A Travellerspoint blog


Touring with a 2year old guide

If you ignore the protests – possible, if tricky at night – I quite liked Montreal. Though perhaps lacking much in the way of “must see's” for a tourist, it was a very agreeable city and somewhere i'm sure that would be fun to live for a while.

Just how do you activate something uselessly?

Staying with friends of friends, I had free use of a bicycle with with to explore the city (at least until I destroyed the front tyre and had a long walk home) which is always a bonus. I trekked over to the 1976 Olympic park, Montreal's famous folly (though successful from a sporting point of view – ironically, unless you are Canadian - financially they were a disaster: even though plans had to be cut back late in the day, delays and cost overruns were staggering and meant the city was still paying off the cost of the stadium over 30 years later) to see how miserable and desolate east London will doubtless be looking in a few months/years time.


One of the things I enjoyed most about Montreal was the street art. Especially in certain areas of the centre and at night, large parts of city was used as part of installations. Some more traditional, some stand alone; some involved light shows and entire buildings having ever changing displays projected on to them. Others were interactive: One was a row of children's swings with lights on them, which were linked to music instruments: the number, speed and rhythm of the swings dictating the notes played. There were numerous examples, and I liked it.

The lights on the swings varies in brightness, whilat the speed of the swings and number being used - there is a row of them all the others along the promende - creates music, which varies by tone, pitch, density and volume

The lighting on the side of the building is actually a kind of large interactive computer game which once started by sms, gets played by the noise and location of the crowd opposite


On Sunday, much of the city was shut down whilst a large cycle event took place – if I had known about it in advance, I would have loved to take part as a way of seeing more of the city. Instead, I took a trek around the Jean-Talon market, and then spent a couple of hours in the Parc du Mont-Royal, both people watching and listening to a mass of Tam-Tam players who congregate weekly, and produce an incredible hypnotic rhythmic sound. Definitely worth a watch and listen.



Unfortunately the rain – though not quite at the biblical levels of a few days ago – was regular and often quite heavy, which inevitably cut down on some of my plans. I have no problem with rain or getting wet, but doing things like climbing mountains to look at the view, when the rain and cloud are so thick that there will not be a view is not really my idea of fun. Instead I was given a guided tour by the lovely Sarah, who, naturally also brought her mum along, the old TP stalwart Tway. If you ever get the chance, I can recommend having a tour of pretty much anywhere by an under 5: you get to see very different perspectives to when you are just with 'boring' adults.

My tour guide in the rain, Sarah

I tried the inevitable poutine – chips with cheese curds and gravy – a Canadian staple, to which my general feeling would be 'meh'; marvelled at the wonders of PFK (in the rest of the world, this is known as KFC. Even in France, it is KFC. But in Quebec, oh no – they need to change it to PFK – just to ensure that those dastardly English speaking companies don't destroy the local language. Or something.). I also ended up being offered money to give a lap dance in a strange thrash metal bar.


At that point, I knew it was time to move on again.


This, apparently, is how you get ready for a big night out in Montreal when the weather forecast isn't good...

Posted by Gelli 11:45 Archived in Canada Tagged tp Comments (0)

A brand new experience: Striking French speakers...


Yes. I know I left the USA many months ago. And yes, I did return to the US from Canada. And yes I know most entries that follow will sound strange based on that. But they were mostly written whilst I was there (honest), and it is only my incompetence – and, occasionally, incontinence, although that is another story – that has delayed their postings, and for that, I hope you all can forgive me. If you can't, well, realistically, there is b***** all you can do about it anyway.


It was more accurate than any clock. At exactly 20:00 every night, the quiet evening air was suddenly shattered by the bashing of pots and pans. People standing on street corners, on balconies, in their front gardens, all banging metallic kitchen pots and pans. This is casseroling. I was in Montreal. And this is protesting and civil disobedience, Quebec style.

For makers of kitchen equipment and drum sticks (musical, not chicken varieties) this has been a huge boon. For musical producers, it has doubtless opened a world of opportunities: unlikely as it sounds, some of the accidental melodies produced by the bashing of such diverse types of metal pots are surprisingly good. There is definite un-taped musical talent there. For tourists down town watching the parades and the police, it was mostly bemusing. For the non-protesting local, it has mostly become a weary, boring distraction. Each night varies: some nights, the protests die down with an hour – sometimes they are still going strong at midnight, and this has been going on for several months.


Protesters on a march around central Montreal at night, and Police out in force to prevent them going places they don't want them to


Though it has only received a minor note in most world – and indeed, non Quebecois Canadian – news outlets, Quebec has been in increasingly serious trouble for some time. What follows is my my – probably entirely incorrect – understanding of affairs and events.

It started in late 2011, when certain students started getting into disagreement over student fees. In early 2012 increases were announced by the government: The increase was 325 dollars about 200gbp) for the next 5 years, for a total of about 1700 dollars, or a bit over 1000gbp. Sure, not cheap, but on the grand scheme of things, a modest amount: Even after the full increase, fees would still be the cheapest in Canada, let alone North America, and as prices in the UK are this year rising by up to 5750gbp (eg: 28x the annual rise in Quebec, and almost 6x the total rise planned over 5 years) in one year, fairly inconsequential on the grand scheme of things.

But the students didn't like it. Quebec students apparently rarely like fee increases, and have protested on and off for 20+ years; in fact, every time an increase has been announced. Hence why the current rates are so low, and in the current economic situation, un-sustainably low.

By February, some social science students were out on strike, and protest marches were occurring. Talks continued, compromises were offered. But it wasn't good enough. The number of students on strike rapidly rose, hitting almost 400,000 across the province and every French speaking institution. From what I can attain, English speaking Universities were relatively immune and continued pretty much as normal. The protest marches became a daily event, causing chaos down town, and being attended by anything from 500 to 50,000+. One rally is believed to have had over half a million protesters.

As the protests built up, they evolved. Yes, tuition fees are still an important part, but the demo's became anti-government, anti-capitalist, anti-corruption. The Quebec provincial elections are due later this year or next year, and the more pro-independence/French parties have got on the bandwagon, at least unofficially. Protest badges have been worn by opposition politicians. Protest stickers appear all over town. And the average local got more and more anti-protest: the general view being that the students should just grow up and take a reality check.

Northern Quebec is mostly uninhabited, unexplored, often ice bound regions. But there is lots of oil and mineral wealth believed to be there. The protesters believe that this is being sold off by the state government to big construction and exploration companies, often run by friends of the ruling politicians or where former party members are now in charge. Some are against the sell off; some against who it is being sold to; some totally anti-exploration, wanting the wilderness to remain just that. Others agree that it should be done, but think the contracts should involve profits going back to the government and taxpayer which at present they are not, despite taxpayer funded development in infrastructure etc and construction permits being spent. Honestly what the real situation is, I have no idea. And the variety of things I was told or read suggest that many locals have no real idea either. Rumours spread like wildfire, even if they have no basis in anything even resembling truth. Unions are heavily involved, but depending who you talk to are either for the protest or against it; good or bad.

Last week (this is being written on June 4th) marked two big moments: protest marches hit their 100th consecutive day, and the local government, tiring of the lack of protest made a fatal error. Believing general support to be wavering and wanting an end to the strike, they introduced Bill 78 into law. Big mistake. Far from crushing the protest as they hoped, it was so heavy handed that it reinvigorated the masses and the level of protests rapidly rose. Casseroling became more commonplace, and the marches more serious.

If I understand this anywhere near correctly – and to be fair, I probably don't - the bill officially suspended all classes (so even those students and lecturers who had continued to study were kicked out) until at least August; it also banned any gathering of more than 50 people, unless the police were given 8 hours notice (naturally just before the summer festival season, which is Montreal's defining feature, and attracts millions of people each year); all parade routes have to be cleared with police; scarves, masks etc have all been banned in any circumstances whilst at the the same time, police have started covering up their own individual identification numbers. It has been made an offence to incite people to strike, to join a demo, to prevent people entering a classroom, and much more, and in all cases, burden of proof lies with the protester/arrested party and not the officials. And it appears that powers of martial law have been handed to the education minister. Not the police, army or legal people – the education minister. Who in herself, has been in the job barely 2 weeks after the previous one resigned. In total over 2500 people have been arrested during the protests; over 1000 of those have been in the last week since the new law was passed.

This has all had the affect of galvanising the protesters, and swinging public support back towards the protests. It was striking to me how many people were protesting on street corners were normal people: elderly, disabled, families, especially those with small kids (who, admittedly, almost all love making as much noise as possible, so being actively encouraged to bang things must be great) as well as more student types. On my first night in town staying with CouchSurfing friends of friends, we joined the main march. French speaking people on strike? It felt just like being back in Europe!

But if nothing else, it gave me a tour of the city at night! Several thousand were involved, and whilst there was gunshot heard and riot police in place, it was fairly calm despite being totally illegal. Everybody has scarves due to threat of tear-gas and smoke bombs, and though there were any number of 'rougher' looking people involved, and troublemakers, it was all fine. The main problem was communication – it had been planned that night as a silent protest with no casseroling, but hundreds were banging away. This meant that the songs and chants could not be heard. Talking to assorted others, they all had different grievances. I suspect this will run and run.

Chaos is promised for this weekends F1 GP amongst much else; the Americans have issued an official travel advisory against all travel to the province of Quebec. The Grand Prix, Beer, Jazz and other festivals all promise to bring the protests more into main stream and foreign press, but at the moment all I can say is watch this space.

Note: Yes, this was written in June. Yes it is being published in October. My apologies for my lack of punctuality. And obviously, some things have changed and the situation moved on. But, because I am not in Quebec any more I have no idea.

Posted by Gelli 09:26 Archived in Canada Tagged strikes Comments (0)

Ooh. Foreign speaking

I liked Quebec City. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is the only walled city in North America still in existence north of Mexico City and has a definite European feel to it. It is also perched on a hill, which is something I always like. Having said that, whilst it was undeniably pretty, and the Chateau Frontenac hotel – originally built by the railway company (who built grand hotels across Canada in the the glory days of rail travel) – is definitely impressive, it gave me a sudden understanding of just how young North America really is. Whilst in local terms it is incredibly rare and old, by European standards it would just be another quite nice old city – one of hundreds, if not thousands of old fortified towns and cities in existence, the vast majority of which have relatively few visitors and are unknown to the general populace.


Chateau Frontenac

After arriving at night and finding my hostel with a nice uphill walk through the rain, the weather cheered up the following day and I spent a happy day trekking around. Walking around the streets of the old town and along the walls, it was a very agreeable place. In fact the only thing that was not so agreeable was the presence in both my hostel and the city in general of large groups of teenage kids, all apparently on school trips of one sort or another, all English speaking, and all incapable of either letting other guests sleep, or other pedestrians pass them on the street.

That evening, there was a spectacular air-show promised, so I joined the thronged masses along the river front. But without a timetable, it seemed a tad disappointing to me: A helicopter passed by a few times. Then 4 military planes 20minutes later. Then the air display team, another 25minutes later, although they didn't do anything much except fly in formation. I left at that point so might have missed the big finale, but doubt it. Against that, the people watching was great.


Acting on more than one tip-off, I had dinner at Pape Georges and did exactly what I had been told: don't worry if the bar is empty, go in, try the local beer or wine and ask about cheese. I got there just after a dreaded overland truck group arrived, but they seemed to have stumbled in by accident. Arriving from New York that afternoon, they would be in Vancouver in less than 3 weeks, which struck me as not much time when there are such long distances to be driven. Still, the assorted early 20-somethings seemed happy at this stage, although the single male guest in the group of 14 in the bar looked a tad overwhelmed. When they had been served – and the food looked good – I picked a platter off the menu, and we indeed discussed cheese. It was not the cheapest meal I have had, but after a couple of days of ramen noodles, it evened out and the combination of several sorts of local cheese (picked to fit my taste), meat, pate, garnish and hot fresh baguette was a good one. The overland group headed off, and I was adopted by Miriam and Christine, the two bar girls, and ended up staying most of the evening. Good food, drink and company, interesting conversation and in a 350 year old bar in lovely city. What more could I ask for?

On the way home, I stopped and watched a man stripped to the waist in an unlit part of a garden as he played a huge flowerpot, complete with flowers. He had his own drumsticks, and was incredibly talented. He didn't know I – or anyone else – was there, and I didn't let on. He was just a guy that liked drumming, practising his music against a flowerpot at midnight. When he finally stopped, it seemed a fitting moment to go home.



Posted by Gelli 07:56 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

Trying to climb stairs

After a final day in Buffalo I returned the car, 1935 miles driven in the week, and caught a Megabus to Toronto. 2 hours late, meant an arrival in Toronto after 12:30am and I found myself more than happy that the subway runs an hour later than in London (the English version, not the Ontario one).


Buffalo. Note the two Statues of Liberty on the building roof of the second photo

I found Toronto a bit of a slow burner. Yes, there were some nice neighbourhoods and it is probably somewhere great to live, but as a tourist for a few days I admit to being fairly underwhelmed. I walked for a couple of days around Little Korea, Little Italy, Greektown, Downtown and many other areas. I saw a building which looks like a giant IKEA table gone wrong. I was impressed by the scale of the tram network (or streetcar, if you are local), but whilst it was all very pleasant I didn't find a hook. Nothing to really pull me in and enthuse me. I was, however, gleefully discovered by a number of mosquitoes. Ah cr*p. It is already that time of year again.



The one thing that everybody knows about Toronto is the CN Tower. For 34 years it was both the worlds tallest tower and free-standing structure, though since overtaken by the ridiculous megalith that is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. For me who likes going up things, it was something to climb and as several people had told me that you can climb the stairs, I was really excited. It turns out the whilst you can, indeed, climb the stairs – all 1776 of them – you can only do it twice a year, and for charity. I asked; I pleaded; I went up in an elevator. I only went as far as the main floor, 350ish metres up – a further 10dollars and 2 hour wait would have risen me an extra 100metres to a much smaller visiting dome, but I didn't think it would be worth it. Now, if they had let me go up the stairs.... I also looked at the people doing an outside walk above where I was standing, 365 metres up. Watching a few on the video was enough to make my legs go funny, but I would have happily attempted it if it had not cost an extra 200 dollars and had a waiting list of almost 12months. As it was, I had to make do with the “normal” viewing platform and view (not too bad), and looking through the area of glass floor to the ground below, with the evil wish that somebody would play a loud recording of cracking glass to freak out the many people gingerly looking down.



Being outside and looking down through the glass floor of the CN Tower

The following day, after passing a convention centre surrounded by people at a “Hydroponics conference” which judging by the smells outside appeared to be nothing less than a meeting of marijuana growers and smokers, I took a ferry across to Toronto Island and spent a pleasant few hours wandering around. With my new found ability to affect the weather in full-swing, I bought a pair of sunglasses about 3minutes before the glorious 28degree bright sun of the last few days was replaced by increasing dark clouds and much cooler air. Ho Hum. I met up with friends of friends, and also had a wonderful evening with the mythical mtlchica, somebody I have known here on TP for 8 years, but had long suspected didn't really exist.


Returning to my second hostel of the town (it had not been possible to book anywhere for all 4 nights, and Couchsurfing had led to offers only for the middle 2 days, meaning 3 potential moves) and there was still no toilet paper. Time to move on. So the next morning I went to Ottawa. For reasons unknown, Canada's often overlooked capital city of Ottawa agreed with me fairly early on. I enjoyed walking alongside the river and the famous Rideau Canal; Ambling through the Byward Market, and gazing at the famous Mamam spider which I have not seen for a few years - at one stage on it's European tour, I seemed to stumble upon it in a different city on an almost monthly basis. I watched the jet black squirrels playing on Major's Hill Park and spent the night somewhere which several people think I ought to have spent many more nights than I actually have: In jail.



The following morning I explored Parliament Hill, whereupon I walked straight into a (free) guided tour of Parliament, regularly passing Ministers and lobbyists in the corridors without so much as a glance, and passing doors labelled things like “2012 CM Budget meeting” behind which you could hear often lively discussion underway. This was a tour of the real working parliament and not just a few rooms used on special occasions, and whilst there was a metal detector at the entrance and some police around it was still surprisingly low key in terms of security. The Lower chamber was in use, but we saw the Upper one, as well as the Peace Tower. I left, hurriedly, after almost decapitating Andrew Scheer, the Speaker of Government, after being told by the guide to wave a stout wooden pole in a certain way for reasons that now elude me, whereupon he happened to walk right around the corner right into it. I saw him just in time and changed my angle, whilst he also saw it and half ducked. My tour guide looked simultaneously sheepish and horrified. The rest of the group scared and amazed. Me, relieved. Slightly worse reactions from either of us, and I would currently be an international incident. I took that as a sign that it was time to leave Ottawa - and rapidly - before I ended up facing an attempted assault charge and more time in jail.




I have never seen black squirrels before, so it was interesting to see, whilst (below) is the Ridea Canal


Leaving Ottawa in glorious summer sun, barely 10minutes later and we are in thick grey swirling drizzle and fog. But it passed and the remainder of the train journey to Montreal was uneventful until a few minutes outside when my arrival-weather curse again hit and a huge downpour flooded Montreal for an hour or so. By the time my connecting train left, it was just about over. But the clouds were going my way. I have said it before in Southern Africa, in Japan, in Russia, and in the Sahara when it started snowing. And probably many other places, but I again started wondering just to who I should apply for a new job as a weather delivery man.

Reading the paper the following morning, Montreal had received 75mm of rain in 30minutes and large parts of the city were flooded or not functioning, the sort of downpour which will crop up in conversation for years to come (the comparison given was to a famous storm in 1987, which dropped an extra 30mm but took 4 times as long to do so)

Thus it was that I arrived in Quebec (or Quebec City as it is sometimes know to avoid confusion with the province of the same name), with the two traditionals fully in place: It was pissing it down with rain, and I was an hour late.


I'm not used to seeing such signs: normally these places are much more hidden


Somebody asked if Clive was along for the ride, and i can happily confirm that he is, although was a bit scared meeting some Canadian cousins because they were all so much bigger than he was!

Posted by Gelli 07:52 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

More Falling

22 °C

The following day was more of the same. Long empty roads, several scenic stops for wanders, periodic drizzle. And then, as perfectly timed as always, the Toronto ring road in rush hour. Slow progress. Heavier rain. Some idiots driving. But using a combination of luck, guesswork and dumb luck, I managed to thread my way through the network of free-ways and even avoid the toll roads. The next 3 hours or so, I skirted Lake Ontario crossing the fancily named Burlington Bay James N. Allan Skyway (it's a bridge) until eventually I rolled into the Canadian city of Niagara Falls. I found the hostel with relative ease and discovered that everybody was going out to a live music bar a bit later. The hostel manager was one of the poor and extremely rare people that I could really bounce with (eg: completely on same wavelength and similar warped sense of humour), and we traded unlikely barbs to looks of amusement, bemusement, incomprehension and laughter from the – mostly German – crowd that gathered. More than one asked if our banter was scripted, and could not believe that it wasn't. But that explains why I ended up in a bar in the local part of town, and not looking at the rushing water that most do when in town.

Around midnight, I finally saw the falls. I don't know if it was because it was night, or that my current state has desensitised me to such things, or whether my travels have knocked it back, or that the setting took something away, but my first view of the falls, from the apparently more spectacular Canadian side was distinctly underwhelming. The approach and local area looking kind of like Skegness on steroids, and in many ways not unlike how I expect Las Vegas to look. Lights, amusement arcades and unnecessary, well, stuff. I will look again more closely in daylight, but initial impressions are that Victoria Falls were more powerful (so much spray, I barely saw the falls) and Ruacana Falls much more impressive overall, and more accessible.


This doesn't really give the full impression of the horrors of the town, but i wasn't going to stick around and look for a good photo spot...


The following day, the falls were more obvious but still tainted by association with the hideous town. I drove back towards Lake Ontario, spending a little time in the very pretty town of Niagara on the Lake, before stopping to trek down into the gorge and alongside the Niagara River. And that was really cool. I will have to come back and walk the whole thing, ideally without having to then walk back to retrieve a car. But in the gorge there were paths, forests, boulders, rocks and of course the mighty fast flowing river, and no signs of civilization at all. The Niagara River is often overlooked by tourists, but it is of huge importance. It is part of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO recognised biosphere, and the river is the only one to drain the great lakes

The Niagara River

Simultaneously satisfied and dissatisfied, I retrieved my car and drove back to Buffalo, where I spent a few hours and sorted my stuff out, before returning in the evening to view the falls on the American side (everybody says the Canadian side is better, and yes, you do get the panoramic view, but on the American side you get really close to the water and edge of the falls, and I found I enjoyed much better. Ignoring the mess of Niagara Falls Canada town on the horizon, naturally) and then walked back into Canada to view the falls lit up at night - something I had missed the night before – before again pondering the horrors of Niagara Falls town, walking back to the USA and driving back to Buffalo for the final time.


Though it hadn't gone according to anything resembling a plan, it has been a fruitful week in other, more important ways. What had been a very relaxing trip had helped me enormously and I was starting feel passable and mostly robust again: I felt like I would be able to deal with places and people, and maybe even normal life again. I think this is a good sign.


Above, the falls on the American side, where you can get nice and close to the water, and below, the falls lit up at night


Posted by Gelli 03:54 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls Comments (0)

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