The title of this blog is “Postcards From Dangerous Places” because my work in developing countries frequently leads to me being in places that bring with them risks above and beyond the quotidian.
But I seldom feel that any of my travels in the developed world qualify as dangerous, which is one of the great things about developed countries – millions of people strive every day to combat the chaos and alleviate suffering. However, despite all the best efforts there are still times when developed countries are dangerous and this week I caught a glimpse of that.
I took a most pleasant detour from my work trip to Montreal and enjoyed a weekend in Québec City – the capital of the Province of Québec.
To get there, my colleagues and I hired two enormous Chevy Suburban sporting utility vehicles. They are monstrous things – but very well designed and built so they are very easy and comfortable to drive.
The instrument panels were configured to provide messages in French such as “Change the oil soon” and “Back door open”.
We set off and made great time along the highway. However, after a brief stop for breakfast, it began to snow. As the trip went on, the snow fell more and more heavily until eventually it was officially a snowstorm.
As we were driving along, I was flicking through radio stations and came across a French channel playing, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by CCR.
When the DJ came on after the song, he said a bunch of stuff in French and then said in English, “Have You Ever Seen the Snow?” My PNG colleagues all cracked up at that.
As the snow continued to fall, the road became increasingly covered in snow and traction became increasingly difficult to come by. Eventually, visibility was reduced to about twenty metres.
Then cars began to slide off the road all over the place. One slid into the wall of snow in the middle of the road right in front of us. It then pulled off to the side of the road. The occupants were fine, although we did see two accidents with ambulances attending. In total, I counted 9 cars that had slid off the road whilst we were driving along a relatively short stretch to Québec.
When the car went off the road in front of us, we pulled over to ensure that they were ok. The driver of the other vehicle stopped just behind a truck, so I parked just in front of it and walked back to talk to my colleagues. As I did, I noticed that the driver of the truck was staring at me quite intently. It was only then that I noticed that it was not an ordinary truck but rather an armoured truck – the kind that banks use to move their money around. So no doubt the security guards inside were feeling a little nervous when they saw these two Chevy Suburban gangster cars pull up either side of them. No doubt they were relieved when they saw that it was a perfectly innocent coincidence and not some variation on “The Italian Job”.
The Chevys were solid in the snow and we arrived safely and stopped for lunch on the outskirts of town. In the hour that it took to eat, icicles formed on the tyres of our vehicles. This is a strange place to put a city.
We undertook a guided tour of Québec just after checking in to the hotel.
The guide was excellent and she walked us through the historical part of town, pointing out the various landmarks.
Initially, the snow was falling so heavily that it was difficult to see any of the landmarks that we had come to visit.
There was so much snow that the garbage bins were almost completely covered.
The city of Québec has a long and rich history, dating back to the early 17th century.
Presumably, they earn some danger pay for sliding around up there among the icicles.
The draw of the city’s location lay in the St Lawrence River, the plentiful timber, and the cliffs that formed a natural fortress.
The pinnacle of the city houses one of the most attractive buildings in town.
Le Château Frontenac opened in 1893 and dominates the skyline of Quebec City. It was designed to look older than it is and specifically to house tourists, so it’s not a real château. If Ghengis Khan’s hordes were to attack it, they’d just climb in through the ground floor windows. It’s rather pretty though.
This safety rail outside the château was built in 1854.
In the lower section of the old city there are canons remaining from the fortifications built to defend the city from an attack via the river.
The lower part of town is overrun with tourist shops but it is rather quaint.
Whilst in Québec City, we took some of our Papua New Guinean colleagues out to go 10-pin bowling. It was the first time that any of them had ever tried it or even been inside a bowling alley. They absolutely loved it.
It took them a while to get the hang of bowling. On his first attempt, one chap, who is a star Rugby League player in his home village, hurled the ball down the lane with such force that I was convinced that it would pulverise the pins upon contact. The pins were saved by a gutter ball.
They did encourage each other when they did well, but more often they laughed at each other’s poor attempts to bowl. It was interesting to watch. They shamelessly pointed and made fun of their friends when their bowling balls failed to connect with any pins. It was an interesting insight into the culture of PNG. There was definitely none of that quiet laughing behind one’s hand that Canadians might engage in were they in the same situation.
As it happened, I had a good night – scoring five strikes and managing the best score amongst our folks. I was very pleased as I’ve only been bowling half a dozen times.
Afterwards a handful of the Papua New Guineans asked if they could go to a nightclub. We managed to find one – a huge place called Dagobert with three levels. On the ground floor, there was a Celtic Punk band playing, so I was in my element.
The folks from PNG preferred the upstairs area overlooking the huge dance floor. They thought it was incredible to find themselves in a vibrant place like that, in a far away land. They felt very glamorous. They only stayed for a couple of hours, but they thoroughly enjoyed the experience, dancing and drinking heavily like the best of them. Nobody got arrested or caused an international incident so I guess that qualifies as a successful night out.
The next day, we went for a walk down to the Montmorency Falls.
It is a spectacular waterfall – higher than the Niagara Falls, and half frozen this time of year.
There are a number of walkways that one can take to admire the falls from different vantage points.
It was a bright sunny day, but the temperature on the footbridge was around minus 20 degrees. My hands froze in seconds when I pulled out my ‘phone to take photos.
This bridge was constructed in 1993 and is the third to span this divide.
This panel tells the tragic story of the second footbridge that was constructed at this location . Only five days after it opened in 1856, the first bridge collapsed. One of the anchors on the Western side gave way and the bridge tumbled into the falls, killing the three people who were crossing at the time.
The panel assures visitors that the current bridge is perfectly safe – being anchored into the bedrock.
We drove home by way of a city called Trois Rivières (Three Rivers) (population 130,000). I wanted to visit the city because I used to chat online with people from that town years ago and I always wanted to see what it was like. It turns out that Trois Rivières has some interesting history. It was founded in 1634 and a battle was fought here during the American war of Independence in 1776. It is Canada’s oldest industrial city but it has seen a decline in demand for its primary product – paper – due to the shift away from newsprint. The cathedral (Basilica of Cap-de-la-Madeleine) does, however, provide a focal point for pilgrims from around the world. It was built in 1720.
We stopped at a Tim Horton’s along the way. “Timmy’s” as Canadians call it is a chain of cafes with over 4,000 outlets in North America, and they provide 62% of the coffee sold in Canada. The coffee is drinkable but it’s nothing special and the service is always terrible. Nevertheless, it’s a Canadian institution so it was an opportunity to introduce our Papua New Guinean guests to some Canadiana.
Tim Horton’s has a promotion whereby one rolls up the lip of the cup to reveal whether one has won a prize. It is a particularly sadistic way to run a competition as those lips are not easy to roll up. I almost tore out a finger nail trying and I didn’t win anything either.
You know you’re in Canada when you see people driving their snowmobiles to Tim Horton’s.
I had to laugh when I was pumping petrol and noticed that the machine is regulated to +15 degrees centigrade. It was about minus 10 at the time. I guess that’s a good deal for consumers.
It’s best not to leave one’s car out overnight in one of Québec’s snow storms.
The trip to Montreal was a lot of fun and incorporated a few interesting outings.
I caught an Ice Hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This was my entry ticket.
The Canadiens have won more ice hockey trophies than any other team in the NHL.
They have all kinds of promotions running in the arena as the game gets started. In this one, the good people at Ford took my photo and then turned me into an Ice Hockey player. According to my card, I am a start player with lots of power and speed. Of course, if I were actually put on the ice in all of that gear and trying to balance with a big stick, I’d fall on my butt my ungracefully, but the people from Ford didn’t know that.
Before the game, the merchandise store was overrun with enthusiastic fans handing over credit cards to demonstrate their commitment to the team.
Ice hockey is played in three periods of twenty minutes each. During the breaks there is a mad scramble to the washrooms and the “Concession Stands” as they call them in North America. I don’t know what they’re conceding, but that’s the term they use. One can buy anything so long as it’s beer, hotdogs or pizza.
But I broke with convention. I searched high and low and finally found a section of one store that was about a metre wide and it was labelled “Santé” (health). Sure enough, I could buy a salad there, so I think I may have been the first person in the history of Ice Hockey to eat tabbouleh at a Canadiens game.
The latter team won, 3-2. It was an interesting match.
Of course, the crowd loves to see millionaires punching each other and behaving like three year olds.
They commit acts of violence that would land them in prison if they did it on the footpath outside the stadium. But because it’s during the game they get five minutes of not being allowed to play. Hmm…
The only thing I didn’t like was that the roar of the crowd kept waking me up. In my defence, I was heavily jetlagged.
In truth, it was quite an exciting match in the third period. It could have gone either way.
The next day the paper was lamenting the local team’s loss.
I also partook of a Québecois tradition – the “Cabane à Sucre” (sugar shack).
It is essentially a place where people consume too much maple syrup.
This particular sugar shack was a huge commercial operation with a restaurant housing 1,000 people at a time.
The menu included virtually nothing healthy. Unfortunately, the quality of the food was not great – it depended too heavily on being smothered in maple syrup in order to taste any good.
My least favourite was a dish called “Oreille de Christ” – literally “Christ’s Ear”. It’s a nasty piece of pork crackling that should probably be called “Satan’s Ear” instead.
However, I particularly liked the maple syrup that is congealed in snow to make lolly pops. I had three.
Outside, one can tour the forests where the maple sap is harvested.
It takes 40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup.
Back in Longueil, Pauline Marois continued to follow me around.
Her campaign bus arrived followed by a large contingent of police and the media.
However, it was not enough to swing the outcome. The election results came out yesterday and the separatist Parti Québecois were crushed. The Liberals are forming a government.
It seems to me that Québec really does have a noticeable division between those who want to stay as part of Canada and those who want to forge an independent nation. Personally, I am glad that Québec is staying for now and I think Canada is the richer for it.
Montréal surprised me with its diversity.
There are so many fabulous historical buildings, which give it a quaint European feel.
However, they are juxtaposed with some incredibly modern-looking steel and glass constructions.
There are many expensive and glamorous parts of town.
Trudging through snow becomes so commonplace that one barely notices after a while.
This subway advertisement for a place called “Just Eat” amused me. It says, “Taste the flavours of the world without a passport…or pants”. I was pleased to a see an electric vehicle charging station in Montréal. I wonder how the Chevy Volt handles in the snow.
The things that my Papua New Guinean colleagues enjoyed most surprised me a little.
For example, one of their favourite activities was going to Walmart. They could get enough of the place.
They asked if we could drop in on the way home, but I ended up spending 3 hours chasing them around the store trying to keep track of where everyone had gone and then to get them to pay and get out of there.
We came back to PNG a few days ago, via Vancouver. More on that in my next postcard.
News from back in PNG is that my friend who was carjacked for the second time recently discovered that his car is now infamous. The story goes that some soldiers from the PNG defence force wanted to break a couple of their buddies out of prison. So they engaged the services of some ‘rascals’ (criminals) to steal them a car. Not just any car – a Nissan X-trail, which is apparently perfect for busting people out of gaol. So the rascals stole my friend’s car, and delivered it to the soldiers. The soldiers then used it in a daring raid on a courthouse in which they succeeded in freeing their friends. However, the less corrupt among the police later caught up with them and threw they lot in prison. They also managed to catch the criminals who stole the car, which is most unusual. A couple of them were captured but one foolishly decided to shoot at the police when his house was surrounded and was killed. My friend’s car was returned to him (he drove me to football in it this weekend). The thieves had obviously decided that the liked the car and would keep it because rather than trash it like they usually do, they made some improvements. They changed the wheels and added tinting, removed the floor mats, that kind of thing. The police obviously messed up their plans to keep the stolen car. This place is so bizarre sometimes that it is almost surreal. There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure.
Until next postcard…