“Vive la différence” or “There’s no place like home”? It’s a question I asked myself after I went on a trip to Canada and Alaska in August with an old friend.
A great trip. A fantastic trip. A “see as much as we can in four weeks” trip. The Rocky Mountaineer was as good as I’d hoped it would be (delicious food and a recurring drinks cart – oh, and did I mention the stunning scenery?), the Rocky Mountains spectacular, the glaciers worth the fifteen hour flight from Brisbane to Vancouver, and although the orcas didn’t show themselves the sea otters floated by our ship and smiled like the performers they are.
So many wonderful memories. But what I came home pondering was how could their plumbing be so different?
We encountered showers that required a uni degree to turn on or get to a temperature that didn’t cause icicles or second degree burns. It should be noted that all these showers were over baths and rarely were they the same brand, but were all of the “pull out the knob on the tap over the bath while turning around the shower handle” variety. So you either copped a headful of cold water while standing in the bath, or leaning in from outside the bath required a gymnastic feat that became a chiropractor’s delight.
My friend and I took turns trying to work out the eccentricities of each different shower assembly. By the end of the first week we felt like we had it down pat. And then we met the “we got you” one that had us giving up and phoning the concierge in frustration. This little doozy needed you to not just turn the handle around but to pull it towards you at the same time. There’s definitely a sadist in Anchorage masquerading as a plumber.
And toilets! I’m not a seasoned traveller. New Zealand doesn’t count – wonderful and spectacular though it is, they’re just our mates across The Ditch. I’ve heard about the hole-in- the-ground toilets in some Asian countries, but I never expected to find toilets in Canada and Alaska that looked more like seashells than bowls. And so close to the ground. In Australia I suffer from Ankle Dangle whenever I sit on the majority of toilets, but in Canada anyone over six feet tall would be chipping their teeth on their kneecaps.
These shallow shell-shaped ceramic beauties are almost full of water, causing splashback and fear of finger-dipping when wiping. And then, when you flush, unlike our Aussie toilets that gently and respectfully flush away your deposits, these monsters suck the lot away so quickly you have to double check you still have your knickers.
In one hotel we stayed, the suction was so strong that when the loo in the adjoining room was flushed the loo seat I was sitting on bounced. I had to make sure all my bodily parts were still intact. There were 28 travellers on our tour, and all Aussies. As a group they were adamant that the coffee was terrible in both Canada and Alaska (far too strong), the bread too sweet, the bacon too crispy (poked with a fork it crackled to pieces), the butter too white and the cheese mysteriously orange, but everything else, including the people, got a huge thumbs up.
We noticed that salmon dominated the menus in every restaurant. Salmon is courageous in how it battles its way up small creeks through towns (like in Ketchikan), and over fish ladders and rapid rocky rivers, and escapes the paws of hungry bears, only to die as soon as it’s spawned. (And I thought labour and childbirth was difficult!) It is also a lovely-eating fish, and Canadians and Alaskans are rightly proud of it.
As tea drinkers, we found it weird that every hotel room had a coffee machine and coffee pods and no kettle to make a “cuppa”. Occasionally there was a tea bag in with the pods, but boiling water in a coffee machine meant the tea tasted of coffee. Once or twice we were able to cajole a kettle from housekeeping, but we got the feeling they were becoming an endangered species. In a couple of places there were two chamomile tea bags along with the coffee pods – perhaps to help you get to sleep after all that coffee?
Remembering to keep carry-on liquids to 100ml was a constant trick for our travel-weary selves. My friend’s 120ml maple syrup was confiscated leaving Fairbanks. Her empty-bullet- casing souvenir keyring that passed US Customs in Fairbanks and Seattle was confiscated going back into Canada.
Chipmunks and squirrels abound, sometimes even in the motel gardens, and they’re a lot smaller than the movies would have you believe. But they have that Alvin cheekiness down pat. We did see moose and bears, but not close to where the human species travel. If you want to get up close to bears, bison, moose, muskox and other wild critters, the Anchorage Wildlife Conservation Centre is the place to go. It’s definitely worth a visit.
According to our tour director, Canadians think of Aussies as “sun-tanned Canadians” because our culture and sense of humour are so alike. Alaskans are a different breed, but we loved them all. I just wish they’d put kettles and tea bags in their hotel rooms and warn visitors about mind-boggling shower systems and vacuum-sucking toilets.