Monday, July 16, 2012

The Montreal Diaries III

July 9

8:30 am. The room feels cooler, it is cloudy outside and there is a cool breeze making its way into the apartment like it lives there. I get out of bed but for all my usual sadistic penchants for ruining people’s sleep, I feel bad about having to wake them up when we fell asleep so late.

I eventually do, and when I walk into Kate and Reem’s room I am taken aback by the beautiful view (not of Reem and Kate a-slumber) – we can look out over the city, with a green hill, Mount Royal, ahead and McGill University sprawled at the foot of the hill. The apartment feels much better.
“Guys,” Kate begins in a voice that indicates she has some worrying news to share: “I’m hungry.”
The menu is in French. This is troubling. “You should have listened to those French tapes in the car,” Reem is smug but she translates and it seems to match up to the pictures so we order away.

I have gotten so used to English as the primary language, I feel a little displaced. Language can be such a handicap. I think of all those old ladies that travel with their old husbands from Pakistan to America and how difficult it must be to be thrown into an environment where all the sounds are foreign, where it takes ages to explain or ask a simple question, where people get annoyed at you because they don’t understand your accents or gestures, and all for their son who works in Phoenix or Dallas.

Reem actually walks with her GPS in her bag, and so we whip out Kate’s IPhone and Reem’s GPS, and walk around in circles till we hit St. Catherine’s. It is an explosion of capitalism, with all the famous brands appearing twice, thrice down the same street so it’s a constant feeling of déjà vu. The restaurants have little patios and the bistro tables and chairs outside coupled with the French signs make us feel like we’re in France. Not to mention the strip clubs and promises of ‘contact danses’ which we could only imagine were R-rated venues. “Erotique massage” read a neon sign that would light up and glow red, blinking on and off as if the words aren’t enough to attract.
All the cigarettes and fashionable hats, the place felt quite European. It was full of people, walking in both directions. The crowd was still pretty young but the last night surreal appeal was gone – for the moment.

The best part about Montreal was how much you have to walk, and it isn’t so much about what you do in the city, it’s more of what you see. There are all these posh silver sparkly buildings, designed to lure you in and convince you that you slave at work so as to be able to buy these brightly colored merchandise, and then suddenly, nestled between all this commercialization will be a beautiful church, its spires not as high as the buildings around it but still managing to draw all the attention, the stained glass catching light at dusk, with people and dogs resting on its steps. There are small kiosks with local art and fruits and baby cacti, short dapper trees draped in red fairylights.     

There is a huge block down St. Catherine, before we hit China Town, where the city holds its musical events. They were busy setting up for the International Jazz Festival and although it was a week away, it already looked exciting. One of my favorite parts was the splash pad (lots of little fountains that changed momentum, turning into tiny little spurts like a spring in a forest, and then charging up to jump higher, like rockets, clear water drops you could catch rainbows in). There were always people by the fountains, in the day there were little kids in shorts and diapers running through the water while their parents lounged on the benches nearby, and at night when the splash pad lit up in neon colors, the families were replaced with little groups of guys and couples, the scent in the air became smokier.

China Town was an explosion of color – it was like somebody put rainbows in a blender and then poured the mixture over plastic dolls, straw hats, into paint boxes, and over umbrellas, flip-flops, bobble-heads and all sorts of stuff you don’t really need but you buy because it’s so darned cute. Seriously, there was all sorts of stuff in those streets, from lens-less Hello Kitty glasses to bubble tea to $3 floppy hats.    

A few blocks from China Town, the road goes uphill and we see the first signs (literally) pointing towards Old Montreal. It is like walking through an invisible portal. Suddenly we – and a thousand other tourists with hats and cameras and maps – find ourselves on cobbled streets with beautiful buildings rising all around us. We sat in the first square we came across, settling down on the edge of a fountain and out came the maps and smartphones… where is the basilica? The girls spent some time trying to understand the lay of the land till we finally decided to walk around and check out the beautiful structure right behind us, which indeed was the basilica. It was one of those churches you walk into and immediately words are whipped out of your mind and your mouth falls open. It was dim inside with little tables hosting bright little tea light candles that you could light for a lost dream or hope. 

I have yet to see mosques in Turkey and Spain and so I might change my mind, but for now it is always interesting to compare the interior of mosques to churches, which are so ornate and intricate and dim. I do love the stained glass, and the one time I heard it, organ music. The Notre-Dame basilica had an incredibly large set of organ pipes, played by one man (some 27 keyboards, four pedals and what not) for over 50 years, I believe.

Hazelnut gelato is heavenly, and the Artists’ Lane is so bright and beautiful, the food is pricey and the three-person bikes are even more expensive. The Old Port is serene. The sun came out so we sought some trees and sat under them, with our legs dangling in the still water.
I wish we had been able to go to Old Montreal again, and we missed it as soon as we walked down the hill and back through the portal. It would be amazing to walk through the cobbled stone streets with its occasional horse carriages trotting by in the night, and in the winter when there would not be so many people all around so I could have the place to myself, quieter so that you could feel the air heavy with the past and the buildings whisper secrets and made-up stories.

We had spent the entire day walking and when we neared the apartment we wanted to cry at the thought of those nine flights of steps. But we stoically (not) climbed up and collapsed on the dusty beds. We wanted to explore the night life so we wore pretty dresses and fixed our faces, and stepped out to take on Montreal. Except we ended up going on a wild goose chase to free ballroom dancing lessons on some island except the lessons turned out to be a private wedding party and the GPS got confused so we went around on the same winding, turning road on the island three times. It was some deserted part of the city with detour signs and scary bridges that made grinding sounds when we drove over, and the GPS still wasn’t ready to cooperate and to top off the stress-cake, we were almost out of gas.

By the time the GPS finally took us to some dark looking gas station, the red light had flickered on, and the station was deserted. Those were some scary, slightly comical minutes, and by the time we filled up the car and came back into familiar territory, we were famished and our makeup showed that it had been two hours since we had started on our quest to be elegantly waltzing. It was late and dinner options were limited but we finally found a diner-ish place where our burgers and fries took forever to come.

It was midnight when we were finally done and we were quite exhausted. But when we stepped out the city didn’t agree. It was up and about, as crowded as if it were noon. Three guys were singing English songs outside on the street. Signs blinked, cars honked and people dressed scantily twirled, so we decided to walk down the brightly lit street and like cartoons levitate towards the smell of freshly baked cakes and bread, we heard Latin music and decided to check it out. Other than Reem, we really did not know any Latin dancing but that is the beauty of being with friends and in a place where nobody knows you anyway!

We reached home past 1 am, which we felt was late enough to appease my resolve to ‘have fun’. The night breeze was beautiful, and it floated in along with the sounds of cars and people and life outside as we dozed off.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Montreal Diaries II

July 7

I’ll tell you a secret. For a couple of seconds, we were all asleep in the car – except Kate (I hope), who at that moment was driving. We knew the last stretch from Kingston to Montreal was going to be difficult: we’d been up before dawn, on the road and about, and we had eaten a great meal at Reem’s surrogate parents’ house in Kingston. We didn’t really need to be in a lateral position to fall asleep.

It was, however, part of our unwritten code to stay awake together while we were in the car. And I had the smug pleasure of realizing first that we had all dozed off. “Reem!” I poked indignantly. “What an awful co-pilot!”

And as usual, the GPS fucked with us when we were most vulnerable: fifteen minutes away from our weekend home and visualizing our beautiful beds. A wrong turn here, and another there, we almost ran over some enthusiastic night bikers. I don’t know if it was our almost-delirious states of mind, but it seemed like we were driving in a surreal town where the road stretched on and on, and the traffic lights were a different color.

It was past midnight and a week night but the city was teeming with life. It was an uncharacteristically warm night and people were walking and riding their bikes as actively as if they were vampire-like creatures and had just woken up from a restful sleep. Too many young people dressed too cutely for this time and just like I had felt in Kitchener, it seemed like we were on the set of a movie. I wondered what it was that felt artificial about the environment, and so I compared it to Seaview in Karachi. People at Clifton beach are part of the scenery, as integral and natural as the trees that grow along the shoreline and the clouds that lie low in the sky. The picture would be incomplete without the women in burqas, and the skinny, lanky, sleazy guys sitting on the hoods of their cars, fully-clothed families flapping around in the waves, the sandy-haired children selling flowers, the secretive couples, and the smell of hot kernels being tossed in blackened salt. That night in Montreal, the people walking around didn’t feel like that. They were separate, discrete creatures, indifferent to the tall buildings interspersed with older, European structures of houses and churches.
They were too loud, too boisterous, and we grinned sheepishly at how tired we were at just 12:30 in the night. The GPS, of course, lied about where the apartment was and we stopped outside a shop with a French name, which Reem tried to pronounce in French when she called Shataur (the young-un who was subletting his apartment to us for the weekend). Much to our delight, Shataur had no idea what Reem was saying so she had to revert to boring old English (staples? Bangles? I forget the ordinary name of that ordinary-looking store).

Parking then is another sob story in Montreal. Hera and I were standing outside after we had unloaded our bags while the others went to park the car.
“Whoa! Give me a high five, c’mon, two in a row!” said a guy who looked too happy to be not drunk. He held out his hand as he and his friend walked by us, and Hera and I reluctantly held out our palms.
“YES! Woohoo!” he walked by and turned behind with his fists in the air, as if he had won a Nobel. “THANK you. You guys made my night!”
Hera and I exchanged bewildered looks. Montreal is so weird. “Think of it this way Hera, we’re not even dressed up right now!” I grinned. “We’re gonna knock the city out after we’ve showered and actually brushed our hair…!”

Finally, we were all standing inside the apartment building on the ground floor with our ragtag baggage all around us (everything from hats to pillows and blankets to fat little trolley bags). “Well, there’s no elevator here…” Shataur tried to say it nonchalantly in an attempt to confuse us into simply following him up the rather narrow-looking staircase.
Kate’s face was such an expression of utter disbelief that I burst out laughing. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Shataur was not kidding us.
We heaped bags all around ourselves, around the neck, over the shoulder, clenched in sweaty fists.
“So, what floor is it?” I asked when Shataur suspiciously neglected to mention that and started climbing up.
“WHAT?!” this time we all shrieked. The trek up those stairs was nightmarish and we all had the choice of bursting into tears, throwing a temper tantrum or dissolving into hysterical giggles. We kept muttering “Shataur…” and doubling over in exhaustion and laughter.

(The trek upstairs confirmed our worst fears: we are not ready for a triathlon yet.)

Montreal is supposed to have beautiful weather in the summer but by the time we entered the large apartment, we were sweating like we were back in Karachi, a hot, sticky summer afternoon. The apartment was big, with nice wooden floors and our eyes lit up when Shataur told us that there were three empty rooms and we could have them all if we wanted. The light in our eyes dimmed somewhat when we saw the rooms – if it was a Western flick and there was any breeze, there would be dust bunnies rolling about. As it was, the dust bunnies were just lying dead all over the place. The best room was the one at the front and was semi-furnished. The bed had a sheet on it… (yeah, our standards were low).
It was humid inside the apartment because all the windows were closed, “don’t worry, we have fans in every room!”
“Uhh…this one isn’t working…” Shataur hopped up on the bed in our best room and pulled at the rusty chain. “Ohh...yeah…”
We opened the windows with a growing sense of panic and I told my OCD to take a nap.
“Aisha, the flush doesn’t work…”
“GUYS, there’s no bin in the bathroom, where will I throw…”
“Oh and the water in the kitchen is always really warm so you guys can get drinking water from the bathrooms-”
“The blind in the other bathroom won’t come down,” I whined, walking into the bathroom where the other girls were standing, each holding a different problem.
“So what?”
“I can see into all the other apartments, I know they can see into this one! I don’t pee well under pressure.”

Things felt a little better after we all showered and spread Spongebob over one of the dusty beds. Hera and I chose the smaller, dustier room where the fan worked and I dozed off to sounds of people kicking beer cans in the road, shouts and laughter.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Montreal Diaries I

June 27

When I was six, my only role in preparing for a trip was to say goodbye to all of my toys and make sure I wasn’t going to forget my giant Minnie behind. It moved to bringing clothes and shoes to my mom while she packed everything meticulously and dad walked by complaining about heavy bags and fines. Finally I was allowed to pack my own bag (which in the beginning my mother would always repack, of course). This summer, I think for the first time in my life I did everything myself: applying for the Canadian visa, buying my tickets – more importantly, using my own money to buy the tickets – coordinating with friends and family, planning the itinerary and spending hours searching for ‘fun things to do in – ’.

It required intense budgeting, tweaking and tweezing and the usual last minute ‘did I pack my passport’ panics, but it was so worth it. From making airy plans with Hera and Reem to keep ourselves happy during exam weeks, the trip to Canada – Windsor, Kitchener/Waterloo, Toronto, Kingston and Montreal! Montreal! Actually came to life, in all its original sweet detail.
Hera and I have always been big on lists. For us, it is part of the fun to get together before a trip and sprawl on the sofa or the ground, using our cutely meticulous, teacher’s pet handwriting to think of all the things we might need (extra pair of socks, soap, and don’t forget hand sanitizer!). 

We poured over and made a minutely-detailed plan of what we would do when we were in Montreal, considering the limited time and unlimited desire to see everything. The plan-for-the-day invariably changed several times, right up to the morning of the day, but since we always crawled into bed, exhausted and satisfied with the day’s adventures, I think we did well. A sweet mixture of OCD planning and spontaneity ensured we didn’t have any regrets on our way back from Montreal… other than our inability to bring along a few of the eye-candy encountered…

Day I – “Leaving in T- 8 minutes…”
Barely four hours of sleep but somehow waking up wasn’t as hard as expected. There wasn’t any “I’ll wait for the other person to wake up first…” (in any case, usually that person is me!) or “let’s delay the departure time just a wee bit” moments. I spend so much time thinking about the trip as I’m falling asleep that my brain is quite ready to spark into action a few seconds before the alarm actually rings.

And just like that, we woke up before the sun and started our morning at 4 am, moving around slowly but efficiently, brushing our teeth, packing up the blankets that we were taking with us. It was like we were in a silent movie till Reem finally managed to tame her short crazy hair. And then it was a comical military drill as she walked around with her cup of tea, announcing that it was T minus 15 minutes before our ETD or something similarly obtuse.

“Can we leave this one behind?”
“She’s driving.”
“Ladies, we are leaving in T minus 5 minutes…”

I doubt it was Reem’s military dictation but we were down by the cars at exactly 5 am, our scheduled departure time. We fit our bags (REEM! You cannot have five bags!), bedding and sneakers which refused to fit in the bags into the trunk like a road trip jigsaw puzzle, a hefty shove and bam, trunk closed, we were ready to roll!

(It was around this time that we discovered my outfit planned for the day was sadly too much like a stewardess’s or even a girl scout. ‘Just grab some cookies and try to sell some’.)

We saw the sun rise over the highway and played our first CD, which received an A from Reem and Kate. Frozen berries, smooth road ahead, and don’t even think about sleeping, Hera! When things felt a little too stale to the GPS, it decided to get us off the highway prematurely, a couple of hasty, befuddled U-turns, almost colliding with a strangely-located island in the middle of the road and we were back on track… till we hit the Toronto traffic.
And it was like we’re in Karachi! Bumper to bumper, brake, move, and the buildings grew taller and taller around us.

Finally, we get into Toronto and it was an instant increase in stress level for everyone in the car – traffic in that city is crazy! A hundred signs, and every street is a one way street and then those tricky ‘no left turn between 5 am to 10 am’ signs that make you want to rip someone’s head off; the insane cyclists that appear like obstacles in a video game, making you pause halfway between a left turn, giving you approximately half a second before the light turns red and a truck rams into you from the other direction. AND those damned streetcar tracks that run parallel to the roads and sure, sometimes you can cross over them and at others you better not because the tracks become as tall as a curb and you’ll have to do some mildly dangerous off-curbing if you find yourself on the tracks. And that is exactly what we did after dropping Hera off.
“This doesn’t feel right…”
“Reem! You’re on it!”
“What? On what?”
“You’re on the streetcar thing!”
Reem turns the wheel slightly, “should I go right?”
“Yes! NO!”
“You have to before a streetcar comes at us!”
“No! Yes, yes, go right…!” and bumpity bump, Reem swerves the car off the elevated tracks and onto the road, which was miraculously empty. Tim Horton’s was a welcome relief – Reem serenaded a lady in the bathroom with her tone-deaf rendition of “every breath you take” and Kate conveniently cut in line to get her coffee. “Did I really do what I think I did?” she whispered to us as she turned around with her coffee and realized there were people queued up.

We knew the road trip was going to be awesome when Hera called to say she got her US visa and Reem’s passport errand took just an hour.
Union Station smelled of people and pee, as gritty as a big city station is wont to be till we walked upstairs where the ceiling arched above our heads in a beautiful dusty golden dome. The light filtered in through giant skylights and the place was transformed from its daily grind appeal to an almost church-like feel.

Lesson of the day: do not keep union station as a meeting point. It took us ages to finally find Rida!

The Toronto Islands were amazing. Just a few minutes ferry-ride and the entire feel of the place shifted from the indifferent bustle of a big city to the friendly, ‘we’re on a vacation’ atmosphere. It was a bright, hot day, perfect to stand in cool emerald water that lapped at our ankles like the Arabian Sea in December. Everybody is happy in a swimsuit I guess. They smile at you, offer to take your picture with your friends, and even pause while you make sure they got the CN tower in the background. The sand was so hot we couldn’t walk barefoot till we got closer to the water’s edge, and there was strange white cottony stuff flying in the air, coming to rest amidst strands of hair and between toes.

Oh sweet Italian man on ferry, we will conjure stories about your life in Canada and your multiracial children, and follow you to the parking lot, where we will depart with you still in our hearts!