Those falls at Niagara

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It’s fun to be a tourist sometimes. And it would have been absurd to leave North America in a few weeks without having seen Niagara Falls.

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Two hours from Toronto by coach, the falls straddle Canada and the USA and since the Canadian side is soaking in Americana (a Hershey’s store, Elvis impersonators, a Coca Cola milkshake shop and Planet Hollywood), I can only assume that the American side is covered in red and white maple leaves. (Unlikely.)

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Yes, the town is tacky and I didn’t bother seeing any of the wax museums – my only wander into a casino was a disappointment. But the falls themselves really are vast and loud and stunning, and on a hot day like yesterday, the cool spray felt a bit like a blessing.IMG_1614 IMG_1624 IMG_1629 IMG_1631 IMG_1635

British Columbia up in flames

Every year fires rage across Canada, but this year is shaping up to be extreme. More than 4 million hectares have been burnt already – that’s double the average. The province of British Columbia has exhausted all its resources, and those of its surrounding provinces, and last week around 80 firefighters from Australia flew in to help out.

As 2SER’s “Canadian Correspondent” I checked in with The Daily on Monday morning to fill Sydney in.

Halfway Point

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Montreal brunch – luckily I wasn’t meant to eat all of this by myself.

Two and a half months ago, I flew out of Kingsford Smith on my way to North America. Alone. It’s been, in the majority, a solo trip since and assuming all goes to plan (no September snowstorms), I’m halfway through.

It feels like much longer. My memories of California and Mexico are like a colourful dream sequence now, and that was only in April. I’m hearing an odd mashup of accents when I open my own mouth. Like everything, I’m sure that the next half of the trip will be intense and fantastic when it’s happening, and be over far too soon.

Along the way I have met dozens of solo travellers and I always feel like we’re part of a special club. We’ve discovered the thrill of going out into the unknown, armed with only wits and charms. Yes, there are a million blog posts already about how travel opens your mind and the romance of leaving home with only a few pairs of clothes and some good books. So everyone gets it. But there is something to be said about deliberately turning yourself into a complete stranger.

For one thing, people are impressed by it. You really came here all by yourself? Do you have family here? Friends? Wow! You’re brave! (And I smile to myself.) I don’t feel overly brave or adventurous, really – it’s Canada. They speak English here. I’m a dual citizen so I don’t need any scary immigration paperwork. Everyone is friendly. But I am proud of one thing – conquering my fear of being alone.

On my 25th birthday, which was a few weeks ago, I got a manicure. Then I went to a Japanese restaurant, by myself. I splurged on an expensive ramen and a beer. After that I walked over to a tiny theatre for a film screening I’d read about online. When the film was over, I made some friends by chatting about the rain and offering some chewing gum around, and we went out for more beers. It felt good to be a grown-up woman who could find her own entertainment and meet new people.

I’m planning on writing a separate post a bit later about the act of a woman going into a bar to drink alone. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that for me, getting used to that has been one of the most rewarding treats of the whole exercise.

Maybe being happy alone is a skill that can only be learned through experience. In any case, I think that mastering it can only be useful for all the trials and errors of an interesting life.

Sometimes, in idle moments – and there are many – I think about the singular burn and sparkle of the Australian sunlight. The way everyone’s skin looks shiny after the sun sets on a hot day. Wattles, and jacarandas, and espressos and Coopers. It’ll all still be there, and I’ll get to enjoy it with all the people I miss. But I’m blessed to be young and healthy and I know who I am, which has been a wonderful thing to discover.

If you’re a woman (or man) who has travelled alone, please share your thoughts about it with me.  xx

At the CN Tower

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“Everything changes after three weeks.”

So said the Englishman who had been here for six. That meant that I should have been two days already into the rest of my (Toronto) life. Well, let’s say you get a few extra days for the weekend. I thought about whether it was that particular evening, warmer than most of the ones I’d had before, that was going to be pivotal.

But it was the whole disappearing day, really, that was a little bit special. I had spent three weeks (and two days) in Toronto, and had very little to show for it. Up until my arrival, every few days held the promise of a new city and new people to meet. I had moved to a new city for real and now, it was all up to me.

As happens so often in life, I shouldn’t have worried so much. Although I didn’t realise it except in hindsight, it was indeed around the three-week mark that my new (temporary) life started to come into focus. My street and my home began to feel familiar. I made some friends and started having things to go to in the evenings. I started to memorise streetcar routes and subway stations. I was able to sleep.

I look at the CN tower every day. So far up in the haze above the streets, it often has a unreal quality to it.

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If I was only staying in Toronto for a few days, enjoying one exciting day after another, I would have visited the CN Tower already. So I decided to go up.

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My place is over there somewhere.

Even though I had to push my way through hundreds of squealing children, it really was beautiful up there. You can ever-so-slightly see the curvature of the earth, off in the blue distance over Lake Ontario. IMG_0943

It’s expensive, as you’d expect – about $35. Especially because I chose to pay an extra $12 to go up a few more storeys to the Skypod.

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IMG_0948 What does this mean?

However, although it wasn’t advertised, the $12 includes some peace and quiet.

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On the main level there is a glass floor. I was excited to stand on the glass floor, until it came to the point where I had to step on it. IMG_0957My heart was beating incredibly quickly. There were other grown adults who were obviously terrified, and I don’t blame them. The fear of plunging to our deaths from incredibly high buildings unites us all, I guess.

So I had finally visited the CN Tower. I had seen a Sight, and was determined to see some more. I wanted to be excited about Toronto, every day that I spent there. And it was that evening that I met the Englishman, and realised that he was right.

Ordinary things in Toronto

You know what the funniest thing about Canada is? It’s the little differences.

Forget the wonders of the world for a minute. Well, maybe the CN Tower can stay. These are some ordinary things that one can see in Toronto, snapped on my smartphone.

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this way to my apartment

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a beautiful house on Bathurst St (I think)

no automatic doors anywhere

no automatic doors anywhere

bikeshare

bikeshare

some Canadian football

some Canadian football

every second shop is Tim Horton's - coffee and donuts

every second shop is Tim Hortons – coffee and donuts

sugary, caffeinated Iced Capp from Tim Hortons

sugary, caffeinated Iced Capp from Tim Hortons

and those that are not Tim Hortons, are Second Cup

and those that are not Tim Hortons, are Second Cup

Canadian money

Canadian money

tokens for public transit - buses, streetcars, subway

tokens for public transit – buses, streetcars, subway

this dog is called Pepper and lives in my apartment

this dog is called Pepper and lives in my apartment

Canadian version of Fitness First

Canadian version of Fitness First

foodtruck - notice the varieties of poutine

foodtruck – notice the varieties of poutine

some Canadian beers blocking the World Cup

some Canadian beers blocking the World Cup

breakfast, lunch and dinner

breakfast, lunch and dinner

politics - watch for dreamboat Justin Trudeau

politics – watch for dreamboat Justin Trudeau

supermarket - notice that everything is in English and French

supermarket – notice that everything is in English and French

one of the squirrel community near my apartment

one of the squirrel community near my apartment

interior of the Toronto Eaton Centre mall

interior of the Toronto Eaton Centre mall

The CN tower, as it looked on my first night in Toronto

The CN tower, as it looked on my first night in Toronto

the city - just below is the Royal Ontario Museum

the city – just below is the Royal Ontario Museum

Go By Train: The Canadian

The Canadian, from Via Rail, is a train that traverses the entire Canadian expanse.

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It was to be the longest train trip I’d ever done, and I actually couldn’t wait. 35 hours, from downtown Vancouver to the outskirts of Saskatoon. 35 hours of gazing and lazing.

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I boarded in the evening but the days are getting longer, so I had a few hours of landscape-watching until I had to revert to downloaded entertainment. It was hours and hours before the first stop, in the town of Kamloops. I find the steady movement of a train so relaxing. I was even able to get a few hours of sleep, crumpled up on my two seats and covered by my coat. IMG_0766

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In the late morning we began our climb through the Canadian Rockies. There were occasional announcements from train staff of landmarks to look out for. There was the occasional flurry of excitement when a passenger thought they had seen a bear.

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I wasn’t tired at all, despite being sleep-deprived. In the viewing car passengers could see the mountains in all their postcard glory.

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It was one of the most calming experiences I’ve had. A slow plod through eternal natural wonders – the mountains high above us, oblivious to all the commotion.

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I think this is Mt Robson, the highest peak of all. (Head in the clouds.)

Our next stop was the little town of Jasper, a favourite base for skiers and climbers. I was able to get out and stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh mountain air.

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From there, it was straight on to the city of Edmonton, which we reached in the dead of night, when I was snoozing under my coat again. In the meantime the land flattened out slowly.

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And I enjoyed some on-board services.

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As the first full day on the train faded away, the passengers started getting chatty. There was a musical couple who performed country love songs live in the lounge, and received advice from an old blues singer on his way to Winnipeg. A baby-boomer couple on holiday told a story about a girl who, many years ago, fell off the train when she was having a cigarette between carriages – she had to be rescued from the wilderness in the middle of the night. Two young English women told me all about their travels, and a pair of Quebecois chaps helped me pay for my dinner (delicious, by the way), when I realised with horror that the staff would not accept debit cards. An elderly woman sitting across from me told me of her time living in Australia and New Zealand.

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This is my new country, at least for a short while, and its vastness, its stillness, the unblinking wonder of it – all of this was on display from the windows of the train.

We were all nowhere in particular, until I arrived at my destination – seemingly nothing more than a concrete slab in the middle of a huge yard.

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I had reached Saskatoon, in the prairies, having travelled for two nights and one day. I had drunk many litres of coffee and eaten a whole stack of bagels – and exhausted my supply of podcasts. Some of my new friends would stay on The Canadian for two more days, all the way east to Toronto. I wished them all the best.

Go By Train: The Amtrak Cascades

My second train ride of my trip was one that I nearly missed. By “nearly” I mean that Amtrak staff had locked up the train and were ready to go, and I practically had to beg to be allowed on.

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The Cascades goes from Seattle to Vancouver, so it brought me into Canada. It must have been a newer train than the Coast Starlight because the seats were even more comfortable and the wifi was functional. It was only a four-hour trip – my next one will be 30. More to write about then perhaps.

One I had calmed down I was able to enjoy the view.

IMG_0606IMG_0608IMG_0609IMG_0610IMG_0612IMG_0614IMG_0616IMG_0618And then I was in Canada.