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.

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