Sunday, February 15, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 5

After a standard morning wakeup routine, Kevin suggested a walking tour route and offered to drive me to where I would start my tour. He was going to play ultimate with his friends a bit later on, so he also gave me the keys to the apartment in case I needed to get back into the apartment before he was back.

After a quick breakfast at Calgary Court in Chinatown, a favourite restaurant of Kevin's for great cheap food and congee, and a quick stop at a park on Memorial Drive NW for a hilltop view of the downtown area with an island park in the foreground, I was dropped off in Kensington, a happening area of Calgary with many small shops, restaurants, and bars. Keven wrote the summary of my route on a parking receipt he found on his car after we realized I wouldn't remember all the places I should visit. As I forgot to bring my paper and pen with me, I stopped off at a Shoppers Drug Mart where I picked up the cheapest writing equipment I can find, a pack to two Bic pens and a pad of Post-Its. After making sure I have a means to record my day, I went about the next important piece of business, finding a map.

After a bit of searching through bookstores, I came across the City of Calgary Parks and Recreation Outdoor Information Centre located in the historic Kensington Fire Hall. There, I talked to a very friendly and soft spoken agent who fit the "Prairie farmer" stereotype very well. He was bearing a dark green shirt with buttons and wearing a baseball cap of a similar colour with the Calgary logo on it, which reminded me of a John Deere cap. He had the appearance of a hearty, old grandfather and had a large, glowing dimpled nose, the kind that some get from drinking too much. He happily offered me a free map from Calgary Transit that had a map of the region as well as a map of the downtown core, along with all the tram and bus lines. It was perfect. I took it, and after biding each other a pleasant day, I decided to walk back to the centre of Kensington to sit at a bar to plan my day over a drink.

After a short walk, I arrived at the Kensington Pub, which was suggested to me by someone at the bookstore. I liked it immediately as I entered. It was done in a stereotypical English Pub style. There was a lot of wood panelling inside, and it was rather dark. I immediately went to the bar and asked for what I had came to the pub for: a Caesar. Calgary is the birthplace of this very popular Canadian cocktail that is virtually unknown outside of Canada. It is made by mixing vodka, spices, and Clamato, which is a blend of tomato and clam juices. Although it is very similar to the Bloody Mary, its adherents assured me that without the clam juice in the cocktail, a Bloody Mary just tastes empty like it's missing something compared to the Caesar. In addition to having clam juice as an extra addition compared to the Bloody Mary, most bars also have a habit of garnishing the drink to add their own extra flair. The most interesting Caesar I've heard that you can get in Calgary is garnished with a skewer of pickled vegetables, onions, and sausage, topped off with a layer of fries. My drink was nowhere near as complicated. It came with a pickled asparagus added to the drink, and it was delicious.

After getting the drink, I sat on a small table by the window and pulled out my map and the parking receipt on which Kevin wrote the places I should see. I tore out the small portion of the map showing the zoomed-in view of downtown, and started to plan a route. At the same time, I pulled put my pad of sticky notes to record my trip so far. The waitress from the bar came over and asked me if I wanted anything to eat. Although I was quite full from breakfast, I noticed they had poutine of the menu which I couldn't resist. Poutine, a Quebec speciality, are fries covered in cheese curds and smothered in gravy, and is one of the foods I must eat every time I go back to Canada. After placing my order I suddenly realized that I forgot to leave a tip when I got my drink. I was really embarrassed, but since it was the same waitress, I decided just to leave the drink tip along with my food bill.

As I was sitting there marking my map while happily sipping on my drink and occasionally nibbling on the asparagus, my poutine arrived. I was horrified when I saw it. Although it was huge, it didn't have cheese curds on it! In the place of cheese curds, there was shredded yellow and white cheddar and it was baked. This was nearly as bad as the "Canadian Chips" I tried to order in an American pub once when I was actively searching for poutine in the US, which replaced the cheese curds with melted shredded yellow cheddar. Perhaps I should have heeded the warnings of the people I met on the trip who warned me that Western Canada doesn't really eat that much poutine. I also should have clued in when the menu said this dish was their "twist" on a dish from their "friends out East." In any case, I did end up enjoying my "faux-tine", but I still have not obtained my poutine fix for this trip which I had been looking forward to fixing as soon as I booked my flight.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 4 (Part 2)

After rolling into the Calgary Greyhound Station, we piled into a cab that took us to Hostelling International Calgary, where the Kiwis had their beds booked. It was a complex of two story green buildings with green wood sidings and slanted roofs. The complex gave off a rather "community in a wilderness" feel to it, but the illusion was shattered by the glass skyscrapers of downtown Calgary in the background and having the the complex being situated in a rather dodgy part of town.

After spending some time on the phones tracking down the Couchsurfer who was to host me, and and unsuccessful search for hostels to stay at by Kim, we decided to head out to the Calgary Stampede Grounds to look for some hockey tickets. The Kiwis decided that of course, their trip to Canada would be incomplete without attending a hockey game! After arriving at the Stampede Grounds, we wandered through the maze of hallways and corridors of this vast compound. We saw some kind of trade fair going on in some buildings, and many eclectic historical displays including a long hallway where each year's advertising poster for the Calgary Stampede was displayed. A few were missing from the collection, but I guess you can't blame them for not being able to find a copy of a poster from over a century ago.

Not having any success finding hockey tickets, Smitty and Kim decided to head off to spend some time alone. Darryl, Mark, and I continued the search through the rest of the compound. It was now early evening, and in the northern winter sun, everything was bathed in a soft golden glow. We travelled aimlessly from building to building, stumbling onto a gift shop, another trade show, and a dog show where we sat behind a window to watch while we rested with cup of hot chocolate. Eventually, we made our way to the Saddledome, where we were told the tickets for tonight's game were sold out, but if we come back an hour later, some tickets may be freed up.

Luckily, we didn't have to wait around for long as we stumbled upon a Chinese man standing outside the stadium with some tickets to sell. He claimed that he had driven to Calgary from Red Deer, but that his friend was not going to make it. He had some tickets that seemed too good to be true, and asked for a very reasonable price, still expensive, at over $100 each, but a good price for those seats. Although we were suspicious, we decided to play along. When we mentioned that we didn't have enough cash, he offered to drive us to an ATM, but wait! He just remembered that he had a baby seat in his car, so only one of us can go with him! Well, seeing that I wasn't planning on attending the game as I had to go meet my Couchsurfer soon, I watched as Darryl followed him and disappeared.

As we waited at a nearby Casino, I arranged for the Couchsurfer to pick us up. Although he had offered to host Kim as well, Kim declined, because of what I assume was her apprehension for staying at a stranger's place and her wanting to spend more time with Cameron. Just as we were starting to get worried, Darryl returned, and after getting lost and bumbling around for a bit, we met up with the Couchsurfer, Kevin. After driving in the wrong direction due to bad instructions caused by a mix-up of the streets in Calgary being divided up into different quadrant directions, we arrived at the hostel just as the evening was becoming night. I picked up my bag, gave the Kiwis $30 to give to Kim for the car, and left with Kevin, knowing that as with nearly all the other travellers I meet, I will never see or hear from them again.

Kevin was a Chinese Canadian about my age who had also lived in the Greater Toronto Area. He currently works as a pipeline risk consultant, and told me about his adventures a a kid travelling along with a family that worked on oil projects around the world, including in some relatively dangerous countries. At his apartment, he made me a wonderful steak dinner with some high quality Alberta beef. He even bought a steak for Kim, but unfortunately she decided not to come with me to Keven's place. It was still too early to head over to the Couchsurfing party, so we lounged around a bit. I tried playing Little Big Planet, which I found to be so unbearably cute so that I can't stop thinking about it. We also watched Kung Fu Panda.

When it was late enough, we walked down the street to an old, mysterious-looking house with a lawn surrounded by a thin decorative metal fence with a gate. We walked into the house, and met the resident Couchsurfers. They had plans of turning their house into a dedicated Couchsurfing house to give the Calgary community a place they can call home. The house itself was very interesting. It was very old and had strange and embellished decorative elements. The sinks in the washrooms were shaped like shells and reminded me of public washroom in the lobbies of very old and somewhat run-down theatres. As with most older houses, it had mysterious doors, passages, and small storage spaces and cubbyholes in the walls all over. Some of the walls and doors had lively drawings on them by some previous artist with a thick marker. There was a makeshift bedroom downstairs with a mattress on the floor, currently in use by a Couchsurfer who had been there for a month and a half. There were candles all over, a fireplace which we lit, and seating available in the form of pads on the floor, folding chairs, and a few sofas.

Only about half of the people were in pyjamas, but I met many interesting people throughout the night. One of the Couchsurfers that lived in the house showed us her pet lizard, which we took turns holding. She also showed us a collection of jewellery she made and claimed that we can purchase these from the Guggenheim museum for up to $400 a piece. There was a French Canadian living at the house who made us spiced hot chocolate with brandy from scratch, which he served out of an antique round long-necked glass jug which sitting in a frilly black metal holder over a lit caldle. He also made us vegan crêpes with a maple syrup and butter sauce. A guy from Montpelier made us some croissants from scratch, and there was beer, wine, and other delicious snacks such as chocolate covered rice crispie treats and banana bread. We talked throughout the night, and at one point a group of French Canadians broke out into traditional French Canadian songs and were teaching us to play the spoons. I also met a few of the Couchsurfers that I had requested a couch from but were unable to host me. It turns out that the Calgary Couchsurfing crowd was very tight-knit and quite political, as different people had differeing views on what Couchsurfing should be.

When the night was over, we walked back. I got some pointers from Keven as to where to go and what to see for the full day that I am in Clagary. I set up my sleeping bag and got ready for bed. I'm planning on waking up at a reasonable hour and talking an all-day walking tour of Calgary. I was looking forward to actually getting a good amount of sleep for the night so I am fully awake to enjoy my only day alone on this trip. As it was also my last day before flying back and going directly to work early in the morning, I decided to take it easy and just relax the next day.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 4

We met in the lobby in the morning with no problems. We made a good decision last night to return the car today, as now we had a car that we can use to drive us and our luggage to the bus stop in town. As we tried to load all of our bags in the car, it became clear to us that we had to make two trip. Although we realized this pretty soon, we kept trying to stuff everything into the car for a while as we were all pretty groggy from partying last night and really didn't want to make two separate trips. In the end, we had to bite the bullet and decided that a single trip just wasn't possible.

With our luggage dropped off at the bus depot, Kim and I went to return the car. We also picked up breakfast for everyone, which consisted of nearly $40 worth of McDonald's as it was the fastest food we can find, and we were starting to run low on time. On the walk back to the bus depot, we came across two young deer or sheep grazing on a lawn. I was surprised that they barely took notice of us even as I walked up right behind them and stood close enough to touch them. I was tempted to reach out my arm and pet them or give them a nice back scratch as they looked so docile, but realizing that they were wild animals larger than me, I decided it was better just to leave them alone.

After getting our tickets and finishing off our meals by popping the perfectly sized straws for popping from McDonald's, we walked to the station where our bus was to pick us up. This was a typical small-town Greyhound station, a small simple building with some wood benches, some counters, an out-of-order drinking fountain and a large antique-looking scale. We chatted as we waited for our bus. The Kiwis told me a hilarious story about them getting completely drunk in town a few nights ago. Seeing that they didn't have a way to get back to the hostel, they "borrowed" a bicycle they found, piled onto it, and rode it reluctantly up the icy roads up the mountain back to the hostel. The next morning, they found that the bike they left outside had been "borrowed" by someone else. They were amused by images of Kiwis visiting Canada and stealing people's bikes at night.

Soon, we heard a bus stop outside. Some of the passengers getting off poked their head in and shouted to us that the bus was were. We each took a row in the bus as it was quite empty, and many of us decided to take a nap on the bus.

The drive from Banff to Calgary was much more scenic than the drive to Banff a few days ago, as it was daytime during this ride so that I can actually see the mountains instead of fuzzy shadows of hills outside the windows. The area around Canmore, one of the last stops before exiting the Bow Valley was exceedingly beautiful. Gazing north, one can see a perfectly U shaped valley with lush green vegetation cradled on the bottom of the U. On the higher portions of the U were dramatic rocky cliffs covered with snow and ice. On a clear day, one can see very far up the valley, all the way to where it is blocked off by tall peaks 25 kilometres to the north. The scale of this dramatic backdrop against the buildings of the town and the cars and trucks travelling on the highway was immense and humbling. As we exited the mountain range, the terrain quickly became flat, filled with pastures and wheat fields, what one would typically expect to find in the Canadian prairies. The formidable wall of snowy peaks behind us shrank with each passing moment, although it remained visible throughout the entire trip due to their sheer size.