Bienvenue au Canada, or Where in the World is Jennifer Spencer?

Yup, that’s right folks, I am out and about in the world again. It seems I have entered an interesting phase of my life where in fact, I do need to keep my passport in my purse. Just like old times, really, and I am thrilled to be on the move.

This time I went to Toronto, Canada, and as part of my trip, I rented a car and drove down to Niagara Falls and the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. After an evening departure from SFO, I got into Canada around 5:45 in the morning. I felt pretty trashed but it was time to get off the plane, get through immigration, find my bag and my car. I negotiated a better car deal and set out to assault the mean streets of Toronto. But there aren’t any mean streets in Toronto; nope, not a one. Even at the roundabouts, people are careful and polite. On arrival at the hotel, I dropped off the car and dropped off to sleep as fast as possible upstairs. After my nap, I dragged myself back down to the car and headed for Niagara Falls.

After some initial motoring confusion, I managed to find my way to the Queen Elizabeth Way. It was supposed to take an hour and forty-five minutes to get to Niagara. It took me about an hour and a quarter. If you know me, you know why: I’m afraid that I tend to speed. The polite drivers of Canada make it even easier to speed by pulling out of your way when they see you coming at high velocity. It’s like you have your own whole lane. I’m sure that’s not the effect they are going for, but I admit to some childlike glee over the matter. The key is not to go any faster than 50 kph (that’s kilometers per hour – metric in Canada, folks) over the speed limit. If you do, it is considered street racing and you will face a fine anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, an impounding of your vehicle and you will have your license suspended. Yikes! There’s an incentive not to push your luck, eh?

Once I got close to the US/Canada border, my directions began to get funky. Google maps advised that I take the Canadian highway to the US highway and then get to Niagara Falls, NY and not Ontario. Going through immigration is hardly an efficient use of time and I was trying for the Canadian side. So, I had to scramble and get off at the last Canadian exit as soon as I realized what was going on. I got a little lost and turned around, and the next thing you know I found the Inniskillen winery. Those are the people who make delicate ice wine. Talk about my lucky day! I went in for a short tasting, bought some wine and asked for better directions.

I have wanted to see Niagara Falls for many years but have never had the chance, unless you count looking out the airplane window on a clear day (not!). I was pretty excited and I even brought my panoramic camera and film, along with my usual digital camera and lenses. A few minutes’ research turned up recommendations for the nearby Butterfly Conservatory. I have a policy about always stopping for a bird or butterfly park, if at all possible, as odd as that sounds. But you know, I’ve never been disappointed. And this time was no exception. There was a lepidopterist on duty (I never thought I’d use that word outside a crossword puzzle!). He was very helpful and obviously loved his work. I got to see the cocoons, and a brand-new, still-wet butterfly that he took out of the “hatchery”, and several pairs of mating butterflies. Not only is it unusual to see butterfly mating but they sit very still during this time and are more easily photographed. Present were some rare, endangered butterflies from the Philippines that must sit in the mating position for 17 hours. That’s the reason they are endangered: in the wild if you just sit there making love for 17 hours, you get eaten by predators. I suspect there is a sad moral in that story somewhere, but I am trying not to think about it! Given the longevity of the act, I was not surprised to find them in flagrante delicto while I was there with my camera.

After the butterfly park, it was time to find the falls. We had record-warm weather, and yet since it was a Tuesday afternoon around 4 PM, there was really no one there. I cannot believe my luck. I spent some time walking around, photographing the falls, and wishing fervently for another few hours and some more sleep. I am sure that I should have gone on the Maid of the Mist boat ride, waited somehow for the incredible evening light show that’s mounted under the falls, backlighting them in fantastic colors. I should have walked around to shoot from further angles, driven the town to find the best vantage points for unique shots. Et cetera. But I was exhausted, I’d flown all night and driven all day, and I still had to get back to Toronto to meet my friend at the airport. I packed it in after only an hour. Unsurprisingly, I made really good time on the way back.

The next day, I walked around the University of Toronto, guided by a girlfriend of mine who lived in the area and was an alumna. I found my way to the Royal Ontario Museum, too, where they had a special exhibit on the Maya people. It was tough in Mayan society. If you were part of the nobility, you were expected to speak to powerful ancestors. To do this, you had to spill your own blood for use as a spiritual conductor. I saw an ancient carving of a woman piercing her tongue with stingray spines and a man about to pierce his masculine parts with another of the same spines. Talk about your noblesse oblige… No thanks! The risk of being a human sacrifice sounds no better, though, and I suspect that was the main fate of the peons. I think being Maya was not for the faint-hearted. Still there are many enclaves of Mayan people in Central America and Mexico today, alive and well, who have been essential to demystifying the ancient Mayan culture for scholars.

I was mid-way through the exhibit before they told me I was not allowed to take pictures of any of the artifacts or parts of the exhibit. I apologized and asked, as a professional, what exactly the reasons were so that I would know better next time. Apparently even the explanatory materials are copyrighted, even though technically the artifacts cannot be copyrighted. The exhibit is on loan to the museum, and this “no photo” bit is part of the condition of the loan. Given how much work went into the explanations, I can see why they are copyrighted materials, but still, to say no photos at all of such amazing artifacts of antiquity seems excessive, antithetical in a public museum, and frankly a bit closed-minded. I was disappointed by the ROM in this policy, and I could see that they were not entirely comfortable with it either. I am posting a photo of one of the artifacts since that is perfectly legal.

That night, I capped off my trip with a lovely dinner at the Scaramouche restaurant sitting at the window with an unimpeded view of the cityscape of Toronto, CN tower and all the buildings of downtown. If only I had known about the view when I was dressing for dinner, I would have put my phone in my pocket. Ah, well. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It was beautiful.

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1 Response to Bienvenue au Canada, or Where in the World is Jennifer Spencer?

  1. **Edited to say that after more careful investigation, Google maps didn’t send me back and forth across the border, but it did try to get me to New York even though I told it I wanted to go to Canada. Maybe they knew I was an American and should be on home soil?

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