Up until last Sunday, the only parts of Canada that I’d ever seen were the ones between International Falls and Crowduck. Charming, but not much out there in the way of Canadian culture or, indeed, people generally. Best solution to this problem: go see Toronto and Montréal. Now normally I like to take a city at a pretty leisurely pace, but I’m trying to meet a friend in Bar Harbor on the 8th, so I kind of had to pack these two into a very short few days. Still, I think I now understand Canada as a country way better than I did.
Hitching was slower than I expected getting to Niagara Falls, owing largely to a cop who was a nice guy but was obligated to remove me from the view of some tollbooth operators who called in about me. He took me to a little country road where no one was going more than about 20 miles down the road. Took me all morning and most of the afternoon to get to the border. These things happen. But then there I was at Niagara Falls, and after the border guards let me through (perhaps a tad reluctantly because I mentioned I’d been hitching in the US – but I certainly wasn’t planning on doing any of that in their fine country!), I was able to look out over all that falling water. Niagara is a waterfall for all five senses. Seeing a waterfall is easy enough, and hearing it is almost as simple a matter, although you for that you usually have to get within a sensible distance. With Niagara, you get both of those from over a mile away. But more impressively, the mist – the mist drifts around and covers up the falls and also reaches all the way over to your remote viewing platform and chills out your skin infinitesimally and alerts your nose that you’re smelling the edge of a Great Lake as it gets a great workout falling over the rocks. I didn’t make a point of doing this, but if you open your mouth there, I’m sure you can taste it just as well.
By the time I’d finished getting lost and dawdling around the Falls, it was kind of too late for hitching and there was a pretty cheap bus, so I just cheated my way to Toronto. That night I stayed with a Couchsurfer who told me at the last minute that I could come over. She’s Czech and very friendly and also, as it happens, completely deaf. It’s been a long time since I knew someone so deaf that they have to read lips and use closed captions and can’t appreciate music. She’s never heard herself speak, as far as I know, and it was strange to discover how certain consonants blend together for someone who doesn’t know them by sound.
The next day I took a walk all over the city. First along the Humber River (I detect homesick Brits from the city’s founding), then downtown and into Chinatown. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world, presuming you don’t count Miami, which is the only city with a higher percentage of foreign-born residents, but where practically all the immigrants are from Cuba. In Toronto they’re from every piece of the globe. I walked to Chinatown and passed restaurants from India, the Middle East, and all over Asia, and that wasn’t even in a restaurant-heavy district. And it all works. The arguments of people who are against immigration can, I think, pretty often be reduced to “I just don’t want that many foreigners in my location because they make me feel scared because I’m more racist than I’ve ever realized.” Of course there are things to be said for public funds, but Canada seems to have that worked out pretty peaceably too. What’s holding us back in the US?
I spent another night with my host, and we ate locust flowers that I picked along the Humber. Then in the morning I took the subway all the way to the edge of town and hitched out in the Canadians’ fine country. My very first ride was with a half-Mohawk, half-Swedish man who was in the real estate business and unfortunately seemed to know more about that than about any of the old ways of the Natives of the area. I gave him some locust flowers too and he’d never heard of eating them before. He gave me a two-hour ride, outstanding for one caught at the edge of a city. Unfortunately things went downhill quickly. A couple small town-hops along, I got stuck for three hours in a place called Odessa. That gets mighty tiresome. For some reason, though, there’s something magical about three hours. Even if you’re in a lousy place where everyone drives by with stony, impassive faces, and you feel like you’ll never get away, if you keep standing then somewhere within 20 minutes either side of the three-hour mark you’ll get picked up. My ride came from a Korean woman. “Where you going?” I asked her. “Oh… Montréal,” she said. She’d seen my sign that said that. “Perfect!” I told her. She took me a few miles down the road to Kingston, where she lives, because she had to pick up her husband. Well, guess what. Her husband works on Montréal Street in Kingston. And that was where she meant she was going. I can hardly conceive of the dunderheadedness required to think that my big MONTRÉAL sign meant that I wanted to go to Montréal Street, Kingston, Ontario. So be it.
I got to Montréal the next day thanks to a bilingual libertarian trucker, and immediately found my second Couchsurfing host. Her name is Audrey, and we’ve had a heck of a time these two days. I learned ten times as much about Montréal as I ever thought I would, and, though it’s been a violent break from my normal $2-a-day hobo budget, I declared a controlled splurge and we’ve enjoyed lots of great Québec food (including what I am assured is some of Canada’s best poutine – and it is good) and some nice cider called Cidre Céleste. Now that I’ve been here I can tell you that in Québec they don’t just insist on French packaging in order to be contrary or annoying; the language really is totally alive here and heard more on the streets than English, and there’s little enough English to totally disorient someone who’s not as good at languages as I admit I am. Audrey has hitchhiked from Vancouver to Whitehorse, and she introduced me to friends of hers, one of whom has hitched from Montréal to Vancouver. They have great stories and they’re both planning on traveling more this year. Tonight we cooked bibimbap together. Montréal is, above all, a fun city, full of youthful energy even though it’s one of the oldest cities in the hemisphere. It’s a place where things happen, a hundred festivals a year. I’m pretty glad I came to visit.
I need to get up early tomorrow to hitch to Maine if I’m going to make it to Bar Harbor sometime on the 8th, and it’s just after midnight now, so I’d really better get to getting.