A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Conspicuous consumption


I have been in America for a few weeks now* and have yet to really consume. I have yet to take part in stereotypical American life. Americans consume. Their entire life and culture is based around consumption of “stuff”. In theory, good stuff. And New York, more than probably anywhere on the planet consumes. But so far I have not had a single burger, pizza, hotdog, cheesecake, budweiser or even a bagel. I haven't been into a McDonalds, have barely seen a Burger King and don't recall even seeing a KFC or Wendy's. I haven't been to Macy's, Sears, Bloomingdales or even a Mall; used a soda fountain, taken the Staten Island ferry, been up the Empire State Building, visited the Statue of Liberty or any other of the doubtless hundreds of everyday American or touristy things. Heck, despite a few days in New York City I haven't even seen a single rat yet. I have used Starbucks, yes, but more because they have toilets and free wifi. Now back in Buffalo after my roadtrip and finally feeling human enough, I think I am now alive enough that it is time to consume. New York City is calling again. So it is time to experience America as Americans do. Time to eat.

In fact, I had probably only really done one typical thing: visiting Walmart. If you ignore the one whose car-park I slept, whilst out wandering in the Adirondacks one day I had come across a town – Plattsburgh – near the Canadian border and on spying a large Walmart, had stopped to use the toilet and get a couple of things: some bread and 2 banana's. It was a Super Walmart or Mega Walmart or a Maxi-Humungous-All Conquering Walmart. Or something. It was fascinating. Both the huge variety of things in the store, but also some of the customers (and staff). I saw a handful of people who were so, erm, generously proportioned (read: really, really fat) that just their standing up appeared to simultaneously defy the laws of both physics and gravity. The fact that they were walking (albeit slowly, and in cases, looking very painful to their backs) was truly mind-boggling to me.

And then there were the options of goods to buy. The choice of, to take one example, cheese, was incredible. The amount of pre-packaged or pre-prepared cheese in that one store was more cheese than I ever seen in one place at one time before, and I have even been to cheese factories in the past. There was a decent selection of varieties, but I was struck more by the sheer number of brands of cheese available. Row upon row of large packs of grated cheese – either one sort of cheese, or a blend of 3 or 4 – were there to be chosen. But the actual options in terms of type of cheese or blend was relatively small (maybe 20-30). But for each of those blends, there was a choice of up to 50 brands. All of cheddar. And I can't help wonder how anybody would ever taste all of them to make an informed choice.

I was also bemused, if not surprised, by the inability to buy “small” portions or things. Such as a single soda or a beer. There were lots of micro breweries in the region, and I thought that it could be nice to try 2 or 3 local brews. In the fridge were cans of Budweiser, Miller, Molson etc of sizes ranging from roughly 1 pint to 5 pints. But no real beers. On the shelves were numerous sorts of real beers, but the smallest pack size was 16. I just wanted 2 or 3 single bottles, but that appeared to be an impossibility. So I changed tack, and decided to just get some coke. Here, my options again seemed to be bottles of 1litre up to vats containing enough coke to fill a medium sized swimming pool, or packs of small bottles which started at 24bottles. I just wanted 1 or 2 small bottles (litre bottles being too big to fit in a cup-holder in a car), but I ended up having to go across the road to a gas station and use a drinks machine to get them. It just seemed odd.

So overwhelmed was I by the choice and experience that my 5 minute stop off lasted well over an hour. I wandered isles with a look on my face which probably immediately marked me down as an alien (if, in fact, my skinny size did not – I was the smallest person I saw in the store by some distance), picking up and looking at all sorts of interesting – or depressing – foods stuffs, and then exploring the 'other' stuff in the store. By the time I came outside, I just had to stand in the car park for a few moments in amazement and wonder. Or something. I am already looking forward to potentially having to move over here more permanently, and doing my first ever grocery shop.

It was almost overwhelming. On second thoughts, perhaps I will wait a couple more weeks before I start to consume. Consumption is scary. I'll go back to Canada instead.

* yes, I know that the last couple of days have actually been in Canada. But it's all the same place really (ducks, and runs off to hide)


Posted by Gelli 04:03 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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)

Canukistan. Or Canadia. Or something

all seasons in one day

Amazingly, it looked just like I had expected, and I couldn't believe that the stereotypical image was so unerringly accurate. In front of me was row after row of igloos, each with it's own guard-moose tied up outside. People were wandering around on horseback, many of them dressed in bright red coats and wearing large hats. A polar bear was rummaging through a dustbin, whilst to the left, a mass game of ice-hockey was being played, where every single spectator had a cup of Tim Horton's in one hand and a jar of maple syrup in the other. Yes, welcome indeed, to Canada!

Actually what I saw as I slowly crested the International bridge was a scene oddly reminiscent of the first time that I saw the city of Nikel. What was pristine countryside was replaced by a huge, rusty industrial works, with chimneys and smoke belching out at all angles. A miserable sight if ever there was one. Part of me wondered if I dared make a U-turn on the bridge, and flee from this belching eyesore, but it was too late for that.



Land border crossings have always intrigued me because of who uses them. If you cross from France to Belgium, for example, due to the EU and Schengen treaty there are no longer any border checks. You drive along the motorway, pass the sign welcoming you to the new country and that is all. But what I find fascinating are the identities of the other drivers. In the same example, 500metres before crossing the border, all of the car number plates are French. 500metres after the border, they are all Belgian. You don't notice where they all go/come from but somehow they do. I have always found it a bit odd. Even in America, the transition seems to magically happen at state lines.

And here I was rounding a corner and joining the back of the traffic queue to cross the bridge at Sault Ste. Marie, I reflected on the fact that in the previous 2 days, in an an area with very few roads, I had seen only a single Canadian licence plate on a truck. Stopping in the town by the border for lunch and petrol, I had again seen only 1. Yet here I was, barely 300metres away from that point and in a long 4lane queue of traffic, whilst every other vehicle both going my way and arriving in the US had Canadian plates. I found myself asking “where the heck have they all come from?” How is it possible???

My week was not really getting any better. It took me 90minutes just to get across the bridge, and after a few minutes of which I had that deep foreboding feeling that it wasn't quite right, simply because after paying the toll I had been shepherded straight into the queue on the bridge and nobody had looked at my passport. The Americans would surely want to check me, would they not?

Eventually over the bridge and officially at the Canadian border, I picked – inevitably – the wrong line of 5, and took another 30mins to go 100metres. At the border, the two inspectors didn't know if I was supposed to have been stamped out of America (!), but seemed happy enough to allow me to enter. But that was after a 25minute discussion about assorted British sports, politics and current events, and then a long hunt for ink to stamp my passport with. I suspect it was boredom/curiosity rather than anything deeper as I was apparently the first non local they had dealt with in the last 3 days.

Once into Canada proper, I figured I would worry about my lack of American stamp when I attempted to cross back into America, and decided that my first port of call was an ATM. The town was shut and I realised that the long border and bridge queues were because it was a holiday in Canada – Victoria Day – and so people had been shopping/visiting their southern neighbour. Worryingly, it appeared that the ATMs were also on holiday. 3 ATMs and 4 different cards all declined me because of “unable to reach your bank” and similar complaints. Hmmm. Oh dear. With almost 350km ahead (yes, back into KM and even litres, having just got used to gallons), I figured I would try another ATM down the road, and if that failed pray that somebody would accept one of my cards or I could find a Forex before I starved/ran out of gas, or more likely, stumble across a toll that I would be incapable of paying.

A relaxing 320km drive through the pretty Ontario countryside and not much else followed, I managed to get some money, and had the best coffee I have had in months at a small roadside halt. I stopped periodically to gaze at the river, forest or other scenic interlude.


Not something i generally have to worry about too much in most other places i have ever driven, and (below) a more typical view


As I approached Sudbury (or Greater Sudbury as it is now officially, though don't let the “Great” part fool you), it got very dark and again pissed it down with rain. A huge, grim industrial scene unfolded in front of me. It was not an enticing scene. I somehow found my motel, 20km further East, and on taking stock of the cooker and microwave in my room and supplies consisting of about 6apples and half a pack of beef jerky, decided to set off back for Sudbury in the hunt for food. An hour later, and I was mentally preparing recipes of 'sliced apple on bed of jerky a-la carte'.

A city of about 300,000 people, Sudbury seemed to be shut. I was looking for a grocery/local store where I could pick up something cheap to cook myself (a cunning plan to save money, and one of the reasons I had booked where I was staying) but they were all shut. I found a cinema with parking lot rammed full of cars, but with films apparently all just started the only food available was popcorn. Pizza hut was shut. KFC was shut. Burger King was shut. Subway (several) was shut. Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai places were all shut. The normal preponderance of gas stations with attached stores had been replaced by gas stations selling only drinks and confectionery. I started driving aimlessly through almost endless strip malls: Strip malls are something I find soulless and depressing at the best of times: but when everything is shut, and the carparks are all empty, they are even worse. I chose directions at junctions based solely on the number of visible neon signs. Unfortunately bright, inviting neon signs remained bright inviting neon signs, even when the establishment they were advertising were shut. Eventually I found the (sadly) welcome sign of a combined Walmart/McDonalds. Needs must. But even they were shut. I was resigned to trying to re-find the only place I had discovered which was open (an upmarket – eg: expensive - pizza place, which did not do take out) when I stumbled across a drive through Burger King that looked open. A spotty 15year old said, “sorry, we are just closing”, but when I asked if they had anything left she said a few fries and a 15minute old whopper; reluctantly I said “fine” and took them. I sat in the empty parking lot, eating almost cold fast food just as the heavens again opened with rain, idly wondering why on earth everybody seemed to think that Canada is a great place to live!

I spotted this in a parking lot in Sudbury the following morning. In these parts, it wouldn't even surprise me if it was accurate!

Posted by Gelli 17:42 Archived in Canada Tagged roadtrip Comments (2)

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