Friday, November 28, 2014

Canada Travelogue 4 - Edmonton

Seems like film shooting in Alberta was quite common; I read that Leonardo DiCaprio was recently in Alberta for his next movie. I don't think Indian film-makers have explored this area yet - possibly because it is more expensive; need to travel longer distances and need to pick the months to avoid getting caught in heavy snow.

A temple in Canada

The temple in Edmonton
On Sunday morning we drove to Edmonton - the capital city of Alberta province (Canada has 10 provinces and 3 territories). On the way we stopped at Tim Horton for coffee and donuts; this is a very popular restaurant chain like Dunkin Donuts in the US. Our first stop in Edmonton was the West Edmonton Mall; it is among the top 10 largest malls in the world in terms of area. On arriving there I realized that it is due to the fact that it has an indoor theme park (2nd largest one) and an indoor water park (again 2nd largest). We gave the two parks a skip; after going to a few theme parks you tend to keep them low on your list of things to see. I didn't feel the mall was that huge - Dubai Mall felt more massive; you get tired simply walking by all the stores over there! Most of the shops here were for women's clothes; very very few sport outlets compared to other malls I've seen in other countries.

We got a wheelchair for my mom from the guest services counter - this is something very good in Canada; all shopping malls, tourist attractions and even large supermarkets provide wheelchairs for customers - most of the time it is free with a refundable deposit or with a minimal fee. The battery powered wheelchairs do cost money. The country is wheelchair friendly; ramps and elevators everywhere. It is common to see some elderly people whizz by in electric wheelchairs. Even on our way to Edmonton, we saw a physically affected person (a paraplegic like Stephen Hawking) on a motorised wheelchair along with a caretaker lady crossing the main road.

We had lunch in the food court from an Indian outlet; most Canadian malls tend to have at least one Indian outlet - so vegetarians will find something suitable. We enquired about rates for the hotel within the mall but that was 3 times the normal price; being a weekend they were charging more.

We headed next to the Ganapathy temple in Edmonton. After struggling with Apple Maps that led us to dead ends we switched to Google Maps that proved to be an effective guide. This is an indoor temple - similar to others in the US. There was a staircase leading to the basement where we removed our shoes and left our jackets. Nice white marble flooring; clean and quiet with some deities around the rectangular hall. There was ample space to sit inside the temple and there were a couple of priests inside. Though very much different from what we have in India, the place still evokes a spiritual feeling.

Legislature building

Alberta's legislature building
We got a room reservation in a hotel run by Sheraton (major hotel chains like Sheraton and Hilton operate less luxurious hotels in different brand names all over the world). A room for a family of 4 cost about $120 which is very reasonable; but even if you are a single traveller you'd end up having to shell about $80 since all rooms are for a minimum of 2 people. Breakfast wasn't included but they did have a gym, jacuzzi and small swimming pool.

In the morning we were off to the legislature/assembly building. We were happy to step indoors since it was very windy outside.  The strong wind makes it feel colder than it really is. The assembly building is where elected members meet to discuss, debate and vote on issues. Canada follows the British electoral system so it is very similar to what we have in India. The Canadian lady inside the main hall said there is a guided tour in 15 minutes and we opted for it. When given a choice for tours, always opt for them.

Our guide was a very friendly person who would very often bring both his eyebrows closer as if he were in distress. The first time he did it I thought he was in pain but then realised that it was a habit. The guide told us about how the name Alberta came to be used and the history behind the construction of the building - it had a dome like structure with huge pillars. There was a fountain in the centre and a grand staircase that led us to the first floor. There were many flags on our way up the stairs - each of them belonged to one of Canada's regiments. In this legislative structure within the house there existed a speaker for the house, a sergeant-at-arms (who was responsible for the safety and order of everything happening here), the ruling party elected members and the opposing party. The sergeant-at-arms also carried a mace as part of a ceremonial process everyday. We were told about how the very first mace was created out of household items - like shaving equipment, toilet items etc. Sounds funny to think that you had an object made from toilet items being brought in to the assembly every day in a grand ceremony! On the walls in the upper floors there were paintings of the various Governors of Alberta and also of the Premiers of Alberta (kind of like our Chief Ministers in India). One of them painted a part of the portrait himself. We got to see the main hall where the members meet. There is a balcony where the public can sit and watch proceedings that happen, a section for the press and a section for VIPs like visitors to the state.
The house; main chair is that of the speaker

The tour lasted for about 45 minutes; quite informative and it was free as well. I wonder if we have such informational tours to our assembly halls in India - maybe we do but I hadn't heard of it. On our return to Calgary we stopped at Boston Pizza for lunch; strange that I see so many Boston Pizza outlets in Canada but don't remember seeing even one in Boston! By signing up on their website we got a extra starter for free - but that starter was very typical junk food - large slices of potato deep fried so much that it was crispy.

Just like in the US, there is respect and priority for pedestrians - even a speeding car will slow down the minute they see that you are going to cross the road. Also the road conditions were really good; despite the harsh weather that all of Canada is subject to (heavy snow and rains), it is still smooth without many pits and bumps. Standard of living was as good as that in the US.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Canada Travelogue 3 - Odd jobs...

The next morning I had a feel of how baby sitting goes! There are a few options for women at home to earn some handy income in Canada - baby sitting is one and paper delivery is another.

If you were to do baby sitting full time for 8 hours a day and with 6 to 8 kids then you could possibly even live out of your earnings - about Canadian $4000 a month. You do need to have a home with space for the kids though. Otherwise you could baby sit for maybe an hour or two in a day and earn about $10 for an hour. Just need to keep watch of the baby; see if you can keep the baby quiet when it cries; feed it if it's hungry (the baby's parents will provide you suitable food for feeding the baby). The parent will drop and pick up the baby from the babysitter's residence.

Dinner get together

Common to see such pretty side roads
Saturday night we had a get together type of dinner with a couple of Indian families in one of their homes. Their home was spacious; a 3 bedroom home with a furnished basement. The basement was carpeted, had some children's books in one area and toys in another area - this was used for babysitting. Pretty neat setup for the wife who was doing baby sitting full time.

When we regrouped in the main hall, with the men it was politics that they started discussing. Once that was exhausted, the topic that always comes up when you have a working single person in the group is marriage. We discussed about horoscopes, matches and pros of marriages. Sometimes one wonders why we are so obsessed on this topic; ah well, I guess nothing else interesting to talk about! The married folks in these discussions talk as if marriage is the solution to all world problems! Naturally the topic shifted to love marriages; if the 'arranged' mode doesn't work due to horoscope mismatches and what not then find your own partner; people make it sound as if it is the easiest thing in the world! They mentioned about a peculiar case of a couple of Indians who were raised in Canada who knew each other very well for 2 years (or who assumed they knew each other very well) - they got married with blessings of both families and on the 2nd day after marriage they filed for divorce.

In between one of the men mentioned about his bad experience at someone's home; then he mentioned a similar incident that happened elsewhere; and since the people involved in both were from the same region of India, he concluded that all people from that region are of the same type. And I wondered how often I do the same - we see a couple of cases and we stereotype everyone as being like that; what a dangerous bias.

Finally we moved out of the topic of marriage. Just like in the neighbouring country people talked of the American dream, here you could make your Canadian dream. They mentioned how all jobs are treated with respect here - they told a case about a young educated single mom from Vietnam who migrated to Canada, did odd part time jobs and worked as a cleaner in some company, who signed up for studying about architecture and then landed a job in that field. There was the story about a Punjabi taxi driver who had been driving in Canada for 20 years, who bought a house long back for 100,000  dollars which was now valued at more than a million. But the taxi driver didn't really know what to do with the money now - I guess he had reached the stage where he outgrew money; after a point it doesn't really matter, does it?

Paper deliveries

In Canada, there are many free advertising booklets/papers that are circulated frequently. This trend is slowly catching on in India as well. In the neighbourhood we were in, these  advertising pamphlets are distributed twice a week. Distributing requires delivery boys or girls. For this, there is a middle man who takes the contract to cover a few neighbourhoods. The middle man will employ freelance workers from each neighbourhood and ask them to deliver the packages to a few homes (a package is a loose collection of many booklets; for each house it would be around 15 to 20 booklets with 4 or 5 pages in each). Depending on the amount of packages delivered (earnings calculated by weight), you get paid by the middle man. It does fetch some handy pocket money - roughly you might get paid about $300 a month for say delivering to 300 houses; each house you would have to deliver 8 packages a month. It's not as easy as just throwing the paper you receive on the doorstep; you might have to roll it to put a rubber band around each so that you can fling it - else the papers will fly in the breeze (which happens to be there almost always in this part of the world). The rubber banding does take time and is quite boring.

The middle man doesn't force the area of coverage on you - you can pick the houses you will deliver to. I've heard some people make around $1000 doing this. The delivering itself doesn't take much time - you put the packages in a bag, walk around (or cycle), throw one on the doorstep of a house and move to the next. Problem is you might only be able to carry about 50 at a time because sometimes the package can be really big and heavy.

Delivering itself can get scary when it's dark because streets over here are usually deserted unlike India. Sometimes when you toss the paper, you might hear a dog barking ferociously from inside the house. Sometimes you get a sense of which homes have been unoccupied for long by seeing the number of papers lying on their doorstep. Sometimes you get to chat with someone from the home in case they are standing outside their home. Over time you will definitely develop a good accurate throwing arm!

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Canada Travelogue 2 - Arrival in Calgary

I split with my colleague since our gates for the next connecting flight was different. The weather was very pleasant - about 14 degrees. Not many Indians in the Frankfurt airport. First stop was security check-in; the scanner beeped even though I didn't have any metallic object on me. The guy took me aside and waved his wand from top to bottom. No beeps. "Lift your shoe," and he waved again - still no luck but he told me to move ahead.

Frankfurt airport
The airport was colourful; lot of people bustling around and lot of shops and cafeterias. Many people were having breakfast with a large glass of beer! Beer surely was popular in Germany - I could think of a couple of friends who would love this. There was a closed smoking room sponsored by some cigarette company along with the statutory warning posters about smoking damaging health. The room was full with people and clouds of smoke.

Small trolleys were available for carrying hand luggage; something that you don't find in many airports. It made it easier for people to move around the terminal for shopping. I was soon at the Air Canada boarding gate. To my dismay, my seat was a window seat with 2 people to my left. I had stressed for an aisle seat during check-in at Chennai and the staff nodded his head in agreement over there - this was going to be a pain; an 8 hour journey where I couldn't step out at will. The guy next to me was a middle age person in his early 40s while the lady next to him was an elderly lady in her 50s. The guy was from Libya; he was going to Edmonton for studying for a year. The food was more limited than Lufthansa - only one lunch and a snack an hour before landing. The lunch was surprisingly good; the in-flight entertainment system wasn't that great.

Anti ageing!

From the customs form it was clear that Canada didn't want people to bring any milk products or even nuts into the country. I dumped a packet of almonds in the garbage before going to the immigration counter. The queue for foreigners was very small and there were only a couple of questions for me. After this came the baggage collection area - the staff in Chennai told me I didn't have to pick my luggage in Toronto; but when I entered the baggage area there was an announcement that said everyone on connecting flights had to take their luggage before proceeding to the next flight. Unsure, I waited near the conveyor belts for 10 minutes - no signs of my bags; maybe it would go to the final destination. I found an Air Canada helpdesk and the guy immediately said that I have to take my baggage and check it in again on my connecting flight - it wasn't a through check-in. That's the 2nd thing the Chennai staff had messed up - I wonder how many travellers that guy must have misled with his confident wrong replies.

After another 10 minutes my two suitcases arrived. Since the bag was tagged for the final destination, the next check-in was simple - just drop the suitcases on another conveyor belt. They could easily have done this themselves instead of asking passengers to go through the trouble. But maybe it was due to the fact that we had immigration in Toronto (first point of entry to Canada). In case someone was stopped by immigration then their suitcases will also remain in Toronto rather than going forward.

After that was the security check. I was hungry but didn't have time to pick any food; ended up buying a Snickers chocolate bar near the boarding gate for my flight. Again no aisle seat; this time it was a window seat on the left side of the plane. Four hours later we touched down in Calgary.

They obviously had tried to do a lot of designing in this airport - some artistic items on display, some informative posters, usage of different colours rather than plain white etc. A little bit like Singapore airport but at a much smaller scale. Temperature was surprisingly good - about 12 degrees. It was 5:30pm; I had travelled for 24 hours but time zones are a wonder - I started on Friday 2am and reached Canada Friday evening! So if we keep travelling westward non-stop we can slow down aging; and if we went faster we could even reverse it!

First glimpse of Canada

Homes in Calgary
We had a smooth ride to my sister's home. Calm, clean neighbourhood and very silent; no sounds of vehicles, horns or people shouting on the streets. All houses in this complex were independent ones and looked very similar - everything was two floored with a hut like appearance on top.

I ate idlis and typical Indian lunch at home and then went for a walk in the neighbourhood with my bro-in-law. Everyone was enjoying the unexpected pleasant weather - usually at this time of the year it is snowing. Dogs were walking or jogging along with owners, kids were playing on slides and swings in the park and a couple of Canadian kids were flying kites. Some dogs even had a sweater! Most houses had a small backyard and many of them had trampolines over there.

The colours of leaves was beautiful - a variety of them: green, yellow, red, orange and brown. And there were shades of each; a very pretty sight.