Monday, March 24

2005 Flashback - 'Toronto Diary (1/5).'

DAY ONE.

At around 7:30am, the four of us weighed down the trunk with about 200 pounds of luggage and hit the road. The goal was to reach Toronto within ten hours (make that eleven hours, considering we’d be crossing into the Eastern Time Zone).

The travel was routine enough, as we mostly kept to ourselves in an attempt not to annoy each other. I had brought along several methods of subterfuge, including my IPod, GBA and back issues of Alternative Press magazine. I used none of these throughout the entire trip, instead deciding to bother everyone else in the car and stare longingly out the backseat window.

I was looking forward to driving through Chicago, not because I like the city, but because I wouldn’t have to stop in it. So many times have I had a complete psychotic breakdown on the Chicago Tollway; it was nothing less that a treat to give them their change, and quickly pass through their garbage city.

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Somewhere in this stretch of highway, this guy almost killed us because he was too busy eating.

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Chicago had the last laugh, though. Due to construction (which never ends in Chicago), they had raised their toll fees to an obscene level, robbing us of at least seven dollars by the time we ate brunch. We were in need of something to raise our spirits, and Alexander’s was just what we needed.

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Alexander’s was nothing short of a perfect 10. The place was spotless, the waiter got all of our special vegetarian orders correct without writing anything down, our food was on the table before we knew it, and it was reasonably priced. I ordered a vegetable omelette, which was my first of about 7 over the term of the vacation. Happy and well-fed, we were back on the road within an hour.

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The travel plan called for a trip through the heart of Michigan. This meant journeys through Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit and Flint. I made it very clear to everyone in the vehicle that we were not to stop in any of these locations, as I didn’t feel like getting shot so early in the trip. My terrified, white-boy attitude towards the murder capital of the world was frowned upon by the other cultured folk in the vehicle, but they heeded my warnings and made sure to get gas before the “death stretch” of highway.

Somewhere between Detroit and Canada, we stopped at the most backwoods gas station/bait shop that I've ever seen. As I was getting back into the car, I could hear gunshots just across the street.

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Before we knew it, we were quickly approaching the US/Canadian border. We had our identification in a folder for quick access, and went over some sample questions just to make sure we had the routine down cold once we got to Border Patrol. We began to see the giant bridge that led us out of the country, and immediately noticed the speed limit sign giving us an early indicator of what we were in for.

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After a lengthy wait in line, we got the car to the window, and began the question barrage with border patrol. Ben was driving the car, so he was the primary focus of most of the questions.

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At this time, I’d like to offer you a few tips with dealing with authorities at the border:

Border Patrol And You: 5 Tips to Keep You ‘Oot of Prison.

Tip #1 – When asked a question, don’t repeat the question back to the cop.
Tip #2 – When asked a question, don’t look at others in the car for the answer.
Tip #3 – When asked a question, answer the question.
Tip #4 – When asked a question, attempt to answer the question within 30 seconds. Patrol hates it when you hold up a line.
Tip #5 – When the patrol agent pauses and cocks his/her head, you’re screwed.

Ben whizzed the interview down his leg with flying colors. Before you could say “profiling”, the four of us were standing in front of the car while three cops were tearing our luggage apart. We had been in Canada for no less than two minutes, and we were already facing immediate deportation. I didn’t think for a second that it could go any other way. A highlight of getting the car torn up was when another car was trying to exit the search area. The four of us were standing in front of the exiting vehicle (where we were instructed to stand, mind you), and a Border Patrol authority yelled at us, “Get ‘oot of the way!” We were scared about the on goings, but it didn’t stop me from laughing right at this cop without even attempting to hide it.

Border Patrol found nothing (of course), but we were now running about two hours behind schedule. We made sure they didn’t steal any of our stuff, exhaled, and began to explore Ontario.

The first thing we noticed was the metric system. We had to look at the little white numbers on the speedometer, which aren’t very descriptive on American cars. Normally, there’s huge gaps in the metric speedometer, so you could be going anywhere from 45 to 90 miles per hour without really knowing it.

The temperature was another story. I have no idea what Celsius temperature means, so when they told me that it was 32 degrees out, it meant absolutely nothing. For a while, I was living under the assumption that in order to convert the scale, you had to multiply the Celsius temperature by ten. I soon realized that it wasn’t an apocolyptic 320 degrees in Ontario, but I still don’t know the right conversion formula.

Our first stop in Canada was John’s Restaurant. We had a round of grilled cheeses, and I ordered a Labatt Blue. When I ordered the sandwich, they asked me if I wanted it on “white or brown” bread. I had never heard anything like this before, and I assumed that the waitress meant “brown” in reference to rye or wheat bread. I began to wonder just how simple Canadians were, considering they didn’t know the proper way to title bread. I, of course, was being an arrogant American.

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When we paid the check in American cash, we got our first taste of Canadian money. They have beautiful, multicolored cash, complete with hockey players, Queens and beavers. Sure, the $50 looks a little fruity, but anything’s better than American money. Now it’s time for a quick lesson aboot Canadian money:

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The Exchange Rate And You: 5 Tips to Keep You from Going Broke.

Tip #1 – When you give the exchange station $100, you will get about $125 back.
Tip #2 – Everything in Canada is 25%-400% more expensive than in Wisconsin.
Tip #3 – Gasoline in Canada is .94 cents… a liter.
Tip #4 – There are about 3.7 liters in a gallon. Figure it 'oot.
Tip #5 – A beer is at least six dollars.

Ontario looks a lot like Wisconsin, and it really should. I mean, we have the same natural features as our neighbors to the north, although their street signs have little crowns on them instead of the badge-shaped markers we have signifying our highways. Essentially, there’s nothing of interest whatsoever in Ontario until you reach Toronto and the surrounding suburbs.

Then it gets interesting.

We found our hotel and checked in at about 11:30pm Eastern time, a few hours late of our goal. We settled in the best we could considering the shape we were in after a 15 hour excursion. We set the alarm clock for 7:00am, and tried to get some sleep. Tomorrow, the vacation officially began. This was the view from my bedroom window for a week.

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