Thursday, December 18, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 2 (Part 2)

Walking across the large parking lot from the hot springs, we arrived at the gondola. We were disappointed to find that the last trip down was in 20 minutes, and the operator told us there is about 45 minutes worth of trails and sights to see up the mountain. It was a good thing that I didn't hike up there! I might have been stuck up the mountain if I did, and have to hike all the way back, downhill on slippery icy trails. Anyway, we decided to do the Banff Gondola some other day.

The walk back was long and cold. Near the Banff Springs Hotel, we saw a buck with large antlers leaping out of the woods to cross the road, which startled me a surprisingly large amount. I started taking pictures of it, and noticed that no one else seemed to have cared it was there. I guess the people who have been in Banff for a while find deer in town just as interesting as I find squirrels around where I live. Afterwards, I took a quick walk around downtown just to see it, and bought a phone card I can use to call my parents. The walk back up the hill to the hostel in the dark was both relaxing and haunting. It was great to see the stars glowing brightly against the backdrop of tall mountain peaks. However, I kept my eye out for bears, wolves, and cougars that may be lurking in the dense forest around the road.

When I got back, I took a shower to rid myself of the stench of sulphur I took away from the springs. While doing so, I made the mistake of not taking my keys with me to the shower, and was locked out of my room in my boxers! Well, I figure I was lucky this was the only time this has happened to me so far. Not bad, being locked out in your boxers only once in about three months worth of hostel stays! Seeing that it was well below freezing outside and the reception was in a different building, I decided to look for help in the hallways. Knocking on my room didn't help as no one was in there, so I knocked on Kim's room, which just happened to be right beside mine. I was so relieved to see Kim's smiling face open the door. After about ten minutes of standing in the halls in my boxers and sheepishly smiling at everyone passing me giving me curious looks and glares, Kim finally returned with the key. She told me that it took her a while as she just realized she didn't know my last name after they asked for it, but mercifully, the receptionist gave her the benefit of the doubt.

Since it was still early, I just relaxed in my room for a while, where I met one of my new roommates, Bethany, who just arrived from England. She was going to stay all winter here and look for a job. At dinner with Beth and Kim, I tried Kokanee beer, and Beth tried poutine. It was a challenge not to eat her poutine as I was hungry, and I had been looking forward to returning to Canada and eating poutine for nearly a year as I just can't seem to find it in the Bay Area in the States! Afterwards, we went to the bar, where the real fun for the day started!

My time at the bar was spent in two distinct phases.

I split a pitcher of beer with Kim. We met Beth's friends from England, who had all just arrived and were also looking for work. They were immediately absorbed in their conversations, which left my and Kim to talk for a long time and drink. Soon, we were on our second pitcher of beer. At this time, I started seeing things in a more rosy light, and the hostel bar was getting full. One of the English guys had a Japanese version of cup-and-ball called kendama. We all marvelled at how ridiculously good he was at it and all of us took turns trying to replicate his moves in the most sloppy manner as were were all starting to feel our drinks by now. This is when I met the Kiwis sitting beside us as they also tried their hand at kendama.

As we are finishing our second pitcher of beer and contemplating when to get our third, I noticed that the Kiwis had a huge pile of broken straws in front the then. The bartender, a feisty but friendly Asian girl came over, picked up the pile, and threw it at them and they shouted friendly insults and witty responses at each other. Curious, I leaned over and asked what they were up to. One of them held out a tightly coiled straw and told me to flick it. I was enthralled by the straw popping and breaking cleanly in half, but apparently everyone else has seen this before. I'm not sure how to missed out on such an amazing trick for so long in my life! At this time, I was having fun, along with everyone else around me. As we finished our third pitcher, the Swiss from my room came into the bar and after a short talk, he bought a shot of Jägermeister for me. Now, if I had been on the road for a few weeks, this would be no problem, but seeing that I haven't drank that much in a while, was still working on getting over a cold, and I had only got three hours of sleep the night before, I was really feeling the one and a half pitchers of beer plus a shot.

We spent the rest of the night talking and stealing straws from the bartenders, creating pile after pile of broken straws in front of us. The Kiwis told me that they were in Canada as part of the New Zealand Army and Navy who were undergoing bomb disposal training in Medicine Hat which they endearingly called Med-Hat. At this point, I was thinking unclearly enough to join the fray when they started arm wrestling each other even though I knew they were military men and I haven't practised kung fu or been to the gym for about half a year since I moved. Of course, I was thoroughly and quickly humiliated. Before going to bed, Kim, the Swiss, and I stumbled out into the cold to watch the stars for a while. We finally wobbled back to our rooms at 3 in the morning. One important development from this night in the bar was that I proposed renting a car the next day to explore Lake Louise, which Kim and the Kiwis enthusiastically agreed to. The unfortunate thing about that was that we agreed to meet in the lobby at 10am.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 2

I woke to the sounds of people packing and leaving in the morning. I was groggy and tired, but also excited to start exploring. After laying in bed for a long time, I got up at 10:30, took a quick walk around to see if there were any good places to meet people and to check out the hostel restaurant. The Hostelling International Banff Alpine Centre was quite impressive. The building I was in, the new wing, had a large cavernous atrium with exposed wood beams and a gas fireplace. Each room had en suite washrooms and personal shower rooms in the hallways. It was very clean and comfortable for a hostel. Not finding anyone around after my walk, I returned to my room to prepare a day pack and go exploring. Returning to my room, I found the person who had been coughing all night tending to a nosebleed. I had a short conversation with him. He was from Switzerland and was taking a long road trip all around North America. He told me he was going skiing later in the day, and as he had a car, I was tempted to go with him, but I decided I should take it easy seeing that I was still getting over a cold and got only three hours of sleep last night.

After getting a map from the hostel, I started waking down Tunnel Mountain Road toward the town centre. As I was coming up with a plan on how to meet other travellers, I saw a girl ahead of me stop to take a photo of the beautiful mountains around us. Not wanting to spend the day alone, I jumped at the opportunity to meet another backpacker, as I always do when I am on the road by myself. Walking up to where she was, I pulled out my camera and said "That's not a bad idea! I think I'll take a photo here myself!" Although a bit contrived, it was a conversation starter. From what I have seen so far, almost all travellers are very friendly once you make contact so it is important to make the extra effort to introduce yourself to others. I found out that her name was Kimberly and she was from Vancouver. Like myself, she was visiting for just here for a few days. Since she didn't have any plans for the day, we decided to stick together to keep each other company.

After a quick stop at an info centre and a mall for a quick breakfast in a very pretty and festive downtown area, we decided to walk to the Banff Springs Hotel before proceeding to the Banff Gondola and the Upper Hot Springs at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Although we wasted nearly an hour walking in the wrong direction, we eventually found our way. Crossing the bridge over the Bow River, we took some photos. It was very pretty there. There were tall snowy peaks in the distance, lush green pine forests ahead, and the quaint downtown area was overshadowed by its backdrop of an enormous rocky cliff with stands of snow clutcing on to the bare, steep rocky face.

After nearly losing our way again, we finally get our first glimpse of the Banff Springs Hotel. It was magnificent, a large stone building looming majestically over dense forests against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. I found it rather more severe looking than the Ch√Ęteau Frontenac, but due to the smaller size, it seemed less imposing and intimidating. Connected to it was a rather more modern conference facility, some car parks, and a kitchen with a vent spewing large amounts of steam that clung to surrounding trees as a glistening layer of ice. A helpful landscaper told us where to go for a nice view of the hotel, but I found it rather difficult to capture the feel of the place on film, simultaneously stern and inviting.

Continuing on behind the hotel, we entered the trail system which surrounds the town of Banff. It was a short hike of about one and a half kilometres to the Goldola and Hot Springs. On the way, we talked about the wildlife in the area as I read online that there are a lot of deer, elk, longhorn sheep, bears, wolves, and cougars around. I was keeping an eye out just in case we bumped into one as I haven't been in a forest in an area with such a high concentration of wildlife before. After a while, we ran into a small steaming stream and we caught whiffs of sulphur in the air. We were pretty excited as this means that we were close to the hot springs. After yet another confusing trundle around a large building that didn't seem to have any doors, we emerged out of the forest and onto a road leading to a large parking lot in front of the Banff Gondola.

In my sleep-deprived state, I was surprisingly tired, although I was surprised at the amount of altitude we gained from the trail. Seeing that Kim wasn't that enthusiastic about the prospect of hiking up Sulphur Mountain, we decided to go soak in the hot springs instead. Outside, in front of the building, there was a small pond and a bridge covered in an orange residue and filled with ice. I hoped that the hot springs were still running as I have heard that in the winter, the flow of the hot springs become drastically reduced. Luckily for us, the hot springs were still producing enough water to fill the pool that day.

The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a modern facility. The main attraction is a large swimming pool where the water from the spring is collected. From the pool, one can gaze out over the glass railings at the forested valley below and the snowy peaks around it. One of the mountains across the valley had a curious spiral pattern of rock near the top which is a testament to the geological stresses that created the Rocky Mountains. After soaking for about an hour, we decided it was time to take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain to catch the sunset. Walking out dehydrated and all wrinkled, I saw a sign that said "Maximum suggested bath time: 20 minutes."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Banff and Calgary - Day 1

Wednesday, November 26, 2008. Landing in Calgary at 9pm after a 3 hour flight with some very friendly Air Canada crew, I feel lucky that I booked this trip. I had booked this trip less than two days ago, after my week long trip to Hawaii was cancelled with less than two days notice. My friends, who I was supposed to go with, were asked to stay for work as their team was falling behind as an important deadline was fast approaching. I reflected on how unlucky I had been at trying to take long vacations. Last time, I had to cancel my vacation after being hit by a car while cycling, and this time my friends had to put in some extra time at work.

Anyway, the important thing is that I am here now. Although I arrived alone, it was better than spending a four day long weekend back in San Francisco without doing anything really exciting. Being perpetually affected by the travel bug, I was very happy to finally be out of town again.

After picking up my bags and going through customs, I took a cab from the airport to the Greyhound station as I had only two hours to purchase a ticket and get on the bus. On my cab ride, I chatted with my driver, who was from Punjab. We talked about my visit to India, life in Calgary, and the recent situation in Mumbai. Along the way, he pointed out to me certain sights of the city, including a cheap hotel where all the heroin addicts stayed at. I had thought the cab ride would only cost about $25, so I was horrified as I watched the metre tick ever higher as we approached the brightly lit downtown core and drove past it. Arriving at the Greyhound station, I begrudgingly paid the nearly $50 in cab fares and bid my driver good-bye.

I still had about an hour to burn after purchasing my ticket, so after asking the ticket counter for directions, I went out for a walk to find something to eat. I was very content feeling the familiar nip of winter around my ears and face. I really do miss the cold and the snow while living in San Francisco.

After a failed attempt at finding food, I started crossing the street on a pedestrian overpass. There was a view of the downtown core there, so I decided to take my ceremonial first photo of the trip there. Bracing the camera against the railings, I snapped away. As I was busy taking the photos, I noticed a bulky young man, perhaps just slightly older than I am, approaching. I asked him where the nearest convenience store is, and he told me he was looking for the same thing. He was very upbeat and invited me to join him, so I did. After a bit of walking, we started crossing some train tracks in a rather empty and abandoned business area. At this point, he turns to me and says "Not to scare you or anything, but I just got out of jail." I was extremely amused by this and smiled. I thought about how I would be freaking out in this situation if I had encountered it two years earlier, before my travel adventures. In this case however, I felt quite comfortable around him as he seemed to be a nice guy. It turns out that he was arrested for taking a drunk fight a bit too far. As we were walking around, we talked to a few other people who seemed familiar with jail life. Arriving at a convenience store, he grabbed a cigarette and a Coke to enjoy after being deprived of them for months.

We eventually found a Mr. Sub where we grabbed some food, and ate back at the bus station. We talked about what life was like in jail and the vast differences between the jails in the area. I learned that the worst thing you call someone, at least in jails in Alberta, is a "goof." I also learned that if you should never show that you are afraid of someone or do anything to provoke the guards as that will be set you up for a good beating later on. He told me of all the wasted talent in jail, but I was happy to hear that there are programs to help prisoners learn valuable skills and get an education while incarcerated. Pulling out items from a large paper bag, he showed me some of his souvenirs from jail, drawings of his fellow prisoners, his bead work that he learned in prison, and told me stories of other creations from his buddies. He told me that jail had been good for him. He quit smoking pot, stopped drinking, learned to be patient with life, and found God. He even game me a few book suggestions that I will follow up on when I get a chance to.

When the time came, I boarded the bus bound for Vancouver which will drop me off in Banff. There was a crazy mute that repeatedly made decapitation gestures to the bus driver in the station. He seemed to be telling people either that he saw a decapitation or saw someone related to it. This put everyone on edge as it was clear he was referring to the recent decapitation incident on the Greyhound bus in Manitoba. After a quick security check, with one person from the American military being turned away for being drunk, the bus started up and rumbled out of the terminal.

As we pulled onto Highway 1 westbound, the bus driver announced the estimated arrival times and break length of the various stops throughout the night. This reminded me of my trip on overnight buses in Europe, and a rather romantic wanderlust feeling came over me as I thought of the people who are taking the bus all the way to Vancouver. As we pulled away from Calgary, I can see a tight vertical cluster of brightly lit buildings in an otherwise flat sea of light behind us as we ascended a hill, passing by the Clagary Olympic facilities. Eventually, I started seeing dark shadows of tall hills against the starry night as we neared Banff.

I got in at about an hour past midnight. Taking a cab to the hostel, I checked in, found my bed in the dark, set up the pillow covers and sheets, and went to bed at around 2 after a failed attempt to socialize with a group of people drinking in the lounge. Someone in my room was quite sick, and he kept me up until after 5 with his coughing, so I wasn't looking forward to waking up tomorrow and having a full day of adventure. I decided to take it easy the next day.