Toronto, Niagara Falls, Mississauga, and Brampton, ONTARIO (CANADA)
Ian and I were both very much excited about Toronto. For him, it was a chance to hang out with family he rarely sees. For me, it was the opportunity to experience a new country. For both of us, it was a chance to eat some homemade Filipino food.
We stayed in his cousin Jason’s apartment in Mississauga, a suburb only twenty minutes from Toronto. Because we had a week in a comfortable situation, we felt no pressure to “do something” every day. We walked around aimlessly and revisited many of the same spots. As a result, the week just blurred together in one experience—as opposed to a series of events—leading me to organize this post as. . .
Lessons from Canada!
Lesson #1: Phones are extremely helpful, but not completely necessary.
My first significant memory in Canada was searching for my phone around and beneath the driver’s seat in the parking lot of a Tim Horton’s—Canada’s version of Starbucks with a pinch of fast food. I have a vague memory from an hour before of setting my phone on the roof of the car while at a gas station. I don’t, however, have a vague memory of returning that phone to my pocket. Oh well, the out-of-country fees were going to be outlandish, anyway.
I thought that traveling without my phone for a week was going to be either really liberating or really frustrating. It was neither. My lack of phone was nothing more than a slight annoyance whenever I wanted to check the time, or keep myself occupied on the subway. Sure, it would have been helpful to have the Maps app when we got off the subway five stops too early, or to have the camera feature when the batteries in my point-and-shoot died at Niagara Falls, but I got around all those problems, proving my phone unnecessary. I came to realize that I rarely used it to send important calls or texts and mostly used it to update my Facebook status. Since Canada charges 18 cents a minute and $16 a MB—a hefty sum in either currancy—it was nice to have that temptation removed.
There was one day, however, that a phone would have made a difference. My college friend and former floormate Rebecca was living in Toronto and when she saw one of my Facebook statuses, she immediately contacted me. We planned to meet up the next day. However, I couldn’t find her number before we left, so Ian and I spent the day in Toronto looking for Wi-Fi so we could use his phone to log onto my Facebook to see if she messaged me. No word from her by the end of the day, so we ended up heading back to Mississauga. We eventually met up with her the next day to tour the Steamwhistle Brewery, but if I had had my phone from the start, we would have spent a lot less time hunting down a signal.
Lesson #2: Fill up on free food.
When you’re on a long trip, hoard and devour any food that comes for free. I mean, be grateful and polite, but don’t turn it down. One of the first things we did on our first full day was stop by the office of Ian’s aunt/Jason’s mom. She couldn’t believe the trip we were taking and—when Ian passively mentioned missing Filipino food—wanted nothing more than to cook us a Filipino feast. At her house in Brampton the following evening, we ate kare-kare, chicken adobo, and plenty of steamed rice. She then packed up all the leftovers and a huge bowl of marinated pork chops to take back to Mississauga. We ate well that week. No, scratch that, we ate a lot. “Well” conveys healthy and what we ate in addition to his aunt’s dishes was anything but.
Lesson #3: Though some food is free, you can’t pass up local fare.
What do you get when you drench greasy fries in gravy and top it off with cheese curds? You get poutine, a Canadian national dish and artery-clogger. This concoction of delicious fat on fat is a Canadian staple and, therefore, a must have for us. Food, after all, is the gateway to immersing yourself in a different culture, no matter how calorie-ridden that gateway be. The first poutine we tried was at Smoke’s Poutinerie in Queen Street West. Ian and I got the limited time “O! Canada” special, which added peameal bacon (known to the rest of the world as Canadian bacon), smoked bacon, and sautéed mushrooms. Jason got one with pulled pork on top. Both Ian and I liked the “O! Canada “poutine well enough, but regretted not getting the version with ground beef, grilled onions, and mushrooms. Because, ya know, ours clearly didn’t have enough fat.
I vowed that that was the last poutine I would eat during our week-long stay. Several days later, at a Mississauga diner at 2 o’clock in the morning, we each got another. And it was just as regrettably delicious.
Lesson #4: Knock out the big touristy things first.
Toronto is a major city with endless things to explore. And just like the other major cities we’ve visited, there were a couple iconic places we had to see, whether we wanted to or not. In Seattle, it was the Space Needle. In Chicago, it was Willis (Sears) Tower. In Toronto, it was the CN Tower.
The CN Tower has the distinction of being the tallest freestanding structure in North America. But what about the Sears Tower in the good ol’ US of A, you say? No worries, that still holds the record of being the tallest building in North America. So while the CN Tower reaches above the Chicago icon’s apex, it doesn’t qualify as a building. Plus, I’m pretty sure the observation deck in Willis (Sears) Tower is higher than the one in the CN Tower.
We shelled out more for this elevator ride than we did in Seattle or Chicago, and I’m not sure if it was worth it. The CN tower did have glass floors, but the Willis (Sears) Tower had SkyLedge! The CN tower had a rotating restaurant on top, but so did the Space Needle. But I guess it was all worth it to find this guy in the lobby:
The other giant touristy place we wanted and had to visit was Niagara Falls, which was only an hour outside of Toronto. Two things about the trip shocked me: 1) the admission price for the Maid of the Mist boat tour “into” the falls was cheaper than any of the elevator rides we took; and 2) the surrounding neighborhood (sorry, “neighbourhood”) of Clifton Hill was a tacky, spectacle-ridden tourist trap a la Reno, Nevada. There were giant monster structures, kitschy restaurants, and several wax museums. Needless to say, we didn’t stick around much in Clifton Hill. We just beelined through all the brightly lit signs on the way to and from a very worthy Maid of the Mist tour (the falls weren’t as tall as I’d imagined, but the sheer amount of water that came crashing down was incredible!).
Lesson #5: Family’s first, even if it ain’t yours.
This experience would not have been possible without Ian’s family, and I don’t just mean on an accommodation scale. More than just cooking us food and shelter, his family hung out with us, brought some friends along, and played tour guide to the city.
Our first night in, Jason took Ian and I out to some local spots with his friends. He then spent the whole next day walking with us around Toronto. He showed us all the different neighborhoods, introduced us to poutine, and ascended the CN Tower with us. A city is always more interesting when you have a local drive you around and point things out.
The next day, Jason’s sister Jennifer drove us out to Niagara Falls. She had never done the Maid of the Mist boat ride and was glad to join us on our touristy adventure. Afterwards, Jennifer drove us out to Brampton for that Filipino dinner at her mom’s house.
For our last dinner in Ontario, Ian’s whole Canadian family—his aunt and uncle, Jennifer, Jason, and Jason’s girlfriend—treated us to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Nothing says love like unlimited food. I am so glad to have met Ian’s family and thank them for making me feel like part of it.
Toronto seemed as big as Chicago, as friendly as Minneapolis, and as progressive as Portland. Plus, it has the added distinction of being the most diverse city in the world. After having rejected the idea of moving to Seattle, I started to give serious thought about moving to Toronto. No final decisions, of course—I still had places like Boston and New York to explore—but how awesome would it be to have dual citizenship?