Friday, February 27, 2009

MEC: Shopping Extravaganza

“How much do you think you’ll spend? Just give me an over/under.”

There is no worse question to be asked, when standing in line ready to pay for your purchase. Beside you is your loyal and trusted friend, who has just spent two hours shoulder to shoulder as you fought your way through retail trenches. But now, here at the final moment, he turns and – as if it were planned all along – stabs a dagger into your back.

What a terrible question to be asked. And why? What makes it the ultimate horror of horrors? There’s no right answer.

You either lowball your guess, in some foolish attempt to salvage your frugal conscience, or you highball it – which is just as terrible because you can feel every last penny slipping away between your alternately clenched and unclenched fingers.

Sighing, I looked deep into my in-store-use-only bag and guessed: “Three hundred and fifty dollars. I think I’ll be just under three hundred and fifty dollars.”

It was a painful realization, but there was no way around it. There was no way it could be anywhere near the reasonable price I had hoped for when this consumerist extravaganza began. I was ready to hand over my credit card, shed a few tears, and be done with it.

But, of course, this is the end of the story. How did we get from there to here?

It was a beautiful afternoon. Somehow the sun managed to sneak out of its multi-month long incarceration, trapped behind the cold gray clouds that are ever so present near the great lakes. In my heart I could feel a tinge of delight, excitement, and perpetuated calling. For, on this day, I was going to shed off the problems, and stress (not that much presented itself) of work and shop.

Now, it’s important to be stated, that I do not normally enjoy shopping. I do not buy clothes that I’ll never wear, I do not own multiple unnecessary assortments of footwear, and I do not splurge on the finest alcohol, the tenderest cuts of meat, or the rarest of all cheeses. I do not shop for fun. I shop only when something is needed.

But today, it was a shopping extravaganza. The type that a sixteen year old girl might have her credit card cut up for embarking upon. Although this was not funded by some tough-loving, yet understanding parents. No. This was funded by hours of working, marking, and educating. (Uhh – or moving watching, as the current units have been leading towards. But never mind that.)

So there I stood, looking into the store, good friend – giddy with the delight of vicariously buying things, without having to spend money. In an instance the threshold, roughly marked by two automatically sliding doors, was crossed. And we were inside.

the hunting grounds
Inside Mountain Equipment Co-Op my first order of business was to grab a shopping bag, with which I could hold all my purchases. It seemed a reasonable beginning. But, of course, one thing led to another.

There, before me, taller than I could have ever hoped to be was a display. On this display rested all number of plastic, coloured, trinkets. Each item was complete with three triple A batteries, and an elastic band, created to fit snugly and securely. Guaranteed to make you look the fool in any social context. I was looking at row upon row of Petzl Headlamps (19.00). There were some that offered four different settings, other blinks, and one more added a red filter – guaranteed to preserve your night vision, while you read – for the low cost of only eight dollars.

Personally, I’ll just eat some candy strawberries and put the foil overtop, thank you very much. And that was how I decided. I went for the cheapest: I needed no flashing lights, or multicoloured arrays. When I want a flashlight strapped to my head, in a ridiculous fashion, well then – that’s exactly what I want. Nothing more, nothing less. And if I’m mocked for my outdated head tech, well then so be it. I’ll feel superior to anyone who cares for such things anyway. I mean come on, it’s a flashlight with a rope on it. Really now.

And oh that it could have ended there. I would have been in and out so quickly. But, as always, there was more. My next stop was TSA locks (11.50 x3). Now, I know – these are foolish. Ultimately they will be cut off by some foreign airport worker, or just stolen – as the whole point is that all airports have the keys for these. But, I felt like I needed to buy them.

I opted for the combination variety, because I would have undoubtedly lost the key to any lock I used on my bags. Then I’d need to do all sorts of horrible things to get at my clothing. Horrible, horrible, things.

And when I bought one, that wouldn’t make sense. I’d need to buy a second for the other access in my pack. And then, I might as well get a third for my day pack.

I know, I know – just use plastic zip locks. You know, the type Americans use to arrest suspected terrorists? They cost about five cents each, and sure they’ll be cut off too – but for the price of one lock, I could have two hundred of them. We’ll see how long the locks last this time, and I’ll rethink this in the future.

But, luckily for me, the locks were right beside the money belts (8.50). This was something I would need, either way. I like the idea of someone having to literally steal my pants, before they end up with my cash. Also, it’s not in pockets, or worn under your shirt. It’s simply a belt. And I’ll need one of those anyway. I love adding function to form.

consumerism safari
Now I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had most things I needed, or so I thought. All that was left was the clothing. How much could that cost me? How much indeed.

As I headed to the upper level I thought about what to get first. A rain jacket. It would rain, I was sure. And then I would be cold and angry. My dollar store poncho would not protect me as I hoped it would. So it was off to buy a rain coat. Up first was the “on sale” rack where I looked at the Torrent Three, with it’s rainguard technology. Yes, there is technology. And then I viewed the Deluge 3, because what if I was caught up in something far worse than a torrent? What would I do then?

Just as I had my hands on the one for me, an employee stopped me. This regularily ninety dollars, on sale for only forty-one, jacket would not be right for me. Oh no, what a fool I must be picking it off the shelf. How lucky he was there to point me in the right direction – across the shopping floor.

The Hydrofoil 3 (100.00) jacket was the one for me. For it was breathable, and in the potentially hot climates I’d be visiting, that was important. I sighed, and agreed. My friend, beside me all this time, claimed that the slightly harder beak was well worth the extra sixty dollars! With that type of technology to allow for rain rolling gracefully over your head, rather than down onto your face, what could be better?

And it was breathable! This breathable nature just meant it had zippers that opened up under my arms, creating a giant hole. I could just take a knife to the forty dollar… but no. What’s fifty dollars to stay dry? So that was that. Rain jacket purchased. Onto the gloves.

The Windstopper N2S Gloves (25.00) that found their way into my bag promised to be lightweight, breathable, and windproof. I could wear these in the rain, and keep my hands feeling dry and cool. Plus, they had enough movement to allow me access to camera controls. The only problem? One size: medium.

I have large hands. I needed large sized hands. Not goliath large, just regular large. The type that wouldn’t pinch. The type I wouldn’t mind wearing for days on end, until they fell apart. Off I sent my minion to survey the landscape. Strangely enough, over by the raincoats – where we had been previous to checking out the gloves section – a new display was discovered. There hands of all shapes and sizes could be accommodated. Large, medium, heck – even small could attend this fashion party.

excitement building
And since I was already looking towards getting, and staying, warm – well what could be better than some new long johns? For years - five years - I have wanted long johns. I just, you know, never got around to picking them up. Things get in the way. Life happens. And I, oh so rarely, feel cold. But today I had the perfect excuse. Browsing through all number of styles, I decided on the MEC Expedition Stretch Long Johns (37.00), as they promised to trap warm air, while remaining breathable. I know nothing of this fabric magic, but I’ll trust in the company’s write up. Why ever would they lie?

After so much traipsing through fabrics, and trying on / trying off raincoats (only five times being stuck not understanding how zippers works, much to the delight of the store employees) my hair was standing all on end, emanating out in multiple directions due to the magical power of static electricity.

Everything I touched hurt me. Loud, audible, shocks ripped through the air. I was laughed at. But I was not without recourse. For, every five steps I took, I was once more super charged. With but the lightest touch, I could sparks from my own fingertips to whomever I touched. As rapidly as it began, the laughter ceased. Apparently only my pain, and not their own, was humorous.

At this moment, only two items were still needed. The most delightful items ever. What every child hopes to unwrap on Christmas morning. The biggest of the big, the baddest of the bad, the most exciting of all that is excitable! Socks… wait for it, and, underwear!

WrightSock Double Layer Coolmesh Socks (8.00 x2) were purchased. They are made with CoolMax technology. Technology! Who knew clothing could be so intense? Who knew I’d have to read the labels of over twenty different styles before reaching a final decisions? Who knew there were labels on socks, let alone twenty different types? I did. Now. After the face.

There was only one thing left to buy? Boxers.

There were Wool Micro Light things, and other such ridiculousness for thirty dollars a pair. But I had no time for this, and as much fun as it was for me to spend hours looking at all manner of equipment, for my friend – I could tell that his attention was waning. And the GO Bus at Union station only comes once an hour. Miss it, and all manner of terrible would befall.

So I grabbed myself some Seamless Boxer Briefs (12.00 x3) in each of the available colours. Colours that I once thought were simply Grey, Black, and Green. But no – I was misinformed. In reality the boxers I bought were Ivy, Dolphin, and Black. At least I got the black right. For all I knew, it could have been Onyx.

So with purchases in bag, and bag in hand I headed to the check out. All those items scanned, and one five dollar life time membership later, I was good to go. Final total, after taxes? About three hundred and sixteen dollars. Hey, at least it was under three fifty. All in all, not a bad trip.

Sure I need some more things – but broken up like this, it won’t seem too terrible.

Despite all of the trendy new items I purchased, none of them could compare to what I was given by my buddy outside the store. The most practical of all gifts, and perhaps the most useful too. Something I never would have, in all my time, thought of. A ring. But any right? Nay. For this is not some tale of friendship gone array. This is no awkward and misbegotten proposal. What this is is an invitation to drink. Think Geek’s Original Ring Thing.

It’s a ring, it’s a bottle opener. It’s very magical.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top 10 Offbeat Things to Do in Tokyo

Top 10 Offbeat Experiences in Tokyo

1. Harajuku Graffiti
Everybody visits Harajuku. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a wonderfully Japanese experience on a warm Sunday evening. The Elvises are out and about, girls are dancing with poodle skirts, and kids run around dressed like robots, or burn victims, or little girls in a sexually confused eighteen hundreds United Kingdom. But that seems to be all people experience. I’ve watched people walk out of the subway, stare across at the Snoopy Mega-store, best avoided, and turn towards the bridge. There they will take their pictures, make some comments, perhaps grab a “free hug” and then get right back on the train.

There is a whole culture that is being neglected. Heading East into the streets, laneways, and alleys will give you access to a word of unprecedented street art and Graffiti. There is a style to Japanese graffiti that is unique to the country alone. And while some artists embrace it, others branch out creating a more universal image.

As Graffiti is always changing, and always being taken down, painted over, and created anew there are no specific directions that I can give you here. But, walking around in a virtually crime free city, during the day time? You’ll have no worries as you explore the environment and make new finds all of your own. Ready that camera again: there’s more here than just Harajuku girls.

2. Nakano Broadway
If you’re looking for Manga, or previously unknown candy, or just a change of scenery I would recommend heading to Nakano Broadway. It’s straight up the road from the station exit, you can’t miss it. Now, obviously, I had to miss it. Any time instructions are simple, I’m sure to mess them up. But this put me in the middle of a wine festival where people were buying like mad, and smashing bottles every time they turned around.

Across the street was a large bike lot, where you could leave your bicycle until you needed it. As I paused for a moment, I noticed two high school boys setting up guitar amplifiers, and opening up their gig bags. For the next twenty minutes I listened to brain melting guitar solos interspersed with cascading melodies that evoked powerful emotions.

Yes, I eventually found the mall. Yes it too was wonderful. But those moments, as I bumbled around were some of the most memorable from all my trip.

3. Day Trip to Kamakura
Japan is a system built on rails. And it’s fantastic. Because of the interconnectedness of all the towns, an inexpensive train ticket will pull you from the rush of the Japanese epic-centre and settle you in the small town of Kamakura. The town itself is relatively small, and perhaps easy to overlook. However, they are home to one of the worlds largest Buddhas. For a nominal fee, you can make your way through the temple gates, and gaze as the casting, towering above you – seemingly untouched for hundreds of years.

For the almost laughable price of ten yen, you can enter into the Buddha and walk around. For over four hundred years it has rested here. In two thousand and four a couple from America wrote their names inside. Graffiti in Harajuku? It’s beautiful – but the irresponsible tag here? It’s just upsetting.

4. Visit the Water in Odaiba
Remember to see the beach. Well, if not the beach, than the water. A train to Odaiba will allow you the privilege of gazing at the Fuji TV building. More of a skeleton with a globe somehow suspended, it is an architectural masterpiece. But why stop there? Take a look at the Statue of Liberty (wait – what?).

Yes, a replica of the Statue of Liberty stands proudly in Odaiba. Be sure to take a picture of it, or have a friendly local – dozens of them will be posing in the area, with peace signs held high – to grab a shot of you with it. Don’t forget to put your first two fingers up! Cheese-o!

5. Explore Seedy Akihabara
Those who know Akihabara need not read on. You understand this place. Don’t you? To be honest, I thought I knew what I was in for. I had read all the stories, and done my research. But Akihabara is so much more. It is the worst parts of the internet come to life, right before your very eyes.

Hentai Pornography lurks in every alley. Posters are proudly displayed for small booths selling the latest DVDs, but it doesn’t stop there. Every building you walk into will seem normal at first. Some new accessories for your Nintendo DS, a flashy memory card for your camera phone, a micro sized piece of every day tech you’ve known and loved for years. But beware, for Tokyo is a city built up.

There are elevators in these buildings. The higher you press on these lifts, the more obscene your world becomes. Press button five and you may end up with nothing more than near naked anime girls. But continue on to floor seven, and you will be faced with businessmen searching, shoulder to shoulder, through discount bins of naughty comic books. And if you dare to push all the way up to the top floor? Well, there you will find costumes of all sorts, best kept to the bed room, and toys the likes of which you never could have dreamed.

But Akihabara is not all overly sexualized. No. It is a video game lovers paradise. Two words: Super Potato. You can’t miss it. It has the giant 8bit Mario and Pac-Man art on the front. You’ll be taken back in time when NES games were new, and shrink wrapped and… cost eight thousand yen? Wow. It really is nineteen eighty eight in there.

Still, it’s the closest you’ll ever come to a video game museum.

6. Wandering the Shibuya Alleys
When you disembark the train at Shibuya station you will be overcome by the giant crossing infront of you. But do not cross, and get lost in the madness. No: Turn right! Walk up the hill, and find the love hotels. These will surprise and delight you with all manner of names. My favourite? Hotel White Box.

But once again, do not limit yourself to these often visited destinations. Walk the alley ways, and get lost for an hour. It was here that I saw the most bizarre thing in my life. A dance battle. A real life dance battle.

A group of similarly dressed youth approached another teenager, seemingly at random. They started shouting at him, and then began to dance in tandem. This kid, not to take things likely, threw off his jacket. From nowhere three of his friends appeared. They too were in matching clothes. They were not going to just take this affront, no. They danced back.

The battle raged on for ten minutes before one group left, admonished, and beaten. A real life dance battle, with battlers battling in their own natural habitat. Only in Tokyo.

7. Using the Toilet
We’ve all had our share of toilet related travel tales. But it’s only in Tokyo that I’ve found such juxtaposing washrooms so close together. In Ginza you will find the Sony Building. Go in, browse around, take in a tech demo and check out all the latest gizmos. But please do not leave before using their washroom.

The toilet has all number of buttons on it. Some super heat the seat, others send a jet of water at your rear, still more control the temperature of that water. Play with them all. Expand your horizons, but beware: when you’ve set the jet on, and you can’t stand up less water rushes everywhere, it’s probably best not to turn the temperature to thermonuclear, unless you know how to turn it down once again. Mistakes? They were made.

Once you’ve left, continue down the street, away from the subway. Less than a kilometer later, you will come to a public washroom. Go inside, check that one out. A rusted squat toilet with no paper, and broken pipes is all you will find. Remember though, this is all in the name of cultural experiences.

8. Discovering the Best Sashimi
Located at 3-2-9 Nishi Shinjuku is Zauo Sushi. This is the best uncooked meat you will ever devour in your life. Stepping inside the restaurant you will notice that tables are laid out on a boat, surrounded by a moat. In that moat are fish; in that moat is your dinner.

A man at the door with pass you a fishing rod, and some squid for bait. It’s now your job to work for your meal. Don’t be afraid though, as the fish are mostly unfed catching one is not a problem. And when you do? Well – fish don’t come any fresher than this.

Be warned though, this is not for the squeamish. When your meal comes to you, you will have a plate presented, with the meat cut off. The fish, too, will be on the plate, skewered by a wooding rod, still twitching. Watching as you eat it.

Once you are done, the fish body is deep fried, and you begin to eat once more.

9. Exploring Ikebukuro
Tired of the loud streets and bustling neighbourhoods in Tokyo? Take a brief trip to Ikebukuro. There you will find calm, peace, and serenity. Not to mention an abundance of ninety nine cent yen stores.

Walking those back alleys transports you away from Tokyo to a simpler time, without removing the city atmosphere. Whenever possible, I will try to stay in this district. At the end of a long day, there’s nothing better than walking home in the silence created by parties going on everywhere, but where you are.

10. Drinking too Much
If you want to experience the culture of Modern Japan you need to drink. I would never force this on anyone, but I do stress the importance of it.

These are the people that created a Sake can that self-heats to optimal drinking temperature when you pull a tab at the bottom. These are the people that place vending machines on every other corner stocked with cans full of beer, rum and coke, whiskey and water, and flower flavoured booze. Did I mention that there are other vending machines that sell 26oz bottles of hard liquor?

Drink or don’t. That’s up to you. But by all means, appreciate the significance of these landmarks.

Other Places of Interest
There’s so much more to explore. Shinjuku at night, Golden Gai, the shrines located just off the main streets. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I wouldn’t want to spoil everything. Sometimes just getting off the train, and allowing yourself to safely get lost is the best way to enjoy a city. Discover landmarks all your own.

But please, if you wouldn’t mind, drop me an e.mail and let me in on your secret.

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From Tokyo to New York City

[[ Would you like to update your travel itinerary? ]] Of course I would.

[[ Continue to booking? ]] Sure. One click, two clicks. Done.

[[ Your price has changed. Please review. ]] But, it’s only been seventy two seconds?

Seven minutes later, and my travel plans were confirmed. It is official. I am headed to New York City. Living in Toronto, Ontario, it’s not so much shocking that I’m going to visit this great piece of fruit; it’s shocking that it will be my first time there. I suppose one can't call the banana scented subway tunnels leading up to Universal Studio's now disassembled King Kong ride New York. Although, as the brochure informed, it was quite a faithful recreation.

The third week in March will be spent in New York, but what will I do when I get there? What will I see? Obviously, my first move was to reach for my Fodor’s Seen It: New York City. I’m sure I will spend the next three weeks flipping through it, and making plans, and creating schedules, only to reedit, destroy, and rework everything I created.

For a time, this would have been all that I did. But I’m wiser now, and I understand the dreadful limitations of travel guides. Sure they have pretty pictures, and useful information but they’re trying to reach a wide audience, and cover a lot of material. Now I understand there are other tools available for me.

It was exactly one year ago that I had just confirmed my travel plans for Tokyo. Back then I was flipping through travel books (much as I hate to admit it, I bought three.) I was limited to this option.

So what was this tool? What is this new resource? Blogs. Travel blogs. The kind that you’re reading right now. They are full of information that is directed to a specific audience; they try to convey a personal and human love of a city, a place or a culture. They do not simply direct you to the same places every other tourist has been before. Mind you, they do not neglect these places either, as they can offer wonderful experiences that are not to be missed. Things are popular for a reason, you know.

So with my new trip looming, I’d like to think back on the one that – not so long ago – passed. I hope to help you in setting up your own path perhaps incorporating some less than obvious sites into the mix.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Canada 2006 - Leaving Ontario

Thunder Bay. The sun will warm your back, only to turn away from you as the wind kicks you to the ground, beating you senseless. A moment later it will return, and act surprised to see you broken and bruised. What are you doing down there, it will seem to ask, a sheepish grin unfolding across its face. But you know, you’d always known, that the two were in it together from the start.

As I peered out at the Sleeping Giant, resting atop the horizon, my car door was ripped open by a might gust. With all my strength, I pulled it closed and attempted to appreciate my surroundings from within. There would be no outside. Not so long as trees remained double bent, and flags held, near motionless, fully extended. This was no time to explore.

I was, once again, off to see family. Family I had few memories of, but who welcomed me into their home with open arms.

Aside from the vast enjoyment of connecting with family, mostly unknown, Thunder Bay offered two stops for me. The first? Fort William. Form William is a historial recreation where all employees dress and act in period wear. I was greeted by a young man proclaiming, “it must have been a long cold winter, mustn’t it sir? You beard. Must keep you quite warm. I just shaved my own off recently.”

A delightful girl gave me a personal tour through the landscape, and buildings. No other tourists were willing to brave the rain, I imagined. And while she did a wonderful job for a solid two hours, all I could think was, “would people really have had bright orange bras back then?” A trivial concern, true, but when I had to learn to phrase all my questions as “what would you cook for your husband,” rather than, “what type of meals would wives have had to cook back then,” I feel a little attention to detail on their part was to be expected.

It was a fantastic experience, and I would actually recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in the fur trade, Canadian geography, or history.

From there it was off to my second, and final stop. Terry Fox’s memorial.

As a man, he was great; as Canadian mythology he is so much more. I can’t count the years of school during which classes were cancelled so we could run, walk, or jog in his honour, earning a seal upon or school certificate. Almost all Canadian’s know his name, and most know his legend. Now – here I was – standing beside a statue of the man who, in an effort to raise awareness for cancer, ran across the country with only one leg.

Did he make it? No. Did that matter? The point was that he set out to do something that few would have considered possible. Even if he ran only to prove it to himself, there would have been great worth. I thought of myself at this moment. This trip was something that few believed I would undertake, causing me to even doubt myself.

Was I running to raise awareness? Was I affected by some great tragedy? Did I consider myself a local hero? No. But, like I said – that doesn’t matter. I was pushing myself beyond my personal boundaries, and what others though would be possible for me to accomplish. I was making a difference in someone’s life, even if it was only mine. This journey would lay the foundation for everything which was to follow. And I was actively working to make the possible.

As night fell that day, I would find myself staring down at the Ontario / Manitoba border. That next moment would be the furthest away from home, I’d ever been. At last, I was ready to cross over.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Canada 2006 - "Northern" Ontario

As the sun rose up over Lake Vernon, I knew it was time to leave the cottage behind me. The last few days were spent with family, and with friends. I wasn’t traveling yet, simply visiting. I’d been to all these places before, and I’d experienced them many times over. Like a familiar book, it’s comforting to read and re-read, but it will never be like the first time.

Driving North from Huntsville, I contemplated all that lay before me. More Ontario. More boring, tree filled, seen it all a hundred times over Ontario. I was in no mood for this trip, yet I was stuck with it for day to come. To break the monotony I decided to look for some geocaches that I had programmed into my GPS before heading out. My GPS was my lifeline to the unknown. Every map, every road, every point of interest was contained within its small frame. And by the help of two rechargeable batteries, I was never without home; I was never without help. A person who knows where they are, has no reason to fear.

One cache was hidden high in a metallic fire tower. I climbed its unstable frame, in hopes of adding another found cache to my record. This was not to be. Either the cache had been stolen, or it was never at the wavering peak, rocking in the afternoon’s breeze. As I climbed down, holding tight the railing, for fear of a dropping death, I had no time to think about the beauty of my vantage point. No, that would come later when back in my van, safe, secure, and once more pressing onward.

I don’t even remember the name of the town now, but I do recall the rusted equipment nearby, the water tower with some name stenciled onto the side, and the uneven spattering of houses. A community built organically, free of the obsessive impulses brought upon by urban planners.

Sudbury offered Science North, where I spent some time investigating the Internet exhibit. More than anything, this allowed me my first contact with those back home. Messages were received; messages were sent. I also discovered that I needed corrective glasses as an astigmatism demonstration. But it would still be years before I acted on this.

Sudbury offered very little of interest to me, and so I returned to my travels once more. Several hours had passed since I began for the day, but as I was already half way to Thunder Bay, I felt as if I could relax. Signs posted all along the highway reading “Fatigue kills!” and “Pull over. How much time is your life worth?” informed me that I was wrong. There would be no relaxing. Any moment of ease, calm, or hesitation would lead to my immanent death, and the death of fellow travelers sharing the road with me. You can tell a lot about a community based on its road signs.

At some point I discovered that half way to T-Bay as the crow flies was a very different thing than following the roads. Apparently there was some water in the way? Something about a lake. It pretty good lake at that, as some were referring to it as being great. I didn’t know what was so great about it, aside from the fact that it seriously delayed my journey and would cost me a night.

As dusk fell, confusing my body into assuming that dawn was actually upon me – this is something that should have been a sign of how much I needed to pull over, yet all it did was spurn me to drive further – I considered finding a camp site. The problem? There were none to be had.

With exhaustion firmly set upon me, I pulled onto a little patch of land, and set up my tent. It would be home for the night. A terribly, terribly cold home.

But morning would bring warmth, both metaphorically and literally. Under the morning sun I pressed ever north, once more cursing the repetitive nature of Ontario’s landscape. Until I crested a hill. There was nothing strange about this hill, nothing out of place, or ill expected. It was one hill like any other. The only difference was that it concealed the North Superior Region. Once I reached the peak, the landscape ebbed and flowed, showing its roots as an ancient mountain range. And the waters?

I stopped many times along the lake, and looked out at the horizon. I’d seen the ocean before; I’d seen lakes before. Never had I seen anything as beautiful as this. The reflected light bounced off my camera’s lens, making a clear crisp shot impossible. But digital representation of this moment would have been a pale comparison, at best. This moment, this view, would live on inside me. For years, when I thought about Ontario, I would acknowledge the great beauty on par with, or surpassing, anything the rest of the country has to offer.

Ouimet Canyon is where I would begin to settle down for the night once more. It is a great gorge that rises above the earth, only to rip downwards. A canyon like nothing I’d imagined my home provice to hold. Ontario was full of surprises today, and I was willing to take them all in.

Having no patience to gain a few more kilometers, and try to find a camp site down the Trans-Canada Highway, I followed the signs to Eagle Canyon. This would lead me two kilometers down a red-soiled dirt road. My white van would never look the same again, as the tires kicked up all manner of debris, plastering everything to its doors, hood, and – somehow – roof.

Eagle Canyon was home to Canada’s largest suspension bridge, measuring in at three hundred feet. At first I used my time to Kayak in the lake, but looking up at the bridge, from down below, I knew I’d have to face my fears.

The construction men fixing it, as I took my pass, did not instill me with confidence. Still, as my only real fear is dying alone, I assumed if the bridge snapped, they’d go down with me. Though it would still be a terrible end, I’d be with others. As luck, and reason, would have it, the bridge held. And I had crossed it. A minor accomplishment, but it was the first of many.

That night I met a native who was a traveling salesman. His wife left him, his children didn’t care, and the nineteen year old stripped he had met a town over finally got to be too much for him to handle.

His was a life story like I had never heard before. He was the first person I met on the road, and probably the one whom I think back on most often. His job cost him his wife, and the loss of his wife cost him his kids. Still, he loves his children, and has to support them. Because of that, he needs to keep working the job. There’s a message in there somewhere.

As I awoke, a bit in pain from the rocks I had slept on – I realized just how warm I was; it was a sharp contrast from the sleep before. This time, I was covered in the down jacket lent to me. Without waking him, I placed the coat on his vehicle, and stole away into the breaking sun.

Within an hour, I would reached Thunder Bay.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Canada 2006 - Southern Ontario

At the beginning of May 2006 I began my cross Canada trip. Leaving Toronto, I headed straight for Kingston Ontario (the former capital of the country.) Here I stopped in at my apartment, and scavenged every last trace of food that existed in the constantly rumbling, middle of the night waking up, beast of a mini fridge. Empty of sustenance, I was glad to leave it all behind me.

My first crisis arose in the parking lot of the building as I was about to tear away. I hooked up my MP3 player and started to listen to Pearl Jam [[PLAY BACK ERROR]]. Huh. I tried to play O.K. Go [[PLAY BACK ERROR]]. Right well that's alright, I don't need music for the next forty days as I traverse the country. No, that's cool. I only spent a week planning what music and audio books I'd take with me. This was fine. This was great this was - Oh thank god taking out the battery and putting it back in allowed the library to rebuild, and everything was fixed. Crisis one averted.

From Canada's former Capital I was headed to Canada's current Capital, Ottawa. About three stops East of Kingston the highway became a beautiful nature loves paradise. I couldn't believe that in all my time living there I'd never explored that far (though I did find a great cliff overlooking the highway, from which I would watch the world go by.)

What better place to start my adventure across the country, than from its very capital? Ottawa is host to so much that I would never have expected.

There is, of course, the Parliament buildings, which I can only assume are far more beautiful in the sun than they are in the middle of a downpour. It would also help if I stopped by to see them out of a personal desire. Instead, I was here on a walk from the Royal Mint to the War Museum. Like a fool, I was following an old Guide Book. While the Museum used to be beside the mint, it was now located three kilometers away.

The War Museum was worth the trip though. It housed items such as Hitler’s personal car, and a great number of vehicles that had a lot of action. The piece I found to be most profound was a U.N. Peacekeeping vehicle riddled with bullet holes. Surprisingly both passenger and driver were completely unscathed.
Ottawa also finds home to a number of smaller museums, such as the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, which is definitely worth a look, if you’re into that. As well, the city is home to the Canadian Aviation Museum where you can see large pieces of the Avro Arrow, and the casing for a Canadian Nuclear Missile.

Despite all of these wonders, I was most impressed with Jadeland Restaurant. Located at
625 Somerset Street West
, it offered the best hot and spicy soup, as well as the best Lemon Chicken I have ever had.

With memories of full stomachs and culture galore, I knew it was time for me to leave Ottawa behind. I was off to a cottage in Huntsville.

Huntsville Ontario has never disappointed me.

This trip was no exception. I took my time and visited High Falls on the way into town, walking around the base of the waterfall where people often cliff jump, and swim in the
lake below.

I made sure to visit the Lion's Lookout and survey the town, viewing both adjoining lakes.

This stop also allowed me to reconsider what I would need for my travels. A stop at Wal-Mart allowed me some hair ties, Febreeze, and a bag of Lassy Mogs. This would prove to be a crucial part of my sustenance.

A morning spent canoing the lake, as the mist rose off the waters surface was all I needed to convince me that I should bring a Kayak along with me. This would prove to be both and excellent, and terrible choice. But all that was still to come. Nearly a week in, and I was still in Southern Ontario. I still had the north to get through.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

May 2006 - My First Great Adventure Begins

May 2006. Teacher’s College was just wrapping up at Queen’s University, and most of the students were anxiously trying to apply for summer school teaching positions, or add themselves to the occasional teachers’ lists. For me, work was the last thing on my mind.

Two months prior, I had picked up a copy of Rough Guide: Canada. For a full sixty days, each moment I spent in classrooms, listening to professors ramble on and on about a profession from which they were at least a decade removed, I would flip pages and make plans.

Though I have family around the world, I had never left my province - aside from a brief stint spent in Clearwater Florida when I was eight years old. This knowledge that there was something else out there had been consuming me for years, but I was stuck on the treadmill of, “go to school, go to university, get a job, get married, have kids, send them to school.” That cycle needed to break. And this one book would lead me to that end.

While the desire to travel the world was within me, I knew that I would be remiss if I took off on a seven hour flight to some unknown country. I could not, with clear conscious, explore some foreign mystery while so many existed in my own, proverbial, back yard.

Rather than wasting away practicing my soduku skills, like so many fellow lecture hall prisoners, I looked at maps and studied towns, attractions, and camp sites. For myself the coming months would not hold work, and stress about applications. No; the coming months would see me gaining the experience of


Traveling to my Nation’s Capital;
Exploring the Northern Superior region (the greatest secret Ontario conceals);
Gazing out at the sleeping giant in Thunder Bay.

Breaking free of my province for the first time;
Coming to appreciate art at the Leo Moi Sculpture Garden;
Developing a strange affection for Winnipeg.

Seeing more cows than ever before;
Exploring the Tunnels of Moose Jaw;
Discovering Talk Radio on the TCH.

Watching the world travel 65 million years into the past in the Bad Lands;
Coming to terms with history at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump;
Glimpsing the mountains for the first time, and driving the Icefield’s Parkway to Banff.

British Columbia:
Walking through temperate rain forests;
Discovering Victoria Harbour (the most beautiful place on Earth);
Arriving in Vancouver.

Would I have gained more money working? Obviously. Could I have landed a full time contract teaching position for the future? Without a doubt. Would any of that have meant anything without these experiences under me? Not at all.

It was the moment I arrived back in Toronto on a Grey Hound bus, despite having left in a white mini-van, that I knew my life had been altered forever; it was at that moment that I was first bitten.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Departures: The Greatest Travel Show

Departures. Travel show? Reality show? It’s a little bit of both, if we’re being honest. The show Departures, which airs Sunday Nights on OLN, is quite possibly the best travel show ever filmed. From my own point of view, it’s not only the best travel show, but also the best television show on the air right now.

It’s refreshing to have an entire hour of television, during which you not once feel guilty for resting your feet, while fully reclined, simply absorbing information being put towards you. For one hour every week, I find myself able to lay back and watch the lives of Justin Lukach, and Scott Wilson – along with their camera man Andre Dupuis – as they traverse the globe.

As the end credits roll, and we are giving a brief glimpse into where next week will take us, there is no pang of regret; there are no feelings of, “oh I should have been doing this,” or, “I should have been doing that.” Instead, all that remains is a great sense of satisfaction and inspiration.

I have made mention of this show, previously. In fact, I have credited this show with the journey for which I am currently preparing. A number of months back, a friend told me to, “sit down, shut up, and just watch.” I did. After the shows opening, I was hooked. When I heard Scott Wilson declare, “That travel bug gets in you, and it’s got you. One whole year goes by in a blink,” coupled with the rising percussion of the shows theme, I knew that there would be no escape.

Every Sunday at ten o’clock My friend and I would turn to OLN and watch the tales unfold. We would visit Jordan, and India; I would return to Japan; we would even travel to the remote location of Ascension Island.

But this safe, and far removed, experience was not enough. At one moment - I don’t remember who spoke first - we turned and said, “we need to do this.”

It was that instant the idea of my trip was born. Scott Wilson, and Justin Lukach were not the only two Canadians who could put their lives on hold and leave everything they knew behind.

During the initial planning phase, my friend and I would make rough budgets, and come up with a reasonable traveling plan. Eighteen Thousand dollars was our budget, and it would get us everywhere we needed to go.

I knew that setting everything on hold for twelve months would not be easy; never did I think it would be. Watching Departures, one also begins to understand just what a commitment uprooting can be. Justin Lukach loses his girlfriend, who remained in Hawaii; Scott Wilson had to make some daunting financial decisions. But ultimately, the two of them both chose travel.

In the commentary track for the Ascension Island episode (where Justin’s girlfriend e-mails him to tell them their relationship has come to an end) Lukach claims that he hates the line where he states “travel has to come first.” He claims that his relationship meant more to him than the trip ever could have. Nevertheless, he continues on for the rest of the year, and opts to continue for another. One wonders how much this statement is based on “the grass is always greener” principle. Regardless of what he claims, his actions spoke loudest. And hopefully, the choice for him was the right one.

Taking a year off from work, not only spending considerable money, but also having no income, as well as losing your position within the work place, is never an easy one. For me, it may set me back two years as I try to regain a full year teaching position. Logically, I tell myself that staying at work, and then taking the time off to travel once I’m established is the way to go. But as with Justin Lukach, my actions will speak loudest of all as I board my flight September 1st 2009, rather than worrying about new students, lesson plans, and inter-office politics.

For some, though, life is not so easy to pause. The reason for this? Perspective. Some may actually view a year traveling as a halted life: for myself it is the epitome of living. Everything that comes after this year, will be tempered with my experiences, and my personal growth. But for some, their lives are best where they’ve always been.

My motto? There’s always a reason not to do something; find your reason to do it. I would make any sacrifice, cut any corners, and find any way to take this year - stepping foot in as many regions of the planet as I can. But, unfortunately, my friend could not. Be it finances, friendships, comfort, or other reasons – he had to back out. Sorrowed, and upset, his life could not lead parallel to my own at this time. If we could just put things on hold for one more year? But I knew that if I did not leave now – I never would. There’s always the, “we’ll do it next year,” which becomes a looping cycle forever prolonged. I told him if he decided to embarked on his own great journey, I would join him. But that was in the future. This trip was now my own.

No longer would I have the Scott to my Justin, or the Justin to my Scott, depending on how one looks at things. No. I would be alone. But that was alright. I would not have to constrain myself to an ideal budget, and I would not have to check and double check every location with someone else. I was free to travel how I liked, by myself. And while I recognized that I would be missing out on a lot by not having someone along, I as well knew that I would be making gains along the way.

Any problems I encountered would be mine to get out of. They would be mine to solve. This is as strengthening as it is terrifying.

When Justin and Scott find themselves with broken cars, the continents over, they have each other for support. When lost in strange cities at night, they can turn to one another. I will be alone. And I will be forced to grow, and surprise myself. Gains, as well as losses.

As soon as it became available, my almost-travel partner as well as myself both purchased our own copies of Departures on DVD, and have since re-watched the episodes a number of times. We have also listened to the commentary tracks as well. In most cases, these tracks would be left, forever unheard, but as the show itself makes you care about the characters (ultimately real people) there is a strong desire to hear what they say. You want to listen to their own personal reflection after returning from their trip – just as you would, when your close friends pulls out photo albums from their summer’s expeditions.

Season one took the trio across Canada, Jordan, India, Ascension Island, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Stops that I had been dreading on my own future paths took on new life. I was now eager to visit India, and see the Cremation Ghats down by the River Ganges. I now understood that, without doubt, I needed to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Thailand was opened up before my eyes, and I now had a reason to travel to the great extreme of New Zealand.

Jordan also stands out in my mind. And it is with regret that I will not be able to travel there on my one year journey. For now, the middle east will remain un-experienced.

With the start of Departures Season Two, we have seen Spain, Morocco, Libya, Brazil, Cuba.

Once more, I am drawn to a place viewed first on this show. When Andre Dupuis, Scott Wilson, and Justin Lukach play hide-and-seek in an abandoned Libyan city, I can not help but feel overcome by the power and magic of the place.

As the season continues, we will be taken to Mongolia, Iceland, Zambia, Madagascar, Chile, Easter Island, Antarctica.

Without a doubt, I will no longer hesitate to pay the colossal fees to visit Easter Island. And Antarctica has been very seriously considered as my March 2010 destination.

It seems only fitting that Departures, who’s season one inspired this trip in the first place, should continue to hold great sway and power over my own travels through their second season.

If you’ve not yet done so, by all means please watch an episode or two of Departures. I can think of few things in my life that have been so inspiring.

As a final word, in closing, Justin Lukach, Scott Wilson, and Andre Dupuis: Thank you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tokyo Japan: Life in Pictures [5 of 5] - Ueno and Beyond

Street performers playing The Beatles in Ueno Park

Actors working their trade in the park.

Visit the zoo, walk the park, take in some shows? It's up to you.

Japanese Cemeteries, beautiful; peaceful.

The cultural divide is obvious, and striking, and - wonderful.

As close to the Imperial Palace as one is likely to get.

This building pointed me home in Ikebukuro.

In Kamakura the great Buddha welcomes all.

Floral offerings are still provided.

From afar the Buddha dwarfs all visitors.

Kamakura was the only place I found a Souvenir store.

The small town offered many welcomed breaks from Tokyo.

Out there, through the fog, lies Fuji-Sama.

The Japanese work in somewhat unsafe conditions.

When the rain falls, every citizen pulls out an umbrella. Every. One.

Umbrellas find themselves traded and lost on an hourly basis.

In search of Manga I followed advice and ended up here.

Where all number of stores distracted and engaged my senses.

In Rappongi the giant spider looms.

Marking his territory, he stands a silent sentinel.

My final sight? The Eiffel Tower? Not quite.
The Tokyo Tower is to scale, but smaller.

Gallery [1. 2. 3. 4. 5]
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