Simon Calder: A slight hitch at the US border

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

"Come on in!" urges a notice outside the Budapest Restaurant on Main Street, Vancouver. "You'll get things here that you won't find anywhere else." That sounded more a threat than a promise, so I declined the invitation. But in western Canada's largest city, you find a generosity of spirit that is rare elsewhere in North America.

"Come on in!" urges a notice outside the Budapest Restaurant on Main Street, Vancouver. "You'll get things here that you won't find anywhere else." That sounded more a threat than a promise, so I declined the invitation. But in western Canada's largest city, you find a generosity of spirit that is rare elsewhere in North America.

As soon as a new arrival emerges from the airport terminal, the chances are that a passing citizen will adopt the visitor and consign them to the correct bus with the proper change. When I stated my destination to the driver, a heated discussion ensued among the passengers about the best stop to get off. The earnestness applied to the dilemma suggested I was proposing a midwinter journey to Labrador, rather than a two-block walk to a hostel. On the way, a busker heckled: "Hey, you with the backpack. Take your parachute off now. You've landed."

I checked in and stated my intention to walk east along Hastings Street. Brows were furrowed and alternative routes suggested. I politely declined them all, and passed through a couple of blocks that reminded me of my street in south London. If that's the scariest Vancouver gets, I'm staying.

The degree of sheer pleasantness is infectious, even for morose old grouches. When I returned my rental bike to the shop on Denman Street, the woman behind the counter said, "We're giving you a $2 discount for being nice."

That kind of thing, I can tell you, does not happen often.

Which made leaving the city all the tougher. The best way to start the journey down to the US border is on the Skytrain, which shares more than a name with Sir Freddie Laker's transatlantic flights: it is cheap, fun and full of interesting characters. The Vancouver Skytrain differs in three respects: it remains connected to earth, though on an elevated track; it is driverless; and it is still going strong.

The line swoops dramatically across a city lightly dusted by winter. It performs gymnastics to clamber across freeways and marshland, culminating in a rollercoaster ride across the Fraser River. And then it stops – about 15 miles short of the US border. A bus continues to the town of White Rock, near the frontier, but it was running late. So my thumb got the better of me and I found myself hitching towards America. Fortunately, on this side of the Canada-US border, it is not automatically the case that either the hitch-hiker or the motorist, or both, is sure to be an axe-murderer.

The driver who picked me up within seconds did so, he said, for my own well-being: "That's not a safe part of town, son" – from which I inferred he, too, was unfamiliar with south London. He dropped me at a crossroads three miles south, where another couple stopped almost before I had got out of the first car. They extricated me from the remaining suburbs and dropped me at a lonely junction, surrounded by pines – the sort of place Rutger Hauer thumbed during his murderous romp through North America in The Hitcher.

A few minutes later, I was picked up by Youssef, who lived in Brighton before he moved to Vancouver. He doesn't go south of the border much these days, he said, because of the hassles he gets at the frontier. But he dropped me off outside the US customs and immigration hall.

Along the longest undefended border in the world, you need not check out of the country you are leaving – just check in to the new one. If they will let you, that is.

You know the feeling at a party when the person you are addressing is more interested in what's happening behind you? That's what it was like at the frontier. The officials kept looking over my shoulders, as if seeking a coachload of cocaine smugglers.

"Where's your car?" That explained what they were searching for. When I said I did not have one, and was hoping to catch a bus from here to Seattle, they promptly suggested I returned to Canada, whence there are direct buses. I've been turned back from better borders than this one, I thought, and tried another tack. "What about that bus?" I asked, pointing at a freshly arrived Greyhound whose destination board read "Seattle".

A border patrol guard escorted me to talk to the bus driver. "No, we're not allowed to pick up here. Go back to Vancouver. There's another bus in four hours." Back in the immigration hall, I made another pitch at getting in. "What if I walked to Blaine?", this being a small town that lies just inside the border. The intake of breath was as sharp as the frost outside. "You could, but it's over a mile," said the man in whose hands my immediate future lay.

Even in my condition, I said I might just make it. He invited me to apply for entry to the US – at a price. At this frontier, unlike most in the Western world, an admission fee of $6 applies.

Lucio Rodriguez had just finished his shift for the US Mail, delivering to the people of Blaine, when the blizzard began. His windscreen wipers were swishing hard as he turned the corner from Main Street on to the highway. I had somehow survived the 1.1 mile trudge from the frontier into town, just in time to see the elusive Greyhound set off from a rest-stop at a gas station.

Troublesome dreams are like this, I thought, as the snow melted in contact with my flesh and trickled down my neck. Then Lucio turned up, at the tail-end of what had been a terrible year for his country and his colleagues, and rescued me.

We talked all the way to Bellingham, the southern terminus of Alaska's Marine Highway ferry system. He gave me a tour of the town before depositing me at the bus station. The Greyhound, and the man driving it, looked familiar. As in the best dreams, I had caught up with the bus, though the driver was not overjoyed to see me.

I love North America. You get things here that you won't find anywhere else.

 

Readers answer back: Is Vancouver the friendliest place in the world?

¿ I lived in Vancouver for nine years and found, as you did, that when travelling on public transport the locals were very helpful in ensuring that you got to your destination. (By the way, to get to White Rock from the airport, the best route is to change at Granville and catch the Vancouver-Ocean Park bus. It's catching!)

One night, travelling back from Victoria via the last ferry of the day (which as always was late), the driver of the bus, which was scheduled to go only to the nearest exchange at Delta, decided to run his vehicle all the way into Vancouver, dropping off a couple of tourists at their hotels along the way.

Finally, for real fun on Skytrain, you should have been there four years ago, when the doors froze shut between the stations. The computer crashes about every six months, throwing the system into chaos.
David Knowles

¿ Our family visited the Pacific Northwest on our first trip to North America in October. We had a warm welcome at the US border, no doubt in part a result of the events of 11 September. Sad to say, the border guys were not too nice to the poor Muslim guy next in the queue, who was not allowed in as he hadn't got all the correct papers. He was told: "If you try to gain entry again without the correct papers you'll be arrested."

In Vancouver, the people were so polite we were amazed. One reason for our visit was to find the giant flying boats on Vancouver Island. The journey by car and ferry took half a day. We explained how far we'd travelled. This led to us being given a full conducted tour of one of the planes, with loads of photos taken in the cockpit. We certainly plan a further visit.
The Lund family

¿ Last October the border guards at Blaine were somewhat fazed by a middle-aged English lady arriving in a truck with a young American guy ­ he lived with us as a student. They searched my suitcase inside out and completely ignored the four carrier bags at my feet. Then they proceeded to give me a wonderful printed declaration (as my visa was from 1973) saying: "Revocation of Indefinite Nonimmigrant Visas... The cancellation of your indefinite visa in no way reflects your eligibility as a nonimmigrant visitor to the Untied (sic) States."
Chris Best

¿ Going south from Vancouver to Seattle, the US customs officers were extremely pleasant. When the tour bus we were on approached the Canadian border three days later, the US citizens were able to stay on board and the 10 Brits had to present themselves to customs and go through the third degree to be allowed to enter Canada.

I thought we were all members of the Commonwealth. We found all the other Canadians we met extremely welcoming.
Barbara Savager

¿ Our day trip from Seattle to Vancouver, by Greyhound, caused consternation in both directions across the border. Why would we possibly want to go to the city for one day only? The idea that the journey itself (which was beautiful to our eyes) might be the reason seemed totally alien to them.

We found the friendliness of Seattle unremitting, but the good people of Vancouver went one higher. It seems impossible to open a map in either city without somebody rushing to offer help. They are sufficiently charming about it that it takes an even harder heart than mine to find it tiresome.
Stewart Gee

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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