The Truth about Niagara

Niagara Falls: Nothing’s ever just about nature

When I spoke to the owner of THE hostel in Niagara, Ontario, he couldn’t understand why I was staying only one night. “You’ll see when you arrive,” he said, “There’s so much to do here!” I couldn’t imagine what else there might be to do besides going to see the falls. Maybe a hike or something? Other nature-related events of which I was unaware? How unfortunately wrong I was.

American Falls in Niagara

I crossed the border into Ontario around 11pm-  yes back into Canada, and, yes, in a roundabout way via NYC. The border-patrol guard was incredulous, “So you’re coming to Niagara from Montreal, but you went to New York City first…and you have a car full of stuff…” I think the fact that I had everything covered up with a blanket in the back didn’t help my sketch-appeal. But apparently in Canada sketchy situations are dealt with 2 minutes of lips-pursed ruminating and a cursory flashlight into the back window. The guy seemed to think I was lying, but didn’t want to bother interrogating me or unloading my stuff, so he waved me through.

From there I drove through what seemed to be an office park. There were tall glass buildings with miles of parking lot and a roundabout traffic system booby-trapped with speed bumps and humps presumably to keep your attention on the road instead of craning to see the falls. I drove over a bridge through some mist that came off of what appeared to be the water system of a miniature golf course, and then I came to a neighborhood road lined with sad, run down houses with chain-link-fences and overgrown yards. I continued down this street to my hostel, which was really just a large old house that teetered like the Weasley’s Burrow and was situated directly across the street from two large chain hotels.

I had to phone the hostel because the front desk is only open till about 10pm. But the (presumably) owner was nice enough to get up and let me in close to midnight. The inside of the hostel looked as you might imagine – a confusion of hallways, staircases, and rooms that fit together as if they were halves of two different houses. The owner, a middle-aged man with a long ponytail and a tie-dye t-shirt talked my ear off as he struggled to unlock the door to my room. Eventually it opened. “It isn’t usually this bad,” he said, handing me the key and heading back downstairs. “Goodnight,” he called. I peered into my room and took in about 6 sets of bunk beds. Every one of them was empty. Well, more privacy for me.

The next day I got up around 9:00 and headed downstairs. The breakfast food, which consisted of fruit, yogurt, and home-made chocolate chip muffins that were slightly burnt on the bottom, was nearly gone. “How do I get to the falls from here?” I asked the owner. “Just go straight down this street until you hit Main, then take a right,” he said, “Main will take you directly there.” I thanked him, checked out, dropped my stuff off in my car and headed to the falls, ready to finally see this natural wonder of the world. But I was ill-prepared for the horror I’d have to pass through beforehand.

Niagara tacky theme park ferris wheelAs soon as I reached Main street, the scenery began to change. Instead of grubby front yards, there were brick sidewalks and cute lampposts. “This is nice,” I thought. But then the cute village-like appeal took a turn for the worse. A Ferris wheel emerged, and when I reached it, I noticed there was a fun house stationed in front of it. Continuing down the street, I saw laser tag stations, wax museums Niagara tacky theme park(yes, more than one), gaudy tourist shops that all sold the same ‘souvenirs’, Halloween costume shops, haunted houses, carnival-esque game centers, and any and everything else you Niagara tacky theme park wax museummight find at a fairgrounds or, to a lesser scale, Las Vegas. I literally felt bile coming up in the back of my throat. And the feeling was exacerbated by the early hour; since it was not much later than 9am, no one was out. It was a tacky, disgusting ghost town. I felt like I was in the Joker’s fun park.

Niagara Falls American FallsBut 10 minutes later I arrived at the overlook to the falls and breathed a sigh of relief. Seeing such natural beauty made up for having to endure the tackiness of the town and sad, downtrodden feeling of the neighborhood Niagara Fallssurrounding it. I was surprised to discover that it only costs $15 to take a ride on the Maid of the Mist, so I bought my ticket, donned a blue ‘souvenir’ poncho, had my picture awkwardly taken in front of a green screen all by myself (“just you?” the cameraman asked. I gave him a thumbs-up), and headed to the dock to board the boat.

Wind on Maid of the Mist at Niagara FallsMy boat-mates were mostly Asian tourists who couldn’t seem to get control of their blue ponchos in addition to older couples who paced from one side of the boat to the other, trying to get the best view. That boat ride made the trek to Niagara all worth it. If you go to Niagara Falls, go on the boat! It’s not terribly expensive, and the hour-long ride and view are well worth it.

In the Mist at Niagara FallsWhile aboard the Maid of the Mist, the captain told us (mostly inaudible) stories about people who have performed stunts involving the falls. Some of the most famous include Annie Taylor, a school teacher who went over the falls in a barrel she had constructed around the age of 60, Maria Spelterini, a mysterious young circus performer from Italy who disappeared after walking a tightrope across the falls, and The Great Blondin, one of the most famous of the tightrope walkers.

The best story involving the falls, though, is one that occurred completely by accident. In 1960, a young boy and his older sister were out on a boat on the Niagara river just above the falls with a family friend, when the boat motor cut out. The boat eventually capsized, sweeping the three of them towards the falls. The girl was rescued by some people on the shore, but the older man and little boy went straight over the falls. Miraculously, Roger Woodward, who was only 7 years old at the time, survived wearing only swim trunks and a life vest. He was fished out of the river by staff aboard The Maid of the Mist. Unfortunately, the family friend was not so lucky.

Leaving Horseshoe Falls in NiagaraYou would think that the souvenir shops would capitalize on Niagara’s history of daredevils and stuntmen (and women), but unfortunately all they sold were cheesy pictures of the falls lit up by rainbow colored lights with flowery clip art around the edges. Outside the gift shop, there was a cabana complete with a tiki bar and a guitarist wearing a straw hat (I kid you not). This little town really needs to embrace its nature (pun intended) instead of building a theme park near it in order to ‘entertain’ the tourists. News flash, tourists are coming to see Niagara Falls, not to hang out at some crappy step-child imitation of Las Vegas.

The saddest part of the whole ordeal happened as I was checking out at the store. I had bought a couple postcards and a book written by a local about Niagara daredevils which I found tucked away on a hard-to-reach shelf on my way out. Clearly books are not priority items here. I looked at the cashier and asked, “Do you have any pictures or postcards of Annie Taylor’s barrel?” She looked at me, clearly confused, “Annie who?” I sighed and handed her some bills for my items, “Nevermind.”

Next: My adventure exploring Ottawa’s Parks

Quebec City: Le Cercle and bad punk bands

Quebec City Bridge

After passing through rural Quebec (and passing by plenty of funny road signs), Kim and I finally pulled up to our host, Jean-François’s apartment in Quebec City (who we found through airbnb btw). Right away we noticed that this part of the city seemed extremely quiet – very few people walked in the streets, and the buildings, though quaint, seemed cold and barren.

Our Street Quebec City

But as we walked into the apartment (after a slight mix-up locating the keys) we noticed our temporary neighbors were seriously rocking out. We could hear them in our rented 2nd-floor apartment and they were…surprisingly good…and playing what sounded like folk/rock. Kim and I concluded that because the city is habitually so cold, people must just get used to staying indoors all the time.

Jean François’s apartment was pretty cool – it came equipped with a piano, two (at least) sitars, and a number of other interesting objects. His guest bedroom, where Kim and I stayed, was filled with interesting books and his whole apartment was covered in posters and neat photographs. This must be an indie town afterall!

We followed his advice and ate at Le Cercle, a restaurant/new age art gallery/club/bar on St. Joseph’s and had some delicious appetizers (the main courses were a bit pricey). But our meal was incredible – sliced yellow beets with goat cheese and walnuts and a fancy kind of ham (I’ve forgotten what it’s called) sliced to dip in a delectable spicy stone-ground mustard. The food was top, waitstaff were beautiful (or maybe it’s just this city), and there was even an art “exhibit” projected onto three huge screens that were suspended from the (very high) ceiling.

After dinner we asked the waiter what we should do afterwards since we didn’t know the area. He suggested we go to the adjacent club, LézArts (a play on the word “lézard” and “les arts”), which was having a free punk show that would be airing on a local Quebec TV station that promotes new music (!).

So after dinner, Kim and I walked next door to check it out, only to find that due to some technical difficulties, the band was not playing yet. We chatted to a guy near the door for a little while and asked him about the area. “The clubs on the top of the hill tend to have more douchebags,” he said, pretending to pop his non-existent collar. “Down here there are more indie types, but nobody seems to like to dance,” he imitated a stiff-legged, cross-armed indie kid, glancing around with his nose in the air. Kim and I laughed. Guess some things aren’t that different even in other countries.

When the band finally started up, we listened to a song or two, jumping and dancing around (and consequently being stared at). During a pause Kim looked at me, “This band is awful,” she said. “Idunno, I think they’re just punk,” I said. We listened to another song or two – the bassist wailing on his two chords, the guitarist trying ridiculous off-rhythm solos, and the drummer almost succeeding at drowning the other two musicians out. Kim looked at me, “No, I think they’re just talentless,” she said. This time I couldn’t help but agree. We asked our new friend, Christian, if he knew of a better place to go. “Yup! and it’s not far from here, 3 blocks maybe, called La Cuisine.”

So we ditched the bar right as the band was ending – apparently they were only playing for 30 minutes – and headed to La Cuisine, which turned out not to be the most happenin place…BUT we did get to play some old school NES and meet Christian’s arty friends. We called it a night not soon afterwards and headed back to the apartment. Tomorrow, day two in Quebec City!

Thanks again to Kim for the pics!

[travelthursday] The end of the road

Last weekend I went to the end of the road and came back. And by the end of the road I mean I stared death in the eyes and survived…and I also went to the end of the road – highway 50 ends in roadblocks and a do not enter sign right after the turn off for the rafting place, and if you look at Google maps you will see Highway 50 literally just…ends.

Highway 50 ends near rouge riverWe had planned to camp the night before rafting, and I was prepared to rough it. To my surprise, Nouveau Monde‘s idea of “roughing it” involves a restaurant/bar, a swimming pool with poolside bar, a jacuzzi and a volleyball court. We roll up to the camp site and see in the parking lot a guy selling firewood. Perfect! We don’t even have to go to the store to get any. Unfortunately, he tells us in an indistinguishable (to us North Americans anyway) accent (is he an Aussie, a Brit, South African…?) that each bundle is $10. No thank you.

My friend Nina and I go in search of firewood (and something to cook over our camp fire!) and pass by a guy building a house. We noticed a big pile of chopped wood (as if he had recently cut down a tree just to get it out of the way) so we stopped by and asked if we could relieve him of the wood. Turns out the (very Québecois) man is building the house along with his 7 brothers, son, and nephew and they’re nearly finished! He said we could take all the wood we want, and even led us to a pile of scrap construction wood and helped us pile it all in the car. We returned to the campsite triumphant, proudly carrying the wood past the wood-seller (who we found out is from Worcester, England)’s truck, only to realize we’d failed in our main mission – pick up Liam from nearby town Montebello and transport him to the campsite.

An hour and a trip through the parking lot of the “Castle” of Montebello later, we have food, firewood, and good friends hanging round the campfire. There was a beautiful pathway built of wooden planks that snaked through the campsite. In the dark, it was hard to tell, but there was a slat missing halfway to our particular site. We joked that someone must have taken it for firewood. The next morning we were cleaning up our area and noticed that a piece of our firewood (or rather, the remains of it) had a couple of nails sticking out of it and was about the size of a slat for the walkway…whoops!

An 8 am breakfast was included in our coupon (did I mention this whole thing was only $45 from Groupon!?) and we rolled out of our tents and up to the lodge to stand in a food line reminiscent of middle school lunch-time for a choice of eggs or French toast. I should also mention that as luck would have it, I was recently gifted two amazing tents from friends of friends Matt and Joanne, who didn’t need them anymore, saving me from an investment I can’t make at the moment.

After breakfast, we filled out our forms, fussed over wetsuits/booties/just wearing a bathing suit, then piled onto an old school bus with helmets, life-jackets and paddles in hand. We arrive at the launch point and discover that our guide is a Québecois guy who goes by the name Sou and has green plastic grass duct-taped to his helmet. Looks like we won the cool-guide lottery [insert witty allusion to Johnny Cash song, Boy Named Sue]. He starts off the trip by telling us that rules are made to be “used and abused.” He definitely followed that philosophy during most of the run, letting us “surf” in rapids two or three times in a row, as other rafts just kept floating downstream. At one point, he let us sit in the rapid for so long that the other rafts behind us started to line up, and we got several angry glares.

White Water Rafting with Nouveau MondeSou led us through all the good rapids and most fun routes. At one point he tells us all to close our eyes and just to trust him as we ploughed forward. He yells “OK open your eyes!” just a split second before we run headfirst into a huge rock. “I didn’t used to say ‘open your eyes’ at all until a lady smashed her face once” Sou told us. We all chuckled nervously.

The only bad thing about bending the rules is the inevitable painful experiences. Our third time surfing a class four rapid, everyone except Yichao was thrown from the raft. I nearly stayed in except that one of the two people in our raft that didn’t come with our group, a middle-aged woman who told us she and her husband, also in our raft, had moved from Florida to Montreal to retire (sounds kinda backwards if you ask me), was launched from the other side of the raft and, perhaps in an effort to stay in the raft, caught me in the chest with her forearm and propelled me backwards into the water. The impact knocked the wind out of me, and I gasped immediately. Unfortunately I was already underwater at that point, so I just gasped in a bunch of water. The next thirty seconds were probably the closest to death I have ever felt (though realistically I know I had on a life jacket, there were trained guides all around, yada yada), and when I finally resurfaced, I still couldn’t breath because of all the water I breathed in. I kept doing the hiccup breath, unable to really draw in any air. I looked up and Sou was yelling at me to swim towards the boat, so I clutched my paddle (somehow still in my grasp) and swam like my life depended on it towards the raft. White Water Rafting with Nouveau Monde

After that experience, I was significantly more spooked about the rapids. “Are you scared?” the Florida woman asked me the first time we headed back into the class four, “nope,” I replied, and I meant it. Had she asked me the same question after that fall, the answer would have been very different. Towards the end of the run, Sou pointed our raft back into a rapid and positioned it so that we flipped over completely, propelling us through the air. This time I was more prepared for the subsequent turmoil. I let go of my paddle and tried to float on my back as I had been instructed. Somehow I managed to get stuck under the raft for a second. Let’s just say, being stuck underwater and feeling something preventing you from surfacing doesn’t exactly give you a feeling of joy. But I got through it, and in no time we were all back in the boat paddling to the next rapid.

White Water Rafting on the Rouge RiverAt the end of the day, we returned to the compound, chilled by the pool and played some volleyball with some cool Quebecois guys and girls. On the drive back to Montreal, everyone napped. When I finally fell into bed that night it was the best sleep I’d had in months.

Unfortunately my camera got quite water-logged and is still recovering, so for now you’ll have to settle for the professional photos that we bought. Will add more pics as soon as my camera functions properly again!

[musicmonday] Winnipeg’s a small place

Recently, I have hit a wall with my guitar playing: I love to play, and the simple things are getting easier for me. I am improving at singing/playing simultaneously, and I’ve learned a new blues chord progression (thanks to my friend Kevin). But I keep coming back to the same problem: I don’t know any theory. So, as you can imagine, I was quite pleased when I came across Montrose Music Studio through Dealfind – $20 for 6 group lessons and one private – talk about a deal!

Soon after purchasing the lessons, I contacted Jason Bernstein, owner and instructor of Montrose Music Studio, and I met with him today to assess my skill level and decide which class I should be in. After playing him my pieced-together rendition of Third Eye Blind’s Motorcycle Drive By (you thought it was going to be Semi-Charmed life, didn’t you?), we struck up a conversation.”My rates are very competitive,” he said, “because I’ve been here only a year, and I’m trying to build up a client base.”
“So where are you from originally?” I asked.
“Winnipeg, actually,” he said, letting out a breath.
“Oh, hey, I saw a band from Winnipeg a few months ago…my friend and I showed them where to get the best poutine in town.”
“Oh really? Maybe I know them, music scene’s not too big there…I was in South Africa once, chatting to a friend. He mentioned he’d met a guy from Winnipeg. Turned out it was my best friend from high school!”
“Hah! No way! Well the band’s called the Liptonians, ringing any bells?”
“You know, I have heard of them, but I don’t know any of them personally. Music in Winnipeg’s different, though. There aren’t separate cliques like there are here. You’ll likely see the same people at a Jazz show that you saw at an Indie rock show the day before.”

This might explain the diversity in the Liptonians’ album, “Let’s all March Back Into the Sea.”

The thing about this album is definitely its diversity. The Liptonians are not a one-size-fits-all band. They can do keys-based pop, they can do heavy sound-effects reminiscent of Panda Bear, they can do Man-Man esque percussion, horns, and shout-singing, they can do emotional acoustic, they can do Death Cab. The problem with this is that they do not have a defining sound. Certainly, it’s nice to be able to play diverse music, and when it’s done well (as I feel this album is), it’s an overall enjoyable listening experience. But it is simply not memorable. When I listen to a band or musician, I listen because I know what to expect. I’m not going to listen to Spoon when I feel like listening to Against Me! You could easily call both these bands “indie rock” bands, but each has its own very unique style. A defining style. That is what the Liptonians are lacking in this album. It is not cohesive as a body of work. Individually, each song is well thought out musically and lyrically, each is well-mastered and well rounded. But after listening to the entire album and seeing the band’s live show, I still can’t really tell you what their sound is. It’s a little of this and a little of that.

Personally, I think they need to ditch the acoustic-y sappy sound – there are a million and one singer/songwriters out there with an acoustic guitar and a microphone, it’s easy to get lost among them. Instead, I think they should steer more towards the big horns, big keys, and big percussion that they’ve displayed in a few of their songs. And from the looks of things, they do seem to be kicking it up a notch.

Girls with guns…and colorful stuffed animals

Yesterday, I attended a carnival just for Rogers employees, but not as an employee, rather, as a worker – I was a carnie for a day! Thanks to Aimee Davison from onehundredjobs.com, I got the chance to hang out at the shootin booth and get paid for it. My friend Natasha manned the booth with me. The afternoon was very successful – all of the Rogers employees seemed to enjoy themselves, and the decor was impeccable! We did, however, have to wear these awful Rogers shirts that they only had size medium + in. I think we wore them ok, though. Check out our pics below (sorry for the quality of the pics, took them with my cell phone!).

[throwbacks] Holy Crap Batman: Montreal week 1

Okay, so I’m in Canada (how did I get here again?)

and I’m losing my mind because I have neither a place to live nor a job.  I have only a 6 month work visa and one job interview.  I’ll be going to see apt #3 today, in an area of town that I’d like to be in, but google maps is such a bitch since everything always looks drab on street view.

In any case, I went to my interview this morning.

And did I mention that for some reason the Montreal Craigslist is filled with jobs like this one asking for “girls 18-35″ to work as “sexy masseuse – no experience necessary.” And of course all of the ads are written with the caps lock on, and usually consist of one to two sentences claiming LOTS OF $$$, PERFECT FOR STUDENTS and often misspelled.  So, naturally, I’m pretty wary about anything listed under the salon/spa/fitness tag.  Anyway, so I go to this interview, located in a nice-looking normal street up two flights of stairs and in a small office space with dirty gray carpet. I’m greeted by the secretary, “If you have a copy of your resume, I’ll take it to him and you can wait. It shouldn’t be long,” she said, smiling.  Another woman comes in, late twenties, and says something about “him” to the secretary.  So about five minutes later, “he” asks me to come in. The room looks more like a studio than an office.  There’s a large window that appears to be soundproof, and two large office chairs in front of a dark wooden desk.  He shakes my hand and asks me to sit down. As I look at him, I am instantly struck by how much he resembles a stereotypical porn director. The loose fitting silk shirt, top two buttons undone, the almost mullet-like curly hairdo with a slight bald spot at the top, and of course the rather large mole à la Prince John from Robin Hood Men in Tights.

source: http://www.flixster.com/quizzes/the-robin-hood-men-in-tights-test

So I’m sure you can understand my apprehension when he explains to me that he’s looking for girls to go around to local spas and promote them. Not to mention, he didn’t even really explain what we would be doing. “Welcome to Montreal” he said, as I left. And what a grand welcome it’s been.