Tag Archives: Canada

Young Man On The Road #13: Let’s Go to the Mall. . . Today!

Toronto, Niagara Falls, Mississauga, and Brampton, ONTARIO (CANADA)

July 7-12

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!

The CN Tower

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.

We finally met up with Rebecca at the Steamwhistle Brewery, a small, progressive, green company that makes an tasty pilsner.

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.

The "O! Canada" Special

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.

This stuff is like Canadian crack. Everybody's eating it in the streets late at night around the bars.

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!).

See the Tim Horton's in the distance? They're everywhere!

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.

Ian and his cousin Jason at the CN Tower. Not the best observation deck. . .

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.

Ian and his cousin Jen on the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls.

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?


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Young Man On The Road #12: This One Time, At Band Camp. . .

Ann Arbor and Detroit, MICHIGAN

July 6-7

I fell in love with Ann Arbor as soon as we got there.  Yeah, the University of Michigan is a pretty campus, blah blah blah, but the surrounding town?  Awesome!  And why?  Because it reminded me so much of my beloved Berkeley.  It’s the measuring stick I use to judge other college towns.

The college merchandise shops and local food joints along South University and State Street mirrored those on Telegraph Avenue, while a few blocks away were the slightly nicer restaurants and trendy stores that lined Main Street, Ann Arbor’s answer to Berkeley’s University Avenue.  Frequenting these main arteries were familiar clientele:  young professionals, old professors, and college kids of all kinds, from hippies to hipsters, Greeks to geeks.  In Ann Arbor, as in Berkeley, the local community formed a symbiotic relationship with the collegiate atmosphere, forming the quintessential progressive college town I love.

I might be talking it up too much, but it left a good impression on me.

Ann Arbor Summer Festival on campus

Our couchsurfing host was a laid back Asian guy named Ken who was actually born and raised in Honolulu.  He lived in San Diego for a bit before roadtripping around the country, eventually stopping in Ann Arbor when he got broke.  He found a career and settled in.  We, of course, had a lot to talk about.  Graciously, he took us to a late-night burger place and we continued the conversation over a pitcher of local beer.  And he paid for that beer.  Our hosts are awesome.

Ken had work in the morning, so we didn’t see him at all the next day when we woke up at the crack of 11 AM.  We got ready, ate pricey but worthy Reuben sandwiches at everyone’s favorite deli, Zingerman’s (recommended by three different people), and left for Detroit.

Of course, to get in the mood, I blasted Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP.

That’s why we don’t call it Detroit, we call it Amityville/
You can get capped after just havin’ a cavity filled/
Ahahahaha, that’s why we’re crowned the murder capital still/
This ain’t Detroit, this is motherf***in Hamburger Hill!

-Eminem (Detroit-based rapper), “Amityville”

Oh, Detroit.  I can sum up our initial reactions by quoting part of a conversation we had with a very nice and helpful homeless woman named Linda:

“Where do y’all come from?”


“Why the hell did you come here?!”

We wondered the same thing on the drive in.  The skies grew overcast, throwing an ominous shadow over the littered highway.  In the distance we saw an apartment building missing an entire wall, revealing a cross-section of abandoned floors.  It looked like France during World War II.  I guess I take it for granted that a city would have the resources to repair such a mess.  Ian and I both wondered if we should just keep driving through to Canada, though we each were unaware of the other’s similar thought until later.

The first parking lot we saw was only $5 for all day, so we took it right away because we had no idea where in Detroit we were or where to go.  It happened to be in Greektown, one of Ken’s suggested locations.  However, still full from the Zingerman’s Reubens, we had no interest in trying any Greek food, and therefore had no interest in staying in Greektown.  We walked somewhat aimlessly, veering whenever we saw fountains and plazas.  It was in one of these concrete clearings that we met Linda.  She saw me looking at a map, asked me if we knew where we were going, then suggested we check out Hart Plaza.  She walked with us for a block or two, asking us about our trip with legitimate interest and motherly concern.  Only after whole-heartedly warning us to be careful, Linda very politely and hesitantly asked if we could spare any money.  Ian did.  I only had fives, but I would have, too.

Linda was right; Hart Plaza was refreshingly nice.  The open concrete space featured several abstract sculptures and a giant fountain.  The most amazing sight, however, was just across the Detroit River: my first view of Canada!  Windsor, Canada, to be exact, and it tripped me out because we were actually looking towards the south at it.

Hart Plaza, with Canada in the background!

Ian and I strolled a bit further, eventually rounding the Tigers’ baseball stadium and—just across the street—the Lions’ football field.  Save for a few well-kept plazas we saw along the way, the city seemed way past its prime.  Grand old buildings that go unused, empty storefronts lining the sidewalks; it was all a bit depressing.

Our last stop, however, surely cheered me up.

I’ve got sunshine/
On a cloudy day/
When it’s cold outside/
I’ve got the month of May.

-The Temptations (Motown vocal group), “My Girl”

We drove past 8 Mile Road (yes, I’m an Eminem fan, but I didn’t want to detour in Detroit to snap a picture of a sign) to an even more legendary street: West Grand Boulevard, location of the Motown Museum.  The museum is connected to the actual house where they recorded all the classic Motown acts in the basement studio!  The ten-dollar tour was surprisingly entertaining.  Our guide was humorous, interactive, and impressively knowledgeable about all things Motown.  He spouted out names, song titles, and dates without a moment’s hesitation.  I don’t think I can recall any field of information with such certainty.  The tour concluded in the basement, Studio A, where all the original equipment and instruments still remain.  Our guide taught us some choreography and then had us perform.  The women danced to the Supremes’ “Stop! In The Name Of Love” while all the men did the Temptation Walk to “My Girl.”  Let me repeat: I sang and danced to “My Girl” in Studio A where the actual Temptations sang and danced to “My Girl”!  It was surreal.

Berry Gordy's house (center) and Motown Museum entrance (right)

I, of course, blasted my Temptations Ultimate Collection CD on the way out of the parking lot, turning it down momentarily when I realized a funeral home was next door.  But believe you me, I was belting out with the Motown legends all the way to the Canadian border.

I don’t wanna wast my time/
become another casualty of society/
I’ll never fall in line/
become another victim of your conformity

-Sum 41 (Canadian pop punk band), “Fat Lip”


The wait from the bridge to the border crossing was surprisingly long.  Where were we going, Mexico?  We got through about 20 minutes of Tina Fey’s Bossypants audiobook by the time we reached the booth.  I thought it was going to be simple: passport, smile, welcome to our country, eh.  Instead, I was caught off guard by the Spanish Inquisition.  “How do you two know each other?”  “Where are you going?”  “What are you doing there?”  “Do you have jobs?”  “How are you funding the trip?”

The one part that truly annoyed me, however, was his response to our road trip.  “So, this is like your last hurrah before joining the real world?”  Hey!  Screw you, guy!  I’m the one seeing the real world!  How’s your view from your tiny booth, working man?  Peer down at me from your elevated stool, why don’t you!

What actually came out of my mouth wasn’t as fiery.  I looked at him and said with conviction, “It’s one of many ‘last hurrahs.’”

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