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!

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