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Quitting the Topshop religion

10 Jan

If I’m ever idling in town (and that’s all I’m ever doing in town) part of my ritual is to pop into Topshop. It’s not that I’ll buy anything or even be entertaining the idea, I’m just there to take a look; to check in to that special universe. I don’t visit any other shop like this but Topshop is somewhat unique. Other high street shops don’t make such a good fist of aping catwalk trends. In recent years Topshop has also led the way in bringing an indie sort of style- edgy-rock chick-nostalgic-girly-  into the mainstream. There aren’t many other stores that manage to make mass produced clothing seem so iconic.

I may go to Topshop more often than I go to mass but I do not worship blindly. There are lots of things about it that I do not like. Over the years I’ve come to detest the attitude of indifference and superior cool it seems to celebrate and cultivate. The difference between euro and sterling prices is ridiculous. These are fairly petty misgivings though, what bothers me most is that this shop which holds itself out as a leader in quality on the high street, which attaches itself to cool causes and plasters liberal slogans across its t shirts and bags, is that it systematically violates human rights in the manufacture of its products. I’ve known this for a couple of years and while it made me angry I didn’t stop making my little pilgrimages and occasionally even indulging in a purchase. I mean I would still tell the odd person how evil i thought Phillip Green was, raking in billions while expecting those who made him rich to live in appalling conditions, but I didn’t do a tap to change it. Until today when I read this article http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/mark-donne/topshop-phillip-green_b_1191380.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false and I thought about a little piece of wisdom I heard on Frasier (where I learn all of my life lessons really) – if you aren’t willing to get involved then you can’t complain when you don’t like the way things are. So I decided to raise a bit of awareness among folks on facebook https://www.facebook.com/#!/events/145157558932604/ and suggest a boycott. After all Topshop can’t keep doing what it’s doing without customers so we have the power to change things. It shouldn’t be too much of a hardship for students either since the place is so overpriced anyway.

I realise that Topshop is not the only major retailer guilty of unethical trading practices. Why not boycott them all you might ask. Well to begin with financial realities mean I can’t always take the moral high ground on these things, but at least shops like Primark which have similarly poor standards don’t hold themselves out as being a superior class of shop. Topshop sneers at cheaper competitors, it charges 3 times the price for clothes that are supposed to be of better quality and yet they are made using the same cruel and cheap practices. A large number of high street chains have opted to join the Ethical Trading Initiative (for a list of members see http://www.ethicaltrade.org/about-eti/our-members), while some might see this as a cynical PR move membership means that the ETI will investigate these companies in order to ensure certain standards or met and shows a commitment to making at least some improvement to their production policies. Topshop has not joined the ETI and shows no inclination to do so. I think a blanket boycott of the high street is unrealistic but targeting one of the biggest and most influential culprits could really make a difference. If anybody at all happens to be reading please consider giving up the luxurious experience and fabulous fit and going elsewhere for a while. Let’s see if  Topshop will listen when we vote with our feet.

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A New Dublin Departure

22 Oct

All Summer I looked forward to the return to Dublin, relying on the notion that the start of a new golden age in banter and antics was imminent. I mean Sunday M.A.S.S. and waterside activities on Sligo’s far more attractive beaches provided plenty of laughs and lovely moments, excitement even, but I was sure getting back to the capital was going to involve opportunities for entertainment I wouldn’t find in the smaller town. I mean beyond going for pints or coffee. I’ve always felt the main selling point of cities is that they bring so many people together that the inevitable result is all kinds of unusual events and odd activities, the product of lots of creative minds, inhabiting small spaces and being forced to interact, staying up too late with their friends and striking upon genius new ways to delight people. Yet for the first 6 weeks of term I find myself doing what I have always done. Going to college. Going to night clubs. Going mental dancing. Recovering. Meeting up with people for chats. All very lovely activities don’t get me wrong. i don’t want to stop doing any of these things. Going out is brilliant. it’s just that with college mattering this year going out 3 week nights is no longer a viable game plan. So there’s a need to find new things to do, preferably cheap, which involve neither drinking nor being in the house. Things I can share with other people. That brings you up to speed on future plans then, for the next few weeks I’m going to be trying new things, bopping along to events I wouldn’t normally frequent and generally exploring a little more of what I know DUblin has to offer yeh know? Everything that’s worth shouting about will be given a nod here so stay tuned if you ever in fact tune in at all

A Proper Goodbye first

6 Sep

There have been a lot of ideas since Canada. All kinds of distracting notions have drifted into my mind and unfolded into rants and manifestoes and projects. It’s not surprising, the smallest thing can inspire and for all my moaning about idle Summers spent in Sligo, it’s a pretty brilliant place and it hasn’t been entirely devoid of goings on. Even boredom can force creativity; trying to occupy oneself can lead to insane thoughts and intricate plans. Yet I haven’t written a thing and after all these weeks what compelled me to start at this craic again was a packet of photos from Canada.

I got them back today, they were developed from a disposable camera I bought on April 29th to document our road trip with Kyle but which ended up being used to take snaps of all my last adventures in BC. I opened the folder as soon as I left the shop, still walking until I saw Celia and Helene smiling at me from the first picture- then I had to stop.  I had forgotten even taking it but it brought me right back to that moment – my last day, waiting for the bus to leave, a  Moguls cookie in my backpack. It’s mad; you forget that when taking a photo you don’t just record what’s in front of the camera but also how you felt at that moment. Looking at each of those pictures I felt at home. I loved the people and places that I was fixing the lens on,  and being there with them everything seemed right and bright and brilliant.

The images of Tommy Africa’s and Whistler and getting ready for Stacie’s birthday also brought on a heavy sense of nostalgia, a feeling that was probably long overdue.  I didn’t cry on my last day. Perhaps because the experience was incomplete then; I was still living part of it even as I was leaving. Now two entire months have passed and the photos have made me look at it as something that has ended.  Which it has.  I will go back some day but it was those ten months, with those people that made it what it was.

Of course things weren’t perfect at all times. There was still a lot of moaning about having to walk long distances with backpacks and skis, there were terrifying essays and massive queues for dodgy night clubs and now and again you missed home. That said most of the time it was fairly deadly and everybody seemed to flourish being there. Some places are more conducive to that than others. The beauty definitely helps. It is hard not to be inspired when you are never far from hypnotising, breathtaking views of ocean and awesome overgrown forests that climbed and clung to those vast dramatic mountains, as inescapably present downtown as they were from the Rose Garden in UBC or from Celia and Kirsty’s kitchen window, forming the reassuring backdrop to every adventure and upset.  With all of that in sight it’s hard just to stop yourself from smiling.

I spent a lot of time staring at things in awe and I definitely reckon it does the old soul good to be exposed to natural delights but it goes without saying that the people I met were pretty central to the success and general brilliance of the whole experience, I mean I’m a big fan of mountains but they are pretty deficient when it comes to making you laugh. I feel safe in saying that anyone who engages in a bit of travel or faraway living comes home with a few new lifelong friends. We are as motivated to wander as much by a desire to meet new types of people as to see exotic places and famous sights and Vancouver and Whistler and Hope and the Island surely delivered on that count. I must warn those of you appalled at the sentimental tenor of this blog of late and this post in particular – things are probably going to spill into the downright saccharine at this point. It starts with this sentence: I am so feckin’ grateful for the friends I made.  We were like a family. A cafe crawling, weird dancing, road tripping, hitch hiking, couchsurfing, fort building, exploring, Metropole whoring, making the most of the outdoorsing, bit getting, third handing always awesome laugh having family. From those guys and even from the people I met for just a few hours or hung out with for  a weekend I learnt so much. The noise a zebra makes, the power of positivity, the definition of salivation army on urban dictionary, the importance of having a goal and a vision. My favourite lesson though, and I guess it’s one all folks who do their little bit of travelling learn sooner or later, is just this: people are awesome. They are generous, tenacious, brave, hardworking, witty, passionate, they’ll go out of their way for you, tell you their life story and listen with interest to yours, help you solve a problem, bring you on adventures, change the way you think about things for the better.

I reckon that’s enough cringey expressions of emotion for a while. With that off my chest that’s the book closed on Canada, hopefully I won’t forget about it. Plenty of new adventures with old friends (and strangers) to look forward to and all kindsa ridiculousness in Dublin, banter and antics and all (to be written about in an off hand cavalier way to counteract all the recent earnest personal stuff, apologies folks)

For the benefit of my Darling: Recent ridiculousness in Whistler and the Island

12 Jun

It doesn’t matter that it comes every year, each time Summer rolls around the delights it offers seem fresh and new: long evenings where you can sit outside on your deck (or driveway/windowsill if you don’t have one); walks to the beach that might actually include swimming; music festivals; road trips; holidays and; fruit stands on the side of the road (in Ireland some of these sell strawberries AND potatoes) . Much like with the Rory Gallagher festival I can never quite explain why Summer is so brilliant until it’s here and then suddenly I remember all of these things and terrific excitement builds up.

This year whenever I thought of Summer it was with a feeling of apprehension bordering on dread. As much as I was looking forward to getting exams over with and having time to just  wander around Vancouver and Whistler guilt free my lack of concrete plans for the 2 months in Canada I had left once my final papers were in was filling me with all kinds of panic. It didn’t help that every time I spoke to anybody from home they wanted to know exactly what I would be doing. I know it probably seems ridiculous that i didn’t have it sorted. But the idea of applying for a working visa or investigating under the table work or a J1 just seemed too herculean a task when trying to cope with exams (and fitting in the last bit of whistler time) so did keeping this blog up to date actually… So i let the time pass, really there was enough going on to keep me focused on the present, and just like that Summer crept into view.

The first week all thoughts of choosing a summer lifestyle were put on hold as we opted to go on a bit of a leap of faith road trip with a perfect stranger.  It came about in the most seamless and marvellous fashion. The afternoon before finishing exams Stacie, Freda and myself were sitting in the library trying desperately to avoid writing papers or doing any kind of depressing cramming,and we got onto the topic of road trips and how awesome it would be to see more of BC, if only we had a car.  Then in one of those flashes of freakishly good luck that have become almost commonplace this past year we found Kyle. I was just skimming through my e-mails when one from the Vancouver couchsurfer group caught my eye. Somebody was hoping to go camping, he just needed companions to help fill his car/tent and pay for gas. We shot  him an e-mail and that was that, 2 days later we were in the back of said car swapping couchsurfing memories and figuring out where we should stop to buy beer and marshmallows.

Vintage Hanging out in KelownaThis little holiday saw us revive the lost art of ‘hanging out’, you know back when you were a teenager, still living in a small town where your socialising options were limited both by a general lack of independent funds/ transport/ appealing places to go, and the added hindrance of being underage. Instead of meeting your friends for coffee or going for a beer it was a crate of Rolling Rock in a windy field, or maybe no Rolling Rock at all, just 5 or 6 young ones and their imaginations, cue four or five hours of absurd conversation and at least 3 uncontrollable laughing fits. We tested the hanging out waters in Kelowna,  Sicamous, Salmon Arm, by Margaret Falls and on the Kettle Trail and the little beach at Herald campsite.

On reflection the best spot was definitely the beach. So for any teenage readers and the nostalgic hanger out who now has a car get yourselves to a beach if you want to create cheap amusement from limited resources (we spent a good three hours totally engrossed by a very competitive game of ‘pebble log’).

Our travels in the Okanagan region also led to our building our SECOND fort of 2011 (yep we were all about the revisiting childhood past times around this stage). The first came at the instance of my dear friend Helene. Others doubted whether we could build a fort big enough for 16 people to sleep in, or that we could build a fort at all in fact. But Helene had a dreeeeeeeeeam! Ignoring the skeptics and overcoming all kinds of obstacles (including a couch that really didn’t need to be turned over) we managed to produce this:

The exterior, clear Moroccan influence

Fort exterior, Whistler April 2011

Interior...I really thought it was necessary to include this, just to fully impress upon all reading the fort's unimpeachable epicness

Unfortunately life can’t be all fun and fort building and when the Okanagan explorations came to an end it was time to weigh up my options and decide finally what Summer was going to have in score. I could stay in Vancouver and work on campus or take my chances elsewhere, WWOOFing on the island or working in Whistler. I may have given this decision a bit more thought if I hadn’t gone to Whistler for a little visit (it had been 2 entire weeks since our last ski escapade). 3 days of the usual insane fun and the choice was made . At the time the idea of getting some kind of cash paying job as a babysitter or employee in a  mafia run factory (Kyle told me about these, they exist) seemed fairly realistic and the draw of built boys on bikes, long days sunbathing, swimming in lakes, spring skiing and dancing to dubstep while getting all kinds of merry was just too strong. plus you know there are a few people living there I’d be kind of fond of. So a few last days were spent in Vancouver, a much looked forward to birthday was celebrated in hilarious fashion at that pillar of Vancouver night life the Metropole. Breakfast was eaten for dinner, cafés were crawled to, and there were some last revisits to Lynn Canyon and Granville Island. Bags were packed in a rushed manner (too rushed, I have serious concerns that my precious lumberjack shirt has been left in Marine Drive forever) and then I was stepping off a bus to begin a sun drenched Summer in the most brilliant and ridiculous place ever.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this there was a jaunt to Victoria: Scooters through the city; barbequed moose; s’mores; stalking peacocks; that kind of thing. Though no fort was built, we did stop off at this one. We also hung out more, it was becoming a right old trend. With that flying visit to the Island over (and summed up here in similarly brief fashion) I had to face up to some less splendid happenings.There was the small, devastating matter of saying goodbye to Stacie (at whose request I have written this post) and Freda. Without my partners in couchsurfing/hitchhiking/mountain and everyday adventures I felt rather lost. It was all I could do to go out and get ridiculous in that special WHistler way. It’s a very different place in Summer, in early May it is at its quietest, the bike season hasn’t opened but enthusiasm for skiing and boarding is dwindling. Yet the snow stubbornly refused to stop falling, well past the first week of May there were powder days in Whistler, with fresh tracks until the last run for the few who ventured up the hill. In the village Tommy Africas was closed (tragic) with other bars hiring new staff for the busy summer to come. There was talk of buying tire tubes to ride down rivers and dinghies for spending lazy days in the middle of the lake (superior to tubes really since you can take a beer and a book onboard). People were moving houses, changing jobs. Business may have been slow but locals were gearing up, making the necessary preparations for this new summer landscape spilling over with opportunities for new laughs and frolics.

I got to hang out in that awesome environment for a couple of weeks before it became abundantly clear that employment that didn’t contravene the terms of my visa was not forthcoming. Without a job spending the rest of my Canada days in Whistler made very little sense. It’s a great place but it’s not for the empty of bank account. It was time to check out WWOOFing possibilities. For anybody who hasn’t heard of WWOOFing it is yet another incredibly clever internet initiative that lets one travel all over for minimum costs. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and the long and short of the program is that organic farmers sign up to their national wwoof website as hosts and travellers can come and work on their farms in exchange for room and board, learning all about different types of organic farming in the process. Countries all over the world have their own WWOOF sites and networks, most have an annual members fee which you have to pay before you can see the locations of hosts or read their details but in some countries there is no charge at all. With so much fresh fruit and produce coming from BC there is plenty of demand for WWOOFers in Summer. I emailed a few farms on the sunshine coast, north of Whistler and on the Island and almost all got back to me wanting to come either immediately or in the next few weeks. In the end I chose a farm in the Cowichan valley on the east coast of the Island, said goodbye to married Kiwi companions and family dinners and got my hitch/ferry/bus on to my new home/place of work. It’s a big change of plan. We’ll just see how the rest of Summer plays out.

The photos in this post are not mine, I have stolen them from Celia Burnett and Stacie Jay Godfrey!

Naked on a bridge at Nanaimo (or the view from Vancouver Island take 1)

7 Jun

You meet some pretty awesome people on exchange. One of the brilliant things about these new people is that each one brings something different to the table. In the case of my dear friend Bones it is nudity. I’ll elaborate- Bones really likes getting naked. And while naked she has done rather a lot of interesting things. So she’s always encouraging of any activity that might involve getting the clothes off and when she heard that Wild  Play in Nanaimo were trying to raise funds for the BC Schizophrenia Society by hosting a naked bungy jump she didn’t waste any time signing up and spreading the word to the rest of us (God only knows how she found out about it actually…was she just googling naked bungy in blind hope?). My initial reaction to the idea was mixed; a bungy was something i would never forget doing and it was a thrilling excuse to spend a few days on Vancouver Island, which i had yet to visit. But in the nip? Leaping naked from a bridge in front of a crowd of spectators definitely didn’t appear anywhere on my bucket list.  But then a lot of the best things that we have done this year came from last minute decisions or unexpected ideas. So we paid online, locked it in and all that and besides the odd day when we’d all be sitting in a cafe eating cake and somebody would suddenly say ‘you know we have to be naked in public in about 6 weeks’ we just let the day get nearer without giving it much thought.

Then suddenly it was upon us. We got ourselves to Nanaimo, sorted some couchsurfers and early on March 5th (yes I realise it’s taken me a while to publish this) we made the short drive out to the jump site. Curiously there was no wait to register; we had expected a heaving crowd of excited naked folks psyching each other up, chanting clever slogans incorporating the theme of nakedness and giving one another motivational massages, a sort of carnival atmosphere really. But there was only the odd nudie wandering around, with others concealing their modesty under fur coats and grass skirts. After we had the admin behind us we idled at the base of the bridge for a few minutes to catch a glimpse of what was in store for us. A girl of similar age jumped just as we came up to the railings. It was worse than I’d feared; even at quite a distance away you could see EVERYTHING, and hanging upside down from a rope that has you bouncing all over the place is not exactly the most flattering position to be in when wearing only your birthdaysuit.

With that image in my mind I was seized with a desire to get the whole thing over with so having stripped down except for an easily pulled off strapless dress myself and my 7 cojumpers started the climb up that seriously intimidating set of stairs to the top of the bridge. I may have mentioned this earlier but one serious advantage to signing up to bungy naked is that you don’t really spend much time being nervous about the actual plummeting from a  bridge part; the prospect of stripping off is pretty distracting, but now that we were actually looking down the 55m of thin air to the river below the old fight or flight was starting to kick in and adrenaline was spinning around my insides like a hummingbird. I was going first because at moments like this the longer i have to wait around and think about what is about to happen the surer I am to hesitate and need coaxing off the ledge. While the others watched the people ahead of us in line make their dives or jumps or arm flailing falls i was having the harness tied around my ankles. For the only thing that’s keeping you from well….falling head first into a river it’s a surprisingly basic set up- they just wrap a towel around your ankles and then attach the rope to that, but I wasn’t going to go doubting these guys’ expertise. With my feet bound the moment of truth had arrived- not wanting to delay I whipped my dress over my head, got the ‘ok this is me naked’ over with in front of everyone in line and shuffled to the edge. At this point there was some confusion; the lad in charge asked me did I want to get dunked in the river. I told him I did, just down to my waist and when he’d adjusted things accordingly I asked ‘was that it?’ meaning ‘can I go?’ He nodded, turning away, so I jumped,  thinking this was all the advice i needed. Apparently I was actually supposed to await further instructions on how to jump without damaging my spine. Luckily the only technique required is to put your hands out above your head, which wouldn’t you know came kind of naturally anyway. But the lesson here for anyone reading and considering a jump in the future is that no matter how impatient you are to get the waiting over with wait for the guy to fully instruct you before jumping as you may miss something important.

Anyways he turned back around to tell me what I needed to know and at this point I was somewhere in the air. For the first few seconds my body had no idea what was going on; one minute it was on solid bridge the next it was floating, then slowly turning upside down and gathering speed. At least my brain had some clue as to why I was in this position or I probably would have panicked. Then suddenly I was seeing the tops of trees, the crowd of people watching, the railings the banks, all rush by until I hit the water, hard, plunging right down to my ankles (not my waist….stupid bungy technician man). I was still processing this change when the rope pulled me back up and I started to bounce. As soon as i could breathe again all I could do was shout out how awesome this was; the bouncing was intoxicating, the weightless feeling addictive. Any residual panic was gone and I was laughing and swinging my head around trying to see everything from my new upside down angle, but after 2, maybe 3 repeats I was slowing down, and then there was a guy in a raft holding out a pole (with a glove on the end, nice touch) for me to grab so I could be lowered down. I couldn’t believe it was already over. Clever bungy people, it’s so short you just want to do another one immediately, what a perfect moneymaking scheme!

It could have been a bit awkward being pulled onto a raft naked by someone you’ve never met and waiting for him to untie your feet before you can start covering yourself but I was on too much of a thrill high to really notice my nakedness at that point so our small talk about how long he’d worked there and whether he’d gotten himself on the rota for naked jump day on purpose was interspersed with my random outbursts on how brilliant that had just been. The low point of the experience came climbing the very long flight of steel steps he delivered me to(not fun for the barefoot soaking wet naked person) but it was all up from there. Reunited with my clothes I got to watch the rest of the girls jump, Bones the seasoned bungy expert barely blinked as she leapt off the platform but others struggled with serious fear and managed to do it anyway, a pretty amazing feat. No matter how we ended up in the air each of us came off the bungy cord with a  smile a mile wide and a need to express just how flipping deadly the experience had been. And it was all thanks to Bones and her aversion to being clothed.

Whistler, couchsurfing and the kindness of strangers

21 Feb

So initially when I started looking into the whole year in Canada business an awful lot of people were telling me about this Whistler place. I mean I’d heard of it, I seem to remember there was an OC style show about it a couple of years ago, it ran on RTÉ2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistler_(TV_series) …terrible stuff, but it did make me aware of the mountain’s existence. Oh yeah and the winter olympics were there, I suppose that was big. Anyways I was fairly sure I’d pop up and down a few times and get a little bit of skiing in. I certainly did not anticipate it becoming an obsession! Lately every other minute I’m in Vancouver I find my mind sliding off on a train of thought to Whistler.. How will we get there this weekend? Where will we stay? Which days will we go? Where will we ski? Who’s gonna be there?

It’s a very wonderful place. I’ve been skiing a bit in Austria and Italy and both were awesome but Whistler is on an entirely different level. There is just so much choice! So many lifts, runs, random places to escape off to, and so much snow! We’ve been told this winter has been especially good and I certainly won’t disagree. Even the busiest runs treat you to gorgeous powder, and for the more skilled and daring out there you’ve got all kinds of exciting off piste discoveries to make. So far we’ve been a little more adventurous with each trip, edging our way beyond run boundaries, trying to find little jumps and attempting to navigate moguls, technique could definitely stand to get better but then how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Sometimes we make it down ok, other times there are hilarious falls, but the snow is so deep it’s like being thrown onto a pillow. You just laugh, bounce back up and start down again. Just typing this is making me excited for the next trip!

Whistler adds a new level of awesomeness to being in Vancouver really. As well as all the other things being here has to recommend it you are close enough to the mountains that ‘Want to go skiing tomorrow?’ isn’t a ridiculous question. Being a UBC student helps too. The normal cost of a Whistler season pass varies betwen $1100 and $2100 depending on when you buy it. We got ours at just under $500. At the time it seemed like such a massive investment, now it seems like the biggest bargain ever invented. Still heading up there every weekend to get the value out of that pass was looking like it was going to cost us all the arms and legs we needed for skiing so we started trying to find ways to work around the main costs- accommodation and getting there, and I reckon it’s brought some of the best Canadian fun so far. First of all it led us to the insanely ingenious concept of couchsurfing (see couchsurfing.org). For those of you who haven’t heard of it before the basic idea of couchsurfing is that hosts advertise their couch on the website as a free place for travellers to stay and surfers get in touch to see if they can come crash. Simple but brilliant, we had heard about it before coming over but it was accommodation desperation that inspired us to actually sign up and throw ourselves in. So far we’ve landed 4 couches and in all cases the craic was mighty! Instead of staying in a hostel where you have to rely on the advice of other visitors about where to ski, what time to go out, what days are best and which clubs have free cover you immediately get landed with a pack of folks who have lived there for months and are up for taking you out and getting  merry together. Whistler’s a particularly good spot for couchsurfing since there’s such a huge population of young people who are there to have as much fun as possible while doing just enough work to get by or none at all if they have the savings. So pretty much everyone you meet will always be keen for some kind of antics. Thus far we’ve had some ridiculous, hilarious nights with our couchsurfing hosts and been treated so amazingly well

I’m sure there will be those that read this and think that the couchsurfing idea sounds like absolute madness, dangerous madness. Certainly I’ve been met with a raised eyebrow or two when explaining my recent sleeping arrangements. ‘But what if you end up staying with total psychos?’ or ‘what if they steal all your stuff?’. Well I guess my response is that the host takes on the same risks and more with us really. I mean we haven’t been going alone, there have been 3 or four of us each time, so it’s not like we have left ourselves vulnerable to being lured by ourselves into some predator’s lair, we may be girls but there’s definite safety in numbers. And this person is allowing us into their home (even telling us how to get back in by ourselves in case we should get lost) so if anyone has potential to steal stuff it’s the surfer. But people who have concerns like this are really missing the point. You are supposed to trust the person you stay with is a decent sort. The website lets people leave positive references for each other so you aren’t exactly going on nothing when you stay anyway but a large part of the loveliness is just taking for granted that bad things won’t happen when you put your faith in another human being that you don’t know. Life is better when you believe that most of the people you meet will be good, there are more opportunities for adventure. Couchsurfing is all about having adventures with strangers. It’s a way for locals and visitors to mix and share in all the brilliant things a place has to offer. The couch surfer gets to experience it the way residents do, avoiding tourist traps and generally benefiting from local knowledge, while the host gets to see their home through the eyes of an enthusiastic visitor. The kinds of people you meet through the website are invariably open and friendly given the nature of the exercise, but other than that you aren’t guaranteed to have anything in common, you get the chance to meet people you would never encounter in the ordinary exercise of your life.

In the same vein of  moneysaving and networking outside our usual social sphere we have also been hitching back and forth from Vancouver (in groups of course, no solo hitching and i mean we are carrying skis so if it came to it we’d be well equipped to defend ourselves). It means a free ride, which in times of ski expense is handy but it’s also another chance to meet somebody new and I like to think that generally we brighten up their journey by providing them with some company and chat. Between hitching and couchsurfing the last few months have really shown us  how much good can come from the kindness of strangers and that isn’t something we take for granted. Right now we are without cars, couches or many resources, but you can’t expect to gain as we have lately from other people’s generosity without giving something back. In the short term karma returns can be with small random acts of kindness, giving things away for free, volunteering at events, helping somebody pick things up after their bag bursts in the middle of the road. But hosting couches and giving lifts will definitely be on the agenda when I have the necessary elements for either. Letting people you don’t know into your life is risky. But at the moment I feel like you stand to lose a lot more by shutting people out than by giving them a chance. You never know who will hop into the back of your car.

what a miracle!

6 Nov

It’s autumn for real now. Took a stroll down to Wreck Beach this evening and half the leaves are brown and gold and some of them were falling as we walked. I know I should be panicking at the season change since it’s going to bring the unending rain we’ve been warned about but so far it’s been just lovely. At home you only get those crisp days when it’s cold enough to see your breath, here we’ve had a whole week of them and I haven’t had to wear a coat once.

We’ve ticked a few more typical Canadian experiences off the list. Two weeks ago it was Thanksgiving here and one of the girls volunteered to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner- turkey, stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, pumpkin pie (which I did NOT expect to like but in the event it was pretty spectacular, ditto the pecan pie), the whole shebang- it was epic! We all brought along our own food contributions too, Kirsty and I volunteered to make a veggie dish, take a look at the recipe below, it’s a variation on a bbcgoodfood classic. When all of the food had been laid out on the table (feast is the word!) and 15 or so ravenous exchange people were just about to lay into it, one of our cooks asked us all to stand and give thanks- you know, that tradition that’s supposed to be the point of the day! I know it sounds a bit cringey but it was actually really lovely and I think having a holiday that’s all about stopping for a minute and being grateful for what you have is a brilliant idea. I like to think that i don’t take the things in my life for granted and I really believe in telling the people you love how much you appreciate them and how much they matter. If it’s something you don’t do often enough or haven’t done lately Thanksgiving is a good time to step back and remember that really life is pretty good. I also really like that it’s a secular holiday, I mean almost all of the big occasions in the Irish calendar are linked to Christianity, and I guess that makes sense since we’re a pretty homogeneous little country but some people do get left out and at Thanksgiving nobody does because it’s just about eating a massive meal and hanging out with your family, which are things universally enjoyed.

The wonderful dinner came at the tail end of a really fantastic weekend so we had that to be thankful for. We went on a bit of an adventure through the Fraser valley and up to Adams River in search of the spawning sockeye salmon. Every 4 years masses of them swim upstream to the exact spot where they were born to lay their eggs and then they die. It’s strange that salmon have no parent-child relationship, who do they blame all of their problems on when they reach adulthood?

The trip was a truly marvellous laugh. It was Crazybones brainchild- she’d heard about these determined salmon, and that at a certain point somewhere east or north of Vancouver there were so many that they filled whole river. So 5 of us packed off in a rented car with only a vague notion of where we were going and limited knowledge of how to get there. We drove until we hit a small town called Hope. I know- it sounds like the name of a sitcom. And it did have a certain Twin Peaks vibe. Its an unassuming little place, petrol stations, a dairy queen, a couple of shops and bars a very ordinary place in an extraordinary setting- it sits nestled in the shadow of the massive, splendid mountains and the Fraser River thunders along its edge- yet the town is so normal looking, it barely seems to notice its impressive surrounds, if it does it just carries on regardless, minding its own business. When I told people we had visited their faces took on almost sympathetic expressions ‘there wouldn’t be much to do at night in Downtown Hope huh?’. Actually there is rather a lot, Friday night in Hope was one of the funnest I’ve spent in Canada!

It started off with a sign that read ‘karaoke at the Eagles, guests welcome’, assuming the Eagles was a pub we made our way up there, post a pleasant dinner and a few glasses of Naked Grape, only to learn from a lady in the Car Park that the Eagles was not a bar at all but the local headquarters of an organisation called the Fraternal Order of  Eagles. The old FOE is a social club with a charitable message which claims responsibility for Mother’s Day, Friday karaoke was buzzing with Hope’s most high profile FOE members. The sign had told us guests were welcome but that was a little bit of a misrepresentation- members like members you see, luckily we bumped into one of the more fun loving of these just outside the Eagles and she signed us in as her responsibilities (if we’d behaved badly she would have been banned for a month). Luckily we were a hit, breaking the ice with a lively rendition of Proud Mary complete with frenetic dancing and crowd participation. Having gotten ourselves nicely warmed out we continued to roll out the hits until closing (partly because Naomi kept signing us up to sing without telling us, hence a mystified me being called away from a hilarious chat to belt out Billy Rae Cyrus’ Achie Breaky heart….cringe and off key don’t begin to cover it). Afterwards Darlene and Naomi, our new best friends in Hope led us to the Gold Rush, the main meeting point of Hope’s hot young things where we got more chances to dance like mentals and generally soak up the place’s brilliance.

Over the next 2 days salmon hunting began in earnest. They had been and gone from the Fraser Valley so on the advice of the man who runs the river rafting in those parts we headed further north towards Kamloops to the Adam’s River. The journey took us through a variety of landscapes and from the windows of the car we saw some breath taking things. On plenty of occassions we hopped out to take snaps like this one

Popped by Coquihalla national Park to see the Othello tunnels, a line of tunnels (as you may have guessed) that were blasted through the granite walls of a canyon by Andrew McCullough,  a mad, visionary 19th century engineer. He was like a human salmon really, chasing that impossible dream, finding a way nobody thought he could! In his case the mission was to bring a railway to Kootenay BC and the only way was through the canyon. He pretty much risked life and limb to do it and in the event the train only ran that way for a couple of decades. His legacy is still there, the tunnels draw plenty of tourists for a gander (us among them obviously) , but somehow I don’t think that would be any consolation. Sure he’s immortalised, but I reckon he’d rather be relevant.

After another sleep and many more miles of driving in a confused manner we finally made it to salmon. We arrived at the Salute to the Sockeye festival at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning, entirely exhausted but eager to see the fish at the end of their rather more draining journey. As we got near the smell hit us: the salmon who’d already made it, spawned and said goodbye. At the time I thought the whole thing was incredibly sad. They swim all this way, overcome enormous obstacles, finally make it and then die, leaving their little orphan babies to face the same thing in 4 years time. Actually it’s kind of awesome. You’re born without parents. You learn all there is to know about being a salmon from instinct and just live your life without any of the responsibilities of dependents (aging parents or parasitic children) then when you feel it’s time to grow up and enter the mature stage of life you get to head off on this ridiculous adventure with all the other salmon from your generation, leave behind a load of eggs and never worry what becomes of them. Might be the best life cycle ever. Stupid lucky salmon!

Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie with Sweet potato mash

400g tin of lentils

400g tin of chopped tomatoes

1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 courgettes cut into chunks

butternut squash cut into chunks

2 fairly big sweet potatoes peeled and cut into chunks

3 carrots cut into chunks,

2 tsp oregano

a chunk of ginger, the size of 2 thumbnails I reckon, grated or chopped

25g butter

cheddar

Boil the sweet potato in a saucepan until tender. Drain and mash with the butter and season to your heart’s content.Meanwhile fry the garlic, onion and ginger in a  little oil until the onions are tender. Then add the carrots, water, tomatoes and oregano. Throw in some salt and pepper and a spoon of cumin if you feel like it. Simmer for ten minutes then add the lentils, juice and all, cover and simmer for another ten minutes until the carrots are tender. Ladle into an oven proof dish then spoon over the sweet potato mash until covered. Finally grate some cheddar over the top then pop into an oven preheated to 190 celsius/170 in a fan oven for 20 minutes

that was our variation because of some ingredient constraints but do feel free to try the real deal

http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/4382/veggie-shepherds-pie-with-sweet-potato-mash