In order not to deviate too much from the theme of this year’s instalments I feel it necessary to dwell on the ‘good times’ that have been carved out of what could otherwise have been a stupendously dull seven months. Despite being lost in the abyss of the Canadian prairies we were recently granted three weeks off giving us the opportunity to escape, regain our sanity and explore some pretty cool stuff. That is to say that fortunately what the prairies lack in charm, character, human life, animal life, plant life, geographical features, international landmarks, general interest pieces… the list goes on, you get the idea; the surrounding areas make up for it in spades, therefore making this part of the world very worth a visit.
The Canadian Rockies (they get annoyed if you just call them the Rockies) are truly breathtaking and just an hour beyond Calgary from here. One particularly favoured spot is the town of Banff, which is primarily a ski resort in the winter but serves as a picturesque tourist trap in the summer as well. I have been a number of times now but the most notable trip was after having been strongly advised that the best way to see the Rockies (Canadian) was atop a horse. For 48 hours. Horseback riding is very popular in these parts, mainly because its inhabitants are a century or two behind the rest of the world, so I figured I was in good company. Not to mention being joined by two fellow officers, Fred and Hannah (I know, a girl, I found it weird too), both equally keen to dress up as a cowboy (and girl I suppose), embrace the local culture, and try to look as authentic as possible in this unmissable photo opportunity. Hannah had cheated by having ridden a horse competently before, so was instantly docked points and became a target to be pushed off by Fred and myself for the full trip. Needless to say Fred and I, the only Cavalry officers present, were utterly hopeless. Fortunately I warned off the guide as I boarded my steed for the first time by asking, “How do I make it go?” So not much was expected of us from then on. Highlights of incompetence include Fred driving into a branch at his chest height, nearly removing himself from the saddle, until it snapped, which sounded like a gun shot, sending most of the horses bolting into one another almost causing mass de-saddlings and a few strong words and harsh phrases from other members of the group; or my inability to remember my horses name and reverting to calling it Shergar to inspire him to watch his attitude (this generally fell on deaf ears however, as it turns out that 1980’s IRA activity is not big amongst Canadian horses so he continued to do what ever he wanted under my inept command); or even our attempt at a group photo while mounted, resulting in a comic strip of photos with Hannah’s horse standing perfectly still facing the camera while Fred and I go from being side on; to walking away with arms and legs flailing, attempting to gain control; or not in the shot at all.
It was an exhausting 48 hours (don’t even get me started on the saddle sore) but an amazing experience. We even saw a family of bears (briefly) which was top of my to do list in Canada and I also got to practice lifting my cowboy hat and saying “Mam” every time I passed a lady so an overall win and highly recommended.
From there I dropped in at Calgary airport to pick up my long-suffering girlfriend, who I had convinced to come out for a week to explore Montana with me. Montana is a short drive over the border into the U.S of A, whose border official was as wonderfully officious and unwelcoming as any guard you might find at Guantanamo Bay. At least until I casually dropped into conversation that I was in the British Army, when all of a sudden, this redneck hillbilly, who was about to lock us up for even daring to enter his country, became all sweetness and light.
“Army?! Oh Man! You like shootin’?!” he beamed at me.
“Umm, yeah I suppose…”
“I lurve shootin! Marine sniper, 27 years! You wanna come shootin’ with me?!”
“Um, well, we kind of have plans” I rather feebly replied.
“Damn! I lurve shootin’! I got a real good shot! Oh well you enjoy your stay, America appreciates your service!” he bellowed as he stamped our passports and whisked us on our way with a smile and wave. Only in America can you go from dodgy foreigner to shootin’ buddy in a matter of seconds on the back of a casual comment, but I wasn’t going to complain and I can assure you that he wasn’t the only American I openly disclosed my job title to.
Once you manage to outfox the border police Montana is also well worth a visit. My top tips (other than getting your girlfriend to organise it in order to avoid ‘winging’ it and everywhere being fully booked) would be: Do go to Glacier National Park, its everything you might imagine Montana to look like, but don’t take your girlfriend horse riding there if she is even less adept than you, (especially if you are as bad as me) she won’t enjoy it and it will only end in a tantrum. Yellowstone National Park- overrated in my opinion, do go and see one of the millions of hot springs but don’t bother with ‘Old Faithful’, you will never find a parking space unless you park illegally, then when you do get there you will stand behind hundreds of cooing tourists awaiting the ‘magnificent eruption’ that happens roughly every 40 minutes. When this does happen, don’t blink, you’ll miss it- as about 30 milliliters of water gets spurted 15 feet into the sky in very un-dramatic fashion lasting all of 30 seconds and then to top it all off the enormous (and unwarranted) crowd will itself then erupt into passionate cheering and applause as if to congratulate mother nature on her fantastic achievement. If she has the ability to split continents in half on a whim then I reckon that she probably has this little charade covered, don’t you?
So my three weeks off was going very well and could only really be topped off with one final (LADS) week in Cancun (after the emotional goodbyes at the airport of course). Unsurprisingly Cancun was everything it promised to be and more- one week in an all (and they really do mean all) inclusive five star hotel, with four restaurants, a private beach, two pool bars, an all day poolside burger bar and more fruit based cocktails than any self respecting man could ever hope to consume. I developed a particular penchant for a poolside cocktail called a ‘Mango-Tango’ until the barman on the third day leant over the bar and said, “Amigo, I cannot serve you this drink anymore, it is a woman’s drink, let me make you a man’s drink”, and proceeded to make me a strawberry daiquiri. Apparently that is considered a man’s drink in these parts, so I discontinued the delectable Mango-Tangos and manned-up, strawberry daiquiri in hand, safe in the knowledge that it was all free, so it doesn’t matter what it tastes like. We spent our days floating in the pool, topping up on cocktails, getting sunburnt, swimming in the sea, scuba-diving and planning our evenings activities in Cancun’s many, apparently world famous night clubs. One, I will admit, was a life changing experience. Coco Bongos is Cirque du Soleil meets the West End with the music taste of any popular Kings Road nightclub thrown in. From 10pm until 4am you are transfixed by the continual performances from (to name but a few) a Mexican Freddie Mercury to a Mexican Michael Jackson, or a flying enactment of The Phantom of the Opera (Mexican) to a mesmerising re-enactment of the Disney film Tron (again, Mexican), all done on high wires (not that far) above your heads. Naturally any gaps between acts were filled with dancing to cheesy music and trips to the bar, unless you were high rollers like us and had bottles of vodka delivered to the table- it’s Mexico; even Army Officers can afford to be high rollers. Honestly, words cannot do it justice, look it up and while you are there look up ME Cancun, our hotel, it too will not disappoint. Although if you are going to share a room with a member of the same sex, be warned that the rooms are unnervingly ‘lover’ orientated, complete with red mood lighting and a list of things to ‘order up’ that would make the author of Fifty Shades of Grey blush. Naturally this makes for a particularly awkward lights-out every evening, it’s just lucky we had separate beds.
Once we were content that we had squeezed every last pennies-worth out of our all-inclusive deal, and reached the end of the barmen’s tether at us not tipping them (we are English, we are not as good at it as the Americans) we reluctantly returned back to our desolate home to stick out the last few months. We were so distraught at coming back that we had to book a weekend waterskiing and jet-skiing in Montana the following weekend to get over the extreme Sunday blues, which did help a lot actually, and set us up with plenty to talk about over the six weeks that followed- you guessed it- on the prairie. However, fear not, there is still time for one last trip before this extended summer camp closes for business and we all return home exhausted- five days in San Diego, what could possibly go wrong…?
By Rich Glover