Reflections on traveling by bike

A year ago today, Guillaume and I bumbled awkwardly down Vancouver’s 6th Avenue toward Argentina. It was the first day of fall. That morning I had woken to the sound of rain falling on my roof like a stream of nails.

Guillaume finished assembling his bicycle on my front steps and I patted my dog for the last time. 

We rode two blocks, stopping at an intersection. A bicycle commuter rode up behind us and asked, curiously - “Where are you two going?” We responded - “Argentina!” 

We had similar reasons for leaving Vancouver. I was a recent graduate, impatient with Vancouver eating its young and eroding its community with its soaring cost of living and own narcissism. We put aside thoughts of family and stability, girlfriends and ski seasons. We left with little concern for the roads’ asperity or challenges ahead. 

The allure of the Pan American road was always obvious to Guillaume and me. It was without a doubt a vast and quixotic idea to bike to the end of the earth, through a continuous stretch of highway which would take us through the geographical and cultural landscapes of two continents. But there was more to this: we felt a responsibility to deliver a different narrative about a world we considered our backyard. We wanted to see the 'fly over country,' the places in between, to fill these in with texture, context and meaning. The bicycles would provide the perfect window. 

Cannon Beach, Oregon

It’s surprising how low-key it all was. We had no sponsors and little money. There were no road guides or maps. We had no prior experience biking over 30km, and our bikes were built on my doorstep on the day of departure. Guillaume dubbed the trip “Two Dudes on Bikes,” and would reflect this sentiment riding the entire way in flip-flops, overgrown hair and ripped T-Shirts. We decided that the road would be the great teacher for our ineptitude, that we couldn’t control everything, that we’d learn to be “Easy Riders.”

For two individuals born to winter, we chased a summer. Marked first by a three-week episode of Northwest rain storms, it evolved into moderate Californian coastal breezes, the dry heat of the Baja desert, and the blistering sweat and humidity throughout the tropics.

Back in Vancouver, we often talk about the end of our trip cogently: we made the right choice to return to Canada, that we can always go back, that it’s important not to live as nostalgists, to move on. At night five months later I find myself insomniac, recounting memory glimpses, an inventory of experiences of everyday minutiae. Our days are no longer marked with deprivation, long rides, salsa music, stray dogs biting our heels, military checkpoints, tarantulas, iguanas and camping, but rather our own countries’ leisure and wealth. No longer do we bath in rivers and gas station bathroom sinks. 

We finished the bicycle trip when we found ourselves broke and dreading the miles ahead. Guillaume wanted to surf and continue south, I wanted to be alone. We ended up in the small Ecuadorian coastal town of Canoa; Guillaume surfed, I read Jack Kerouac’s tales of travelers existentialism in the corner of a bar. I was looking in the wrong places for a voice of sobriety and reason, uninspired by Kerouac, the tall-tale telling expats and the cocaine surf bums. I wallowed, feeling the special type of guilty insecurity reserved for low and mixed up middle class males who don’t know what to do with their relatively unfractured lives. I decided to leave Canoa, telling my good friend that we might meet up in a month in the south, in Brazil, maybe in Argentina. Secretly I knew this was this trips last goodbye. 

I took the night bus back to Quito and decided to retrace my steps from a past journey. I would gather some traction, the journey would become conclusive but expectations can be the most nasty desperate of things. I went from town to town, midnight bus to midnight bus watching the Andean night pass through condensed windows, rising later over the mountains like it was backlit for a movie shot. I finished my journey in Cuenca, in the far south of the country, throwing up in a hostel room before being rushed to an Ecuadorian military hospital. 

Somewhere within the incomprehensible and unimaginable Spanish diagnosis, I understood I had contaminated blood and an infected appendix. My brother had had his appendix removed one year prior when it became highly malignant; after it burst he spent two weeks in the hospital as the resident ‘tender tots,’ a sarcastic nickname given to my 6 foot-4-inch, pale, immobile brother by a nurse.  Now it was my turn to be a “tender tots.”

I was wheeled into a military ambulance alongside a Colombian mother and her young daughter, who had slipped on a passenger bus. The ambulance siren blared uselessly in a traffic jam as the sergeant driver tapped the wheel to rhythmic radio salsa and made small talk with our nurse. 

In the surgical ward I watched the doctors gloom over an American medical buyers guide, talking like children waiting for toys to arrive in Spanish medical lingo. I always imagined doctors performing surgery to Bach’s cello suites. I was put to sleep to “Ice Ice Baby.”

I woke up the next morning minus an appendix, plus three scars and a shaved abdomen, sitting in a private room tangled in an I.V., watching it drip and hearing the monitor beep. With an excess of time, I watched strangers wheeled into dark corridors by indifferent chatty nurses, I counted the ceiling tiles, I watched The Simpson’s in Spanish. I wanted to send a merciful email or call my mother who is hardwired with a motherly catastrophic imagination, and whom I left on the previous days cliff hanger phone call - “mom I’m not feeling well, I need to go to the hospital.” Supportive friends from my hostel came and visited, three recent strangers who had adopted the role of family - Martha my Ecuadorian mother, Laura my hip New Yorker sister and Kenny - a benign fatherly expat in a denim jacket who said things like, “how you feeling sport?” 

It was my last step on a long journey, and in the next days I flew home aboard the midnight plane, trying to imagine the familiar dark landscape below which we cycled for seven months. In eleven hours I was in Canada, watching airport televisions play Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s space shot music video of David Bowie. Sick and jet lagged, I had somehow wound up in my own “space oddity.”

Benjamin Button said it best - “It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”

One month after deciding to end our bicycle trip in Ecuador, I asked Guillaume how he felt to be home. He replied despondently, “I feel at home on my bicycle seat.”

We felt like animals pacing in a cage that summer, longing for travel and the unknown, torn between these two places - Wanderlust, and Canada. We spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile the two, but even in Vancouver we felt like refugees, somewhat restless and unmoored. 

For me, I wanted things to be normal again - but the map at ‘home’ is never charted. 

Now, our conversations with people rely on scripted platitudes, jokes and cliques, while I often dread telling the story of our recent escapades, reducing our eight months on bicycles to the manageable domaine of “it was fun.” I try to elaborate on risk, what we ate, where we camped, our robbery. I listen to the questions people undoubtably have about how we survived Mexico’s drug violence without begrudging them. The most difficult thing is to reflect on our experience - then and now - and to give some coherent conclusive shape to it.

It’s still like living in an aquarium, the rest of the world moving at a different pace and time.

I worry that my inventory of experiences are fading from memory as my life is now filtered by Google coloured glass and the ho-hum five o’clock news. 

I miss the reckless abandonment, but mostly I miss the overwhelming generosity of everyone we met - directions, kind words, a family who sailed us across the Sea of Cortez, an American firefighter and his girlfriend lending us a bed when I was sick, giving us $200.00 for a rainy day in a bleak and portentous place. Our trip was a kind of tonic to the narrative of an idle, stupid, ignorant and cruel world. 

It’s difficult to explain everything bicycle touring taught me, without sounding awkward, insincere or ridiculous.

Our goal go “far, far away” simply changed, and as tantalizing as our eight months on bicycles was, sometimes what we're looking for was at home the entire time. Today, we're almost as far from the Andes as is possible, and ‘almost’ is ok. We worked together this summer as high rise window cleaners. Now Guillaume is studying programing. I am studying documentary film making.

But in the end, a part of us will always be two dudes on bikes.

This post is dedicated Guillaume Vassas, best buddy and cyclist extraordinaire.  

The Military and the Turtles

“What are you doing here?” A young soldier, working as a gate sentry in at an Infantería de Marina military base near Barra de Nexpa Michoacan State, challenged me. “I’m looking for a place to camp on the beach – is it possible here?” Not really understanding my Spanish, he replied, “you want to see the turtles?” “Si” (Sure, that will do it)!

I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I entered the base. In Canada, other than during the solemnity of Remembrance Day ceremonies and recruiting shows, the military is seldom exhibited in public. I consider this to be a healthy thing, almost a luxury to have a separation between the military and the public, a society where soldiers train outside of the public sphere and are seldom used to police domestically. In Mexico the distinction is lost: the police and military often appear to go hand-in-hand, a constant presence with troop carriers passing on the road, vehicle checkpoints and door-to-door patrols. In Zihuatanejo Mexico, a modern tourist and fishing town, we watched a vehicle convoy of masked soldiers ride past us at midnight through popular alleyways hosting nightclubs and cantinas – for the locals this isn’t alarming, it’s normal. 

I had grown accustomed to this daily occurrence and was now really curious to see inside their world, as a novel and interesting experience. As I marched my bike past the gate and pushed it through the sand, I watched young men painting rocks and filling sandbags, soldiers running on the beach in olive green T-shirts, and an older man lying in a hammock – whom I presumed was an officer. I felt obliged to make my presence on base known, and so I asked the man in the hammock where I could pitch a tent. He gave me this complacent look which read – ‘I really couldn’t give a shit, kid.’ I set up camp between a military obstacle course and, oddly enough, a turtle refuge.

Aside from their mandate to protect oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and fight the ‘War on Drugs, the personnel on this base protects turtles against poachers and seagulls – I found this strangely endearing, in a ‘benevolent soldiers giving candy to children’ kind of way. 

After I cooked and ate my dinner, I was approached by a man in a crew cut and a sharp tailored mustache who, naturally, asked what I was doing. I was shirtless and soaking wet, having just returned from a quick swim to wash off sweat, sunscreen and road scum – I looked as out-of-place as, well, as a stinky, unshaven gringo on a foreign military base could be. After introducing myself to Patricio, I learned that it was his job as a ‘marine’ to both guard and protect the turtles as he pounded his chest with pride. Zoo keeper by day, soldier by night – I thought. Instead of admitting that I had reached the end of my day, steered off the road toward an mango orchard field and accidentally ended up at his base, I said I really just wanted to see the turtles. Excited that someone had taken interest in his turtles, he whispered – “is it just you? … I can show you the tortugas.” (I had separated from Guillaume a few days prior, planning on meeting up later, and I was experiencing a kind of individualistic ‘walk-about’ as I rode alone.) We opened the gate to the turtle refuge and peeked around looking at the turtle eggs. He pointed and said, in an non-negotiable tone, that he would wake me early in the morning to release the turtles into the ocean. 

I feel asleep to the sound of soldiers on ATV’s buzzing around the beach, then awoke to the sounds of Patricio whispering outside my tent, “Hola amigo — are you ready to see the tortugas?” He was wearing a large wool sweater and pants, and was excited to show me his turtles make their first journey into the ocean. I jumped out of my tent wearing flip flops, a T-Shirt and shorts. He looked at me inquisitively. “Aren’t you cold?” It’s winter in Mexico, and I’ve been asked with this question since we entered Tijuana. I never before thought it was “a Canadian thing” – but after 2000 km on Mexican roads, I’m certain it’s a trait of people from northern climates to walk comfortably in what many Mexicans would consider almost naked. Entering the refuge, I met with the biologists (also clad in large hoodies and pants) who were documenting the turtle eggs. One of the biologists, Carlos, told me that Leatherbacks grow to be the biggest turtles in the world, then handed me the egg of one just then breaking out of his shell. I stared as this very tiny, critically endangered animal as it emerged from his shell. In my ignorance of turtles I could not at first discern him from the gooey mess in the shell, but I felt a serious sense of wonder and amazement – that something so small and vulnerable, even with the help of biologists and heavily armed soldiers, must squirm across the beach braving aggressive opportunist predators, tumble into the swell of the violent ocean full of larger marine predators, then instinctually figure out life in a world that includes a heinous human “fine dining” culture that relishes the eating of endangered species. For all the wrongs of human existence, giving turtles a little bump is a small gesture. 

I was taken down to the beach with Patricio and another soldier and we gently tipped the turtles from a small basket onto the sand. Soon, the waves swallowed these small creatures and pulled them into it’s powerful swell as seagulls watched hungrily from a distance. Patricio noted with a wink that the senoritas love the turtles – I’ve heard this logic before with dogs, but I’m convinced the ‘senoritas’ have caught on to our game. I left the water, bid farewell to Patricio and started to pack my bike.

As I packed, Carlos came over to invite me in for breakfast at his research station near the refuge. For hours we listened to R.E.M while making eggs, tropical fruit salad and Nescafe, and talked about turtles, his work in Costa Rica, and North America’s entertainment obsession with Mexican drug cartels. Eventually we said our goodbyes, and as I left Carlos threw me a pack of cookies, saying, ‘Buen Camino.’ When last year I walked a section of Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, “Buen Camino” was a common acknowledgement of one’s journey, an expression of support and a wish for safe travels, literally “have a good road.” It’s one of my favorite expressions, and as I left the beach and the military base, I thought about the turtles and their daunting journey into the wild. Buen Camino, tortugas.

Life on the Top - a photo, video and written essay about my experience working as a highrise window cleaner

The author sitting on the roof of the Woodwards Building (Vancouver, B.C)

The fastest elevator in the city feels like the longest ride of my life as we hurtle toward the 61st floor at two floors per second. The padded maintenance elevator doors open to ornate light fixtures, marquetry-style carpet and bamboo grove themed hallway. Roaring 20s meets Tibetan kingdom fantasy. We pile out juggling rain gear, harnesses, hoses and squeegees. We’ve reached base camp and prepare to make our final ascend two stories above the highest penthouses in the city onto the roof of the Shangri-La Hotel. As we summit, the vacuum-sealed door opens to the capricious howling wind. The roof is empty and lifeless but for the hotel’s giant rotating fans. No finely dressed concierges in purple robes welcoming their arms when people walk in. There are no water features, rooftop gardens or bamboo themed walls, only giant security cameras, a floor of crushed gravel, and the unsavoury smell of sewage gas vents. The North Shore Mountains hug the city like a giant horseshoe. We can see Simon Fraser University and, across the American border, Mount Baker, the barns of Southlands to the bistros of downtown. Oil tankers rotate in English Bay - like a painting, their profiles are a distinctive part of Vancouver’s Gateway into the Burrard inlet. I look over the edge of the vertical glass and steel precipice. The noise of sirens and jackhammers rise from below, so muted the sounds accentuate the isolation. 

    “You’ll learn to cope with the height after two weeks,” Mark grins, reading my false confidence. Mark is the lead electrician on this building and under his tutelage, greenhorns like myself learn in one hour how to “fly” the crane-operated swing stage - a platform the size of a large shopping cart.

I  feel like a fraud as I wrestle into my fall protection harness, and climb into our Swing Stage. 

Mark casually presses the remote controller with the serenity of a man riding the children’s ferris wheel. The crane lifts us above the roof, over the gravel platform, over the private swimming pool below.

“You ready?” he asks.

“Sure.” My voice cracks as I stiffly grasp the safety bar with white knuckles. Just looking at those old black and white photographs of iron workers dangling from girders, casually eating their lunch, made my palm sweat. 

The turret of the crane swings outward. Our shopping cart sways sickeningly over the edge.

“It’s pretty simple” Mark explains. “You go up, you go down.”

“This erection looking button makes the boom extend, this turns the crane.” Mark’s sexual innuendo rings hollow: I’m just trying to focus on something stable and familiar, less exposed and vulnerable. As the stage swings out the boom squeaks, a new sound that puts every one of my senses on edge. My mind careens into the violent imagination of my body skewered on a fence pole 700 feet below. I think about earthquakes, fires and the competence of an engineer in Germany who designed this machine. But then ‘Where to Pee’ looms as the most complex issue. 

“Do you have any questions?” Mark asks. “No? ... Well, you’re an expert now!” 

In that moment I miss the irony of such a sophisticated design for a trade which only uses water and dish soap. 

I spent part of my summer cleaning windows in a neighbourhood where socks can sell for $40.00 a pair, whose inhabitants’ tastes for luxury have been cultivated over the years with purchases of sports cars and patronage of expensive restaurants and boutique groceries where square watermelons sell for $200.00.

I feel like a zoo keeper,  momentarily peering into the lives of Vancouver’s exotic wealthiest while cleaning seagull shit off their windows. Mostly I witness empty and lifeless rooms, or offices exhibiting the tedium of cubicle life. These are not all fat bejewelled developers whose sole existence is to eat the world, mostly typical life is on display through these windows - unmade beds, recreational drugs on coffee tables, Apple computers. 

There’s no subculture to this job, no window washers’ lore. It’s actually a pretty lonely profession, performed in isolation 700 feet up a glass and steel wall.