My high school friends living in Canada are telling me they have the perfect spot for taking pictures at Banff National Park, west of Calgary in Alberta province. Or what to my mind is Canada’s Freezer.
It feels like Alberta hasn’t been introduced to spring all these years.
Chormela, Janice and I are going to Banff, a two-hour drive from Chor’s house in Rocky Ridge, where from her terrace you can see the Canadian Rockies on a clear day. From Banff, we are going to Lake Louise and Jasper National Park.
My itinerary, which they did for me, has never been so full of nature (three national parks including Waterton) and just one city (Calgary) to explore.
I feel like a fish out of water.
I live in the dense urban sprawl that is Metro Manila, which makes Banff’s 6,000 square kilometers of nature mind-boggling to me.
My two hands aren’t enough to count the billionaire developers in Manila that would merrily bulldoze these forests without a second thought to build condominiums and malls, and then call it “progress.”
Both of them and Janice’s husband Nic have been to Banff countless times to take visiting Filipino friends and they assure me that they know all the picture-perfect spots in the huge park.
So where can we take pictures with the Rockies in the background?
“In the parking lot,” they say.
True enough, Banff town’s parking lot is framed by the Rocky Mountains, that mountain system that runs from Alberta to British Columbia and in the south borders the US states Idaho and Montana.
For 130 years, Banff National Park has been a protected wildlife park. Even though hundreds of thousands of tourists visit, it is as unspoiled as it has ever been when only explorers came here.
The few facilities they built are all geared toward the appreciation of nature. There’s a funicular with glass gondolas that let visitors see the mountain ranges from the top, there are the hiking trails and in winter the place turns into a skiing resort.
Lake Louise, located within Banff, is “the most beautiful lake in the world,” they tell me. Named after the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, who married the governor general of Canada in the late 1800s, Lake Louise is a stunning emerald lake.
Its water comes from the melt-water of Victoria Glacier and is so clear you can see the tiniest stones on the lake bed.
From there, we drive to Jasper and get lost finding our lodgings for the night called Pocahontas Cabins. I half expect a girl in braids to welcome us at the hotel, but no such luck.
The place looks like a movie set with the cabins made of logs and topped with red roofs. Our cabin has one bedroom, which Janice’s husband and their daughter Hannah occupy, and the three of us girls share the king-size foldout in the living room.
It feels like a giggly sleepover in high school all over again.
* * *
Jasper National Park is even bigger than Banff at 10,000 square kilometers. We drive to Miette Hot Springs, which has the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies.
Water comes from the mountain at 54 degrees Celsius (129°F) and is cooled down to 40 degrees for the pools.
They have to cool the water down.
The same hot water that comes from the snow-covered mountains. Go figure!
There are mostly elderly Canadians in the pools because the hot springs are supposed to be curative and good for your joints. They tell us they love our tan and ask where we are from. We laugh and say, it’s not a tan, it’s our color (though Janice is so fair you could mistake her for another race).
I don’t know how my friends talked me into this. Because, seriously, every time I get out of the pool, I feel like five people are throwing buckets of ice water at me and yelling, “Suuuckerrr!”
I don’t ever want to get out of the warm water. I want to live in this pool!
It’s June and it’s still incredibly cold in Alberta.
My friends have been living here from five to 11 years that they’re like Eskimos now, having survived winters of -45°C (-49°F). When the temperature dips down to 10 degrees, they call it a nice summer day.
They have saved their best Alberta joke for me at Columbia Ice Field on our way back to Calgary. The ice field straddles the two national parks, on the southwestern tip of Banff and the northwestern edge of Jasper.
Of all the archeological discoveries in Alberta (which include dinosaur fossils), the ice field was one of the last to be known to man because of the harsh weather conditions.
British explorer Norman Collie wrote in 1898: “A new world was spread at our feet: to the westward stretched a vast ice field probably never before seen by the human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, unnamed and unclimbed peaks.”
The ice below the ground we are walking on is as deep as the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (324 meters or 1,062 feet).
Oh but how beautiful it is!
It’s so white that you need sunnies because the bright light reflected just hurts your eyes.
The ice field was formed 230,000 BC ago. Just think about its age for a moment — and then think about humanity and the earth’s evolution.
Janice, her husband Nic and daughter Hannah are leaving after another night in Calgary.
They are going back to their hometown Hanna, which has fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, a town so small that the top gossip for the past months has been about a guy who was having an affair with an officemate, and the wife followed them to a motel where she got a spare key from the front desk, and caught them in flagrante delicto.
It is also the hometown of the band Nickelback.
I happen to like Nickelback back in the day — without shame — but I think with a town like Hanna I’d want to get out too…and it kind of explains their lyrics.
* * *
Chormela and I are in a deli ordering wieners for lunch at Waterton National Park when two white-haired old ladies come in and stand behind us looking at the menu on the wall, which offers choices from small to long and extra-long wieners.
I whisper to her in Kapampangan, “If we’re still traveling just the two of us when we reach their age, we’re gonna do a Thelma & Louise.”
She says, “Who are Thelma and Louise?”
I stare at her incredulously. “Are you kidding me? It’s just the best ending there is of a chick road trip movie!”
I explain to her that rather than get arrested for shooting a rapist, Thelma and Louise drive off the Grand Canyon on their 1966 Ford Thunderbird and the frame freezes on the plunge down.
“But why is that a good ending?”
She has a point there.
I couldn’t distinguish American and Canadian accents from each other until I am on a boat doing a tour of Waterton on my own. It’s a tour Chor has taken four times with visiting friends that she can’t stand another one or her head will explode.
I say, okay, I don’t want to drive back to Calgary with a headless passenger.
The Canadian tour guide is talking about the Rockies bordering the US state Montana, and somehow his accent is subtly different from the neutral American accent that I am more accustomed to hearing.
I can’t put my finger on it, but dammit, Canadians really do say “aboot” instead of “about.”
South Park was right all along.
Throughout this vacation, my friends have been telling me why Canada was their country of choice when they left Manila and Baguio (like hundreds of thousands of Filipinos). It’s a tolerant society like no other, they say.
In fact, when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was handed back to Beijing, most of the rich packed their bags and migrated to Canada instead of anywhere else in the former British Empire.
I mention this because my friends have been asking me to move to Canada for over a decade, and my answer has always been, “And do what? Every country has a surplus of journalists and writers. Besides, I like living in Manila.”
Chor and I have shared many happy, tough and sad times in our lives, including divorce, even as we live thousands of kilometers and thirteen time zones apart.
We Skype several times a week wherever I am the world and I think our closeness is partly because our lives have taken such different roads, and in our physical distance we know that we won’t hurt each other the way people around us could and would.
When she came home to Manila, she stayed in my house where we spent lazy days ordering pizza and pancit in between her schedule of seeing other friends, a high school reunion, a New Year’s Eve party at the Peninsula, and then flying to Hong Kong separately for another reunion.
With all my friends in North America, I laugh myself silly every time until it’s time to drive to the airport. In Manila, Calgary, Toronto, New York, San Diego, Boston, Baltimore or Washington, DC, it’s always the same scene at the end — tight hugs and tears and goodbyes.
Thinking of my friends in Canada and the US, my heart expands and contracts at the same time. Maybe this is why it’s taken me 19 other stories on this blog before writing about them.