Note: In 2020, I’m writing 52 blog posts, one per week, released on Mondays or so. Here’s today’s, the fourth of 52.
Last summer I took a trip alone from Seattle, where I reside, to British Columbia. That was my first trip by myself to another country. Gauging by the stress that multiple acquaintances say they experience when considering just looking at the passport application form, I am not the only USian for whom exiting the bubble of THE ONLY COUNTRY ON THE PLANET ACCORDING TO THE ONLY COUNTRY ON THE PLANET feels overwhelming. Thus, instead of immediately plunging into an overnight quest to visit all 190-odd countries in the world and get to know all seven billion non-USian human souls, I decided to start small: merely ride a Clipper boat northward and sleep in a Victoria hostel for a week, then voyage homeward via same ferry southbound.Propaganda against leaving the States is everywhere, and conversation about doing so is nearly never heard, so the overwhelm among us peons is understandable. Stuffing my single backpack for the trip with shirts and books and cotton swabs, I feared the metric system itself might attack me: tape measures extending murderous meters, test tubes spilling lethal liters, and the foreign atmosphere itself pressing down on my skull with the weight of killer kilograms. After all, just watch this stunning FOX News revelation of “the global tyranny of the metric system.” I demand the United States give up the huge portion of its military using the metric system, its fully metric Big Pharma dosages, and its fully metric dollar amounts!
If scientific units of measurement weren’t going to undo me, maybe I’d get frozen to death by the National Igloo that Mike Huckabee as Arkansas governor sincerely congratulated Canada on preserving:
However, I was ready to resist such fictional terrors. If dastardly, freezing decameters came at me hard, malevolently enlarging into subzero deca-space, I could defend myself, sweating wildly, swinging swords of middle school math, the unit converter app on my phone, or the Metric Act of 1866, which legalized the use of the metric system for weights and measures in the U.S. when President Johnson signed it, probably drunk and well on his way to becoming the first impeached very stable genius presiding over the world’s most sacred, most beautiful coun… Okay, I’ll stop
shooting fish in a barrel saving fish in a peril and move on to the next crushing calamity faced by all USians who dare dream of, say, searching for paid-jobs north of Seattle by oh about 241 kilometers — I’m sorry! I’m sorry! 150 miles! 150 miles! I’ll be good! Stop threatening bodily harm to metric system advocates, fellow residents of the only intelligent country that has ever existed, the only intelligent country that will ever, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin…William Whipple? Uh yeah, also William Whipple, whoever he was…the founders, the Founders!
My alarm blasted me off early one Thursday morning in July, and after a giant breakfast, I walked to a bus stop, then rode the bus to the terminal. There the Clipper staff made sure I and everyone else had our passports. At the destination waited the real border security. The vessel was pretty empty, just a few folks on it, including me. Seated, I stored my backpack in front of my legs. It’s startling how central your backpack becomes to you (or at least me) on a trip like this: suddenly, it’s your mobile house, and everything about it quickly takes on outsized significance for creature comfort and safety. After a while, we were off into the Salish Sea, headed toward Canada.
Finally getting underway, for real, felt thrilling. I’d just walked a ways, got on a bus, walked a bit more, and all of a sudden I’m in the middle of the fucking ocean sailing to another country. Stuck-minds of a species that once migrated thousands of miles on foot insist invisible borders are absolutely real and natural and necessary, not just partitions for economic markets, then go escape into video games where they fly across mountain ranges in airships, then at night asleep, they dream of rocketing into outer space. Perhaps for many people, the biggest mental reference point for the concept of going on an adventure is video games. My trip certainly felt like one at times.
One of the first super intriguing sights I saw: beyond, in what I think were international waters, container ships sat anchored out, waiting their turns to dock at ports. Usually you imagine some commodity, maybe a jar of pickles or a pile of steel, just magically existing wherever sold, no backstory to it at all, but now with my own eyes I was seeing these gigantic cargo ships floating in the middle of the ocean circulating commodities in containers around the world. A former U.S. Navy sailor told me later that years ago, newspapers printed shipping timetables for people on shore to find out when boats would arrive or leave (whatever newspapers were).
Docking fascinated me. It took a sturdy crewmember two or three tries to throw the pictured cable to the sturdy guy on land so they could tie off the boat. That way it’d stop moving and we could disembark. The voyage of this high tech vessel weighing hundreds of tons that just sailed nearly three hours crossing m̶i̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶m̶i̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶m̶i̶l̶e̶s̶ kilometers and kilometers and kilometers, still came down to a burly guy tossing a cable to his burly counterpart standing nearby. Once they finished, we headed into the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) checkpoint.
Crossing a border checkpoint alone for the first time in my life, I stood wearing my backpack in a very white room with humans sorted into lines, cameras staring at us, and a handful of y̶a̶r̶d̶s̶ meters forward, several CBSA border agents sitting up high on a dais-like structure, separated into little booths so they could interview us aspiring incomers individually. Behind me, a father tried to quiet his talkative children: “Shh! This is very serious!” I waited in line, doing my best to appear casual and calm. With all the earnest seriousness everywhere, a rogue thought suddenly impinged on my mind. What if — what if I yelled, “There’s a b̶o̶m̶b̶ balloon!” Everyone would break out into a panic as the b̶o̶m̶b̶ balloon e̶x̶p̶l̶o̶d̶e̶d̶ expanded through the very white walls, turning all into f̶i̶r̶e̶ fun! I started to giggle. I started to giggle some more. I kept giggling, and then I saw my hero, my savior. Along the very white wall to my right hung a clear plastic box from which brochures advertised to tourists. Immediately I grabbed one and began reading it with scholarly focus. Did you know the Butchart Gardens began in 1904? My giggles subsided. Did you know its Rose Garden has 280 different varieties of roses? I was breathing again. Did you know that for the safety and enjoyment of all visitors to the Butchart Gardens, selfie sticks are NOT permitted? Now it was time for the CBSA guard to interview me.
I walk forward.
I peer upward at the uniformed g̶o̶d̶ guard staring down at me. In a gruff voice, he asks me routine questions. Occupation, destination, duration of trip, how do I plan to leave Canada? Everything goes straightforwardly until I mention I plan to stay a week in Victoria and then return home the same way I got here, via the Clipper. Why, he wants to know, am I just visiting Victoria? Why not go elsewhere also? YEAH, DOUG, WHY NOT? Bewildered, I stand there. What even is the appropriate answer? My mind flashes to Aristotle’s four causes, four different ways to answer a Why question according to the long-ago Greek philosopher who traveled across countries himself, thousands of years ago:
Material cause: Indeed, my legs could transport me elsewhere, to another place outside Victoria, maybe even to the National Igloo
Efficient cause: His question was stimulating me to consider journeying to Vancouver also
Formal cause: I was trying to take things one step at a time, and wasn’t in any particular hurry to see each and every place
Final cause: The objective was a successful trip; would leaving Victoria and encountering scary road signs with kilometers on them impede or facilitate that?
I said something, quite truthfully, about how I was also considering checking out Vancouver BC. He stamped my passport and granted me entry.
I exited the border station into another country. But what was this? Something was decidedly different in Canada, or at least Victoria. Evident instantly. Not just me; something radiating from the people around me as well. Everyone, so calm. Everything, so chill. The people were even walking more slowly. This immediate drop in ambient anxiety, relative to the United States. Was I in some strange dream world? Were Canadians or Victorians all on Valium or Ativan and not telling outsiders? Or is tranquility just what universal health insurance, next to no mass shootings, and the metric system result in? What on Earth was going on here?
I’ll continue the story with Part 2 next Monday. But in the meantime, you might enjoy the excellent talk below, just under an hour and a half, by punk singer Henry Rollins encouraging people to experience life in other countries. The video would be a fantastic one to show students or really anyone interested in this subject. Until next week!
This blog post, A USian escapes the bubble: Summer 2019 adventure to British Columbia, Part 1, by Douglas Lucas, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (human-readable summary of license). The license is based on a work at this URL: https://douglaslucas.com/blog/2020/01/27/summer-2019-adventure-british-columbia-part-1/. You can view the full license (the legal code aka the legalese) here. For learning more about Creative Commons, I suggest this article and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions. Seeking permissions beyond the scope of this license, or want to correspond with me about this post otherwise? Please email me: email@example.com.