Monday, May 31, 2010

In Toronto, Again

Because of scheduling conflicts with VIA Rail, it is impossible to take a train straight from Halifax to Vancouver (or back for that matter). Rather, all travelers must spend one night in Toronto and catch the next "Canadian" train to Vancouver the next evening.

(View of Toronto from the train, on the way in to town. That's the steeple on St. James' Cathedral to the left of the crane, and St. Lawrence Market is building that looks like a barn to the right of the crane.)

Before leaving Halifax I had wanted to wash half of my clothes, but I got in too late the night before to use the machines, and hostels typically monopolize the washers and dryers until late afternoon to clean all the sheets for the beds. In Montreal I had noticed that I only had enough detergent left for one load, and that if I had washed my clothes then, I would have ran out of clean ones before leaving Vancouver. However, through pure luck, I had randomly added just enough clean clothes to my travelling wardrobe to make it back to Halifax in a relative state of freshness... if I waited until Toronto to wash all of my clothes once I had worn them once, that is.

In Toronto I literally took off everything I could, even using my fleece coat in lieu of a shirt, and stuffed everything into one load in an old Maytag washer. I was worried I would break it, but my clothes came out fine. However, in perhaps the only downside of the Canadiana Backpacker's Inn, in Toronto, for all 4 buildings, and probably more than 100 rooms, there are only two washers and two dryers, and one of those was broken during my stay.

This meant that it took three hours to wash and partially dry (I overloaded the dryer too) one load of clothes. Regardless, I had completed my single-minded goal for this first night, and so turned my attention to my new goal: trying to survive the horrendous heat and humidity inside the hostel bedrooms (HI hostels may lack character, but at least they don't lack good air conditioning.)

The next day at 10:30 AM, after the free all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, I had to check out of my room. I was wondering what I would do with my bags while I waited for my 10:00 PM train, but the hostel was kind of enough to store my bags for free, and to let me bum around in the hostel all day.

I didn't spend too long inside that afternoon though, because I had to find my way back to Kensington Market to try and pick up some organic snacks for the four day journey to Vancouver (or at least to get me the day and a half to Winnipeg).

(A bustling Richmond Avenue, in down town Toronto.)

I succeeded in finding some excellent 7-grain crackers, and organic granola bars, as well as picking up another bottle of cool and refreshing Ting to help fight the blazing hot sun. I couldn't find any organically grown fruit though, so on the way back I picked up a bag of nectarines from a market in China Town.

Over lunch I had stopped in at a Korean restaurant in Kensington Market that was selling the most expensive bottles of imported Korean soju I've ever seen (see pic below). I had noticed that all the meat I had been eating over the course of the trip had not been doing my body composition any favours, and with four days of sitting on a train ahead of me, I thought I'd best order something vegetarian.

While my kalguksu was delicious, if not entirely authentic (I don't remember round carrot slices in my bowls in Korea), I unfortunately left my tourist map at the restaurant. By the time I noticed that my map was gone though, it was too late and I was lost and couldn't remember where my hostel was.

As I stumbled around in the heat of the afternoon sun, I was stopped by another tourist who needed directions. By this point I had more or less developed a rudimentary grasp of the lay-out of the streets in the Toronto core, so I was more than willing to give him the help I had received upon first arriving to Toronto. As I looked up to show him the way though, I noticed, standing there on the corner of Richmond and John St as if it were waiting for me to come across the country to find it, Canada's greatest treasure - the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada's Media Theque.

The Media Theque is essentially the physical version of the NFB's online free media collection, but with way more titles. There are over 5 500 titles from which to choose, all of which are viewable every day, for free, on personal mini-theatre viewing stations. The system is similar to the in-flight personal entertainment systems you may have seen on modern aeroplanes, but without having to wait ten minutes for the advertisements to finish before being able to view another film film. You can also buy physical copies of these, and any other NFB produced movies, from the Media Theque. On top of all that, there is a theatre which shows advanced screenings of unreleased NFB films every day.

The Media Theque is air conditioned, and open until 10 PM most days, so I was able to escape today's heat by watching a french language, subtitled film called The Fight for True Farming. The film is about the struggle faced by Canadian independent farmers as they try to battle their own seemingly inept (or corrupt) government and the Monsanto corporation and other huge multi-nationals, in order to maintain their right to farm organically and sustainably.

Apart from being wonderfully made, The Fight For True Farming was a frightening look at how dangerous our food really is (Monsanto's own tests show that its products cause cancer), and how the Canadian government often ignores the advice of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency when allowing products from American agricultural corporations to be sold/tested inside Canada.

After finishing The Fight for True Farming, I selected another great documentary by a Canadian author and artist, Douglas Coupland, called A Souvenir of Canada. In A Souvenir of Canada, Coupland attempts to create a house, as an art exhibit, that captures what it truly means to be Canadian. The house in question was distinctly Canadian itself, since it was one of the tens of thousands of identically made 1950s Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) houses made after World War II for the returning veterans.

In his quest to find things that are distinctly Canadian, Coupland tries to first discover what it actually means to be Canadian. I thought it a fitting way to spend an afternoon in Toronto (perhaps the most Canadian city in Canada) as this whole cross-Canada adventure I am on, was a response to my own desire to discover Canada, and what it means to be Canadian.

After watching a third documentary, I found directions back to my hostel which was actually only a block away. I had a "last supper" before being confined to the train, and tried to freshen up as best as possible.

(The outside of the Much Music/CTV building.)

On the way to the train station I walked through the background as a Much Music VJ did some report outside the Much Music building. This was actually the second time I had inadvertently found my way on TV, as earlier in the day I walked through a report for a Naked News broadcast, while a topless reporter interviewed a random woman about her thoughts on Tiger Woods.

While I waited behind the camera man for the light to change so that I could cross Spadina Ave, I was impressed with the reporter's courage and concentration. Not only did she have to stand there at a busy intersection literally half naked, but she had to be professional about it despite all the oglers, cat callers, and amateur paparazzi with their cell phone cameras.

I can report happily that she made it through her segment without making any mistake or showing any sign of being phased, and I dare say she even sounded better than most professional TV news reporters while doing so.

While I was standing at the light I also over heard two young women say "if you got it, flaunt it", in reference to the reporter. I got mad at them and said, "she's not 'flaunting' anything, she's doing her job. All you girls in your short shorts and tank tops are the ones trying to 'flaunt it.'" After this I felt much better.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Montreal: Day 2

Montreal has a collection of four massive "museums" that are world famous. Three of these - The Biodome, Insectarium, and Botanical Gardens - are all located in Olympic Park around the Olympic Stadium from the 1976 Summer Olympics. Exploring these museums was my goal for today.

Typically I sleep in and check my e-mails, etc. in the morning, but not today. In order to give myself the best chance to explore all three of the aforementioned Olympic Park attractions in the one afternoon available to me, I was on the subway by 9:10 AM, and at the Biodome by 9:30.

The Biodome contains four examples of different habitats: a tropical rain forest, the Laurentian forest of Quebec, the Arctic/Antarctic poles, and the St. Lawrence River marine ecosystem.

By far the largest of the four Biodome habitats is the tropical forest. Measuring 2.6 square kms, the habitat has a sticky 70% humidity which was hard to take, but this merely corresponds to the driest time of the year in an actual rain forest.

(The dreaded poison arrow frog. So poisonous, it does not fear being eaten, but rather sits out in the open, croaking loudly to warn would be attackers to stay clear.)

The next habitat was the pleasantly cool and relatively arid Laurentian Forest climate. 1.5 square kms in size, the Biodome's Laurentian habitat contains a collection of both coniferous and deciduous trees, just like the real Laurentian. With its 23 degree centigrade temperature in summer, it also feels like walking off a hot street into an air conditioned store, compared to the 28 degree tropical forest habitat and the dangerously warm 35 degree Montreal weather outside.

(How many Canadian lynx are watching you?)

Hint: Look in the top left hand corner.

(Can you see them now?)

I wish I could say I had my socks knocked off by the Arctic and St. Lawrence Marine habitats, but compared to the first two forests they kind of paled in comparison. I might also be desensitized to aquariums after spending so long in the massive, first rate aquariums of South Korea, with numerous species of sharks and rays that even swim over your head as you walk through glass tunnels under the aquarium.

(Challenge: There are four ducks in this picture. See if you can find three of them. Hint: two of the ducks are on the right sight of the picture near the wood pile.)

That said, the basin in which some of the sharks swam around contained 2.5 million Litres of sea water, and because of the net over top, the birds were free to fly around over my head. This added some excitement and novelty, making this a more "realistic" aquarium experience.

(This is less than half of the tank.)

The Polar exhibits were pretty lame, it must be said. There were just a just a bunch of penguins in two large cases. I've seen penguins in every aquarium in the world, and I'm sorry but they just are not that exciting any more.

(These aren't slippers, they're Royal Penguins - I think - tucking the babies on their backs under their wings.)

After finishing with the Biodome I took a short, but difficult walk in the stifling heat and humidity to the Insectarium. The Insectarium, opened in 1990, was the brainchild of former notary Georges Brassard who wanted to teach the world that insects are not "bugs," but a diverse, important part of our world, with unique traits and roles to play. To accomplish this, Brassard put together a massive collection of living insects, arachnids, etc., from around the world, and an even bigger collection of dead specimens from every continent.

(African Scarab beetles.)

(Beautiful brush-footed butterflies. Try and say that five times fast.)

(Beautiful Linne beetles.)

(BIG Linne beetles. Keep in mind these beetles are about six centimetres further away than my pen, because they're behind glass. In actuality this means that they're much larger than my roughly thirteen centimetre long pen.)

(Oh, what a cute little tarantula...)


(How much do you not want to have this moth fly in to your bedroom on a hot summer night?)

(I don't think this picture needs much commentary. Remember that objects behind the glass are much larger than they appear relative to the pen.)

(A tin mantis, made by children in South Africa, sitting on a tin can.)

(How many leaf insects can you find? There are at least five.)

(Giant cockroaches. Find all four.)

(Honey bees working, up close.)

(A termite queen. That's her head and thorax on the left, behind the bubble. The rest is her abdomen. This one always makes me a little squeamish.)

(Yummy! Barbecued insect moultings. Yes, of course I tried one.)

(Oh no! I caught "The Spider." This is the most fun piece of playground equipment ever invented, and a great workout too. If I become a principal of a school, my first act will be to install one of these structures in my playground.)

Behind the Insectarium is the colossal Botanical Gardens of Montreal. Originally built in 1931 as a result of the dream of one Brother Marie-Victorin, the Garden now contains over 22 000 species of plants, organized into 10 green houses and around 30 thematic gardens, and is one of the largest Botanical Gardens in the world.

(A mother duck quacks in distress over her ducklings who have all fallen down into this pool. Apparently this happens two to three times a week, and one of the staff members at the Botanical Gardens has to come and rescue them. Just another example of why babies are stupid.)

(This stone statue is supposed to represent some aspect of Tai Chi. Perhaps I needed to turn my camera upside down?)

(Highlights of the Japanese Garden.)

(Alpine Garden.)

(Two pictures from the magnificent Chinese Garden - the best garden at the Botanical Gardens by a mile.)

After staggering through the Garden for more than 2 hours, I finally reached the restaurant at the finish, where I sat under an umbrella near the stunning fountain (above), and refreshed myself with what, at that time, was the most delicious 7-Up ever. From here I went home and hid from the sun for the remainder of the day, afraid my skin would melt in the outdoor sauna otherwise.