Day 3 – Viking, Edmonton and Jasper

Gaining an hour daily has messed up my sleep schedule. I awoke at 4:50 this morning and since it was getting light, figured that I’d get up and watch the sunrise. Dressed, I headed to the Dome Car to watch what I thought would be a spectacular sunrise. Unfortunately, a cloud bank appeared mere minutes before the sun arrived, and it was all for not. No point in staying up, so back to bed for a while.

On arrival in Edmonton, Via Rail hooks up a Panorama car, with huge windows and comfy seats. Though the renovated 50’s rolling stock that Via heralds as superior, while nice, wasn’t designed with views in the mind. What’s surprising is that of the 72 seats here, only six are occupied as we leave Jasper for BC.

We left Edmonton an hour late due to a medical issue on board, and as a result, lost our slotted time amongst the freight traffic. We sat in Edmonton for another hour, waiting for a break and then got stuck behind various frieght trains, further delaying us for an hour. Once we finally got free of the hinderances, we headed towards the mountains, anxious for the crown jewel of the trip to be revealed.

I’ve been to the Rockies four times now and every time am blown away by just how beautiful it is. Sitting back, appreciating nature can’t be any more Canadian. Its sad though, the number of people who are so busy taking hundreds (if not thousands of pictures) that they miss out on the scenery. I will post pictures, but don’t expect thousands.

The journey ends tomorrow, with arrival in Vancouver. It’ll be nice to see some friends from first and fourth year university, and with luck, one of my best friends from elementary school who I haven’t seen since Grade 7.

Enough of this writing, time to enjoy.

Day 2: Manitoba and Saskatchewan

We finally made it out of Ontario, almost 26 hours after leaving Toronto. I’ve always known that Toronto isn’t reflective of “Canada”, but having travelled through my own province, I’m struck my the differences.

As we stopped in Ferland ON last evening, a native Canadian woman, probably in her 70s, stood waving frantically at the passing train. I wondered how often she had done this before. I wondered how many people bothered to wave back. Around her, her grand-kids (I assume) listened to their iPhone (perhaps iPods as cell service was no existent), uninterested in the whole ordeal. The town looked like it had less than 10 houses. Winnipeg was over 8 hours away, Toronto more than double.

Awoke “early” (travelling west and the ensuring time zone changes make it easy) and had breakfast with a couple and their child from Toronto, before heading off to explore Winnipeg. My knowledge of The Peg was scant, based on some elementary geography lessons. I remembered that Portage and Main is apparently the coldest street corner in Canada, and that there is a “Golden Boy” on top of the provincial legislature. Hence, these were my two destinations. Found both. Was surprised/impressed by Winnipeg. Downtown has a lot of turn-of-the-last-century buildings, and for the most part, they are well maintained. The infamous corner is no longer a corner, but rather a traffic circle. The “Golden Boy” however, is as advertised.

Leaving Winnipeg, I was anxious to cross the 100th Meridian, which as anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s know is where the Great Plains begin (if you didn’t, Google The Tragically Hip and 100th Meridian and you’ll get the reference). Well, as I’m typing this now in Saskatoon, I’ve been underwhelmed by the Prairies. The never ending sky, the flatness and the field upon field of blowing grain have failed to materialize. I’ll wake up in Edmonton (hooray for another time zone) and maybe get to see some of what I imagine the Prairies to look like.

Tomorrow, Edmonton, Jasper and the Rockies.

Day 1 on The Canadian

I write this, somewhere in the middle of northern Ontario, a couple of hours outside of Hornpayne (whose claim to fame is that the school and the liqour store are in the same building). I’m 12 hours into the journey and am enjoying the view from my roommette. Best described as a three foot by six foot space with large love-seat like seating and toilet cum ottoman, with a fold down bed, the shape of which resembles an ill-concieved puzzle piece.

Leaving Union Station last night, most headed to the dome car. The CN Tower blinked purple and read as we headed north out of the downtown, up through the city and into Vaughan, where we promptly reversed. Questions about returning abounded but it was just procedural as the train had to go turn itself east (along the freight line that parallels Steeles, before turning up the mainline, (which is part of the GO Transit line in Richmond Hill). Unfortunately, citing a number of accidents down darkened stairs, the dome car stays lit all the time, making it hard to see where you are. However, the company was good, the champagne reception was nice and we were on our way.

Taking The Canadian is definitely a pan-Canadian experience, as opposed to an Ontarian or Toronto-centric one. Breakfast is a first come, first served experience, and my dining companions this morning were a fellow teacher from Grand Prairie (returning home from visiting family in Bathurst NB) and a nely arrived IT professional from India,heading off to his new job in Regina. The IT professional was impressed by how clean and organized Toronto was. The teacher was overwhelmed by the size of Union Station. Others on board include a woman from Montreal who inexplicably took the bus from home to Toronto and a family of three sharing a cabin for two (small children take up a lot of space in the bunks. As we plow through northern Ontario, you realize that Canada is not Toronto or southern Ontario. It’s vast. It’s wilderness and birch trees. It’s river and dams and forest. It’s small communities with no cell phone reception, where the train is still a viable (and necessary) transportation option.

Off for my first “activity”, a talk on the rolling stock of the cars themselves. Then lunch, then a beer tasting and then a visit to Hornpayne. I think I like this train travel thing.

Life gets exciting….

I hadn’t realized that it’d been over 6 months since I last posted.  Alas, here we are, the middle of July, and I’m just getting around to updating the blog.  Things are good, generally… I’m doing a course to start the process of acquiring my Principal’s qualifications.  It’s been just over a week, and two more to go.  I’ve learned a lot, but feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities that one must accept.  It’s scary.  But more importantly, or at least why I post, so I don’t have to keep retelling the story, the events that transpired last weekend…

So, come Thursday morning of last week, I awoke with a pain in my chest.  Bah, I thought… must have slept on it weird.  So, popped an Aleve (my pain reliever of choice), and headed off to school (which frankly, was a good move, in that it numbed me to the academic rigors that I’ve subjected myself to).  The day was fine, though, near about 2:30, I realized that it was painful to take a breath in.  Hmmm.  This call for an immediate nap!  So, off I went.  2 hours later, woke up feeling fine, but decided not to go to pub trivia with a bunch of teacher friends, namely because the bar is so disgusting, and frankly, it would have required effort.  Tried to settle into watch some Dexterand well, that’s when things got interesting.  If I lay on either side, had pain on the left side of my chest, from the tip of my rib cage to the bottom of my jaw.  If I did anything more than shallow breath, shooting pain over the same area and down into my left arm.  WHAT!  Lying flat on my back made breathing all near impossible.  Apparently some PSA stuck somewhere and said you’re an idiot if you ignore the signs, so perhaps you’re having a heart attack.  What!!  (again!).  Me?  A heart attack?  I think not… but I should probably go and get this checked.  In the back of the cab, wondered if I should have perhaps called 911.  After all, this is what these people do for a living right?  But the drama of being wheeled out of the building on a stretcher was not something I wanted to have happen, so off I went.  Checked into the hospital, and had an EKG done.  No heart attack!  SCORE!  But, wait… I’m still in pain…  14.5 hours later (the final diagnosis came in about 4 a.m., but couldn’t be confirmed until a CAT scan at 8:00, meant that I ‘slept’ on a reclining chair, and as expected turns out that I have clots in my lungs.  PARDON!  From what?  And this, my friend, is the dear question that no one seems to know the answer.  I am under 50 ( well… duh), haven’t traveled for a long period of time (uh… flying to Asia was so LAST summer), and don’t smoke.  Oh yeah, and as far as we’re aware, no genetic history of this type of incident, though the fact that my grandparents adopted my mom sort of limits the historical reach of my investigation.  With my diagnosis in hand, a colleague and my mother both standing guard, I finally got a bed and a gown.  Between you and me hospital gowns are not one-size-fits-all.  While the ER seemed quiet, I was assured it was in fact ‘stable’, and was quickly moved into a room on the Cardio floor.  Getting pushed in bed is a nice way to move, I’ll tell you that!  And so I sat, from about noon Friday, to noon Saturday.  37 plus hours at the hospital, and very little sleep!  A huge out-pouring of emotion and support, which was slightly overwhelming.  Everyone and their mother wanted to come and visit though, so I had to defer that as much as possible.  Cause seriously, would that be fair to my roommate Emmanuael?  Though, at 92, suffering dementia and not speaking English, perhaps he would have tolerated my visits.  Alas, noon Saturday comes around, a young whipper snapper doctor prescribes me drugs (i.e. blood thinners and pain killers) and says you’re free to go.  WOO HOO!  Like Mel Gibson… FREEDOM!  I’ve been recovering ever since, and the pain has generally subsided.  Apparently, the clots will take care of themselves, but on a regimented eating schedule for the next 21 days (i.e. 6:30 a.m./p.m. I need to eat, so I can take a pill).

Always looking for the funny part in this (and don’t get me wrong, I realize how fortunate it was that we caught it this way, as opposed to have a blood clot get stuck in the brain), was that an unnamed coworker called the hospital Saturday, to come and visit.  She confirmed my room, then decided in her wisdom to stop by a local bakery near her house that makes Bacon-glazed donuts!  I’ll give you a moment to appreciate those words, all together… when you’re ready, read on.  I’ll wait.  Alright, so she heads to the hospital, and me, doing my best Mel Gibson, leaves the hospital like a Meatloaf inspired album from 1977.  I get home though, and she’s calling like a mad woman!  I’m like “Huh What is going on?”  Well, she went to the main desk, just to check my room number, and they told her “He’s not with us anymore.  I’d recommend that you contact his family for more information”.  AWESOME!  She, rightly, jumped to the conclusion, that I was dead.  At which point that she almost had a heart attack!  Alas, it’s all good.  I’ll be sore for a while, need follow up with a Blood Specialist (was excited, thinking they meant Blood Splatter Specialist… but apparently no), and we’ll see how it goes.  Some have suggested that I might not be able to fly for a year, which if that’s the case, will drive me nuts!  Have a follow up later this week which will hopefully provide some more answers.

To those of you who called, Facebooked, emailed, visited, texted, Bbm’ed, or What’s App’ed… thanks for making me feel like a celebrity.  It’s tough to manage ones social media presence when they’re overwhelmed by emotion.  All I can say is thanks…

Now on to the next chapter.

Memphis and DC…. (i.e. Part Deux)

As there wasn’t much to stop for in Mississippi (confirmed by the woman in the Tourist Information kiosk just off the Interstate) it was time to push north to Memphis.  I’d figured all along that I was going to like Memphis more than New Orleans, simply because it’s not a major tourist destination and that there is a lot of current history.

Our hotel, an old historic property that’s been well kept up, was in the heart of downtown, and after checking in, it was just a short walk to Beale Street, home of the Blues.  However, with the fact that yet another college Bowl game had been played their the night before, the town was dead.  You could have fired a cannon down Beale and not hit a single person.  I’d go so far as to say that no one would even hear the cannon.  We ended up going to BB Kings, which as a chain, sufficed with live music and food.  It seemed they were the only place in town that had anything going on at all.  So much for being a hot bed of live music.

Up early the next morning, off to Memphis’ best breakfast as rated on Tripadvisor, and then down to Graceland, to tour the King’s home.  An interesting place Graceland is.  At $35 a pop, it ain’t cheap.  And the crowds are mixed… foreign tourists eager to touch a piece of history, older Americans reliving their youth and younger tourists, being dragged along to see the supposed “greatness”.  I was surprised at how small, as a building Graceland actually is.  You’re able to see the living room, dining room, kitchen, entertainment and pool rooms, and the infamous “Jungle Room” and then it’s off to the out-buildings to see Elvis’ collection of Gold Records.  Regardless of what you think of the King, you have to be impressed by the number of awards that he actually did win.  The place is full of his gold and platinum records.  A quick stop to pay our respects (amazingly, we held it together, while others did not), a tour of his airplane and car collection, and we’d had our fill.  Back in town, we headed to the National Civil Rights Museum, centred around the Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot.  A very surreal and interesting experience.  Currently, the museum is undergoing a major renovation, and when it’s done, will be huge!  But what was left, though mostly focused on the events of 1968, was very well done.  Visitors had a chance to see where Ray had taken the fateful shot (if you believe the official version), and then to stand on the actual balcony was a moment similar to standing in the Book Depository in Texas…. this place is somewhere that changed American history.  We then headed off to Sun Records, walking the three miles (which seemed to shock the tour guide who suggested we cab it).

Sun Records, is what it is.  A recording studio that happened to capute some of the first recordings of Rock and Roll.  Listening to an early Elvis recording (when he was 18) in the studio where it was recorded was a neat experience.  Granted, the tour guide was a bit much, but…  A quick refresher back to the hotel, and then we hopped on the Memphis trolly for dinner at the best BBQ in Memphis (as recommended by all the locals).  I was surprised that in both Nola and Memphis, they still have a streetcar system.  Whereas New Orleans’ system has been kept up and updated, the Memphis system is like taking a step back in history.  The trolleys themselves are vintage and run like it.  They creak, they rattle, the roll and god forbid the operator falls asleep, it didn’t appear that there were any safeguards in place.  BBQ was good (but way too much) and then an even quieter Beale Street meant a return to the hotel to watch some college football.

Driving back to New Orleans, it became clear that what we had in mind for both Mississippi Louisiana was not what we got.  Bayous, Spanish moss, swamps and alligators were nowhere to be found.  Instead, the drive was identical to any other, either in Canada or the US.  Rolling hills, forests… and boredom.  Choosing to avoid the causeway (for fear the the boredom would kill us), we ended up taking the Interstate as far south as you can, and for about half an hour, saw the south of our dreams.  People living on the Bayou, Spanish moss and flooded swamps.  Made me want to stop, but had to get the car back.  An evening of exploring the Warehouse District and a really good dinner at Capdeville (where I had a very decent poutine in the American South), and it was time for bed.
Over-nighted in DC first, and spent Sunday morning doing something that I’d always wanted to do.  Gospel Brunch.  I’d found it online, and normally when I visit DC, have to start the drive back to Canada before brunch would even begin.  Flying back provided the opportunity, and it was great.  A classic brunch, entertained by the Gospel Persuaders was definitely worth doing again.  And as it’s the first weekend in January and few tourists are around, an exhibit at the Naitonal Archives listening to audio recordings from the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and then seeing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all without having to line up.  Love travelling in the off season!

Photos of Memphis found here.

Photos of Nawlins found here.

It’s not where you go, but rather who you’re with.

Spent the first part of the holidays here, in and around Toronto visiting friends and family.  It was busy of course, but had the opportunity to start some new traditions, including midnight service at a historic downtown church and Christmas building far too much lego (alright, so the second one was more of a flashback to my own childhood, which I now live vicariously through other people’s children).  I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually been in Toronto (as opposed to the suburbs, in Eastern Ontario or the States), and I’ll admit, it was nice to be unrushed in the big city, where the masses seemed to be non-existent.

After a week though, it was time to head off, first to Washington D.C., and then to New Orleans and Memphis (connecting through Atlanta).  The reason you ask?  Well, two actually.  The first being that my travelling companion lives in DC, and secondly, by flying through DC, was able to save about $400 on the airfare, vs. flying direct from Toronto.  A two-hour flight delay (with no explanation… thanks Air Canada) suggested that the trip would not be as planned.  A late arrival in DC, only to turn around and be back at the airport 8 hours later, and we were off, to the heart of the US South.

I had suspected all along that I was going to like Memphis more than New Orleans, but will admit that New Orleans was far more enjoyable than I thought.  Arriving in town, it was the Sugar Bowl (i.e. US College Football), between the Louisville Caridinals and the Florida Gators… well… if you’ve never seen American College Football, up close and personal, you should.  Gator fans were outnumbered about 40 to 1, and all of them were bedecked in official apparel for their teams.  It would have been interesting to have caught the game, but hotel prices sky-rocketed the night of the game, and provided the impetius for us to travel north to Memphis.

On arrival in Nawlins, we headed off to the French Quarter, careful to pace ourselves, knowing that we had $135 tickets for a party that evening (i.e. non-refundable).  The French Quarter is what you’d expect: drunken, touristy and missing anything resembling live jazz. That being said, we did meet two Nawlins’ traditional drinks, Hurricanes (four shots of rum in each) and Hand Gernades (five shots of booze) and well, apprecaited their warm welcome, throwing caution to the wind.  A return to the hotel to prepare for the evenings festivities resulted in a five hour nap, only disrupted when my travelling companion was awoken by the sound of fireworks.  “It’s 12:17!” came his response.  Yes, had slept through New Years Eve.  We were warned of the power of the French Quarter, shrugged it off (after all, WE’D gone to McGill and knew how to handle ourselves) and paid the price (i.e. 2X$135 bar tickets).

Woke up after a 12 hour sleep to explore more of Nawlins, avoiding our beverage choices from the night before.  A quick check of Tripadvisor suggested that Mother’s Restaurant was a Nawlins’ staple… so we went, and were thoroughly unimpressed.  The sooner we got out of there in fact, the better.  Took the streetcar up to the cemeteries stop, and explored. I wonder how long it took them to figure out that caskets will float to the surface if you bury someone under sea-level.  If it had been foggy (as opposed to 80o and sunny) the cemetery would have been a lot scarier.  Back downtown, a quick bite to eat and then off to the National Museum of WWII.  A great museum, undergoing a substantial expansion, and worth the visit because it also exposed us to the Warehouse District, where the mood is more classy and relaxed, the drunken tourists are nowhere to be found, and you can actually appreciate the city as it was meant to be.  

Up the next morning, to pick up our rental pick-up truck (which was $3 cheaper than the cheapest, smallest car), and off to explore the Lower 9th Ward, home to some of the worst flooding after Hurricane Katrina.  Armed with nothing more than a general sense of direction, of we went, driving along, hoping for the best.  Stumbled across Elizabeth’s, which from the outside, doesn’t appear to be much.  Except for the sign that says “Praline Bacon”.  A quizzical look at each other, and the decision was made.  In we walk, and order breakfast, along with the bacon.  Praline bacon, from what I can deduce, is baked, with sugared pralines on top of, and is possibly the best thing I’ve ever tasted.  Granted, the palm sized cockroach climbing up the wall (that made a spectacular flop onto the table, and subsequently to the ground before meeting an untimely death under a shoe) was enough to make me wonder if Nawlins would benefit from a food inspection program.  I’m just saying is all.  

The Lower 9th, bordered by a canal on one side and the bayou on another, looks like something from another world.  Some homes have been rebuilt.  Many have not.  Empty lots abound and the roads belong in the third world, rather than in one of the richest countries in the world.  I don’t think the scope of the devastation set in, until we were driving to the causeway, saw a similar neighbourhood, on the other side of the canal, and realized just how densely packed the Lower 9th had been beforehand.  Almost six years later, and still a lot of recovery to do.

Drove across the Lake Ponchatrain Causeway (for some reason we expected it to be more exciting that a big, long, straight bridge) and headed to Tenneesse, traversing the length of Mississippi.  Part II of this entry, later this week, explains our visit that seemed to revolve around royalty.  

Pictures of the cemeteries of New Orleans can be found through this link.

Pictures of the southern food and drink consumed can be found here.  More pictures later.

Sleep in heavenly peace

It’s been a rough week.  A colleague’s daughter passed away after a lengthy illness.  Another lost her grandfather, just days short of his 91st birthday. And then, another school shooting in the United States.

For some reason, this shooting has really struck me as tragic.  I was in teacher’s college when Columbine happened, and while shocking, this shooting seems so much worse.  When you read that 20 6-years old were gunned down, and six responsible adults who tried to stop the carnage died, you can’t help but wonder when the United States is going to get serious about gun control.  Especially before the holidays…

I can’t imagine what the teachers went through that day.  We all practice ‘Lock Down’ drills, always hoping that we’d never need to use them.  I’m sure those in Connecticut thought the same thing.  It was, after all, just a random Thursday, with the holidays in the air.  And at the end of the day, it’s senseless.