By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
My recent trip to Toronto (my 4th visit) was surprisingly unpredictable. It happened the minute I landed on Canadian soil. I not only missed the connecting flight in Vancouver B.C. to Ottawa, but lost my luggage upon arrival.
To maximize my high school reunion trip held in Toronto, my husband and I took a side trip to Ottawa. We had never been to Canada’s capital. With the exchange rate in our favor, I figured it’s a great time to travel in Canada. Even though missing our connecting flight (due to the Vancouver airport’s fault) was exhausting and miserable at the moment, it dawned on me afterwards that it could have been worse. We arrived in Ottawa after midnight. A huge relief was, we didn’t have to spend the night in Vancouver.
When we can handle unexpected disasters, our whole trip became adventurous and we’ll remember it more.
The city and capital
Can you believe people are allowed to do yoga and play on the lawn of Ottawa’s Parliament? Security is much relaxed compared to our capital in Washington, D.C. Crime rates are much lower in Ottawa than D.C., which has the highest crime rate in the United States.
What makes the big difference? No guns. It is illegal to carry guns in Canada.
There weren’t that many cops around. We can tour some government buildings as long as we have two pieces of identification. It is a hassle to tour D.C. government buildings if you don’t have the right connections.
Ottawa has 200,000 more residents than D.C. Surrounded by canals and the Ottawa River, parks and lots of art objects (practically every building entrance has one), it’s relaxing to roam around the capital. Everywhere you go, you notice a sea of diversity. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has often said diversity is Canada’s strength. In contrast, President Donald Trump often blasts immigrants, people of color, and women.
In Ottawa, you can hear people speak French in addition to many other foreign languages. Canada is a bilingual country with French and English signs in many public places. Our tour guides often flip between the two languages.
During this trip, we never expected to take four different cruises in a week.
Well, if you don’t want to drive much, take a cruise.
What’s so special about the Ottawa River cruise? It gave us Canada’s history and cultural background. You can see Parliament from another angle. Many embassies, such as France, China, Britain, Japan, and the United States are located right on the edge of the river. These buildings exhibit impressive architecture. During the tour, you also get a glimpse of nature, including waterfalls.
We also took Ottawa‘s Rideau Canal cruise. The canal was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Built in 1826, it was completed in 1832.
The canal idea was a little irrational at the time. The Canadians (French-Canadians) wanted to help the British in case of an American invasion. The engineering then was an amazing feat. Now, it simply enhances Ottawa’s scenery, providing a wonderful water landscape for expensive homes, as well as long walking trails for bikers and hikers. Yes, descendants benefit from their ancestors’ labor although the motive for constructing then was really impractical.
In Toronto, my former classmates planned a cruise in Peterborough to see the Lift Lock. It is the highest hydraulic boat lift (reaching 65 feet) in the world.
Watch it on YouTube, you will appreciate how interesting the process is. It’s unusual that a couple of the canal locks were operated manually by men and women.
If Thousand Islands sound familiar to you, it’s because the place carries the same name as the popular salad dressing. It is believed that the sauce originated from this part of the world in the late 19th century. Too bad we didn’t have time to buy some dressing during the tour.
Located between Ottawa and Toronto, we took the cruise for Thousand Islands on St. Lawrence River on our way driving to Toronto. Part of the river belongs to the United States, and you can see a tiny international bridge connecting the two countries, one side of the bridge displaying a U.S. flag, and the other side, Canadian flag. (See photo on page 10). The river traverses around New York state, and Canada’s province of Quebec and Ontario. It flows into the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.
The characteristic of Thousand Islands features adorable houses on many of the islands, some islands are only 10 and 20 feet long. From afar, those houses look like doll houses. Some islands have erected elaborate castles and mansions. Several abandoned boat houses were floating on the river.
According to the captain, the river rises every year due to climate change.
People live in these tiny summer houses for only five months out of the year. It would be harsh and cold in winter as the islands have no electricity or drinking water. If you want water, you have to bring your own water from the mainland — by boat, of course. And the same for your garbage, haul it out yourselves. The goal is to preserve the natural beauty of these islands.
There are all kinds of cruises to see Thousand Islands. It varies from 1 1/2 hours to 5 hours, and they are all in different locations. I presume you can also join cruises on the U.S. side.
Who has better Chinese food: B.C. or Toronto?
The verdict is…
When we talk about B.C., we include Vancouver and Richmond. My vote? B.C. and Toronto are both good. Perhaps B.C.’s Chinese cooking is a little more refined. Personally, I favor Toronto’s Chinese cuisine. B.C. is world-renowned for fancy and expensive Chinese cuisine. I am satisfied with well-made street foods and common dishes like wonton noodles and fried rice. Toronto’s Chinese food is much more affordable, and suitable for the general public. A former classmate treated us to dinner for four people in Toronto. The price was about $41 (USD) for five dishes. Seattle can’t beat that deal.
We dined like royalty in many Markham (Toronto suburb) Chinese restaurants thanks to my former classmates organizing our class reunion. They select reasonably-priced restaurants with good food.
Seventy percent of Toronto’s population of 5 million are of Asian descent.
Practically, every corner of Markham has a Chinese restaurant, and every other corner is a Chinese-invested mall.
These restaurants are mostly packed with private parties and wedding banquets. Although the restaurant sizes vary, quite a few are gigantic and has seating for over 300. The bustling scene of Markham Chinese restaurants was a contrast to the dead quiet Ottawa Chinatown.
The night before we left Ottawa, I told my husband, “Let’s have dinner in Chinatown.” We took an Uber to get there. After wandering around the main street from the entrance to the end, I changed my mind.
Traveling in Europe, Asia, New Zealand, Australia, and North America, it’s my intent to seek out Chinatowns. And I always eat there or buy something as souvenirs. It’s my desire to support and explore how overseas Chinese live and survive, imagining their struggles leaving their homeland, seeking a better life in other corners of the world. I’m curious and want to understand how this generation fared compared to their ancestors through the lens of Chinatown.
Another motivation is, to steal ideas from other Chinatowns to apply in Seattle’s Chinatown.
I don’t judge by its size, but its vibrancy. Ottawa Chinatown lacks character and energy. There was hardly anybody on the streets, no tourists. There were plenty of restaurants, Chinese and Vietnamese, but most of them were empty. How do they survive?
The only dominant Asian character is a Chinese gate looming high in the entrance, built in cooperation with Beijing in 2010. No one was taking photos except us. Our Seattle Chinatown gate often attracts lots of tourists taking photos. One of my friends, who lives in Ottawa, said there was no reason for him to go to Chinatown. It seems he has long forgotten that part of town.
It would take us half an hour to walk back to our hotel. Sad to say, there’s nothing in Ottawa Chinatown, which would make me stay for dinner. In silence, we walked. I was disappointed with what I saw. Maybe, Ottawa’s Chinatown can learn a few things from our International District. Two blocks before we reached our hotel, I found an Indian restaurant. We were delighted that it served buffet-style.
Some would find Ottawa Chinatown endearing. When there’s no development, there is no fear of gentrification. Being stagnant is not necessarily a good sign. Is the community shrinking? Or is it dying?
Chaos at the Vancouver airport
The Vancouver, B.C. airport was chaotic. Once we boarded the plane in Seattle to B.C., Vancouver’s air traffic controller radioed signals to our pilot to remain on the runway because the airport was too crowded. We were stuck on the runway for half an hour.
Then, we waited for a long time for the plane to take off. It also took forever to get our luggage to go through customs as it was an international flight. The airport announced that due to a shortage of luggage handlers, all luggage would be delayed. It has been a problem for the past few years, my former classmate said. When I arrived in Ottawa, my luggage was still at the Vancouver airport. And it happened again when we returned to Seattle’s airport, my luggage (the same one which was lost for my departure flight) was still at B.C. airport. If you have a choice, don’t ever transfer through Vancouver. Could it be that I was a stupid traveler? Clearly, I didn’t learn from my mistake from the first Vancouver airport fiasco.
The consolation was, when we got to the Sheraton Ottawa Hotel at 12:30 a.m., the receptionist gave me slippers, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. There was more warmth later.
When I called for hot milk, he said, “Room service is closed. We can heat up the milk for you. But you have to come downstairs to pick it up yourself.”
Before my husband went down to pick it up, there was a knock on the door.
The receptionist delivered the milk himself. It touched my heart. Instantly, I felt comfort, and forgot my earlier troubles at the airport. The tip was not only for his service, but out of gratitude. You see, when we lost the non-stop flight to Ottawa, we had to book a new flight to fly to Toronto before we flew to Ottawa. We never had the time to eat. We shared one lousy slice of pizza on the plane for dinner. The milk was filling my growling stomach so I could sleep.
Like I said, it all worked out beautifully for our 7-day trip. I was able to taste a lot of the great cuisine, sightsee, catch up with my former classmates, relax, and also sleep more than I do in Seattle. And oh, I laughed a lot. What a wonderful break from my busy career!
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.