Monday, July 18, 2016

PEI: More than red dirt and Anne


Despite living in Canada for 24-ish years of my life, I didn't have many preconceived notions of what most places on our trip would be like. My travel experience of Canada has been limited to small sections of BC, Ontario, Quebec, and, as a child, Alberta.

When thinking of PEI, red soil, potatoes, and Anne of Green Gables were all that came to mind. Imagine our shock to find that PEI is easily as lush and green and gorgeous as my husband's homeland. Unfortunately, places to pull over weren't very plentiful so our photos don't do it justice. Striking emerald fields cover the landscape with occasional auburn soil peeking through crops and brilliant yellow canola fields.



Accommodation


After we had visited the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, we drove over the ugly but efficient bridge to PEI. We stayed at Brackley Beach Hostel, out in the country, "far from downtown Charlottetown". PEI is so small that nothing is too remote and the views from the car are so spectacular, it's even better to be based far out. Driving to Charlottetown took around half an hour, less time than my daily commute to work.

Keigan and Vanessa took good care of us there for two nights, a sweet teenage couple who work at the tiny hostel. They're normally in a long distance relationship, he's in Nova Scotia and she's in PEI, so they're having a first summer together working at the hostel.

One of the more charming moments on our trip was listening to Keigan's very polite, Maritime-y reaction to a boiling egg exploding on the stove. Lots of "gee whiz", "golly", and describing the event as "a major incident" and "excitement" added to the ambiance of the whole thing. Cute as buttons, those two.

Confederation Arts Centre


On top of theatre productions, the Confederation Arts Centre puts on a free daily musical performance about the history of Canada.

Depending on your level of scepticism and your love of musical theatre, this is either a must avoid or a must see. After getting past the lack of mention of First Nations people being here first or suffering under various policies and broken treaties, the almost all white cast dressing up in different ethnic costumes and dancing in stylistic approximations of those cultures, and the usual exaggerated Canadian propaganda about diversity and racial inclusion, it's a lovely show. Genuinely. The performers are really talented: singing, dancing, and playing instruments for an hour to catchy tunes. I can always get behind a tap dance and song about public healthcare. They really won me over by ending the show quoting Jack Layton.


The Rest


Our day was just beginning with the noon show. We hit up the terrible Anne of Green Gables Museum (consisting mainly of random relics of family members of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of the beloved series), the small but not awful Lucy Maud Montgomery birthplace, and the awe-inspiring Cavendish Beach.

We rounded out our day with an overdue trip to Value Village to add much needed warm clothing to our luggage. While packing in 45C Shanghai, we foolishly forgot that coastal places are chilly! There were some American tourists there as well, presumably with the same objective.

I'm pretty excited to be rocking what I assume is an authentic Columbia-brand Canadian freestyle acrobatic skiing jacket across the rest of Atlantic Canada.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

No Funswick: A Public Service Announcement About Saint John

Happy to be out of Saint John in the woods at the Bay of Fundy.

Canada's only officially bilingual province is on our list twice: first, we visited Saint John and the Bay of Fundy, and soon we will return to Fredericton on our way back across the country.

It's probably unfair and a bit mean, but we aren't looking forward to it. In fact, if we weren't so afraid of hitting a moose or deer while driving in the dark, we would just skip it altogether and drive straight to Ottawa from Sydney, Nova Scotia after getting off the ferry from Newfoundland.

Maybe if we had more time, it would have grown on us. The Irishman refused to pull over for the Covered Bridge potato chips factory tour or the Potato World museum. Clearly missed opportunities for the province to charm us. I was also intrigued by the sign for New Maryland, "site of New Brunswick's last fatal duel". Vetoed by husband.


Compromise: Buying a pack of Covered Bridge chips at a gas station

Alas, we only have thirty days with Sister Bernadette and Canada is massive, so no time for unscheduled potato eating or weird historical sites (except the Anne of Green Gables museum, but that's in PEI, so I'm getting ahead of myself).

We decided to stay on track and beeline to our Airbnb "walking distance" to "downtown" Saint John. As one of our few weekend days on our travels, we were excited to get into town, have some beers, and see the sights. Saturday night in Saint John, New Brunswick. Yeehaw!

I will also note that everyone living in Atlantic Canada that we have met since has said, "Saint John?! Why??" No one warns people about this outside of the region, so heed this public service announcement.

Well, we arrived. And then headed for the not quite bright lights of the city. Crossing a highway into deserted street after deserted street, it felt like we were in constantly in danger. At 6:30 pm on a Saturday. We saw fewer than a dozen people after walking right through the centre of town.

I think our city living brains took barren streets to mean we should be nervous, when, in reality, it probably just means there are no freaking people there. (We were told the population is 60-70,000 but I am so indifferent, I won't even look it up to verify.)

We walked past closed restaurant after closed restaurant, mentally going through what food we had left in the car (chocolate chips, carrots, and celery. Yum.).

The Irish pub it is.

We wandered in and encountered wall to wall people. Like Shanghai, except everyone was white. Basically everyone in Saint John was inside, eating off of paper plates with plastic cutlery and downing bottles of Moosehead Light beer.

The super friendly bartender explained, with tears in her eyes, that today was the annual fundraising golf tournament in honour of the life of a man who died ten years ago. We received conflicting reports from people we chatted with about what charity exactly the event was supporting. We tried to Google it later to no avail. As far as we know, it could have been for the local dog fighting league or Maritime separatists, but at that point we were so desperate for a beer and dinner that we may have turned a blind eye. And the band wasn't half bad.

After consulting the organizers, we were permitted to pay to join the BBQ. The Irishman collected our barbecued beef, Caesar salad, and gigantic baked potatoes while I chatted to a lovely local woman on the back patio. She said she was a missionary, but didn't mention for what. Which got me thinking the event might have been for a cult.

We joined two men at a table who had spent the day golfing in the cold and dreary weather. They complained about how chilly it was (13C-ish) but when we asked what seasonal temperatures were, they confirmed it was completely normal.

The conversation seemed to go alright until one of the men noticed we hadn't eaten any of the salmon. My husband is a famously picky eater and fish is on his gag list. The pieces of beef were so big, he didn't bother to add salmon to my overflowing plate either. And thus committed a major faux pas.

After repeatedly confirming that we had not tried the salmon, the possible cult member left to go inside, followed by his companion. It may have been because the raffle was starting, but I choose to believe a passion for seafood or call to the annual post-golf witch burning were to blame.
At least they had my order

A couple of pints later, we made our way to Cask and Kettle, a new "Irish Gastropub". Bustling, yes. Gastropub...Irish... Less so. The bartender, standing in front of a chalkboard listing beers on tap told us, sadly, they didn't have the beer the Irishman ordered. Off the list. Behind the bar. Written in an easily erasable substance. Alrighty.

Notably, both pubs didn't have anywhere in the women's bathroom stalls for people to dispose of sanitary products. I saw pads in the garbage bin by the sinks...What??? People who design washroom spaces, please note that no person with a period (with a few weirdo exceptions, I suppose...perhaps Saint Johners) wants to step out of a stall into a public-ish space holding a bloody sanitary product.
So confused by this place

Finally, we got to the boardwalk, the saving grace of the evening. Kind of. A rousing band, East Coast Love Story, played along Market Square Boardwalk while no one danced or seemed to even notice them in general. The Irishman held me in my seat so I wouldn't express any joy or enthusiasm. It was so strange to me, late on a Saturday night, to have no one reacting at all to upbeat, fun maritime tunes, besides sparse clapping at the end of songs.

We returned to our Airbnb to find that the sheets were dirty and the water out of the taps tasted like they were liquified copper. Water has not tasted remotely weird in any other place we have been before or since, across six provinces.

Saint John, we will not be back. The hosts at our current, amazing Airbnb in St John's told us about the nickname "No Funswick", which should be much more widely known. Fredericton, our opinion of the province lies in your hands.


Bay of Fundy was brilliant, though. Ocean floor at noon.
Almost 40 feet of water appeared by 4:30 pm.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Quebec City: An Irish-ish two days

After baking in our hostel room in Montreal, we hit thunderstorms and much cooler temperatures heading into Quebec City. And Cathal was driving again...Irishman 0, bad driving conditions gods 2.

Accommodation 


Our Airbnb was 100% perfect. Veronica's place is registered as a hotel, allowing her to rent out rooms in her home. She had to undergo inspections and follow certain criteria for this designation, which limits the number of rooms available for travellers in the province of Quebec.
Her cat is super friendly and helped tide me over with animal snuggles.
We had a lot of space, an ensuite bathroom with shower, access to a massive washer and dryer, a fridge, a coffee maker and coffee, a toaster oven, a microwave, free parking...I don't think we'll get another place as wonderful on this trip (but we do have an exciting booking coming up in northern Ontario!). After a quick workout, we were off to a nearby pub to watch the Euros, France v Germany.

Day 1 - French Football and Ferry 


We weren't sure what to expect with a Québécois crowd, but they were absolutely all cheering for their fellow francophones. It was still afternoon, but it was clear people had left work early to catch the match. One big table appeared to be a contingent of people from one office. Fun atmosphere to watch a game!

With a couple of hours to kill before I had a phone meeting, we checked the TripAdvisor app (which doesn't work at all without an Internet connection...get on that, developers!) and saw that the Quebec City-Levis ferry was highly rated and only a 20 min drive away. Allons-y!

Photo from the ferry. Not of the ferry.

After getting super lost driving through Old Quebec City, not for the last time, we found street parking and sped, with several wrong turns, to the ferry dock. Old Quebec City is very confusing to navigate, with many small streets and incorrect information on Google Maps.

The ferry is just 12 minutes. We disembarked, turned around, and got right back on in Levis. We got the nice photo of Château Frontenac at the top of the post and enjoyed a pleasant boat ride. Recommended!

Day 2 - Wandering and Waterfalls


Day 2 was laid back. Thanks to online forums, I knew to park below City Hall for a reasonable day rate ($15ish) and we were off. St Patrick's Pub served me the most overpriced but delicious poutine I have ever eaten and gave us a perfect vantage point for people watching. After nursing a coffee and inventing backstories for people walking by, we decided to wander Old Quebec City.

Irish influence 


We stumbled upon a monument from Ireland to thank Quebecers for their assistance to those who arrived fleeing the famine. It's a lovely tribute, written in English, Irish, and French, and includes many beautiful carvings of Irish and Catholic symbols.

40% of Québécois have Irish ancestry and it is evident. Irish pubs, churches, street and town names, and names of people could make us forget where we were temporarily. (Until we heard someone speak with one of the most distinguishable accents in the world!) Comparing the countryside, especially the east coast, I don't think we could confidently identify whether the scenery was from Irish hillsides, except due to the lack of sheep.

We walked into the highly rated Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral but weren't super impressed. Compared to small town Irish churches, it didn't really stand out. Yes, now we're those snobs who will compare everything to Ireland.

We've now extended our travel rule of not visiting any more temples to include churches, as well.  Once you've seen one, generally they all seem the same. To us, anyway.

After realizing we couldn't afford anything in the shops or restaurants, we consulted the handy TripAdvisor app (while stealing wifi from St Patrick's Pub). Off to the Montmorency Falls!


Montmorency Falls


We enjoyed the hike up, choosing to forgo the cable car or zipline to offset our poutine consumption. Excited to have poutine at the top of the falls, we discovered their restaurant is only open for lunch. (Not on your website, Montmorency Falls! Bad form...)

We traipsed back down, and drove straight to a grocery store for sandwich supplies.

Au revoir, Quebec! 


Overall, Quebec was an active chapter of our cross Canada trip. We did a ton of walking in Montreal (over 35,000 steps in our second day!) and Quebec City. My middle school French took us through, although both cities would be very feasible to travel with only English.

I will always be grateful to the province that brought me my favourite food and 1/4 of my heritage.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Eat, walk, repeat: Kicking off the road trip in Montreal


Montreal was an easy start to the road trip for both of us. I have been there several times, first as a teenager taking advantage of the legal drinking age being 18 (vs 19 in Ontario), then most recently to watch a Sens-Canadiens hockey game as a weekend road trip with friends. The Irishman took a weekend trip there when he lived in Toronto. Our latest visit was decidedly less boozy than previous trips.

(I say it was easy, but I wasn't behind the wheel when we hit rush hour traffic at 4 pm heading into Montreal. Only 20-odd km away from the hostel, we ended up crawling for 80 min. Dad, you are welcome to insert an "I told you so" here.)

Like most of our trip, we only had accommodation planned. Thanks to crowdsourced advice from friends on Facebook, we knew our first order of business needed to be Schwatz's Deli.

Apparently we were not the only ones to get the memo. The line snaked out the door and onto the street. After foolishly waiting for a while, we discovered that take out was a much shorter line. On our way to the deli from our hostel, we noticed a public patio, colourfully painted, sat vacant, primed for people watching. Much better than lining up for a crowded seat in the deli.

We don't eat much meat and after being vegetarian for nearly half my life, a whole sandwich would probably have left me in a meat coma. I had about 1/4 of the sandwich before tapping out. What a glorious quarter it was, though. The meat crumbled into delicate, juicy pieces with each bite.

I don't know if I can ever eat smoked meat again.

We shared the delectable smoked meat sandwich and a passable poutine in our private (public) patio and then headed back to the hostel. We made a quick stop at a small grocery store for beer, bless Quebec and its alcohol availability. (In Ontario, until very recently, you could only buy alcohol from government owned shops.) A St Ambroise IPA was just the ticket before bed.

Accommodation

Quebec doesn't allow for short term rentals like Airbnb (with a caveat we will explain when we get to writing up Quebec City). This made it a struggle to aim for our goal of $40 per night for accommodation. We squeaked in at $23 per bed for a 6 person dorm at Alexandrie-Montreal.

Cons:


  • The bathroom situation was far from ideal. We had to walk down a flight of stairs, across the main floor and lobby, down another flight of stairs, and across the floor to get to a toilet. This had the positive of effect of reducing our desired beer intake but was annoying and caused some anxiety. (Am I SURE I don't need to go again?)
  • It was HOT. Temperatures were in the mid-30C range and there was no fan or air conditioning in our room. I know Montreal can get even hotter; I can't imagine how unpleasant that would be. We also only had one other, presumably hygienically sound, person in our room. The potential for a stinky room is high.


Pros:


  • The hostel was central-ish. On the edge of the Gay Village, it is JUST on the cusp of what is deemed "downtown" Montreal. We were able to walk everywhere during our stay, but only because we like walking and were happy to burn off some cheese curd calories.
  • The staff were really nice. There seemed to be a lot of them. H and Sam mostly took care of us. They were friendly, funny, and helpful.
  • The kitchen is big and active. There were a handful of fridges and lots of space to cook. Unfortunately, other people had stuff stolen. Our insulated bags with strong Velcro seal and Chinese writing on them seemed to be enough of a deterrent to beer thieves.
  • Free street parking! We lucked out --there were only a couple of spaces and one happened to be vacant when we arrived.
  • Free activities, such as the walking tour...


Touring the City

By coincidence, our only full day in the city coincided with H's weekly free walking tour. Sign us up!

The tour was a bit strange and haphazard but enjoyable nonetheless.

Along with several Americans, a couple of Brits, an Aussie, and a Frenchman who came late and gave up on the tour early (tired of the jokes directed at him from our Québécois tour guide, I imagine), we ate and sweated our way through Montreal.

We wandered through Parc La Fontaine, admiring ducks, squirrels, and birch trees. Our first big stop was St-Viateur Bagels. The New Yorkers on the tour weren't convinced the bagels could compete with their bagels back home, but I was in heaven. There is nothing better than a Montreal sesame seed bagel fresh out of the oven.

H talked about the unique styles of housing, namely staircases in the front to enter second floor apartments (an insane hazard in the winter, but designed to maximize outdoor garden space) and long back alleys where kids play hockey, smoke, and smooch.

The next stop was a French bakery, but we were still full of bagels, so we stood outside and chatted with our roommate, Jack from London. He was hungover beyond belief but still managed to talk about his months of backpacking North America and had general football banter with the Irishman.
Yum?

Near the base of Mont-Royal, I sampled a Portuguese egg tart at Romados, a classic Montreal treat. They were similar to their Chinese iteration, but much sweeter. Not my favourite, but I can see how people with a sweet tooth would swoon over them.

H took us on a crazy "short cut" up Mont-Royal that involved some hands and knees crawling. Sweaty and sun burned, I'm sure I looked ridiculous in my cotton dress, stumbling up the mountain. Future tour participants, be prepared for some hardcore hiking. Thankfully, it isn't actually very high so the uphill scramble was short lived.

We tried to enjoy the view while an American teenager on our tour decided to educate everyone about how China isn't actually communist. I have no idea how it came up in the first place, but I will say that the Irishman and I had nothing to do with it and did not contribute in any way. This was the moment I realized that I am done with hostel living. I don't have the patience on my holidays to hear an 18 year old prattle on about "society". I would make a horrible high school teacher.

Anyway, the tour went downhill, literally and figuratively, from there. We saw a Barbie exhibit in a mall, took the metro to see an indoor skating rink, and saw a piece of the Berlin Wall (coincidentally exactly one year after the Irishman went to the actual Berlin Wall).

Missing most of the Euros Portugal v Wales match to watch other people skating on an indoor rink and stare at a piece of the Berlin Wall wasn't ideal. But the free tour was still a day well spent with a native Montrealer showing us some of the sights.

We bolted to Ye Olde Orchard Pub to catch the final 10 minutes, popped over to a nearby free Jazz Festival concert, wandered through the Gay Village and admired the pink balloons hovering above the streets, and then finished off our trip with a La Banquise poutine. Like Schwartz's, La Banquise is a tourist favourite, the #1 for poutine, and, like Schwatz's, the line for take out was much shorter. We grabbed our poutine to go and enjoyed it at the hostel over more St Ambroise (just one, see aforementioned bathroom issue).

I'm sad to say that the poutine was not so good. Some of the fries were uncooked! I'll need to go back and test again...must have been an off night.

Friday, July 8, 2016

My favourite event of the year: Canada Day in Ottawa

Anyone looking at our itinerary would notice that the route is completely illogical. We started in Toronto, pretty much in the middle of the country. I couldn't bear to miss my favourite event, Canada Day in Ottawa. If you've never experienced it, you should book off July 1, 2017 when Canada celebrates its 150th birthday (depending on your political opinion of "birth"...). It should be an epic party I am gutted to miss.

Being an Ottawan, growing up I thought that the whole country turned into a party on Canada's (totally colonial and problematic) birthday. When I went to university, I learned from friends that the rest of the country doesn't care that much. In Quebec, the extreme version, people call it "moving day", as the uncelebrated national holiday is a convenient opportunity to move on a week day.


Pretty much every holiday in Ottawa is focused on family and friends. Which is great. But Canada Day is the one time of the year, besides during Olympic men's hockey finals, that tens of thousands of people come together to celebrate together.

A typical July 1 in Ottawa for me would include breakfast with family or friends, possibly with mimosas or beer included. This year was particularly lovely; my parents, bestie, Irishman, and I walked 4 km to my parents' weekend breakfast spot (Chances R) and had big breakfasts with a lot of coffee refills. After ditching my parents, who opted for a quiet day, we grabbed the bus, free all day, to downtown.

We met up with more friends, queued for an unusually long time, and parked ourselves on the lawn at Parliament Hill, the building where Canada's national government does its thing. At noon and at night are concerts featuring Canadian talent. This year I was excited that some of my favourites, Coeur de Pirate and Metric, were headlining.

Our afternoon was spent eating poutine and drinking beer and Caesars at bars around downtown. We made it to Majors Hill park for another poutine and to watch the 10 pm fireworks before snagging the last bus home to the suburbs.

It's no Carnivale or Mardi Gras, but I love it. Positive vibes from a diverse crowd? Bring it on, Ottawa.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My $350 mistake

So, I have just discovered my offline go to blogging platform, Blogsy, shut down. Anyone have any other recommendations for iPad apps to update Blogger? The desktop publisher is impossible to deal with on my iPad and now the formatting is all messed up (as you can see here).


Introducing Sister Bernadette!

The last two months leading up to our trip were mad for both me and the Irishman. I found a new job and was training there while also doing my old job, training a new colleague, and interviewing for my replacement. We also found out with a month's notice that we needed to move. Add my husband's end of year school activities as a teacher, plus social groups and sports teams, and it made for a crazy time. 

All this to say, our road trip planning ended up taking a back burner to events, work, and apartment hunting. We waited too long to book the accommodation we had scoped out in the winter months, losing out on several cheap Airbnbs. And, my $350 mistake, I didn't research the car insurance situation in time. 
On the road
When renting a car, a lot of credit cards include rental car insurance. Unfortunately, my three credit cards do not include such insurance and I waited until June 28, five days before our car pick up, to discover this. 

We quickly went to the bank to change one of my credit cards to a qualifying Visa, crossing our fingers that we would be able to receive the new card in the mail before we picked up the cards. Keep in mind there is a pending postal strike and Canadian mail is notoriously slow. 

To be safe, I rebooked our car rental for the day we would leave Ottawa for Montreal, rather than two days before, and booked Priceline's insurance which can be cancelled up until you actually pick up your car. At $11 a day, it is much better than National's $25-ish per day plan that seems similar to non-insurance experts (ie me). 

On Tuesday, July 5, Mom and I checked the mail at 11:45 am, 15 min before our car rental was scheduled. No luck. 
Otis.

We took the dog with us to the postal box and decided to carry on around the neighbourhood and give him a proper walk. Just past the halfway point, a Canada Post truck drove by. With only minutes to spare before the noon deadline, I ran full speed the few blocks back to check the box.

No dice. And I discovered, despite getting over 15,000 steps a day on average over this trip, I have definitely lost cardio capacity. 


A lame start to a trip that has been years in the making. Thankfully, there is plenty of beautiful scenery, yummy food and drinks, and a handsome copilot to distract me. 
This is not an ad for payday loans

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reverse Culture Shock: On being completely uncomfortable

Our summer road trip has begun! Sort of. We've been in Toronto for five days now, staying with friends and slowly getting used to the time difference.

In our usual pattern, the Irishman felt okay for the first two days, fuelled mainly by beer and chocolate milk, and has been in agony for the past two days with jet lag. I've got a cold but am almost on a normal schedule now after a couple of days of sleeping until the afternoon.

I thought it would be hard coming back after three years (four since we actually lived here), but I underestimated just how awkward I would feel.

We had to run through the Vancouver airport to get our connection, yelling in English and Chinese. Probably not the most appropriate?

I'm in everyone's way

I have been asked, politely, a few times a day to move when I think I have left plenty of room around me, whether it's in aisles at the grocery store or at the milk/sugar station at a coffee shop. What is up with people's need for so much space around their bodies?!

Trying to identify what is and isn't a queue is practically impossible. People stand so far apart, it's really hard for me to tell where I should stand.
Irishman getting into a Canadian's personal space

The pair of us are also complete weirdos with traffic. Whenever a car pulls up to an intersection we are crossing or the end of a driveway we are passing, we come to a screeching halt, shocking the other people trying to just go about their business, walking down the street. Right of way as a thing? Are you sure??

My friends, who know how to act in public

I have no idea how to behave in a restaurant

Do I seat myself? Do I go to the bar to order? Is it rude to call a server over? As an overconfident extrovert, I've surprised myself by how awkward I am every time we walk into a restaurant.

Watching my friends who live here interact with servers and bartenders, making small talk, feels like fieldwork. I want to take notes. I don't remember how to do this!

As seen on Bathurst

Tipping. Dear God.

Okay, this is karma. The Irishman has always lamented how confusing Canadian tipping culture is. I would laugh when he tossed me his wallet to pay for things because of tipping anxiety. What's the big deal?

Now I am in exactly the same boat. I've been texting my bestie while out to double-check our tipping etiquette. (Do you tip on every refill of a bottomless soda? Answer: No.) My husband is pretty sure he vastly overtipped on our first day, just to be safe. I'm just grateful that when you pay with card, it asks you to tip; otherwise, it's very likely I'll forget.


Overall, I thought it would be a relief to be in a place where people line up in orderly queues, speak (relatively) quietly in public, and chat to strangers. At the minute, I just feel like an awkward alien trying to relearn how to be normal. Thankfully we have another week before we pick up the car and we need to sort out driving etiquette...

The poutine begins

Monday, May 23, 2016

Pet Ownership in Shanghai II: Death on Walks

(Because "Pet Murder" seemed like a melodramatic title, even for this pet lover.)

Yes, you read that correctly. People, presumably civilians tired of stray animals, have been using a number of methods to try to kill them, inadvertently (or not...) killing pets. In the past couple of months, stories of people killing pets have been spreading on WeChat (Chinese Facebook-ish). If you're a vengeful person, you will enjoy this story about a dog meat poacher who died by accidentally shooting himself with a poison dart.

I am skeptical of a lot of dramatic stories that go around Chinese social media.  There is a depressing number of people willing to lie to try to gain money or fame (e.g.). Honestly, I probably wouldn't have believed that people in the suburbs were putting out poisoned food if one of my closest friends' dogs wasn't a victim exactly two months ago today.

She was a sweetheart!

Ruby, rescued from a drowning by not very nice people in a barrel of oil when she was a puppy, was my friend's best friend. Her first dog, she was totally in love. She told me that when she had her second baby, just a couple of weeks before Ruby was killed, she wasn't worried about being overburdened by having a newborn, young child, and dog, because Ruby "kept her sane and happy".

Unfortunately, instead of happiness, my friend dealt with recovering from a C-section, caring for a newborn, explaining death to her 5 year old who just witnessed his "sister" die, and grieving her beloved pet all in the same morning. When she called me, sobbing uncontrollably, I thought there had been an accident. Not a deliberate action by someone to kill animals.

The food that killed Ruby

Ruby, who was not a food-crazy dog like our Pup, had taken one bite quickly of something on the ground outside of a primary school while on her morning walk. Within half an hour, she was dead. My friend's family retrieved the food: a piece of meat tied with string to a stick of poison.

Soon after, in April, 20 cats were found dead in a popular compound in the Lujiazui area (where all the giant towers are in Shanghai), poisoned overnight. Several people I know live there, some with children and pets.

Other incidents have been reported with people making "meat balls" and putting needles inside, leaving them around for animals to eat. Delightful. It is especially hard to avoid as there are people on the other end of the spectrum who leave real, safe food out for strays.

Once you get into the "pet lover loop" in Shanghai, it's hard not to be inundated with sob stories of abandoned, stolen, and dead animals. Unfortunately, due to the amount of rumours and b.s., a lot of reports are accompanied by photos as proof. I'm grateful to no longer witness Central American-style media with dead human bodies everywhere, but it's still depressing and disturbing.

While we have people getting used to urban life and a large number of strays, this will continue to happen. I think as spaying and neutering become more common and people become comfortable with adopting "ugly" (i.e. not 100% purebred perfect poodles) pets, this will be less of a problem. There is a big issue with people abandoning pets that get too big or less cute. This was probably the case for our Pup, abandoned after being hit by a car.

In the meantime, Shanghai friends, be diligent about keeping your pets leashed, young children close, and eyes peeled.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pet Ownership in Shanghai I: Fake Products

I'm going to write a few posts answering the question, "What is it like owning a pet in Shanghai?" All of these answers can be summed up as, "It sucks [compared to many places]".

Where to start? Having a dog in Shanghai is a frustrating, scary experience. Pet ownership is a fairly new practice. You'll find a full range of attitudes from obsessive animal lovers to people who think that dogs should be exterminated and/or eaten (although eating dog is not nearly as common in China as the media would have you believe).

Basically every dog in Shanghai
For the newly middle classed, having a perfectly manicured poodle is becoming the default. I have never seen so many dogs in shoes in my life. There are more and more pet stores, physical and online, and veterinary clinics popping up as entrepreneurs latch on to this new opportunity. This means that a lot of "beginners" to pet ownership are providing products and veterinary care, posing as experts.

Clearly, this is a recipe for disaster, especially combined with China's propensity for creating fake products.

The dog rescue that initially took Pup in and covered his medical bills and other costs is run by a kind older Chinese woman with very minimal resources. A passionate animal lover, she has been taking in abandoned dogs and cats, organizing fostering, and finding homes for pets for decades. She has been ostracised by others in the community for caring more about animals than people, even during very hard times in China. A debate for another day, but we're thankful for her passion. Otherwise, our little guy would almost certainly not be alive today.

Anyway, lady has a giant heart and stretched pocketbook, trying to care for as many animals as she can. As a result, when the animals in her care need medicines, she tries to get a good deal.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous vendors take advantage of people trying to save money on their pet products by creating fake items. We ran out of a bottle of antibacterial shampoo she had given us and, lacking time, purchased the same product from the vet. The bottle and labels looked identical. The product we got from the vet was much more expensive but also smelled like medicine and actually worked! The shampoo we had been using from the dog rescue smelled like baby shampoo or dish soap and had no effect on his bacterial infection.

Now we question everything we had given him previously that had been purchased online by the dog rescue. Deworming pills, defleaing liquids, antibiotics, eye drops...He went blind about a month after we rescued him, maybe fake medicines were to blame.

We'll never know what effect fake products had on Pup's health. Most likely, being China, unless the government decides it's a priority, no one will tackle an investigation into these potentially dangerous practices. Hopefully an animal lover makes his or her way up the bureaucratic ladder.

In the meantime, there are trustworthy, albeit costly, options. For us, Bark Shanghai and Beck and Stone have been great sources of real products. Some people also buy directly when they go overseas. We were denied being able to buy flea prevention stuff when we tried in Vancouver because our dog wasn't present (...) but we'll try again elsewhere this summer!

This money pit has another infection at the minute. Genuine products only for treatment this time!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shanghai weekend trip: Chengdu (alternatively, pandas, pandas, pandas)

One of the best parts about living in Shanghai is the ease of travel to a laundry list of holiday destinations (say what Australia for Christmas 2015 and Chinese New Year 2016??). It's a pity, though, that many of us don't travel very much domestically as a result. China, even when you live here, seems too big, too crowded, too spread out, and too difficult to traverse. English, even in major tourist centres, is lacking. Many people who live in Shanghai would prefer to go through the hassle of getting a visa to Vietnam than sort out a weekend holiday in Sanya. When I was in Bangkok this summer, I was shocked that the taxi drivers spoke English. I had completely forgotten how easy it was to travel in Southeast Asia (shameless plug for the ole No Plan Plans blog). In two years, I can count on one hand the number of taxi drivers I've had in Shanghai who spoke English.

But, stating the obvious, China has many incredible sights and a rich history. We have to remind ourselves that there are so many cool things we can do without having to go through the immigration line. Plus, there are airlines and high speed trains that can take you all over the country, often for pretty reasonable prices. (Note for travellers: flights are notorious for being extremely delayed so plane travel can be super frustrating. Keep it in mind.)

Embarrassingly, over the course of the Irishman's first 2 year contract, we only visited Harbin, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Zhangjiajie. Even more embarrassingly, for expats in general, that's a pretty long list.

At the beginning of the school year, a friend mentioned that she was keen to go to Chengdu to check out the pandas. I agreed it would be cool and we should do it "sometime". Luckily for us, Jen held me to it and emailed me two days later with a quote from a travel agent. My jaw dropped when I saw the amount ($700 USD per person for a four person trip, 1 night stay). On the condition that I sort out the itinerary (about $500 USD per person, 2 nights stay), we were off 4 days later! We are lucky people.

I would highly recommend other travelers and expats make the weekend trip. We didn't have to take any time off work and we had a wonderful experience. Check the bottom of the post for logistics info about how we did it.


Pandas (my favourite!)

The main attraction in Chengdu are the pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was not too far from our hostel. I had read online it would only be about an 80 RMB taxi ride away and I was tempted to just go over on our own. However, despite my desire to do things the cheapest way, it really was worthwhile to have a tour guide. The facility is really big and spread out. Our guide beelined us to the best bits and we didn't have to look at maps or wander aimlessly, trying to figure out if we'd missed anything.

Despite it being a holiday weekend, it wasn't very busy. From what I've read, the afternoon is when most Chinese tour groups turn up. We arrived around 8:30 am (the facility opens at 7:30 am) and stayed for a couple of hours. We watched the information video at the end of our tour, which I think was to keep us ahead of most tourists. At any time there weren't more than about 15 other people looking at the pandas in the same spot.

A note on the ethics of panda breeding

I am not an expert at all but this is my take on it. Panda breeding is an objective waste of resources. Some scientists believe that they should naturally have gone extinct a while ago. And conservationist Chris Packham even went so far to say, "I would eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with." And I get it. But they're SO CUTE! My much more ethical teenage self would be very ashamed. Look at baby pandas and try to argue they aren't worth a completely insane investment of money and research:

Best parts

I was completely in awe and giddy. Pandas spend the vast majority of their time eating and sleeping. At the time we went, soon after they wake up and eat breakfast, they were so much more active than I expected! They wrestled and climbed trees (slowly).

It was raining, so I was worried the pandas would be in hiding. Luckily, they didn't seem to care about the rain in the slightest!

It may have been luck, but I was shocked at how people behaved. At the most basic museum exhibits in Shanghai, people bang on glass, climb on exhibits, throw things. When we were at the research base, despite there being only low fences and no glass partitions in the open areas, people kept a respectful distance and didn't harass the pandas. I guess being a national icon has its perks. 

Not so best parts

As a Canadian, the red pandas were very disappointing. They are in the raccoon family. They look like raccoons. A little anticlimactic after SEEING FREAKING GIANT PANDAS. Other people on our tour were into it, though. The Irishman and I just chatted with the tour guide and got through that bit. 
Raccoon that doesn't have to work for his supper.

It wasn't clear whether holding pandas was still an option. I have seen conflicting information online. Personally, I would be worried about passing on diseases to the pandas from the outside world. Last year, two pandas died of canine distemper virus at a facility that allowed pandas to be held and the scientists couldn't figure out how they contracted the disease. Not worth it for a fun photo op, IMO! (See teenage Ange, I still have some principles...)

Leshan Buddha (Irishman's favourite!)

Next stop on the tour was Leshan. We napped over the 2.5 hour bus ride. We arrived in the early afternoon and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Our tour guide ordered for us so we got a delicious mix of local food. She helped order non-spicy dishes for the people in the group who needed a little bit of a less intense Sichuan experience. Chengdu is located in Sichuan province which is famous for its spicy peppers that abound in many dishes. The traditional Sichuan spicy food wasn't any spicier than the fare I have had in Shanghai, which was a relief! We paid 150 RMB ($25 USD) per couple and were completely stuffed.


There are two ways you can see the Buddha: hike for several hours around it (along either side and in front) or take a 20 minute boat. You can't actually see the whole thing at once this way, due to its size. And thousands of Chinese people are pushing their way along the path with you. I deal with rush hour on the metro in Shanghai; I had no desire to experience going up and down hundreds of stone steps, being pushed, in the pouring rain.

Of course we chose the boat. The boat was fantastic. It wasn't too crowded and it stopped right in front of the Buddha for about 10 minutes while we took photos. You can see it in its full glory and have elbow room at the same time. I wouldn't do it any other way.

Wenshu Temple

So, I thought I would be adventurous (cheap) and be in charge of Day 2's activities. Based on TripAdvisor, I settled on Wenshu Temple and People's Park. We had breakfast at the hostel, checked out and left our bags with reception, and hopped on the metro to Wenshu Temple.

I don't know why this had such great reviews, including one stating that it isn't like every other temple out there in China. To our untrained eyes, it was like every other temple out there in China. Perhaps a tour guide would have made it more interesting. Positive review people, please feel free to comment below about what it is that we missed about the place.

The grounds were beautiful but I think People's Park would have been a better use of our time. 

We found a random food stall that did the job.

We planned to eat lunch at a vegetarian restaurant run by monks which came recommended online and by friends who had visited over the summer. We loitered around the temple, bored, waiting until we were hungry enough to eat. Then, when we went looking for the restaurant, it was closed! I failed as a tour guide. 

People's Park

I didn't expect to like the park. We have a People's Park and Century Park in Shanghai, which are lovely. Surprisingly, Chengdu's People's Park charmed us! It was busy but not super crowded. You could walk leisurely. People were ballroom dancing at various places in the park.

There are several tea houses in the park, a big part of Chengdu culture. We settled on a random one where the guys underwent traditional Chinese ear cleaning. Involving metal probing sticks, the cleaners dug wax deep out of their ears, flicking it to the ground. It didn't seem to be very hygienic but it was the thing to do! (Better the men than me...) A painful and brief shoulder massage followed, while Jen and I looked on and sipped our tea.

We hung out and drank tea for about an hour. The menu included English translations and they left us with a big thermos of boiled water to top up our glasses. 
They're trying to pretend they aren't scarred for life.
The open air tea house was full of locals sipping tea and playing cards. We also played cards and were the subject of interest for many people at the tea house. At this point, we're all used to being stared at so we didn't mind.

Reflections

Overall, I would recommend anyone coming to China to visit Chengdu. I feel a bit guilty that our previous visitors didn't go there. The pandas and Buddha were incredible and I will remember them for a lifetime.

Next time, I will skip the Wenshu Temple and go to the Jinsha Site Museum instead, which gets good reviews. 

Logistics

Flights

We used the Ctrip app to book our last minute tickets. Both flights were through Sichuan Airlines. Chengdu is around a 3 hour flight from Shanghai --not too bad for a weekend and yummy food (and terrible beer) is included in the ticket price. 

We left Friday around 7:30 pm and returned Sunday at 6:00 pm, early enough to be fresh for work on Monday. 

We could have found cheaper tickets if we booked more in advance or had more flexible schedules. Tickets cost around 1800 RMB ($300 USD) per person, round trip.

Hotel

We opted for a higher end hostel, Lazybones. Each couple got their own room with a bathroom. Even with the short notice, they had 2 rooms available. Each room was 189 RMB (~$30 USD) per night. For budget travellers, they have a sister hostel, Mix, with super cheap dorms and private rooms (with no ensuite bathrooms).

We arrived around 11 pm on Friday night, met at the airport gate by a driver for the hostel (prebooked via email, 90 RMB or $15 USD). It was convenient and only about 10 RMB more than a taxi would have cost. Highly recommended!

The vibe at the hostel was great. Good food, both western and local Sichuan options, was available at fair prices. They had good coffee, which I have given up on expecting at hostels and hotels in Asia. We ate most of our meals there, enjoying everything from kung pao chicken to pizza.

Most importantly, they organized our first day tour for us through a travel agency. For 498 RMB (~$80 USD) each, we were taken to the panda breeding facility and the Leshan Giant Buddha (a 2.5 hour drive away from Chengdu). 

Tip: The hostel says they are an 8 minute walk from Tianfu Square. The bus for the tour drops you off "at Tianfu Square" --this is actually about 10 minutes away from Tianfu Square (i.e. ~20 minutes to the hostel) due to needing to use underground passageways to cross the busy streets. We walked to the hostel after our tour, which I would not recommend. The metro has a Tianfu Square stop which would be quicker to get the hostel (Luomashi exit A is right across the street from the Lazybones).