Sunday, June 3, 2012

This is the story of my 2011 trip to Canada. My goal is to go from central Canada west, over the Rocky Mountains, all the way to Vancouver in the Trans-Canadian Railroad. I have wanted to do this trip for many years, and look forward to a relaxing trip among beautiful mountains.

Day 0. Chico
I drove El Elefantito north to Chico, because Faby and DJ want to try their hand at camping with the RV this summer. It also gave me the opportunity of bringing Girl to them, for the first of her summer visits to her doggy cousins. The ride was uneventful, and that afternoon Faby, DJ, and I went to a barbecue organized by one of Faby’s theater friends. Great fun, but I made the mistake of taking three shots of tequila . . .

Day 1. Winnipeg
My wonderful DJ woke up with me at 4 am to drive me to Sacramento airport. I fell immediately asleep, so it was up to him to deliver me safely at 6 am to my airline, for the 6:50 am flight to Minneapolis. I made the mistake of buying a sandwich to have breakfast in the plane, which combined with the tequila hangover made for a queasy, uncomfortable flight. At the Minneapolis airport I found a quiet row of seats and took a nap that did much to restore my well being.

I landed in Winnipeg around 4:30 pm, and easily navigated my way to the bus stop. Half an hour later I was entering the Winnipeg downtown hostel, looking forward to my first few hours of tourism in Canadian soil. Unfortunately Winnipeg is like many American cities, where downtown is lively from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Today, being Sunday, the place is deserted and lifeless. I did walk through the central district, but there was little to attract my attention . . . wait . . . what is that? I had recognized the Amharic writing in a window shop, and on close inspection found it was an Ethiopian restaurant. So I went in and had a very traditional Ethiopian dinner: A big thin sheet of engera (it is like a big, thin, pancake made of a grain called teff, but unlike a pancake it is a bit rubbery so you can use it as a piece of tortilla to pick up the food from the plate) topped with stewed paprika lamb, cut in very small pieces, and salad. There are no forks or knives on the table, so you tear a piece of the engera, scoop some of the lamb, and put the whole “package” in your mouth. Of course I was dining alone, but a group of friends would cluster around a very small table, and everyone would be eating from the same dish. It is very common for one of your friends to pick up a choice morsel and feed it to you like if you were a baby (you have to be careful not to choke your friend when you return the favor :)

My last activity was to go into a movie theater and see Pirates of the Caribbean IV. Pretty good, and gave me a reason to stay up until 9 pm, and thus enjoy a good night sleep.

Day 2. Winnipeg to Edmonton

I woke up way too early, anxious to perform my duty as a tourist, only to find out that this city wakes up late and very slowly. Finally, at about 7 am, I found an open convenience store and managed to get a cup of coffee. Heavenly.

I don’t have much time, since I have to be at the train station at 11 am, so any plan involving visiting museums had to be thrown out. Instead I settled for a walk-under-the-drizzle along The Fork. The confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, now known as The Fork, had been a gathering place for traders of the First Nations—a charming way Canadians have to referring to Native Americans—for millennia before the arrival of the Europeans. Winnipeg was established at this confluence as a trading post sometime in the 1730’s. Two competing companies—the Hudson Bay Company established in the 1670’s and the Northwest Trading Company established in the 1700’s—were competing for the fur trade with the First Nations, and The Fork was the site of many arguments and skirmishes until the Hudson Bay Company prevailed in the early 1800’s.
At some point I reached a small market place, which reminded me very much of the Kleine Markthalle in Frankfurt, where the whole international spirit of Winnipeg was in display. Wonderful small shops and eateries offered products from all over the world, including Russia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Greece, China, and Chile.
Invigorated by my long morning stroll I finally came to the train station, to start the long ride that will carry me across half a continent. There were not a lot of people at the station, and of those very few looked like tourists (I believe I am starting ahead of the main tourist path). The majority seem plain old Canadians going on about their regular business. For example, I met an older couple who were going back home to Edmonton after visiting Grandma in Winnipeg, or a chatty woman heading from Winnipeg to Edmonton to attend a wedding. A noisy group of teenage girls were a troop of Girl Guides (and their chaperones) coming back from a “study” trip to Niagara Falls.
The provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are very flat and very fertile (big wheat producers), but not very scenic when you look at them from a passing train. I went up to the panorama car for a while, hoping for better views, and was rewarded with a view of the flooded valley of the Qu’appelle river (pronounced “Qui appelle?” in French and “capelle” in English), but outside of that there was not much to see in the extension to the north of the Great Plains. Train riding is a wonderful exercise in inner calm and patience, none of which are traits for which I am well known.
Dinner was a fine affair, with real china and shining cutlery embossed with the logo of the rail company. You have to make a reservation, and sit at the table with perfect strangers to engage in the lost art of conversation. It is here that I met the chatty woman going to the wedding. It turns out she had grown up in Mexico, as the daughter of a Protestant pastor with one of the Mennonite colonies in Chihuahua. It was pretty interesting to hear her recollections. I dined on onion soup and grilled breast of duck with a chutney sauce, and felt at ease with the world when I finally curled in my seat for the night ride from Saskatoon to Edmonton. We should be there tomorrow morning around 7 am.

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