Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Vaneattle and Seacouver

And so to North America...

We arrived in Seattle nearly two weeks ago now, and have been soaking up just about as much of the USA's Washington State and Canada's British Columbia as a fortnight would allow.  We spent more than seven months in Latin America in the end.  But our madcap rush to Lima, the epic 31 hour bus journey to Ecuador, and our final few extraordinary days in the Galapagos Islands, meant that the emotions, impressions and impact of our transition to the Northern Hemisphere have taken a while to form.

Certainly, as we sweatily rushed about Guayaquil airport late into the evening, wrapping bike boxes and negotiating seat allocations with Galapagos sand still between our toes, there was little opportunity for reflection.  Even on Delta's excellent (business class for barely more than economy!) flights to Atlanta and then on to Seattle, we were still rather zombied out.

Suddenly, there we were in the Seattle Airport arrivals area - confronted by trolleys costing the same $4.00 to rent as dinner for two on the Bolivian altiplano, and a taxi ride into town costing the same as a 31 hour international bus journey.  Even in our sleep deprived state, this was a wake up call.  The gentle metaphorsis that we had originally envisaged as we moved serenely from South, through Central, and into North America had suddenly mutated into an instantaneous cultural caffeine fix in a mere puff of jetfuel.
But where better to deal with such a jolt of energy than Seattle?  We spent three days there, loving it all.  Before we knew it, we were checked into a downtown hotel, staring down from our window at shiny 4x4s gliding by, stars and stripes fluttering from hotel awnings and high rise glass-fronted office buildings.  But through all this, just a few blocks downhill from our window, there was Puget Sound.

First thing the next morning, fortified by a good night's sleep, we trundled straight down to the waterside Pike Place Market - the original Seattle experience.  We spent a couple of days meandering the area, revelling in the acres of Alaskan salmon and Dungeness crab on display, florists selling explosions of flowers, quirky little shops and coffee emporia everywhere you looked.

Our favourites included:

- The olive oil shop selling every conceivable flavour;
- The cheesecake shop offering miniature landmines of calories from 'quadruple chocolate' to 'raspberry and mascarpone';
- Davidson's the bike shop, in which ornately decorated Jack Taylor's bicycles from years gone by hang portentiously from the ceiling and are held in an esteem somewhere between impressionist originals and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments;
- Watson Kennedy, a delicious shop groaning with delightful little books, smells, games, prints, CDs and other quirky European trinkets;
- The cheese shop where you can watch curd-shovellers through the window actually loading their whiffy white blobs into cheese moulds;
- Left Bank Books, a bookshop with a refreshingly rebellious streak whose 'recommended' shelves a stacked with books questioning the USA in every respect, from the financial system to foreign policy to the work ethic.
- Lowell's, the classic Pike Place Market restaurant, where you can launch into mind-bendingly good fish and chips whilst watching the Victoria Island ferries gliding along Puget Sound.

That was what Seattle was all about for us - the location.  Being right there on the water's edge just adds something special to the place.  Either that or the caffeine overload.  We 'enjoyed' a ceremonial final Starbucks in the very first branch right there in Pike Place (there are now 10,570 other outlets in the USA alone), but thereafter kept returning to the infinitely preferable Seattle Coffee Works.  SCW is just around the corner from several branches of Starbucks, and runs 10,570 fewer branches in the USA.  And yet it seemed forever to be losing out to in terms of numbers.  Somehow, the Great American (Global?) Public just keeps on falling for it, Starbucks' mantra of 'Take Comfort in Rituals'.

We spent time one evening with the charming Topher, one of the coffee experts at SCW.  He explained how Starbucks' coffee, for all its Seattle heritage, is simply filth.  It comes from a rough blend of more than 100 different kinds of beans, many of which are burnt to a cinder.  SCW's, as an example of a 'proper' coffee house, is roasted twice a week, and every second counts in the process.  We were shown the big orange machine gleaming out at the back of the shop, their pride and joy.  Whilst Starbucks proudly proclaim that 65% of their beans come from farmer-friendly contracts, this means who-knows-how-many millions of coffees a day globally come from downtrodden farmers, abused by the monstrous Starbucks behemoth.  SCW have individual relationships with every one of their farmers, whether in Guatemala, Brazil or - ironically - Peru.

Enough ranting - we know where the coffee is best!  Another thing we loved was REI.  REI is as much of an institution as Starbucks in the USA.  It is a cooperative outdoors store, whose 100 year old founder still comes to visit the Seattle flagship store in her wheelchair.  It is a store so huge and so exciting to anyone with an outdoors/adventurous bent that the 108,000 sq.ft. floor size quoted feels like an understatement.  We spent hours there, joined the (10% dividend!) cooperative, replaced defunct kit and simply gawped at one gleaming piece of kit after another.

The Queen Anne area was another area that tickled our collective fancy.  We had to head there for laundry, but found it hard to leave.  All up and down the main street we stumbled from long-established diner to cupcake shop to book shop, finding it hard to pick holes in the good old American way of life.  If you can afford it, that is.

There is another side to Seattle that was all too clear to us even in our few days there.  The previous week, John 'Trouble' Williams, a partially deaf native American wood carver based for many years in Pike Place, had been shot in the street by a policeman who said his knife was threatening.  Clearly carvers of totem poles shouldn't carry knives.  His story was dominating the Seattle headlines whilst we were there, embodying ever more heavy-handed police brutality and the ever smaller chance that the underprivileged in society have of making a decent life for themselves.  Williams was one of 12 children, several of whom had died from alcohol, drugs or just hypothermia.

There was evidence aplenty of others going the same way, with no shortage of homeless, drunks and drug addicts wandering the streets of downtown in varying states of befuddlement.  We weren't sure that the American Dream was alive and well for them.

Perhaps it was better in the past?  We spent an afternoon around Pioneer Square, the original centre of Seattle.  It was here that the gold rush provisioners had been based in that heady Klondike winter of 1897-98, and where the original 'Skid Row' was located - so named after the slippery logging chute down the hill into the water at the bottom.  In the 1970s, 40 blocks of the original city was saved by the (even then) stubborn and slightly irreverent Seattlites, and a good thing they were - today, it is the prettiest part of the city, enjoying old cafes, bookshops and plane tree shaded squares.

From there, we found our way to the railway station - still under reconstruction but beginning to recover its original features.  The Amtrak Cascades took us and just 70 others on a wonderfully under-crowded journey four hours North to Vancouver.  We genuinely wanted to spend longer on it.  The train wove its wave along the banks of Puget Sound, right down at water level, sometimes so close to the edge of the Sound that we could have dropped things out of the window and into the water.  We passed wading fishermen casting quietly in the early evening, families barbequeing on the beach, and marinas with motorboats bobbing restfully.  And all to the backdrop of a stunning Washington State sunset.  We were so enamoured with it all that there was only time for one episode of Spooks on the laptop before we reached Vancouver.

Our arrival immediately gave us two unusual concepts to deal with.  First, a friendly immigration official, even late in the evening.  As my answers to his questions grew increasingly fishy ('What job do you do?' - 'I'm unemployed'; 'Where did you work before?' - 'For a family office from Latin America'; 'What countries have you visited this year?' - 'Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador...'), he somehow grew increasingly amused and welcoming, and let us in with a broad smile.

The other new concept was rain.  R-A-I-N.  Not something we have experienced with any degree of vigour since April.  And here it was.  Wet stuff, falling liberally out of a dark Vancouver sky.  Our brains could not really compute, so we went to bed.

The next day, this same unfamiliar weather phenomenon continued all day.  We had installed ourselves at the excellent Jericho Beach Hostel, but could not take advantage of what we'd been told would be a glorious position.  What we could manage, however, was an excellent all-Canadian brunch with my old friend Mel Horrell, who has been in Vancouver for several years now, followed by a slightly soggy cruise across the Burrard Bridge, through Downtown and around Stanley Park.  A tantalising glimpse of how it could be if the sun would only come out.

We were also able to find a spot of culture: we had stumbled upon the Vancouver Fringe Festival, and found our way to a couple of excellent small plays on Granville Island, where it is based.  Although no Edinburgh, there is something endearingly manageable about it.  Where Edinburgh is a collossus, you get the feeling you could see everything you wanted to in Vancouver without feeling rushed or frustrated.

Just when we thought we might have to spend our time indoors in theatres, the next day the sun - S-U-N - came out.  And we were in a different city.  The Jericho Beach Hostel became a spectacular haven of sun-drenched tranquility, just 100m from the beach and the peaceful running/ walking/ cycling path threading its way along the waterfront.  The Sound was dotted with supertankers at anchor, the water glistened and just across it there was the start of the Sea to Sky Highway, cutting its way across thickly forested hillsides.  Over to the right, there was Vancouver the city: a domino pile of shimmering high-rises curving around its bay, completely at odds with the beach and forests all around it.  Surely one of the great city settings anywhere.

We spent one afternoon walking all along that waterfront to the city, now wandering along shell covered sandy beach, now scrabbling over slippery rocks with hands and feet, staring up at spectacular houses above that overlook the view to end them all.  At least when the sun shines, that is.

It was a happy four days in Vancouver - hanging out and catching up with Mel and her really charming and erudite, all-Canadian Joel, perusing the shops and cafes of Kitsilano (Vancouver's coffee doesn't lose out to Seattle's), and taking time to rebuild the bikes in the sunshine and get ourselves prepared for the next stage of cycling.

The Canadians we met in our all-too-short sojourn in British Columbia were, without exception, a delight.  It is hard to see how Canada is not somehow more of a global influence, given its size, resources, and intelligent, urbane people.  But then when you discuss it with them, it soon becomes clear: there's a certain all-pervasive national reticence, a tendency towards passivity and the laissez-faire, and a sense that the rest of the world somehow has one over them in some respect.  Despite having given the world brands as diverse as Blackberry, Bombardier and Massey Ferguson, having a banking system in rude health, and having more natural resources than almost any other country, the people seem happy to keep themselves to themselves.  And enjoy their lives.  And be nice to one another.  And eat well and drink well.  And to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere.

Perhaps that's why they don't want to tell more people about it.

We weren't the only foolish cyclists there.  As I was finishing rebuilding the bikes, and applying finishing touches, an imposing figure climbed out of a taxi with a resounding cry of 'I've got one of them!'  Richard ( had just stepped off a flight from London and was brandishing a box filled with a beautiful Thorn steed almost identical to ours.  He is doing the same trip as ours down the Pacific coast, but starting off with a different first few days to us.  His trip had become a solo one just 48 hours before he was due to leave, and was putting on a brave face despite the changed nature of his plans.  But he is a great guy and will do well.  We gave him a suitably strong send off.  We will unquestionably see him again before long.

Shortly after Richard's momentous departure, we sneaked back onto our bikes as well and wobbled off down the road to begin kilometre no.6005.  I was in first gear and nearly fell off with the first pedal stroke.  Perhaps it's not quite like riding a bike after all.  It was special that Mel was there to send us on our way, as she is the first of our friends or family that has actually seen us in action, however briefly.

We're back on the road again, after a break of nearly 3 weeks, and pedalling never felt so good.


  1. Enjoy the pedal south... relish every moment.

    Andy and Tracy

  2. Hi Phil

    I hope you are having a great trip since Vancouver.

    I had a great result with my Brompton in the Tour de Cariboo race from Williams Lake. It was a 50 mile race climbing 100m up to Gavin Lake. I managed 2hr 46min 57sec and I placed 6th out of 60 riders on normal bikes.

    Please could you introduce me to Will Butler-Adams. I have had a good racing season with Aberystwyth cycling club completing seven 10 mile time trials with a best time of 28min 42sec. I am also competing in the Brompton world championships this coming weekend.

    I would welcome the opportunity to either get some sort of factory sponsorship or to help them develop a racing version of the bike. Two of my friends from Aberystwyth have bought a Brompton on the strength of my recommendation this year.

    For the record, my bike is an unmodified 1987 bike with a standard sturmey 3 speed hub. The only things I have changed are the tyres and pedals and I have added some bar-ends. I have done thousands of miles and it still has the same chain, gears, wheels, cranks etc - fantastic reliability - it has never let me down in all of that time.

    All the very best to you and Liz on your travels.

    Andy Bakewell