A few months ago I decided to go to Toronto, Ontario. People asked why I picked Toronto. I do not know why, but I have never heard anyone say anything bad about the place so I decided, why not? I’ve been looking for somewhere new to go and experience new things, so I threw a dart at a map of the world in my head and I hit Toronto.
After I checked into the Westin Harbour Castle on the shores of beautiful Lake Ontario at noon, I just started walking. I had no plans on this trip other than going to Niagara Falls, so I made it up as I went along. I think the best way to experience somewhere new is to walk around aimlessly for a while. Doing so gives you the chance to get a feel for the place. You can see the people, smell the air and hear the commotion of the city.
Toronto smells nice. Even though it is a major metropolis, it is very clean. I was walking around what is known as the financial district which mainly consists of giant bank buildings. It was a holiday so no one was working and the eight or nine skyscrapers felt deserted.
Toronto has to be the safest major city in the world. I saw five cops the whole time I was there and four of them were directing traffic. The one that wasn’t was overseeing the most cordial repossession of a car I have ever seen.
I stopped at a place for lunch that I don’t remember the name of and then I kept walking.
By 4:00 PM I could not walk anymore. I came to a corner where there was an Asian noodle place and called my first Uber of the trip. In Toronto you never have to wait for more than two minutes for an Uber.
“M” picked me up in a Ford Flex. He is a distinguished looking black man, bald and had an accent. Some sort of jazz was playing on the radio. I know nothing about jazz; the only thing I know about jazz is that it is making a comeback and new clubs are opening all over the United States, such as the Middle C Jazz Club in Charlotte, NC.
I think his accent is from the islands like Jamaica or the Bahamas. Maybe the Bahamas were on my mind because part of it had just been destroyed by hurricane Dorian. Looking at the Uber app now, I see that “M” is from Montreal. “M” is the only name given in his profile.
When you travel alone, you go for long periods of time without having a conversation. When one starts up, it can be a little jarring like you forgot for a second how to speak. The ride began with someone behind us honking and speeding around the car, angry that he was delayed by an Uber pick-up. “M” mentioned that he does not understand why people have no patience anymore. I said I thought it was because we expect everything instantly, like Uber. We came to some traffic and “M” asked me if it was ok if we went out of our way to avoid it, not wanting to wait. I said that was fine.
By now everyone in the connected world had seen the horrible pictures coming out of the Bahamas. That topic came up and I mentioned that I lived in Charleston, SC and was more than a little worried about hurricane Dorian’s projected path. “M” asked me if I had seen the tweet from our president about Dorian and Alabama. I told him that I do my best to avoid all communication from our president. As a person who lives in a place that relies on hurricane forecasts as a matter of life and death, I was annoyed to learn about the president’s irresponsible and dangerous tweet. “M” said that the president gives him hope because, “if someone that stupid can become a billionaire and president of the United States,” then he feels he has a great chance to make it in this world. That is something, I guess.
“M” got me to my hotel and I thanked him for the conversation. He said that he hoped my home would fare well in the hurricane. Thankfully, it did.
Toronto has a horse track and a casino about twenty-five minutes from downtown, so naturally I went. Gambling is great in Canada because of the exchange rate: losing doesn’t feel so bad when every dollar only costs you seventy-five cents US. This was still my first day and even though travel was easy, I had walked around for about five miles and I was exhausted. I should have just stayed at my hotel and gotten some rest. I went to the horse track instead, but I had to tap out after a few hours. I feel like there is always a moment on the first day of a trip where your brain says, “go to bed, fool!” I finally listened and called an Uber.
Thanh picked me up in a red Toyota Camry. Before we made it out of the parking lot he asked me how I did in the casino. I gave him the typical gambler’s response of I did not win but I had fun (no one has fun when they lose); total baloney. Thanh said that the casino is building a hotel and that they have tightened the machines to pay for it. I asked him if you used to be able to win here and he said it was “very hard.”
Thanh was Vietnamese and he spoke English perfectly well but with a deep accent and I think he had a hard time understanding my deep southern accent and so we had a bit of a language barrier for the twenty-five minute ride. He asked me what games I played and I told him the machines. Then he chastised me for my gambling choices saying, “machines very hard, you should play tables.” I said I know that but I played the machines anyway. He said, “machines very hard, you should play tables.” Then he told me that before he picked me up he “only put a few hundred through the machines.” He said if you do not win after a few hundred, then you should leave. I said that is exactly what we have done and then I told him that the “machines are very hard, you should play tables.” He laughed.
We transitioned from our gambling choices to what he did for a living. Thanh has been a brick layer in Toronto for thirty-five years. He said that he immigrated here from Vietnam and has worked very hard ever since. He still owns land in Vietnam and is looking forward to retiring and moving back there to be with his ninety-one year-old mother. He said that he is ready to quit laying bricks.
I mentioned that I would really like to visit Vietnam some day. Thanh said that when he retires to Vietnam, I should come there and he would be my tour guide. He was serious, too. I wish there was some way I could do that.
We reached my hotel and I opened the van door to get out. Thanh said, “remember, the machines very hard.” Yes, they are, Thanh, yes they are.
When it comes to public transportation, I am a complete boob. I grew up in the suburbs and did not have any cause to learn how to use it. Toronto has an incredible public transportation system that is cheap and efficient. Between the subway, trains and trolleys, you can get anywhere relatively easily. I could not, however, figure out the trolley system. I was so intimidated by it, it took me three days to get on one. I looked at the route map at one of the stops and I couldn’t figure out where I was on it or where the trolley went. Then, I could not figure out how to pay for the ride. Roll your eyes all you want, but it did not occur to me that I had to know where I was before I could find the stop on the map. I thought it would say, “you are right here,” but the map assumed I was not a fool.
I finally got up the courage to try the trolley. I was on a perfectly straight road and I knew that as long as I got on the trolley heading directly for Lake Ontario, I could not get lost. Unfortunately I miscalculated where Lake Ontario was and I got on the trolley heading in the opposite direction. I realized my mistake after a few miles of being proud of myself. I got off in a neighborhood by a huge park, waved a white flag and called an Uber.
Kuldip picked me up in a Toyota RAV4. He was an Indian fellow with a grey beard and a dark blue turban. Well, I call it a turban because I am an uncultured buffoon. What Kuldip was wearing is called a Dastar and he wears it because he is a Sikh. He had a pleasant speaking voice with barely any accent at all. He told me that when he moved to Toronto forty years ago none of these skyscrapers existed. Toronto is a very young major city.
Kuldip said that he drove trucks for a living and was now retired. He said that he has been all over the United States and Canada. I told him that I was from Charlotte, NC. He said that he remembers that you can see the Bank of America building from I-77. It truly is a small world.
Kuldip and I talked about progress and how things change without you even realizing it, like skyscrapers all over Toronto. He said that he loved the landscape of the American south but it was too hot for him. I told him how much I was enjoying Toronto, but that I was sure the winters were too cold for me. In Toronto, they have a thing called “The Path,” which is an underground mall/subway/everything that winds under the city for miles. That should give you an idea of how cold it gets.
I would have liked to talk with Kuldip for much longer than our ride together. He was so kind and interesting, and he emitted a very positive energy. Rarely do we get the opportunity to talk with people that come with a completely different perspective than our own. Most knowledge is readily available on the internet but experiencing people may be the last bit of education that has to be gained offline. Kuldip has lived a vastly different life than I have and yet we were able to connect almost instantly. I was able to learn from him and maybe he was able to learn a little something from me during our short time together. When he dropped me off, Kuldip called me “a true gentleman.” That is less a reflection of me and more a reflection of him.
Why did I go to Toronto? That is why.
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