The Shrubbery
August 1999
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Canadian Content Part XIII
"Carefree Highway, let me slip away on you..."

by John Hansen

After high school or university, it's a common rite of passage for many young people to take a year off to go walk the earth. Such is true among Canadians. Go to any country, any city, anywhere in the world and you're likely to find my comrades comparing the local beer to Molson. If you have trouble finding them, head for the nearest Irish pub, they'll be there. Even the Quebecois. (Note to the Shrub's Irish readers: What's up with the proliferation of Irish pubs around the globe? People complain about the encroachment of the Americanized McWorld on their local cultures but I know for a fact there are at least five Irish pubs in Machu Pichu, Peru.)

Canadians Rae and Mare, shortly before the French surrendered.
The tradition of backpacking around the planet can be traced back to the 1950's when a then young (and wealthy) drifter named Pierre Trudeau and his friend Jacques Hebert went to the People's Republic of China and wrote a book based on their experiences called Two Innocents Abroad in Red China. Trudeau went on to become the greatest prime minister ever who wore sandals while Hebert went on to found Canada World Youth, which was loosely modeled after President Kennedy's invention The Peace Corps. In 1989, I joined up with CWY and went to Senegal, West Africa. It was there I met some people from the Peace Corps who all seemed nice enough but were disturbed by the lack of good cheese to be had in the rough woods of Africa. I, on the other hand, worried about missing CNN's coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. "I'm on the wrong continent," I wrote to my friend Dan, who himself was attending McGill University in Montreal and looking for Trudeau.

The locals in Senegal let me in on a widely held belief among those who have dealt with the Peace Corps: they are, in fact, a front for the CIA.

Canadians experience all the world's cultures have to give by becoming blind, stinking, drunk at every opportunity.
My friend and I were enjoying a warm pint of Bierre La Gazelle in The Auld Dublin pub in Oussouyee, Senegal when a man approached us.

"Etes vous Americain?"

"Non," we replied. "Canadien."

"Bon! Because Peace Corps equals CIA! I know this!" he exclaimed, gesturing wildly with his Marlboro Light, stabbing me in the face a few times in the process.

"They come here. Big smiles. But at night, they lock doors. Typing, typing, typing. What do they type? I tell you. They are spies!"

It was then I found out why Americans sew the Maple Leaf on their backpacks when abroad. That is also why they master the phrase "Don't shoot, I'm Canadian" in seven different languages. When you're the biggest, everyone hates you.

Many Canadians enjoy their experiences abroad so much, they make a career out of it. If you can join one federally funded program, why not join a thousand more. Eventually, they do settle down to teach English in Japan, where they leave their perfectly nice girlfriends back home for some British chick who got it in her head to do the exact same thing.

When they return, they are thirty years old and have no future except an unfinished degree and, if they're lucky, a job in a call centre. I'm one of the lucky ones where I work for an airline so therefore I can combine my job with my wanderlust. So far, I've been to such nations as France, Belgium, and Texas.

The Golden Age of the backpacker, any aging hippie will tell you, was in the 60's and 70's. The music of that era, with its themes of packing up and taking off, screamed it: "Free Man in Paris" by Joni Mitchell, "Take it Easy" by the Eagles, "Carey" by Joni Mitchell, "Carefree Highway," by Gordon Lightfoot, and "California" by Joni Mitchell.

It was an easier, cheaper, and safer time. It was easier to hitch-hike, get a free meal, a place to stay, and in every country there were earnest farmers everywhere who would offer you food and shelter under the condition that you do not touch their nubile young daughters. Or so they tell us.

Today, there are fewer government dollars for our wayward sons and daughters. Many are lucky to get away from once just once and for many, getting away means Calgary, where the jobs are and not Paris with its cafes and cabarets. But, as I mentioned in the beginning, they're still out there in world, trying not to be confused with Americans and trying not to let the sound of their own wheels drive them crazy.

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