From Bootleg-Town to The Maple States

Trip Start May 05, 2011
Trip End Sep 08, 2011

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Where I stayed
Ed and Norma's House
What I did
Fireworks! Wandered in and out of skyscrapers, ate some good cheesecake, ART! Hung out on a farm, got serendipitously lost

Flag of Canada  , Ontario,
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Halloo, eh?!

As you may or may not have guessed from my formal greeting, I am once more in Canada-land! 'Once more?' you say! 'Wait, oh splendiferous traveller, last time you wrote you were in Canada. Aren't you getting a little geographically confused?' The answer is yes. It's always yes. But on this occasion, my claim to be returning to Canada does make sense, I promise. Because, contrary to the impression given by this rather misleading map, I've spent a good part of this week south of the border - down Chicago way.

In fact, it's been a pretty jam-packed week that has stretched almost the whole width of the North American Continent. I have seen random dancing, and a swag-bag-ful of skyscrapers; I have attended major-league baseball and eaten real deep-dish pizza with some fantastic people; I have seen fireflies for the first time and chatted conspiracy until I was dizzy; and I've met family I never knew and been catapulted to astonishing heights. So it's quite an entry!

First off, I know that you've all been dying with anticipation as a result of the cliffhanger at the end of my last entry: 'And then, Richard (with tag-along family in toe) went to the fireworks, and...' Well, fear not. I can reveal that the fireworks on our last night in Vancouver were absolutely spectacular. Since it was the opening ceremony for the city's 'Festival of Light', an annual firework-shindig, this is hardly surprising. Even less so, given that the first night's theme was 'China' (apparently, 2 more nations also got their chance to shine - Spain and Canada. As I was not present, I choose to believe that these nations (and their fireworks) are pyrontechnically and culturally inferior. All bow to our glorious masters in Beijing!) 

Anyway, the way in which the fireworks were set to music was great, and leads me to think this numbers among one of the best displays I've seen. It was certainly on a par with Philadelphia's July 4th fireworks. The display was only slightly compromised by a rather raucious partyboat in Vacouver harbour, which seemed to be attempting to drown out the display music with the not-so-sweet sound of Lady Gaga. Fortunately they stopped; possibly because Mum was quite rightly staring torpedos (the daggers of the sea) at them by that point.

After the fireworks, I faced a supremely early morning and a day full of travelling, because I (rather foolishly) elected to go back to Seattle in save money on flights to Chicago. It was a pretty boring day, but it was considerably brightened up by the initially inexplicable sight of about a hundred ridiculously enthusiastic women (and some men) dancing their booties off in the centre of Seattle to some pretty racy Latin music. In the rain. Smiling all the way! Whilst the sight of a host of superkeen Americans grinding and shaking it on the street did make my day, I just about refrained from joining them. Well, I had my bag on, of course. And a reserved English reputation to maintain...

Next stop was Chicago, city of Capone, the skyscraper, the deep-dish, and the journo-pirate. I should say to start off that I had a fantastic time in Chicago, and - like New York - it is one American city that I really could see myself living in. Nonetheless, I had pretty high expectations of the city, and it is all to Chicago's credit that I was not disappointed.

On Monday morning, I met up with Amy, a random (but extremely nice) girl that I had met in the Amazonian jungle in Brazil, who had very foolishly said 'If you're ever in Chicago...' Amy and I did 'the tour', and saw some of the architectural marvels that I had read/dreamed/spontanously sung about. This included the world's first skyscrapers, Millenium Park, AND 'The Bean', also known as 'Cloudgate' - a huge mirror-bean sculpture that perfectly reflects Chicago's skyline (along with anyone that gets near). It was all pretty incredible, and I particularly felt drawn to 'The Bean', for its aesthetic merit, fantastic views and imaginative flair, as much as for its delicious-sounding name. Amy also took me for traditional Chicago popcorn, which was (1) caramel-popcorn - standard; and (2) cheesy-popcorn - surprisingly delicious, if a little bit much over time and difficult to eat when mixed in with the caramel (as it invariably was). To say thanks/in revenge, I took Amy for a 'Chicago dog' hotdog, and thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of the midwest.

Unfortunately, since she actually had a job (well, several), Amy had to disappear off in the late afternoon, but she left me with a full list of places to see - including everywhere on the 'Magnificent Mile', the home of some of the world's most famous skyscrapers. Certainly, it was architectecturally brilliant and very interesting; yet no place was more fascinating than the Chicago Tribune building. For those of you that haven't been to Chicago, the Tribune is the biggest local newspaper, catering to a national audience. It is also the home of any number of journo-pirates, who, throughout the ages, have stolen bits of masonry from famous monuments, only to stick them into the stonework on the facade of the Tribune building in Chicago. They're all there, from the House of Commons, to the Great Pyramid, to Notre Dame. And it's amazing how brazen they are about it. I mean, it's like the British Museum, but in a slightly more brash American, slightly less academic and politely British, way (!) I had fun wandering around the building, and espying (parts) of pretty much every major building in the world. Why go anywhere else?

(Incidentally, the Tribune building has suggested yet another deeply attractive career option to me: journo-pirate! Not sure how easy it would be to combine rampage on the open seas with journalistic ethics, but if Murdoch is anything to go by...)

That evening, Amy proved to be supremely useful yet again, because - and I failed to mention this before - for one of her jobs, she works as a waitress in the 'Stadium Lounge' at the baseball ground belonging to the Chicago White Sox, my favourite major-league baseball team! So, of course, she got me into said expensive lounge no problem (I just had to shell out $34 for a ticket to the game). The Sox were playing the New York Yankees (a pretty major game, then), and it was a painfully close one; but unfortunately, South Chicago's favourite sons lost by 3 runs to 2. On the plus side, I got a great view, and Amy's friend Ricardo and I were able to sneak downstairs into some vacant $120 seats right by the diamond, so it was a pretty good deal!

Tuesday was a day FULL of art, as I hit the Chicago Art Institute. Hard. I spent 5 hours in gawping wonderment, staring at European masters, from Magritte to Monet, from Picasso to Van Gogh, as well as checking out some pretty spectacular galleries filled with contemporary American art. By a great degree of luck, there was also a fascinating temporary exhibition, that was so far up my street that it was practically ringing my doorbell: a detailed exhibit of Soviet propaganda posters commissioned during World War Two. Ultimately, anything with a preposterous surging Lenin and a caricature donkey-Hitler has my support, so I found it all highly entertaining. On Tuesday night I also went out and hit the town, checking out a couple of bars fairly near to the hostel and having a whale of a time - despite a distinct lack of dancing. Though I only got to bed around 5am, it was definitely a great night out in the windy city!

The next day, I met up with Kyle and Zoe, two outstanding Michigan-ites from Lancing, who had been staying in my hostel for one night, and who I had first spoken to with the rather unlikely phrase 'Could you please finish my cheesy popcorn? It's KILLING me' (!) But in spite of this odd and frankly disturbing offer (made around midnight on Monday), we soon got talking, and got on very well, so come Wednesday we all went out for Chicago-style deep-dish pizza together. I was not sure what to expect, but in spite of my nervousness, the pizza was good - very good, in fact, even if it defeated us all eventually, and I was forced to take some home for dinner. I think the restaurant lured us into a false sense of security by putting the sauce on top of the topping (as is the tradition), rather than the other way around, which made us gorge ourselves rather than pacing the pizza-related marathon. But it was certainly delicious. After pizza, we checked out the Chicago Contemporary Art Gallery, which had some - erm - fascinating video installations showing bog-fetishists in a muddy swamp somewhere, as well as a great exhibition by an artist who collaged to the extreme. And then, after we were kicked out by the gallery at closing time, we had a fun evening subsisting off free chocolate samples from shops and going stir/build-crazy in the Chicago Lego shop. And then we ate the most delicious brownie-cum-cheesecake ever. So ultimately, one of the better Wednesdays in life.

On Thursday, I had a few hours to kill before my bus, which left at 7pm (practically the only bus of the day - the other left at 6am, so that was highly unlikely). So I headed over to the botanical gardens and the zoo in Lincoln Park (following a quick jaunt into a shop and a conversation with a crazily anglophile old lady). The Conservatory at the gardens was incredible, and seemed like a mini version of the glasshouses at Kew, totally reversing the Chicago urban stereotype. The zoo was also good, and even more importantly, free - so I really felt I was getting a lot of tiger and chimpanzee for my buck.

Following a long (and very delayed) bus journey, I arrived into Ann Arbor, Michigan, a charming university town. Sadly, I arrived at 1am, so I was initially unable to appreciate the beauty all around me. But my couchsurfing host, Doug - a fun, interesting and alternative chap - promptly took me to a Victorian-style bar to make up for it, so I gleaned some sense of history then in any case. His first announcement - 'Tomorrow, I have a blind date with a very beautiful girl, and you're coming along too' - came as something of a shock, I'll grant you. But once you're on the road long enough, you come to expect the unexpected, and so I accepted it with all the good grace and bewilderment that befitted the situation.

Doug (who is 31) actually hosted me at his parents' house that night, rather than at his condo (watch out, parents - I'll get ideas about couchsurfing) - and so I met them the next day, and they took us all out for falafel for lunch, which was very nice of them. In the afternoon, since Doug had to close a rather specatcular deal (he works in realty), I hung out with Brian, Doug's super-libertarian friend. We toured the arboretum around the Ann Arbor medical campus - a truly stunning natural parkland - and talked as we went. Now, don't get me wrong, Brian was nice, but I've never met anyone quite so convinced of government and vested-interest conspiracies in all my life, so I was slightly overwhelmed after an afternoon of chatting. And even though the '9/11 was a Bush-military-industrial warmongering conspiracy' line WAS par for the course, his attempt to convince me that cancer (the disease) wasn't really in any way harmful ('It's all a lie told by vested interests in the medical-pharaceutical industry - especially doctors!') was a little astonishing. Meh - America.

Anyway, I did have a fun day, and in the evening, we bought some champagne for Doug to toast his deal, and then headed out for the 'date'. Brian also accompanied Doug, poor Lauren, and I, and as it turned out, it was a fantastic, chilled evening - one which I think she really enjoyed. We drove up to an organic farm nearby, and had delicious home-fired pizza, before contemplating milking the cows. And, after an unforgettable sunset (it was rather romantic really - shame that the date wasn't) I saw fireflies for the first time in living memory.

The next morning, I moved on towards Toronto. Since it was a Saturday, I assumed (quite rightly) that I would have no trouble getting there. I reasoned that everywhere on the road would be deserted. As it turned out, I was much more right than I initially thought. But anyway, when I jumped on the Greyhound, I was not lacking for company - I sat down next to an interesting young Swedish student, who was also a couchsurfer (and who was in Ann Arbor to study during the summer). When we got to Detroit, where I had a 2 hour stopover, we ended up going out for lunch together, and we had some pretty fantastic Hungarian food (an odd take on the Lebanese schwarma - I will never be rude about Magyar cuisine again). But after some food, and a fairly entertaining chat about his future life as a commune-owning, eco-farmer/warrior, I walked back to the bus station alone. And I mean totally alone. The streets of Detroit were completely deserted. An old industrial town, Detroit's population has contracted since the decline of the American automobile industry, and as a result, a load of buildings in the downtown area are completely deserted - as is much of the town. It was like a living ruin; or more accurately a town of ghosts, because there was no life to be seen, only monumental buildings dotting the skyline from the boom years of the 50s and 60s - now totally or partially abandoned. There was a sadness and poetry about the whole thing that was very noble, and although I was looking forward to moving on, I left a grain of curiousity lying in Detroit.

When I arrived at Toronto Greyhound station hours later (having passed through London and Windsor - ah, the British influence), I was immensely relieved to see that yet another very kind, but slightly distant, group of relatives were there to meet me. Ed and Norma very kindly agreed to take me in for a few days, and they've been exceedling welcoming; leading me to the conclusion that genealogy may have a real benefit - for poor bedraggled travellers, at least!

On Sunday, after a fairly relaxing morning, Ed and Norma took me to a HUGE family gathering and meal at my second-cousin-once-removed Jeff's house. I of course gorged myself on Canadian cuisine (this time pulled-pork (BBQ) and delicious corn) - and found it far from wanting. And I got a load of advice on where to go from a whole host of family members! Best of all, they just about convinced me (just barely...I promise) to try buttertarts, which are without doubt Canada's greatest contribution to human progress. Buttertarts are fine pastry dished filled with butterscotch sauce, oozing with rich sweet gorgeousness. On a helath basis, they're probably on a par with the 'lard-pies' I once threatened to make my friend Eleanor eat. Nonetheless, these tarts are very good.

On to Monday (before this turns into a foodie blog!). I arose fairly late, which proved my downfall when I headed into town and found massive queues at the CN Tower. The CN Tower is THE Toronto landmark, and so is worth a look, but it is rather expensive, and I queued for about two and a half hours in total (to get up, and then further up into the Skypod). The views were rather pretty, but I was far from convinced that they were worth the wait. Of course, if I'd been early (or late) it may have been a diffferent story...Finally emerging from the shadow of this overgrown antenna, I followed some family advice and headed to Queen Street - a bohemian, edgy part of town, full of cafes and vintage clothes stores, so that significantly brightened my day. As I wandered the street, with the sun high in the sky, I really began to get a taste of the hip, young Toronto, that I would love to delve further into some day. For the moment, I made do with wandering all over, finding witty and subversive graffiti and building-art (these Canadians have a sharp aesthetic and a sense of humour), and photographing them to my heart's content.

My camera was in heavy demand yet again today, as I headed over to Niagara Falls: the second most impressive waterfalls seen on this trip. Sorry, I know that sounds rather gap yah, but I can't help it: Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina were so much bigger, brighter, greener, and more amazing. Yet Niagara offered something different - whereas Iguazu had a phenomenal scale and a lush surroundings, Niagara had a sense of history (just look at all the daredevils who've gone over), and a ragged, bleak, Romantic feel. The overcast (and extremely rainy) weather added to this demeanour, but the falls themselves are a stunning mix of aqua ceruleans, greys, blacks, and midnight blues. I went under the waterfall, and sailed right up into the spray on the Maid of Mist boatride, so I really got a sense of the scale and the incredible force of the falls - as well as getting phenomenally wet. But hey, it is a waterfall, right?!

So, soaked, amazed, and sated, I look forward to my last day or so in Toronto. And then on to Ottawa and Montreal! It's a Canadian adventure, ready to begin...
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