Sunday, July 2, 2017

Toronto: Diversity our Strength

During the middle of May, near the end of spring, I visited Toronto, Canada for the first time. It was a last minute idea to go to Toronto because I had to take two weeks of annual leave and I didn't have much time to find other places to visit; was revising a journal paper in my "spare" time. I already heard nice things about Toronto and I liked that Canada uses a mix of English and French!



To prepare for the trip, I searched on Eventbrite for events or things to do in the Toronto region. I could then narrow down the exact dates of my trip based on the events I wanted to attend. I flew with Air Canada and the experience was fine; on par with Emirates, Swiss Air, or Air New Zealand.

Day One

I arrived late in the afternoon to find that my German Vodafone prepay didn't support roaming in Canada. At the airport I got a Chatr prepay sim with 3gb "in-zone" data for $45 + tax. To make taking public transportation easier, I got the PRESTO contactless transportation card with some credit loaded up. You get a slight discount by using PRESTO instead of cash. I checked into my Airbnb after taking the Union Pearson Express train and a streetcar from the airport. I walked around town and noticed quite a lot of murals on the sides of buildings. I guess the city is quite relaxed with street art. On the bridge that goes over the train tracks on Strachan Ave, I found some decent views of the city. I walked through Coronation Park, towards the Lake Ontario, and found several moored boats. The lake looked surreal because it was quite calm and settled with a thin layer of cloud, knowing that it had rained quite heavily the week before. I ended up in the CBD and even walked past the filming of a police TV advert.

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Day Two

I woke up super early, with not too much jet lag, to attend the Tommy Thompson Park Spring Bird Festival. The park juts out into Lake Ontario and it used to be a dumping site for construction, so there are a lot of concrete rubble, bricks, and wires, but was reformed into a park that now attracts many types of birds. It was a Saturday so I wasn't sure how frequent public transport would be or how I to even get to the park. I ended up taking a street car to the eastern side of the CBD, but construction work meant that I had to get off early at Bay St. I ran down to Queen St and hoped that there would be a bus to Leslie St.


The guided bird tour was supposed to start at 8 am, but I was still walking down Leslie St. I pretty much gave up trying to make the guided tour, but luckily the guide was also late! They advised visitors to wear gumboots because Toronto had experienced some heavy rainfall the week before and that parts of the park are below the lake's water level. There were birding veterans and newbies on my tour, many with binoculars and some with cameras. I met a South African Torontonian who lent me her binoculars so that I could at least see some of the birds, which were quite small and in distant trees. Most of the time, I was not sure if I was looking at a bird or a large leaf on a branch. There was another person who pointed out some birds that were near me. Such friendly people!

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The park is near Toronto Island, which has its own airport so we saw a few planes fly overhead. I caught someone looking in the direction of a plane with their binoculars and asked if they were looking at the plane as if it was a bird (cue corny laughter). Another chimed in by saying that the plane had a distinctive call sound.

We visited the bird research centre, which was surrounded by a naturally formed moat due to the heavy rainfall. We, who didn't have gumboots or waterproof shoes, spent a while trying to find a way to cross the moat. Alas, there just weren't enough props sticking out the water for us to cross. Luckily, the research centre had volunteer boots which we could borrow! Inside the research centre, we could get a closer look at the birds being caught for quick health checkups and inspections in nets around the park.

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At the end of the park there is a small lighthouse surrounded by a lot of bricks. Some people have used the bricks to create freestanding sculptures. You also get a nice view of the harbour, the city skyline, and perhaps a yacht race or two.

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I rounded the day off by walking through the neighbourhood back to the city centre. I like to walk when I'm not in a hurry, because then I can get a better feel for the city and its atmosphere.

Day Three (Happy Mother's Day)

The Chinese calligraphy and tile painting workshops at the Gardiner Museum only started at 11 am, so I was able to sleep in and take my time getting there. Being born Chinese, it was a bit weird to be going to a workshop where you're expect to be an expert. My family immigrated to New Zealand when I was very young, so I never went through the Chinese education system. Although I use fountain pens daily, using a calligraphy brush was new to me. The pressure you put on the bristles determines the stroke thicknesses. At the workshop, there was one other attendee of Chinese descent. A cheerful lady took the workshop and demonstrated to the basic strokes used in Chinese characters. The brush is held vertically and between your thumb and forefingers. We were each given rice papers with practice grids to try out the strokes and some characters. I found it quite difficult to lay down a consistent line because the bristles would spread apart instead of staying in a tight bunch, and sometimes I would run out of ink. However, by the end of the workshop I had some control of my strokes.

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At the tile painting workshop, we were given blank tiles and the theme was Imari, from Japan. It's characterised by the use of colourful paints and line bands. It was basically unsupervised painting with some example pictures for inspiration. I wasn't too sure of what to draw so I ended up painting a circular design with line patterns to fill the blank space. Afterwards, they sprayed the tiles with a clear varnish to seal in the paint.

The Gardiner Museum itself had interesting exhibits of porcelain from around the world. A staff member slowly walked around and shared her thoughts on some of her favourite pieces. It was good because she drew my attention to special pieces, but it was kind of bad because I prefer not to be interrupted. Most interesting is the infatuation that Germans had with Chinese porcelain, where one army general traded hundreds of his men for a porcelain collection. The Europeans would also copy Chinese art designs on the porcelain. It's funny how nowadays it's the Chinese who appear to be the copiers. The staff member tried to guess my accent and when she found out it was New Zealand, she tried to say "pants" in an awkward New Zealand accent; she's Australian.

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I walked over to the Distillery District, which was quite a sunny but windy place. It may have been the positioning of the buildings that led to a wind tunnel effect. There was a residence building for lots of creatives to work in and to exhibit their creations, similar to PMQ building in Hong Kong. I found a lot of creative shops and outlets. A singing event, called Sing!, was happening and it featured a cappella groups. During an intermission, I found a small bakery that sold some glorious (shepherd's) pies.

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I rounded the day off by walking through Chinatown and checking out its authenticity. There were more than just Chinese businesses in that area; should be called Asiantown instead. On my way, I went past a few nice parks with cherry blossom trees and murals.

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One of the things I noticed with the weather in Toronto was that the breeze can be quite cold. While walking along a street, I found that I was sweating in the sun and shivering in the shade of the buildings. I was never sure if I wanted to have my jacket on or off!

Day Four

I had a slightly early morning with a 10 am event for the Newcomer Day City Hall Tours. At the Toronto City Hall, there was going to be an open air ceremony for Toronto's newest citizens. At my volunteer-led tour, we were taken inside the City Hall and given some information about the council's roles for, e.g., businesses, parks, community activities, and immigrants. I particularly liked the slogan on the City of Toronto's coat of arms (Diversity our Strength), which opposes the mentality of the neighbouring USA. Outside the City Hall, there were many stalls set up with different services to immigrants and communities. For the citizenship ceremony, they had performances by different ethnic groups, interleaved with speeches by council members.

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In the afternoon, on my way to the Royal Ontario Museum, I saw a relay competition taking place at a school. The museum is big and I only saw half the exhibits. Because I arrived at the museum quite late in the afternoon, I decided to join a short tour that highlighted a few exhibits. Judging by the style of the rooms and the display cases, you can tell when you are in the new extension of the museum or looking at a permanent exhibit. I focussed mostly on the aboriginal exhibits because they are unique to Canada, whereas the dinosaur and international galleries are quite common among museums all over the world.

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Day Five

I went to the Ontario Science Museum, which was a bit out of town; I had to take the subway and a bus. The museum straddles one side of a hill, so it was naturally multi-levelled with escalators and stairs connecting the levels. The museum was quite big and sadly I could not see it all. They had many interactive exhibits, so many of the school children there were quite engaged. It is like the Exploratorium in San Francisco. They also had live science demonstrations and a small planetarium with shows on the Torontonian night sky. During the show, they highlighted a few constellations and zodiac signs, but to be honest I got confused about which directions were north or east. The museum had a very small tropical rainforest in a courtyard, and some insect and snake enclosures. Apparently, there are no naturally occurring venomous snakes in Toronto. I quite liked the cloud chamber for visualising the spontaneity of radioactive decay.

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After the museum, I decided to take a hike through Don Valley. Unbeknownst to me, there weren't many exit paths I could take to leave the trail for the residential area. I ended up walking ~1.5 hours along the trail, which I didn't mind, but I was meeting a friend in the CBD for dinner before going up the unmistakable CN Tower. There were some nice scenes with the Don river and bridges, and I saw my first warning sign for poison ivy. A lot of the trail is shaded by trees so there were some cool breezes, with some clearing here and there for more open scenery.

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After a filling dinner at Bun Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant, we got to the CN Tower during sunset so there wasn't much "golden hour" left. It was quite a nice day with some scattered clouds taking on the orange glow of the setting sun. The CN Tower had an information wall that was quite outdated (maybe more than a decade old)! Taking night shots of Toronto was a bit hard because I didn't have a tripod and I needed to avoid reflections from the windows. Below the observation deck, it was possible to step out and walk around the tower. It was heavily fenced with red mesh so you can't be blown or pushed off into the city below.

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Day Six

Started the day off by going to the Casa Loma castle, built in 1911 by Sir Henry Pellatt who was a businessman and part of the Queen's Own Rifles regiment in Canada. Because of the world war and subsequent downturn in the economy, Pellatt could only afford to keep the castle running until 1923. Nowadays, the castle is well kept and in good condition. It has three main floors with many rooms, passageways, and towers. Nearly every bedroom has its own fireplace and nicely decorated with sofas and chairs. The floors are covered in nice wooden panels, running in parallel or in a V-wave pattern. For its time, the castle was fitted with fairly advanced electrical systems, telephones, elevator, bathroom showers, and toilets. In a detached building connected by an underground passageway, there was a horse stable, garage, and greenhouse.

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Going up one of the two towers of the castle, you can get a good view over the surrounding area, helped by the hill that the castle sits on. The spiralling staircases that you need to walk up and down are very tight and narrow, so be sure to avoid meeting people who are going in the opposite direction to you! The castle closes at 5 pm most days to prepare for private afternoon and evening functions.

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One difficulty I had with the PRESTO card was with tracking my balance. The ticket validation machines on the busses and streetcars, and at the subway stations do not show you your remaining balance. Luckily, I was able to guess my remaining balance and to top up before running out of credit. Topping up with cash is a bit difficult. Top up machines are located in some of the subway stations, but they only accept credit cards. You can top up at participating stores, but you have to ask the checkout operator. I normally went to Shoppers Drug Mart, but they only recently added support for PRESTO because one of their checkout operators kept apologising for being slow with the top up process.

In the evening, I went to a Nikon Lecture Series on wildlife photography. I felt like an impostor with my Sony camera! The presenter, Tony Beck, talked about the places in Canada and the world for shooting different life and still photos of nature. Going from local to global, Tony went through examples such as your backyard, parks, recreational places, the outback, and then, for him, going overseas to Iceland, the Amazon, and the North and South Poles. With all the running around that I did during this holiday, I did feel a bit sleepy halfway through. The lecture would have been useful to those who like to hike and travel. Tony talked a bit about how he frames and composes pictures, although nothing too technical; more on being creative.

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Day Seven

Had an early morning, starting with catching an 8:20 am VIA Rail train down to Niagara Falls. It was pretty much touch and go with only a few minutes to spare! I caught the subway from Ossington across to St George (green line) and then down to Union St (yellow line). Through Union St station, I had to walk to the VIA Rail platforms, which seemed to be under renovation. The train was fairly good, but I couldn't find any displays showing the current or approaching stop.  They did have attendants walking through the train to announce the next stop and other bits of information. If you're a nervous traveller, then having a GPS map is a good idea. It wasn't the smoothest ride, but the seats are wide with lots of leg room. The train has two carriage zones; one for those stopping before the Canadian/American border, and another for those stopping after the border. The carriage for going to USA apparently gets "locked" before the train reaches the Niagara Falls station, and again I couldn't find obvious signage for which carriage I needed to be in.


From the Niagara train station, you can walk to the falls by going south along Niagara River for about 20 min. You walk along the the gorge with the river flowing at the bottom, and you get a nice view of the rapids and falls in the distance. Alternatively, you can take a WEGO bus from the train station to the town centre. As you get within 100's of meters of the falls, the spray drifts up over the gorge and onto you. It also gets windier because the waterfall is continuously displacing the air around it. The spray and the wind combined together creates a noticeable wind chill, which can be quite refreshing under the hot sun. The river gets its distinctive green colour from dissolved minerals.

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I got to the falls around noon so the sun was overhead, meaning that any opportunity to see a rainbow was limited to looking down at the river. It was still nice to see boats sailing underneath a rainbow. At the top of the falls, it is quite hard to comprehend its sheer size because there aren't any nearby objects for scale. The water travels quite fast as it goes over the vertical drop. The falls gets its distinctive horseshoe shape from the faster erosion at its centre than its sides.

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I went on the Hornblower ferry, which takes you up to the foot of the American and Niagara Falls. I'm pretty sure the boat crossed over the USA border without us going through immigration! I do think the Canadian boats look better than the USA ones. The wind and spray was super crazy at the foot of Niagara Falls and the wind chill was insanely cold, but refreshing! You do get given a red poncho before boarding the ferry, but it's nothing against the fine mist that instantly covers you in water. Make sure to keep your phones and cameras dry(ish)!

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After seeing the falls, I went through the town to see what it had to offer. The touristic part is on a hill and it was like a mini Las Vegas. If you wander away from there, you get into the ordinary part of town, which seemed a little dead. You don't see many people and only a few shops. I went past a shop with a sign saying that they were still open and that they had not closed down!

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I went further down Niagara River to see the Niagara Whirlpool. It's a basin that redirects the water 90 degrees to the right, which is meant to create whirlpools. I saw tiny patches of gyrating water, but nothing resembling water draining from a sink. It was slightly disappointing for a nearly one hour walk and there weren't many people looking at it either.

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Day Eight

I had planned to visit Toronto Island, but the flooding of Lake Ontario meant that only residents were allowed to travel between the city and the island. Instead, I decided to go back to the Eaton Centre shopping mall to look for some clothes. I found Old Navy and was pleasantly surprised to find clothes that actually fit me. In Germany, everything is a bit too big for me. The clothes at Old Navy were quite cheap as well, so I picked up some shorts and t-shirts, especially a Blue Jays one. At Eaton Centre, you will also find an Apple store.

I then headed to the MZTV Museum of Television. It's actually an extensive private collection of televisions by Moses Znaimer, tucked away inside a room in The ZoomerPlex. I was greeted by a man who happened to be the narrator of their MZTV app; apparently I was the first to try out their app. The museum is nice but small, taking you through the invention of TV and how it has advanced from mechanical to electronic systems. I quite enjoyed the large range of TVs that were on display, and all in very good condition. You can take a self-guided tour with their app, which contains narrations and extra information.

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After dinner, I went to the TIFF Bell Lightbox to watch a movie adaptation of the novel "1984" by George Orwell. I should have read up on story because I got a bit lost at the start when the protagonists and antagonists were being introduced. I'm quite bad with remembering names and characters, so sometimes I miss out on the parallel plot lines. I did appreciate the camera work, now that I'm trying to be an amateur videography with my awesome YouTube channel. The theatre was quite large, but only a few people were at the 9:30 pm screening, so it was nice to sit in peace and quiet and to enjoy the dialogues in front of me.

Day Nine

My visit to Toronto happened to coincide with the ISORC 2017 conference. This meant that my PhD supervisor was also in Toronto and we decided to meet in the morning to catch up and discuss how we would finish revising our heart modelling paper. We went for an early lunch at his favourite Thai restaurant, called Thai Basil, so that he could make it in time to catch his flight back to Auckland.

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Before it was my turn to head back to the airport, I checked out the Farmer's market in St. Lawrence, a historic building. It was quite crowded with many stalls selling raw foods, ranging from vegetables, seafoods, to meats. There were also some stalls selling cooked meals. On the second level, in the Market Gallery, there is a small exhibition on the history of the building and on early immigrants.

Thoughts

I really enjoyed my trip to Toronto and I think it's because I purposely looked for interesting events to attend, which had some level of interaction in small groups. That made it easier to strike a conversation with random people. The guided bird tour of Tommy Thompson Park left me with a pleasant first impression of Toronto and it set my mood up for the rest of the trip.

To me, Toronto is like a much friendlier version of New Zealand. Coming from Germany, I had forgotten about the existence of small talk until I in Toronto at a supermarket checkout. People are quite helpful and also apologetic when they don't know the answer or don't have a solution. Torontonians also seem to have a sense of public responsibility. I saw a passerby pick up a shop sign from the pavement after it had been blown over by the wind. Last of all, Toronto really embraces its diversity!

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