Another week in Havana - via TorontoAuthor: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: October 2011
Our bus left at 11:15, and the ride to Toronto was pleasant and smooth. The bus didn’t stop at Hamilton, by far the biggest city en route, but did stop at Grimsby, south of Hamilton. To get from Niagara Falls to Toronto, you have to drive a sort of curve, around the western end of Lake Ontario. It was a trip I’d made countless times in the past as a child and young man, and there were some beautiful lake views. Everywhere I looked, the Canadian maple leaf flag was flying. I saw far more Canadian flags than you’d see American flags on a comparable journey. Canadians had never impressed me as being obsessive about their flag as so many Americans are - perhaps it was just a way of saying, hey, we are NOT “the states” - for only Canadians refer to the US as “the states.” And it is a pretty flag. Before long, we were in Toronto’s outskirts, seeing endless high rises - Toronto is Canada’s biggest city.
The Econolodge is located on Jarvis Street, perhaps three blocks from the station in Toronto, and involved walking past Yonge, the city’s best known main artery - Jarvis parallels it, north to south. Decades earlier, I’d read that Jarvis had been unofficially recognized by the local authorities as the one place where prostitution would be tolerated, but there was no sign of that now, either by day or by night. What there was, as there was all around downtown Toronto, was homelessness. Toronto is a wealthy and busy city, which made that problem all the more visible, but it was nothing new. Years earlier, when I’d been there in winter, a homeless woman had frozen to death in a parking garage. Walking to Jarvis, we passed Ryerson University. They had a film festival in progress, and a young woman greeting festival-goers asked us if we needed assistance. It would have been nice, but we had people to meet.
Our hotel was strictly a one star operation. Earlier that year, we’d paid $124 for a fairly nice albeit not distinguished room in a Holiday Inn Express in Manhattan’s trendy Chelsea district. This place was $150 and our room was a third floor walkup and was comparable to a YMCA with a private bath. We settled in and decompressed.
Years earlier, as a child and then a young teenager, living in Buffalo, I’d spent two months of every summer at a summer camp, Kawagama, located perhaps 100-odd miles north of Toronto on an island in one of countless lakes in the Algonquin Park region. My best friend from those camp days had shown up in south Florida a year earlier, and we’d gone to dinner with him and his wife. Now we were about to have dinner with them and three other former Kawagama cabinmates and their wives. This isn’t the place to describe personal reunions - suffice it to say that aforesaid best friend and his wife took us on a two hour but exhaustive tour of Toronto’s neighborhoods before driving us to a restaurant in the northern part of the city where we all had a private room. It was an old fashioned sort of seating - wives at one end, husbands at the other, My former cabinmates had a reunion itinerary of their own. There are two group dinners a year,. One with just the husbands - another with husbands and wives. This was one of the latter, and, as one who had shared a cabin with the husbands, we were an accredited part of it. After the dinner, another of the couples drove us back to our very humble abode.
MONDAY SEP 19
The morning news was as dismal as our room, and so was the breakfast. Our TV featured the news that Canada’s parliament was reconvening with a conservative party majority under their PM Stephen Harper, whose chief aims seem to include expending vast resources to suck dirty petroleum out of Alberta’s tar sands, downsize social services, eliminate environmental protection, promote a “religious-right” agenda, and generally wipe out Canada’s image as our progressive northern neighbor. The breakfast included bread, toast and bagels, cereal, milk and coffee. The “juice” turned out to be koolaid. We checked out, asking them to hold our bags for us.
We had two errands to run before sightseeing. The first was to a bank - any bank - to change the rest of our US dollars into Canadian to avoid the Cuban 10% penalty charge on Yankee money. We were able to change most but not all of it - the bank had a $250 limit for non-depositors. We had our own money and also $100 we were carrying for a friend’s cousins in Havana. The second stop was a Canadian post office. Set up more like a retail store with assorted merchandise than a typical US post office, a friendly employee helped me while my wife browsed. What I needed was two fully postpaid empty self sealing parcels to use to ship all my Cuban souvenir stuff back from Canada to Miami Beach. Why not just bring it back when we no longer had to worry about breaking some stupid restriction? The fear was that we’d get a hot-dogger of a US customs agent who would hassle us and hold us up and we’d miss our flight home and have to pay an outrageous change fee. The employee sold me the stamps and applied them to two large self sealing flexible packets.
Our first sightseeing destination was The Royal Ontario Museum. It was eight subway stops south. SThe ROM - as it’s known in Toronto - is a wonderful, all inclusive museum, comparable only to London’s Victoria and Albert, or to the entire Smithsonian complex altogether. One might call it Canada’s Attic. We got there by subway, after buying an all-day transit pass for $10 each. In a museum like the ROM, you never know what you’ll encounter first. In our case, it was an exhibit of Indian movie posters and signs and showings of portions of movies - . Bollywood flicks. The first we saw was charming, showing a Chaplinesque guy walking, playing a flute, using his cane when surprised by a snake, riding camel and then an elephant seated in front of a quintessentially older Indian guy complete with walrus-like mustache. Another showed the same actor, some years later - 1964 - at an English-style party in India. With a small crowd, an accordion, and an elegant woman playing a piano. The interactions between the characters were fascinating, even funny without being silly.
We moved on to exhibits dealing with Byzantine society and Constantinople. There was a lot of deja vu - Ellen had been to Istanbul four months earlier, and also had been there with me oin 2006. The iconic Hagia Sophia, the great church turned mosque turned museum, where I’d marveled at the murals and the huge Arabic-inscribed discs that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie, was the star of that show. A short informative video, one of many, explained that the use of the term “Byzantine” in a pejorative sense was unfair - Byzantium had actually been a relatively open society. An idealized sculpture of Cleopatra came with a card explaining that it was indeed idealized - I happened to know that you have to go to coins to get anything approaching a true image. There were mummies of humans and of animals, mostly but not only cats, but no dogs. Even a crocodile mummy. One of the human mummies had the actual head exposed. There were relics and artwork from Pompeii. There was a superb exhibit of Etruscan jewelry, a huge decorative Etruscan plate, and an explanation that the Etruscans had had their heyday for only 50 years, from about 550 to 500 BC. . There were artifacts from the Chinese ‘Hell” people. The colorful porcelains of them reminded me of similar items in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and the fact that no one ever designed nastier looking folks in miniature than the Chinese of centuries past. There were superb exhibits of minerals, miniatures, coins and precious metals One of the minerals, cerrusite, a natural crystalline form of lead carbonate, looked like nothing I’d ever seen before - I was entranced by it.
The African exhibits included a “car coffin” from the “Ga” people. They made coffins in the exact shape and design of popular cars, but smaller, and with every detail included. The model we saw was a Mercedes-Benz, and an interpretive sign explained that this was the most popular model, being a status symbol. There were decorative arts and exhibits of everyday objects and tools from different places and eras, with explanations of how they were made and used. We saw a long line of miniature Chinese warriors, some on horseback, reminiscent of the “terracotta warriors” of Xian. A special highlight were the furnished rooms from different locales and periods. An English dressing room, c, 1710-1730, and another from 1750. There were hundreds of interpretive videos, all of them short, sweet and clear. The oddest thing about the museum was the total absence of guards, despite the fact that many precious things were fully exposed. I call it the “Michael Moore syndrome,” as, in his movie “Bowling for Columbine,” he went on at some length about the low crime rate in Canada and the way that people in Toronto supposedly didn’t lock their doors.
An amusing sidelight was the exhibit of suits of armor. The humor came from its location adjacent to a contemporary hockey player, full size and in full protective gear. The analogy, both in terms of protective gear and violence, hardly needed the emphasis that was supplied.
Toronto shares with Boston and San Francisco the distinction - and it is a distinction - of having been the only city in North America NOT to do away with its streetcars. After leaving the ROM, I suggested visiting the Distillery District, which was recommended in several guidebooks. We took the subway south towards the lake. In the subway car was a poster placed by the TTC - the city agency that ran the city’s transit system. It minced no words ‘Respect and Dignity. Freedom from harassment and discrimination. This is at the very heart of the TTC’s commitment to upholding all aspects of the Ontario Human Rights Code.” Another TTC poster warned of $2000 fines and six month jail sentences for assaulting one of their workers. “The TTC has zero tolerance for worker assault.” We then took a bus, and got off a bus near Lake Ontario, and saw nothing but industrial buildings and an elevated highway, but we followed the map down a side street and walked into a building which actually had been a distillery and still featured examples of the large distilling apparatus. Walking through it and out to the back, we were in a sort of enclave, with small thoroughfares lined with low rise structures featuring restaurants, taverns, art galleries and gift shops. An interpretive sign explained that the area had become a distillery center when surplus grain was brought there to be turned into spirits in the early and middle 19th century. By now, it was dark and rather chilly out. We stopped in one gallery which was also in the business of turning one’s artworks into books. Then we wandered into a Japanese bar and deli. Bottles of saki and other drinks were for sale, and there was a short counter with bar stools at one side. I decided to order a small cold saki. It came with squares of fishpaste, to be dipped into wasabi sauce. Next stop was a small bakery which also sold soup and sandwiches. There were no tables, but a few chairs. We each had a styrofoam bowl of cheese and cauliflower soup. As we finished, a stout genial woman emerged from the back and asked how we liked it. She seemed to need praise for it, and I offered it to her - it was pretty good.
Getting back to the Econolodge meant taking the number 65 bus north and then the Carleton streetcar west to Yonge. We crossed the street where the streetcar tracks curved, and waited. We watched one streetcar after another go the other way, but ours never came; a friendly young woman said she had just texted the transit system and been told it would be another 11 minutes. But we ended up walking it; when we got to our corner to turn off, it still hadn’t come. In the meantime, it had started to rain. I stopped briefly to take photos of the multicolored facade of the church across the street, and got some snacks from a deli to take to the airport. We took some time in the lobby to rest and dry out - we had all the time in the world to get to Pearson airport for our 6:10 AM departure.
Most cities in the Americas have economical public transit connections to their airports - in Toronto, we took the west bound subway to the end of the line at Kipling, then the “Airport Rocket” 192 bus to Pearson. The airport complex was huge, and I expected that we’d walk into a busy and crowded facility. Huge, yes - busy and crowded, no. Almost dead would be more accurate, and it was just mid-to-late evening.
TUESDAY SEP 20
We arrived at the SunWings counter at Toronto’s Pearson airport mid-evening; you don’t rent a hotel room for a 6:10 AM international flight unless you’re prepared to miss it. The terminal was three floors and massive, but every airline counter was deserted. There was nowhere to lie down comfortably, and few places to sit - we commandeered a group of four chairs. The only thing open was a foreign exchange booth. We’d changed most of our money into Canadian at a downtown Toronto bank because of the 10% penalty Cuba levies on US dollars, but they had a $250/person limit on non-account holders and we had some money left, and the booth cheated us unashamedly - we’d have done slightly better taking the 10% penalty at the Cuban end. We waited most of the night at Pearson, ate our snacks, read, talked, and looked up things on Ellen’s Barnes and Noble Nook, which doubles as a sort of quasi-computer.. High above us was a huge annoying electronic Emirates Airlines advertising sign, letting us know that if we flew them first class to Dubai - a place I have no interest in visiting, and am sick of hearing about - we would have our own private shower on board. Nice - a $20 or $30 thousand dollar shower.
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