Now that news of economic collapse seems to have settled into a soothing monotony and it looks as though we won’t have to spend the winter barricaded into the basement with fifty cases of canned beans, the mind returns to its usual preoccupation for this time of year on the BC coast, namely snowbirding. It has to be admitted, one of the main winter activities on the lovely south coast is getting the heck away from the place. If you walk down the main street of Puerto Vallarta or Melaque in January the chances are better than even that you will meet a neighbour, or at least someone you recognize from the chow lineup on the Queen of Surrey. And it isn’t just realtors and merchants anymore—now you’re just as likely to run into the scruffy dude who delivers your firewood, taking full advantage of Mexico’s tolerant attitude toward public drinking and urination. Just why all and sundry feel such a need to escape our rather wimpy winter may not be obvious to the outside observer. Even the odd five-day power outage doesn’t get us much sympathy from Ontarians and maritimers fighting the blizzards and ice-storms of the Real Canadian Winter. The excuse I find most satisfying is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It enlists science to show those long grey months of soggy skies, mild though they be, are actually just bad for your health as avalanches and ice-dams. Maybe worse. The more dramatic type of winter event makes for scary television, but it passes quickly and leaves survivors stronger for the experience. Grey skies, on the other hand, work in a more insidious way, choking off the psyche’s basic need for light and leaving the body listless and unproductive. And it can be deadly. Suicide rates spike in the darkest months. Looked at this way, a $599 charter to Cancun can be regarded as a good investment, if not an act of outright self-preservation.
The question is, is this annual migration to the sunbelt all that it’s cracked up to be? I was put in mind of this the other day when I ran into my old friend Pat, a much more ambitious traveller than I who goes to places like New Zealand and South Africa. He and Lorna had just come back from a month in Patagonia. I made the usual envious noises, feeling sorry for myself at not having managed a SAD break for the fifth year in a row, but he was having none of it. “You’re better off here,” he steamed. “I’m so sick of living out a suitcase, getting ripped off every time you turn around and never getting a decent night’s sleep. With the money we spend travelling, we could build a home theatre with HD TV. None of these places look as good in real life as they do on OLN anyway. Or we could take an extra two weeks off in the summer and enjoy BC. We have the best scenery in the world, and the food doesn`t make you sick. I’m never getting on one of those sardine-can charters again.”
Funny how often people just back from long excursions talk this way. Even on our low-budget jaunts, we are always glad to come home to our familiar bed. Leaving aside the obvious hassles of lost luggage, tourista that won`t quit, sunstroke and relentless ripoff, even the crisis-free interludes often seem to leave you wondering, “are we having fun yet?” I remember standing on top of the Pyramid of the Sun thinking, “gee, this looks just like it did on OLN except only about one tenth as high.” And the Lonely Planet guy somehow managed to visit it on a day when it wasn’t crawling with out-of-puff Midwesterners twanging into their digicams. It just never seems to live up to the expectations you had daydreaming about it back in Old Soggy.
Here’s the funny thing though: even if the actual on-the-road experience doesn’t rise above the level of a fairly good time, it changes when you look back on it. When I first read Paul Theroux’s famous verdict “travel is enjoyable mainly in retrospect,” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’ve since learned. Somehow those travel experiences that were so so-so at the time take root in the memory and blossom with passing time into something fully as glorious as you ever daydreamed they would be. All the miseries of day-long waits in godforsaken airports mist over, leaving only the high points. It’s something to cling to as you lay awake in a 2-star hacienda sweating and fretting about whether the Mexican car rental is going to have you jailed for bending the tinfoil bumper of their new Fit while running back and forth to the lidless john every five minutes. “Someday,” you can tell yourself, “I’m going to be back sitting at my desk in rainy BC just enjoying the hell out of this.” Given how doubtful the travel experiences mostly were at the time, it’s remarkable how much time I spend wistfully re-living them later as I put away dishes or shuffle papers back here north of 49. And once you realize travel is mainly useful for re-stocking your memory banks, you can feel a bit more relaxed about missing the odd turn. Still, five in a row is too many.