Now there was talk about getting a worker’s permit. He saw my Canadian passport, there was a US address on my vehicle registration, there was some mention of a translation agency in post-communist Czecho-slovakia…
Checking my email by some lake.
I would usually stop somewhere with access to as much an open sky as possible. Satellites circling the globe, each one crossing your space in 20 minutes, with 3 to 4 accessible at any one time. One falls out while another kicks in – a weak point where I may lose signal and have to start all over again.
He saw my temporary driver’s licence, asked me for my residential address, which I had to refer to by pulling out my Alberta tenant agreement (which I needed to get my driver’s licence…), which he subsequently asked to see.
Went for a walk in an old growth forest, still in Washington.
This should be day two or three of the actual road trip.
“Who is this person?” (referring to the name of my “real estate agent”).
“My friend.” (He was “subletting” to me).
“Who is this?” (referring to the “landlord”).
“My friend’s father.”
He raises his eyebrow. “I mean, son, this looks like you are just doing a bunch of paperwork to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
Dead silence from me. I mean, WHATEVER!!
Now I was getting annoyed. I had two of these dudes now leaning over the counter interrogating me with all these questions.
“But, if someone from the US goes to travel in Europe, stays in a hotel, and does some emailing, does he have to go and get a work permit while traveling?”
“I am not interested in how they do things in Europe.”
“But, if …”
Obviously, he wasn’t interested in my frequent ‘buts’.
Now I started imagining it was groundhog day (the movie), and that I would be circling around this building, each time trying to sweet talk the officers a different way until one of them let me through, stuck in the twighlight zone between two borders, in a nonexistent country, before escaping.
Another old growth forest, this time in California.
Most of my documentary is on video because my old digital camera had a small capacity. To download the movie, ya gotta email me.
But persisted I did with my buts. This was getting ridiculous and I was NOT about to cave in. I don’t care about Bush’s supposed paranoia, or his war to make his family more oil rich. I don’t give a shit about all this bullshit paper work. I’m just a Canadian, working off a Czech business licence, and I want to pursue my dream to drive around North America, down what I have heard so many times to be the beautiful Californian coastline (strategic comment, of course), lay on a beach in Baha Mexico for a couple of weeks, visit my mommy in Vancouver for Christmas for the first time in 11 years (sympathy can often also work), and simply answer some emails in the process, for God’s sake!
Oh yes, I was going to draw a map of my travels.
“Oh. I see. Well, let’s redefine this then, son. There’s a fiiiine line between working out of your van, setting up shop by the road and selling something to Americans, to just goin on a ‘business trip’, while having your legitimate shop set up somewhere across the ocean. This is referred to as ‘business travel’, and for that all you need is a six dollar voucher.”
Whatever man. Okay, next time I will know better what terminology to use when crossing the border. After all, that’s what the purpose of this pilot trip is for, isn’t it?
So, the two having consulted each other, both acknowledging to one another, “I don’t have a problem with that.” “I don’t have a problem with that.”, I guess they just waivered the six bucks and let me go on my way.
Drove down to the next bus stop, being Bellingham, parked my van and jumped on the next bus northward (still trying to get that international drivers licence in Canada).
Went to the border with only my notebooks in hand. Mostly everyone zipped through, but of course there had to be some issue with me.
“Are you telling me you only have two laptops with you and you want to spend a night or two in Canada, visiting your sister for her birthday, and you don’t have an extra bag with you for a change of clothes??” (The birthday angle was another sympathy maneouvre..)
Okay, big deal, so I’m a pig. What’s the f*cking problem?
Or he kept asking me, “And there has been no previous issue with customs?” I told him about today. “Only into Canada?” His eyebrow raised, in that now familiar fashion. Whatever man. Do I have a black mark on my “record” now or something?
So after further interrogation, looking through my laptops bag with gloves on and me having to explain my entire life, again, back in the bus I was and onto accomplishing another –you guessed it- stupid piece of paper.
Wanted to hug the coast the whole way down.
None of my friends answered their phones, so into the smelly youth hostel next to the bus station it was for me. In the stinky part of town. To drink some beer in the stinky pub, and play some pool by myself. Made me reminisce with fondness on those days back in Toronto when I stayed in the half-way house at the age of 21. Felt like a jail there, and many of the people there were fresh out of the penetentiary. In the youth hostel, slept in my stinky underwear (maybe I should have offered my armpit to the Canadian customs dude to convince him I truly am a pig and not part of some secret smuggling operation), in a not so stinky bed, and arranged my oh-so-important paperwork the next day.
Speaking of hugging the coastline,
this is what it looked like almost the whole way down.
Now I am sitting in an internet café, biding my time until my bus departs back to Seattle, trying to make use of myself by finally sitting down to record these series of events.
I have my international driver’s licence, my permanent one is apparently on its way to Seattle or already there, I’ve got two days left on my temporary driver’s licence, and only a few errands left to finally kick off this “little” dream of mine. I’ve already moved almost all my stuff into the van, various needed hardware has already arrived at my Seattle “address”, and it seems that, once again, I am near the turning point of yet another chapter. Hopefully this chapter (acquiring a driver’s licence) will conclude on a happy note.
The plan now is to take a romantic ferry across the bay from my friend’s place in Seattle, drive along the coast westwards to the most westward point of the US, and then slowly head southwards, hopefully with some friends I find along the way, making my way to Lake Tahoe (first friend along the way), Grand Canyon, Death Valley, highway 1 along the Californian coast, Las Vegas, Baha Mexico on the warm beach for a couple of weeks, perhaps managing to extend my flight back to Prague in the process…
After all, what else can motivate and inspire us to take the next step forward and enter another chapter in life than a little romance and hopes of dreams come true?
Next – Off to Yosemite and Beyond