Friday, December 6, 2013

my own Amazing Race in Calgary

My idea was to spend my eight hour layover exploring Calgary, a city that I've never visited before.  The original plan was to leave the airport, do a bit of shopping on 17th Avenue, meet up with my buddy J, a Calgary resident, and then grab some dinner at a nearby restaurant where I can try some of that famous Alberta beef.  It wouldn't be the most thorough opportunity to go sightseeing, but I figured it would give me a good little sample.

But all Canadians know that all of your plans must contain an asterisk with the fine print "weather permitting". The weather was not permitting that day. My flight from Ottawa to Calgary was delayed by three hours, which was annoying because I had shown up at the airport at 6:30AM only to found out that I could have slept in.  Luckily, I have travelled in the winter enough times to be totally okay with sleeping under my jacket on the airport floor like a vagrant.

Ottawa fog

By the time I arrived in Calgary, it was a few hours past the time I had thought I would be arriving in Calgary.  Also, apparently Calgary was dealing with a full-blown blizzard.  I had heard about the snowfall earlier, but had paid no attention to it because, you know, I live in Nunavut and it's been snowing since August.

However, Calgary is not the Arctic and also, it's a much bigger city, so trying to get from one end of town to the other was a much more difficult feat.  So we altered our plans and I met up with my friend J for to grab a coffee at a suburban mall, not too far away.

I love traveling and exploring new cities, but I feel as though all of the suburbs in major Canadian cities look more or less the same.  They all have the identical-looking plazas with the same box stores.  In any major Canadian city, you can grab a coffee at the Tim Hortons or Starbucks, a burger at McDonalds, your various household supplies from the Wal-Mart. Maybe your grocery store is a Loblaws or a Safeway, different in name, but once you go inside, it's the same products available. Maybe you've got a St Hubert's, a Harvey's, or a White Spot.  The differences generally are not substantial. To really enjoy the unique features of a Canadian city, you have to get out of the suburbs, either to the downtown core or to the surrounding nature areas.

Unfortunately, I was having difficulty getting out of the suburbs, and back to the airport.  There were no free cabs passing by. I repeatedly tried to call all the cab companies, but their phone lines were busy the entire time.  I later found out that it was because the taxis themselves were insanely busy - there were calls for 200 cabs at the airport alone, for example.

So I wasn't going to be able to cab back to the airport. The time was ticking. The race was on. I was going to have to figure out Calgary's public transit system.  The worker at the mall's Guest Services gave me instructions on how to take public transit to the airport.  As it turned out, almost everything she told me was incorrect, but she did tell me to take the train.  Calgary has a train? I just learned this.

Yes, not only does Calgary have a train, but it also has a transit fare payment system that actually works, unlike some other major Canadian cities (cough cough, Ottawa, cough cough, presto). Calgary also has really cute place/street names that scream Calgary all over, like Deerfoot and Whitehorne. Time to take the train to Saddletowne.  Yes, I said Saddletowne. That was a real actual stop.

I got on the train, got off the stop where I was instructed, and looked for the next bus that I was supposed to take. The people at the nearby bus stop assured me that the bus would take me to the airport. The bus arrived.

"Does this bus go to the airport?" I asked, stepping on. 
"Yes," the bus driver replied, closing the door.  Thinking back, I have no idea why she said yes and let me get on the bus, because after this, she added, "This bus goes to McCallum, which is not the airport."
I was taken aback. "Is that near the airport?"
"No, this route doesn't go near the airport at all."
"Oh," I said, feeling completely confused. "I was told this bus goes to the airport."
"Yes," she said again, "I have no idea why this is called the Airport Route, because it doesn't actually go to the airport."
I got off the bus.

I was starting to feel as though Calgary was full of extraordinarily friendly people who were screwing with me.

The bus driver told me that in order to get to the airport, I had to get back on the train and go farther.  I don't know why I chose to believe the bus driver at this point, but why not? I got on the train.  I got off the train.  We were in the middle of nowhere.

I found the bus stop. The bus stop actually had a little airplane symbol on it, which could have meant that the bus would go to the airport.  Then again, maybe Calgary was messing with me, and that bus actually went to the aviation museum, or the Church of Scientology.

At that point, I saw a taxi driving by.  I abandoned my plan to conquer the public transit system and began to run after the cab, my arms flailing.

That's when this dude swooped in out of nowhere and stole my cab.  He let himself in and shut the door.  I stopped at the taxi, and before I could realize what I was doing, I yanked the taxi door back open.  The dude looked at me, a little astonished.

"Hi," I said. "You're going to the airport, right? YOU GOTTA LET ME COME WITH YOU."

There was either a look in my eyes or the tone of my voice that made the guy hesitate and yield. Maybe it's my superb lawyering skills.  I got in the taxi with him.  Steal my cab, will you? I'll show you. I'll show you by getting in the cab with you and paying for half of the taxi fare.  The dude actually ended up being a nice guy, and we had a friendly conversation for the rest of the ride.

Now that I was finally in the taxi on my way to the airport, I was better able to observe and appreciate the havoc that the snow was causing to the city of Calgary.  There were cars stuck in the middle of the lane everywhere, with drivers frantically pawing at the snow trying to dig their tires out, while other drivers waited impatiently.

"Did the snow just come this morning?" I asked.
"No, it snowed on Sunday," the dude replied. It was Tuesday.
"Are there not enough snow ploughs?" I asked, appalled that the snow, a foot deep in some places, was just allowed to accumulate in the middle of the road.
"Calgary doesn't really plough the snow," the dude remarked drily. "It just waits for a chinook to come and blow the snow off the streets."

The roads were bumper-to-bumper with people trying to move from one end of the city to the other. It didn't help that it was rush hour, a concept I had completely forgotten about while living in Nunavut. Cambridge Bay has a "rush minute" where you are stuck behind three cars at the stop sign on the main strip.  As a result, what should have been a two-minute taxi ride turned out to be a half hour, because we were re-routed due to accidents on the Deerfoot, Calgary's version of the 401 (of course, Calgary's version of the 401 would be called the Deerfoot).

Finally, I arrived at the airport, breathless, just in time. Ready to fly out. Except my flight was delayed.

Like I said, I've gotten used to sleeping on airport floors.