August 26th 6am and dawn broke over the sleepy Essex suburb of Chelmer Village. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes and cursed quietly over whose stupid idea it was to get up at that time in the morning, we were both filled with a sense of trepidation and excitement in equal measure when considering the journey we had ahead of ourselves.
After being bundled into the car by an all too eager Mum and Dad Finlay, we proceeded to fight our way across the traditional morning motor scrum on the M25. Eventually, Heathrow beckoned and after successfully blowing a worrying amount of money on books and airport food, we clambered on board the British Airways flight to our first stop, Toronto.
At this juncture, we feel we need to digress into a side issue involving industrial action and sub-quality airline food, so please bear with us. After a wholly unsatisfying cheese and spinach risotto, Vickie began to complain of, shall we say, discomforts in the lower gastronomical area, which led to much cursing of gate gourmet and their spat with BA. It has to be said that having a pilot who appeared to liken our descent into Toronto to a gypsy fairground waltzer ride (you could almost hear him from the flight deck shouting "scream if you want to go faster!") did not help matters, and the eventual slamming into the runway followed by a sour faced dash to the nearest toilets did not bode all that well for the trip ahead.
Nontheless, once we cleared customs and headed out into the airport to catch our bus, we began to feel much more positive and started to look forward to our time in the Great White North
When Mum and Dad Finlay had kindly offered to put us up in a hotel for the first couple of nights there to help get over the jet lag, we didn't really have much of an idea about how palacial the Cambridge Suites in central downtown would be. Anyone who has ever seen the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts appears horrendously out of place going into a posh hotel with Richard Gere will have some idea where we were at....
This led to a thoroughly amusing couple of days of us furtively sneaking local convenience store produce into our hotel suite like some sort of half arsed smugglers, which put us in the interesting position of being ensconsed in a posh hotel, sitting on our sofa tucking into a tin of the delectable Chef Boyardees Ravioli chunks.
Our first sojourn out into the city inevitably took us to the CN tower to grab a truly birds-eye view of the city. The view itself was indeed spectacular, and the queueing time for the lift back down was made interesting by several screaming children being in our vicinity, and Dunc wondering if anyone would notice if he dropped them over the side, before a conciliatory and supportive grin from Vickie managed to somewhat quell the situation.
Once safely back on ground level, we made our way over to the home of the Blue Jays baseball team, the Skydome. The journey there was made most eventful by us inadvertantly stumbling across the largest single collection of comic book geeks ever... as it turns out, the convention centre was holding its bi monthly science fiction convention (or the bi-mon-sci-fi-con), and was packed to the rafters with storm troopers, wizards, super heros and a disturbingly large amount of amply proportioned women wearing fairy outfits and bovver boots. We decided against spending too long in this surreal environment and busied ourselves with more exploration of downtown.
The following day, we ambled over to the st lawrence market area, and right smack into the middle of what can only be described as "Buskerfest". There were people milling about everywhere, with street entertainers all over the shop. The two that caught our interest most was a frankly pitiful display of street gymnastics ably MC'd by a vast latino chap, and a fascinating nearby band who were churning out what can only be described as "slick jive bagpipe hip hop funk". A very red faced young chap busy blowing into his pipes as his backing group produced some old skool beats to support him.... one of the weirdest things we've seen in quite some time!
After two very comfortable days, we then had to make our way across town to the first of our chosen bed venues... the somewhat less palacial Alexandra hotel. Despite the simplicity of our surroundings, Dunc made a solid and highly successful attempt to charm the usually sour-faced check-in lady and actually managed to strike up a converstation with her about her family who had recently arrived in the area, all to the backdrop of Vickie sniggering into her hands at the pointlessness of it all. An evening drink was clearly the order of the day after all that small talk, and we headed off to a nearby bar... and promptly got up and left after just one beer, when we were presented with a bill for over $13 dollars! The bill said "Tip not included" but we decided that, rather than explain exactly what our "tip" for them would be, we left and retired for the evening.
Maynooth - Algonquin park
After 4 entertaining days in Toronto, it was time to head off to the frontiers, and a little town called Maynooth (pop. 200). An uncomfortable 5 hour coach ride eventually got us there, although not before an in-depth discussion on the legalities of drugging small children for long journeys when a toddler a few rows back erupted into screams, despite her mothers best attempts to smother her.
Eventually, we stepped blinking into the Maynooth sunshine and were greeted by our host, a very genial, wirey chap called Tom, who was clearly an expert on these parts and happy to show us around. We then met the hostel volunteer, a shuffling pile of scruffy confusion called Jean. It was at this juncture that Vickie made an astute observation that every man in Maynooth appeared to be sporting an ample set of facial hair... a possible custom in these parts, we thought.
A brief exploration of the village brought a fabulous discovery. Soon there would be the Maynooth annual wild Turkey calling championships! Vickie attempted to stake an early claim to the title by flapping her arms and chirping down the street, much to Duncs bemusement/amusement (delete as applicable).
The vast wilderness of Algonquin national park was beckoning us, so the following day we got a lift from Tom into the park itself, got ourselves a couple of mountain bikes and set off on a days exploration. The morning passed with us stopping briefly at some gorgeously tranquil spots by the various lakes that litter the park, and all seemed at peace with the world. That is until Vickie discovered a pile of bear excrement in a wooded area (proving at once that oldest of theories of exactly where bears do shit), then saw what she thought was a bear shaped form moving amongst the trees. Panic silently set in, and her cycling pace was a lot quicker for the rest of the journey.
We then trekked to the top of an area called Booth Point, and were greeted by some truly spectacular views over the park that led to many thoughtful moments sat on a rock overlooking this vast expanse of ruggedness.... we felt as though we had really arrived in Canada. This was what we'd come away for.
Back in Maynooth, and with horrendously tender buttocks from a most rugged bike ride on seats only slightly softer than diamond, we realised with glee that the following day was to be the main event in the Maynooth autumnal entertainment calendar, the Loggers Games! We awoke to a parade of some mammoth trucks sidling up the main street as part of the "truck judging" competition. Once this had passed, we made our way over to where the loggers games themselves were taking place. A fascinating couple of hours followed, as we sat in the wooden stand waching heavy set Canucks carving chairs out of logs, and speed sawing their way to relative glory. This was interspered by a most rousing performance from a local band whose name escaped us, partly because Dunc had already applied the amusing moniker of "Big Yodelling zeke and the retiree alcoholic jug band", as they rendered several of their highly acclaimed hits, including (possibly) "I kissed my baby with my fist" and "How can i say i love you when you're throwing pigs at me?"
The final day in Maynooth involved us heading off with Tom to a trail he sponsors in the park, called "High falls". A more apt name for a trail has rarely been recorded. In the process of rock hopping across the river, and with Tom pointing out that we need to ensure we find a dry spot to land on, Dunc promptly forgot he was jumping from a wet rock, and proceeded to launch gracefully into a double pike with two and half twists (or possibly a double forward tumble with two and a half "shit, shit, shits...") ending up face down in the chilly river, scrabbling around on all fours simultaneously attempting to get out of the drink and keep his pack dry. What little sympathy Dunc recieved from Vickie soon dissipated when it dawned on her that, had she been holding the camera, we could have recouped a lot of money by sending the tumble into you've been framed.
A brief stop in Toronto followed Maynooth, then it was time to jump on the train to spend the night in Niagara and catch the falls. Our rapidly increasing loathing of public transport was further cultivated when, a mere 10 minutes into our 2 hour journey, the aged lady behind us promptly produced what can only be described as an elephantine piece of diaphramatic action, and blew out a burp so loud that she herself seemed genuinely surpised by its violence. Fortunately she was oblivious to the hysterical giggling coming from the seats in front of her, as Dunc desperately scrabbled in his bag to capture this for our journal.
The novelty of the old lady's increasingly persistant flatulance issue soon wore off though, and by the time we hit Niagara, we were ready to ask her exactly what her medical condition was, and had she considered signing herself up to the circus as "Ms Rumble, the amazing burping lady"?
Once in Niagara we checked out the falls at night and were greeted by the majestic site of the illumated horseshoe falls, vowing to come back and spend some quality time there the following day. Checking into our hostel, we were greeted by Joe, the owner, a late middle aged white haired scouser who had left England "for various reasons". This intriguing answer, added to the fact that he seemed in a perpetual state of slow moving Ozzie Osbourne-esque confusion, led Dunc to think that maybe he had an excess of lifestyle in the 60s and 70s and had come away to Niagara to escape a dodgy situation back home.
Amateur psychology to one side, we got up early and made our way back to the falls. A very moist trip on the maid of the mist got us up close and personal to the raging torrents, and another walk along the side of the falls gave us the chance to fully appreciate just how spectacular a site they are on a clear day.
We spent several long moments marvelling at the falls, before Dunc appeared to have a rare moment of lucidity, when he considered that the Niagara area is a very relavent metaphor for the world at large..... bear with us here.
He considered that the falls themselves represented the majesty and purity of mother nature at her finest, and the town of Niagara, which to be frank is something of a boil on the otherwise fine arse of the falls, represents the generally negative effect that mankind has on the wider environment around it.
To help articulate this deep thinking point, the town of Niagara is something akin to a Blackpool or a Skegness in that anyone under the age of 5 will think its a heavenly place, and anyone with an iq over 75 will simply look at it and sigh. However, if you look past the neon and plastic induced nastiness and take the town for what it is, which is a highly camp, very outdated timewarp back to 1950's beach resorts, the place does hold a certain giggly amusement as you saunter through it.
Toronto pt 2
Back in Toronto for a brief period before our next stop, we decanted off the subway into the Global village hostel. It was like going back 6 years, and we immediately looked at each other and almost in unison said "Just like uni". There was a mammoth kitchen area designed for no fewer than 150 people to use, and several probably chemically induced murals all over the walls about how we should "all be better friends" and "ride the magic bus". It was like looking at a sgt pepper album sleeve.
So around came the 7th September and Duncs 27th Birthday. All in all, it was a highly productive day from a monetary sense, as a fellow traveller chipped in for our pre dinner beers when he saw us rifling through our wallets for any remaining Canadian change. What we neglected to tell the festive wellwisher, however, was that we were just grabbing a quick drink before we headed out to a Steakhouse for a slap up meal....
We ended up in a fine establishment called, interestingly enough, The Strip House. Despite Duncs marginal disappointment when he entered the restaurant and realised that the title referred to a type of steak, not the inclinations of the waitresses, we settled down for a very fine meal. The meal began as highly good value, but soon became more so when we managed to blag a free dessert by mentioning that it was Duncs birthday and we were poor travelling types.... glorious!