25 September, 2005

Woke at 2 AM — oy! I usually obsess about alarms not going off, so I put the oven timer on, too, and then obsess about the electricity doing its little country-glitch thing and switching off for just long enough to affect every electric clock in the house.

But I managed to get up and to the airport on schedule. Good ol' nervous stomach problems hit and the poster at the bus stop struck fear into my heart. It said that due to Hurricane Katrina and the gas shortage (remember that?), airport buses would now only run every 25 minutes instead of 15. And one had JUST left. Ouch!!! Luckily, the next bus arrived four minutes later. The bus driver told me she didn't know why the airport had put up those posters because the schedule hadn't changed.

Got to Toronto safely, hooray! The hotel there, the Carlingview Airport Inn, was only three stories high because otherwise the planes' landing gear would have caught on the roof. I wonder if Sears booked me there hoping that I'd have a terrible stay for putting them through what I did. (Boycott Sears!)

But the hotel was quiet enough. It was quite far from downtown, though. After a nap I had the day awaiting and I wanted a tour. Asked at the desk about Gray Line tours, and the woman actually said she'd NEVER HEARD OF THEM!!! She did call and told me I could only catch them from downtown. Note: The next day, Gray Lines showed up at the hotel asking if someone there had called for a pickup.

Anyway, the desk told me that taxis downtown were $35 one-way. (Actually, they were $45.) Yow! They told me on no account to take the bus because they were unreliable, especially on Sundays.

Luckily the housekeeper told me that the buses were terrific. Following her directions, I paid $2.50 CAD for a bus (8 minute wait) in to Lawrence West, where I caught the Metro. I got off at the wrong station, but a kind Metro worker let me back in and gave me directions to Dundes and the Hard Rock cafe where the Gray Line tours started.

CN TowerThe Gray Line guy said I'd just missed the last full tour of the day (DARNIT!), but booked me on a downtown loop. I was the only passenger for a third of the way.

CN Tower fountainThere are lots of interesting places to see. There was a nice fountain in front of the CN Tower (only filled recently, as the law requiring such things as fountains every here and there didn't require that those fountains actually operate), old courthouses and churches. In two places people were filming, but no one knew for which movies.

I asked the tour guide if he knew where Harlequin-Silhouette was, and he'd never heard of the world's largest publisher!!! He said his sister would be quite interested to know about all that. We passed a gigantic convention center that he said was begging for business and probably cheap because of it. But will the Romance Writers of America ever schedule our National convention to Toronto, even though most of our published members are or have been contracted by Harlequin? No. Sigh.

Across from the Hard Rock was Eaton Centre, a mega-mega shopping center. I peeked inside for cheesy souvenirs. Saw a Sears Travel store and ambled in. No one there ever acknowledged my presence. So professional. (Boycott Sears!)

The plaza outside Hard Rock had pulsing fountains in the sidewalk. Two dogs were enjoying the surprise of them very much. A Bolivian? band played with flutes — very nice! - and a small crafty street market took up the rest of the small plaza. I bought cheesy souvenirs for office, cat sitter, etc, despite the original plan to wait until ye luggage cleared out over the course of the trip. Those little kitty cats in that Chinese store were just too cute to pass up!

Took the Metro and bus back without incident. Can I make a suggestion? The Metro signs would give directions as "north line" or "south line," or something similar. The main route formed a narrow "U," so if a tourist wasn't quite sure where they were, how did they know if "north" was the left-side north or the right-side one, and where the heck would the south be, since south was in the middle of the route? Luckily for me, the people at the ticket booths were quite nice and directed me to the correct side of the tracks. The Metro in Montreal names its lines by final stop, which makes for easy navigation. Toronto, take the hint.

For some reason Toronto reminds me of Cincinnati, a city I haven't been to since I was a kid, with its friendly-looking, cozy neighborhoods. It's supposed to be the most ethnically diverse city in the world, and it's true enough that outside of downtown most of the English I heard was British, particularly a couple of Scottish tourists to whom I explained loonies and toonies (or is it twonies?), the $1 and $2 coins of Canada.

September 26

Due to traffic and rain, the tour bus was 1 1/4 hour late in picking me up. No one from the tour company called to let me know. I felt better when a small group of people showed up in the hotel lobby and greeted me as a fellow traveler when they saw my Pathways Tours name badge, but it turned out that they were set for a tour to Pennsylvania, which they discovered was also running late with no word from the Pathways office.

The hotel staff got through to the tour people at least enough to discover that my bus was indeed on its way. FINALLY it arrived. The bus had started in London, ON (which grew confusing because of the number of people in Canada who visit from Europe. Someone would say, "I'm from London," and it would take several beats to translate that to Ontario and not England). They said that traffic around Toronto was bumper-to-bumper due to the rain. (Guess they don't usually have rain there.) Well, it took us forever to get through Toronto. I never saw Lake Ontario except for the brief glimpse of a dock I got from the Toronto central city tour the day before.

I did, however, see many double-decker trains, which made me wonder how they got under bridges, through tunnels, etc. It was as if someone just stacked one train car on top of another. I couldn't see any bracing to keep the upper car in place. It just looked dangerous, but as I said, the things were EVERYWHERE, so not too many people must be raising a fuss about it. On the other hand, maybe everyone who was going to complain had been crushed by falling train cars and thus were never heard except for a faint, "Arrgh!"

We stopped for morning snack and bathroom break (we were cautioned not to use the bus bathroom unless it was an absolute emergency) (!) at a travel plaza that introduced me to Tim Horton's, a sorta average joe's Starbucks with emphasis on pastries. For lunch we stopped at a place with a salad/hot/cold bar. The waitress came around to ask for drink orders and I began to order iced tea but cancelled it. "Forgot I was in Canada," I explained. "I'm afraid I haven't ever found a good glass of Canadian tea yet. I'll take water."

The waitress was very nice. She said they indeed could make iced tea and at first told me that no, it wasn't from a jar. Then she said they just got a new kind in, which made me think of instant iced tea or that canned crap. She said she'd bring some out and if I didn't like it she wouldn't charge me.

You know those Biggie drinks? This was about twice that size, roughly a half-barrel of iced tea. The people at my table waited expectantly for me to try it. I took a hesitant sip. Almost spat it across the restaurant. HORRIBLE! Oh, most horrid! It was that nasty peach or apricot-flavored instant stuff.

My companions told me that no, Canadians couldn't make decent iced tea but Americans couldn't make good hot tea. Myself, I think it has something to do with latitude. Just as altitude affects boiling time, so must latitude. Or the Celsius temperature scale. During my various trips in Canada I've discovered that hot tea is unfailingly brought in a little metal teapot with an uninsulated handle. Both handle and water inside are about 5000° F, which translates to 100° Celsius. You drop a tea bag into that and the water turns dead black instantly. There is no such thing as weak hot tea in Canada.

At the quickie mart attached to the restaurant I bought a map or something and didn't take advantage of the "do you want extra cash?" option at the cash register — something I'd come to regret! — because I had enough cash on me for a while.

Keep in mind that the original DeNure Tour I was on was cancelled because there weren't enough people signed up. Pathways took everyone from DeNure and added them to this tour, guaranteeing to us that the tour would not be cancelled. We wound up with 22 people on a 56-seat bus. Many of these were family/friends of C. the Unspeakable at Sears Travel. Needless to say, I did not discuss my Unspeakable problems with my fellow travelers!

I was the youngest on board except for one couple. She was Spanish and he was Italian, both from Rome and neither one spoke a word of English. No one from Pathways had warned our guide, Linda, who said she would have gotten a phrase book if nothing else. The couple CONSTANTLY took video of the tour. I think that when they got back they were going to sit down with someone who spoke English and find out just what the heck they had toured.

We also had a lady who spoke only Croatian, but she was with her Canadian sister, who kept up a steady stream of translation and I know must have driven our local guides half-mad with all the subtitles until they discovered what was going on. She was very friendly and could get along fine by herself using pantomime.

Everyone on the tour was terrifically nice except for one lady who would say the worst things about someone (right to their face) and then smile and tell them she was doing them a favor by whatever. When my ATM problems became known, another lady offered to loan me money, even after I finally got my miracles, and everyone was on watch for likely ATMs.

Vic, our bus driver, was married to Linda, our guide. I don't want to say Vic had a lead foot, but we stayed pretty much in the left lane of the highways we traveled. He was amazing at following our city tours when the local guides would remember to mumble, "Oh, turn left here," about five feet after the intersection in question. This was incredibly marvelous when we got to Quebec and the streets were tee-tiny, congested and shooting off into every which direction. Vic regaled us at one Montreal lunch with tales like how he managed to ferry a girls' sports team from Illinois late afternoon to Raleigh early the next morning so they could make a championship meet.

This land through the rain was flat, then began to roll and you'd think it would develop into something, and then it would get flat again. Flat, flat, roll, flat... All with unending rain-dreary forest. Yes, the trees should have had color, but color was coming very late this year. Good thing I hadn't packed extra tubes of red paint.

As soon as we hit the Quebec border, all signage became French. We stopped at a nice "Bienvenue au (a la? a?) Quebec" rest stop, where I discovered from my companions that English-speaking Canada (or maybe it's just eastern Canada) doesn't have restrooms or bathrooms, but instead has "washrooms."