27 April: Back in Chicago

Two hours to wait in O’Hare airport between flights, on my way from Ottawa to Columbus. The airport claims to have free wi-fi, but my laptop can’t detect it (I’ve been having pretty bad luck with wi-fi connections anyway – the laptop seems determined not to expose me to the dangers of the internet, so the last time I got it to connect properly was back in Singapore). So I’ll have to upload this if/when I ever get to real internet again.

It’s weird being back in an airport I’ve passed through before. So far this trip (with the exception of London) has been a series of unfamiliar places, so being back somewhere I was a few days ago feels like home – I already know where the toilets are, what food possibilities it offers (not that I feel like eating anyway – my stomach is still a bit delicate from the overloading it got yesterday (more about that anon)), and exactly how often they’re going to play the announcement reminding us about leaving bags unattended. Otherwise, it’s all getting a bit Fight Club, just another anonymous airport in a long line of them.

Anyway, the last time I posted anything I think I was in Vitoria, feeling sick. Since then I’ve been through five airports and three countries, and I’m starting to feel guilty about not having written anything. So, starting with the most recent (because I know I can remember it!), Canada:

Canada is big. Big and flat, and pretty empty. Or at least, Ontario is. As you fly in, all you see is vast areas of farmland, sprinkled little patches of woodland, and an unlikely number of ponds and lakes. Even once we were in Ottawa itself, it kept the rural feel, helped greatly by the vast greenbelts around each suburb of the city, which mean that every few km you’re back in farmland again. Two weeks ago, the city was still covered in snow, and although the snow had melted by the time I arrived, the landscape still looked wintery, with few of the signs of spring I’d seen in Chicago. Trees were bare, or with just the first glimmers of green, and the ground had that dirty look of recently melted snow. All that emptiness gave a very small town feel to the city – a lovely change after the big city pace of Chicago. And despite the bleakness of late winter, the landscape is so pretty – full of wooden fences and proper old red barns just like you imagine North American farms to be (Princess1984 explained that the barns are necessary not just to protect the animals from the severe weather, but also from predators – bears and wolves are common, even close to the city).

The other overwhelming impression Canada leaves on you is the food. There’s so much of it! And Princess1984 and MrPrincess seemed determined to introduce me to all of it in the space of one day. Yesterday began with a visit to the Hersheys factory. It being the weekend, the factory wasn’t actually operating, but we were still able to look around, and see the enormous vats of chocolate waiting for Monday morning. And of course, there’s a factory shop, where Princess1984 stocked up on vast amounts of chocolate at ridiculously low prices for me to sample.

Then it was back into town, to wander around one of the massive malls North America specialises in, and to try more local delicacies: maple syrup candy, and “beaver tails” – not actually made out of beavers, but a type of (very large) flat donut in the shape of a beaver tail, deep fried and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Then to Tim Hortons for more donuts.

By the time we got to dinner, I could feel my arteries hardening, but they’d said they were taking me to try some French Canadian food, which I stupidly thought might be like French food – you know, small portions. I was wrong. Following my policy on this trip of eating whatever the locals recommend, I ordered the same meal special that Princess1984 and MrPrincess had. I should have read the menu more closely, as it consisted of a bowl of coleslaw (salad comes before the main meal here, not as part of it), then a starter of spring rolls, then vegetable soup with crackers (you’re supposed to crumble up the crackers into your soup to give it more body), and then, just when I was thinking that was more than enough for a substantial meal, came the main course: QUARTER of a chicken each, served with bread, gravy, and a mountain of chips or mashed potato. I did my best, but wasn’t able to manage more than a quarter of my quarter chicken (is there such a thing as a sixteenth chicken?), and a handful of chips before giving up. I always thought I was a big eater, but there’s no way I can compete with Canadians! (And apparently that wasn’t that big a meal – the menu offered half a chicken for people who were feeling really peckish). And then, MrPrincess reminded me that dessert was included, and recommended a very rich sounding (and I’m sure, very large) syrup cake with icecream. I managed to negotiate my way down to a fruit salad, but it was still a challenge getting through it. And they serve you so fast, too – there’s no pause to let one course digest while the next is prepared – the minute you put your cutlery down, the waitress is there by your side with another plate of food. No wonder I’ve got a sore stomach today!

Of course, we didn’t just spend the day eating. We got some culture in too, visiting the Museum of Mankind across the river in Quebec, with its wonderful displays of First Nations culture and history. Fascinating stuff, and I learnt a lot even in a brief visit – like that several of the tribes had written languages, and that the Inuit didn’t live in igloos after all, but in domed shelters made of whalebone and hide (another childhood myth shattered…) Several of the displays reminded me of details from the Clan of the Cave Bear books – I can see now where she did a lot of her research! Another thing I found interesting were the carved figures with eyes made from abalone shell, just as paua (which is a type of abalone) is used in Maori carving. Amazing that people from opposite ends of the Pacific had the same idea.

Battery power is running low, so this will have to do for now. More later.