Calgary (7 July 2013) and some experiences on 6 July 2013 when I took my maiden voyage across the Atlantic to get there
It was time to go westwards again and this time I was going across the Atlantic Ocean. I had not been to the Americas before and I was quite excited.
I had to get to Helsinki airport to start my journey of course but getting there from Turku was so easy. There was a change somewhere along the way but it was all timed properly so that passengers and their luggages could be transferred quickly onto the second bus.
I found a relatively cheap flight to Canada on Icelandair. I would later discover that it was really an expensive budget flight with free drinks but the flight attendants provided good service.
I had to transit in Reykjavík and that made me wish I was stopping by. I got a glimpse of Iceland as the plane was landing and that made me wish even more that I was exploring the country first before heading to Canada. The sky was grey at the time and the landscape around the airport was bleak and brown. It looked simply mysterious and exciting!
The folks at the Reykjavík Airport were very thorough. Annoyingly so I might add. At customs to leave the Schengen Zone, the officer questioned me as if I were entering it instead. I thought that I had gone to the wrong line initially! I did not know that Icelandic customs also worked for Canada. Then before I boarded the plane, the lady checking boarding passes at the gate had to check again to ensure that I was allowed to visit Canada without a visa. That made me wonder whether I was going to be turned away at the Toronto Airport if even non-Canadian customs were that strict!
I have had my fair share of experiences with customs officers before. The ones in Europe are so strict that every time I landed in one of their airports I would get hypertension and found myself praying hard that I would not be refused entry for whatever reason. I never knew that clearing customs could be such an exciting affair until I started visiting Europe. The attitudes of European customs officers differed from country to country however. The ones around the Mediterranean did not seem to care much, if at all, unlike the ones up north.
Once at Amsterdam I was brought to their office like some crime suspect because, I believe, they thought I looked too young for my alleged age. I admit that I do look too young for my age but the world is big and people are different. East Asians age better than Europeans too I might add. I never had problems at Asian airports too. Nevertheless, at the Dutch airport customs office, I was merely asked the usual questions about how long I was going to be in Europe and where I was staying and whether I had enough money to keep myself alive there. I even showed my interrogator my stack of cash. That just felt so wrong!
To be fair, I do understand that Europe has its problems with immigration and especially with illegal ones. However those experiences do not become any more pleasant because of that. At the same time, whatever my government enjoys feeding to Singaporeans about the stature of the country in foreigners’ eyes and the value and recognisability of the Singaporean passport, thanks to Europe, I discovered that they were all Pyongyang-style propaganda. A Singaporean passport may allow me visa-free entry to many countries, but it does not make me a trustworthy visitor in the eyes of many foreigners. To them, Singaporeans are no different from people of the third world, i.e. people who want a share of their wealth.
The flight across the Atlantic made me forget my experiences at the airport though. We went across a bit of Greenland and got a fantastic view of the island. It was absolutely incredible. I will really have to visit Greenland some day.
My itinerary in Canada was quite haphazard. I started my visit in the Rockies then I headed back east to Montreal and Quebec before ending in Vancouver on the west coast. My friends in Canada thought that I was mad when they heard about it. But I did have good reasons to plan my itinerary this way. I had to fit F’s schedule in and he was going to do only the Rockies with me. There was no reason for me to refuse his company too especially since he was going to do all the driving.
I cleared customs at Toronto with only a bit of worry. The young officer looked like he was trying to be serious but only managed to look like he had swallowed a grouch or something. I told him that I had just spent 2 months in Europe and he thought it was odd that I could get away from work for that long. Yes, I had told him that I had a job because I believed that being jobless would give any customs officer too good a reason to turn me away. Anyway, he only checked my ticket to Calgary and let me through.
I took a Westjet flight to Calgary and it was a wonderful start to my Canadian visit. The head attendant was really quite funny. She made an announcement towards the end of the flight about the Calgary airport terminal being a smoke-free zone. Throughout much of the announcement it was clear that she was quite against smoking. However, at the end, she surprised everyone by saying that there were designated smoking areas and that people who really needed to could follow her since she was heading to one.
I landed at the airport at about midnight. Since F was supposed to land in Calgary in the evening, the original plan was for him to hire a car, check in at the Marriott Courtyard nearby then come fetch me at the airport. However on 6 July an Asiana plane crashed at the San Francisco Airport and they had to close that airport. F would not make it to Calgary till the afternoon of 7 July. Fortunately the hotel provided free shuttle services and I was able to get to the hotel.
While waiting for F, I decided that I would check out Calgary for a bit in the morning. After a wonderful breakfast at the cafe in the hotel, I started my adventure.
But first I had to find my way to the city centre. There is a light rail system station about 3 kilometres away and I had to go there to take the train. The area between the hotel and the station was quite surreal. It looked like I was in the middle of nowhere with some industrial offices here and there. Everything was so big and so wide. The roads looked like 5 big trucks could go on them side by side. There seemed to be so much land in Canada and that was something new to someone from land scarce Singapore.
Many people in town wore cowboy hats. The Calgary Stampede was happening and everyone was in a stampeding mood it seemed. Apart from the cowboy hats and the country music blaring from some places however, the downtown area itself actually reminded me of Australia. I could have been in Melbourne instead for all I know!
Chinatown was nearby and I have to say that I have always been fascinated by Chinatowns in the west. The one in Calgary did not disappoint me. Despite being ethnic Chinese myself, living in a predominantly Chinese country and having been to the Greater China Region many times, I still found western Chinatowns somewhat foreign. I would also describe many of the buildings in these Chinatowns as Chinoiserie rather than Chinese!
On 21 June 2013, heavy rainfall caused the Bow and Elbow Rivers to spill over. Massive floods caused much damage to the city and even some deaths. It was considered the worst catastrophic flooding in Alberta’s history. By the time I got to Calgary however, everything looked pretty normal except for some small areas by the rivers. The city had done a fantastic job cleaning itself up.
Before I knew it, I had to make it back to the hotel to meet F. I wish I had time for the Stampede though. On the other hand, it looked like it was going to be too crowded for my liking. There was an Indian family that looked like they were attending the Stampede. The mother covered her head with her sari and wore a cowboy hat over it. She looked so cute that I wanted to take a photo of her. But I decided that I was not going to offend anyone on my first proper day in Canada.