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Month: August 2006

dispatches from the west volume three: rolling through the prairies

Rolling Through the Prairies

“I punked off Saskatchewan.”

Waking up to the sounds of “breakfast is now being served in the dining car!” – Oh right, first class. I forgot. I peeked out from under my sleepy, cozy haze to have my first gaze of the Prairies. From my window, it all seemed to go by too fast.

I punked off Saskatchewan and I feel kind of bad, but my schedule (and the train’s schedule) didn’t allow for a visit, so the most I’ll get to see (between Winnipeg and my next destination, Edmonton) is just the passing scenery outside of my window. Wack. “At least I know how to spell Saskatchewan,” I tried to console myself, but I still felt bad. I struggled to remember pieces of a documentary on Regina hip hop and graffiti I had watched years ago. I kept my eyes open for passing freight trains and scanned their sides for familiar scrawls.

Many people in the West or in the East (which are definitely subjective terms in Canada) generally like to poke at each other either jokingly or viciously on this or that subject, but the Prairies always seem to get neglected and discounted from those discussions – as if they don’t count. I had an obnoxious argument with a Vancouverite recently, wherein he made some sort of claim about Western Canada (meaning BC) being in opposition to Eastern Canada (in his eyes, Ontario and Quebec), and when I counter-argued using the example of that little wheat-producing province one over from Alberta, his blank stare reflected the blankness of his feelings about it. Where is the dividing line? The mountains? What binds BC and Alberta, aside from blinding wealth and a job boom? In discussions of East versus West, why is Central Canada dismissed? However you may draw your borders, the middle is hardly worth ignoring. And yet here here I am, punking off…

I contemplated wheat fields and freight trains over a chef’s omelet and coffee in the super fancy dining car, and actually found myself sitting across the table from a couple from Saskatoon. They had boarded just in time to join me for a morning meal, and I confessed to them how I felt a little betrayed by the hills and streams in the province. “What about being able to see your dog run away for two days?” I asked them. “It’s not really that flat.” About an hour into our leisurely breakfast chat, the train rolled through a town called Biggar, a small farming community of several hundred. The VIA staff cracked jokes about a sign that read: “NEW YORK IS BIG, BUT THIS IS BIGGAR.” Dang — farmers with attitude! I immediately decided that I liked the Prairies a whole lot more.

Now, I have to say a few words about this first class business. For starters, I’m nestled just along the lower rungs of the first class ladder — Sharon in Winnipeg had put me through for an Upper Berth (a claustrophobic little pod with pillows and dim lighting), but availability and tiredness had encouraged the VIA staff on the train to upgrade me on the spot to a Lower Berth (a roomy throne with the best view a window-starer-out-er like me could hope for). Even the Upper Claustro-Pod would have run me a few hundred dollars as simply an upgrade from my regular Coach ticket. Moving higher up along the ladder, you’d find people dishing out thousands for tiny single rooms, bedrooms, and even relatively spacious suites.

As I’ve said before, I have taken the train to the Maritimes many, many times. My trips were always East-bound, and always off-season. Who takes the train West? Who takes the train in the summertime? Who takes the train West in the summertime in First Class? The short answer is, three types of people: 1 – rich, elderly couples, 2 – rich, vacationing single British men, and 3 – rich, kinda weirdo Americans. This list is in order.

Rich Elderly Couples:

There were a lot of older folks on this train. A LOT of them. Swarming. They were everywhere — jammed into every available seat in the observation cars, smiling pleasantly over their tea or coffee or chilled juice or whatever over meals, teetering and tottering in the aisles on their way back to their respective seats and beds. Generally very sweet and nice and in perma-vacation mode. They dressed in pearls and snappy sweater vests, and wore silk pajamas and night caps to bed. Most of them were asleep by 9 pm. Something about the rocking motion of the train…

Rich Vacationing Single British Men:

Okay, I really only met three, but I’m positive there were more stowed away that I didn’t get a chance to talk to. The conversation was the same with all of them:

“So what are you doing in Canada?”
“Oh, I’m on holiday, and I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s my first time, and I wanted to see as much of it as possible.”
“Where have you been so far?”
“Well, I flew into Toronto and stayed for a day, and now I’m on my way to Vancouver, where I’ll be for another day or two. Then I fly back to England.”
“That’s it? Straight across? On the train? No stopping anywhere in between?”
“Yeah. No.”
“Why? Why would you do something like that? You know it’s cheaper to fly, don’t you?”

At which point they’d give me a LOOK and the conversation would die. Seriously though, four days on the train? Just to have a “look” at the country? Being on a jam-packed train with a lot of idle wealth was starting to get to me, I think, and my tact had long disappeared. I suppose my own ideas of “seeing” a country go beyond merely stealing a few glances out the window while you stuff yourself with VIA Rail’s gourmet non-vegan non-organic dinner menu, but hey — to each their own.

Rich and Kinda Weirdo Americans:

Again, really only three of this variety, and “weirdo” is such a subjective term to begin with. The one I’d be least inclined to tack that label to was a lady I met from Detroit (or Ohio?) who had just stepped into her 50s and was set on crossing items off her well-appointed Before I Die to-do list. By the end of her trip, she said, she’ll have accomplished 13 out of 20. “Not bad for someone my age, hey?” She was boisterous and on her way to the Grand Canyon, Vegas, and multiple helicopter rides. I liked her.

The other two examples were both from Vermont, I think — a somber father and son, and a nerdy writer. The father/son combo made me uneasy in that they were extremely quiet, prone to staring, and bore matching army-style buzz cuts. The son was pudgy and the dad was thin, rocked an awful moustache, and had an uncomfortably high-strung air. They shared the berth next to mine and avoided eye contact during lunch.

As for the nerdy writer, we first connected (no pun) over our powerbook plug situation, but then quickly disconnected over Chapelle season one. He was going to lend his powerbook and some DVDs to one of the aforementioned Rich and Vacationing Single British Men in our section, and roped me into trying to explain the concept of Chapelle to the Brit.

“There’s this great scene about this guy named Little John,” he giggled, “and he can only speak in mono-syllables. How-how-how would you describe him?”

He turns to me and I pause. How would I describe him? “Uhhh…”

“He’s like this smoked-out, rasta guy with sunglasses. So high on drugs. Man, it’s hilarious!” He puts on an awful Jafakin’ accent. “Oh yeah! Ohh-kaay!

Those, I point out to him, are references to Lil’ Jon songs. “Songs? You mean he’s a real person?” I nodded. “Ohhhh.” His smile faded into confusion, as if the sketch had somehow become less funny. So, he moved on to talking about his other favourite sketch: the one about the blind white supremacist. I sobbed on the inside. It was going to be a looooong ride.

The best thing about being on a train is the train itself. It moves slowly, sometimes gracefully but mostly laboriously, along rails that took hell to lay down but that have been absolutely vital in the struggle to thread this country’s vast pieces together.

As I write this last bit, we’re beginning to climb into Alberta, Big Sky Country. The flats (I truly and honestly thought they’d be flatter, guy) have given way to rolling hills, thick families of trees, and glistening rivers. A landscape like the curves of a woman, as my friend Samira would say. Gentle and powerful. I just caught sight of some Grade A Alberta beef cows grazing near the steep drop of a cliff, right up close to the edge. Not afraid of heights in these parts, are they?

That’s pretty G.

dispatches from the west volume two: killerpeg, manitoba

Killerpeg, Manitoba. August 2 – 4, 2006.

[ Mood Ruff :: Soldier Song ]

I kind of like Winnipeg. I vaguely remember a joke I used to tell as a kid (adapted from a much dirtier joke I once overheard a drunken uncle tell at a baptism in Portugal) where, according to my Canadianized version, the punchline was “I’m going to Winnipeg.” It had something to do with taking the train and wearing a big skirt, and though the details have faded, I do remember it being really funny… I think. Until we pulled into the VIA Rail station at Broadway and Main, that was pretty much the extent of my impression of this city: vaguely funny, vaguely dirty, fuzzy around the edges.

In all my random emails, texts and myspace comments to friends since arriving here, I’ve been telling pretty much everyone the same thing — the vibe is hard and harsh, but the street art is interesting, folks look you straight in the eye when you pass them on the street, and you always know exactly where you stand. There’s a certain kind of simultaneous vibrancy and heaviness in the air. I like it. It’s the kind of city I would always trust my gut in, and the kind of city where I would probably get a lot of stuff done. The mosquitoes in these parts are usually brutal (due to conditions created by annual flooding), but 2006, I’m told, has no doubt been a banner year for the mighty wasp.

My kind and generous host in Winnipeg was Dane, better known to Vancouver rap aficionados as Birdapres, and owner of a brand new, beautiful home on an equally beautiful tree-lined street. Pat and Kenji are his roommates (aka emcee Pip Skid and recent Japanese arrival DJ Teramoto), the front garden is gentle and lush, the backyard’s got a BBQ and a set of impossibly tiny deck chairs, and the guest room has its own balcony. Lots of families and working-class folks on the same block. It’s always nice to see kids playing in the middle of the street, like a scene out of the Wonder Years.

Oh wait, I lied. Apart from that weird joke I used to tell as a kid, I did have another impression of Winnipeg, and that’s by way of the portraits painted by the Manitoba-raised rappers and producers on the Peanuts & Corn label. Birdapres is a fairly recent arrival to Winnipeg from the Republic of East Van, but emcees like his roomie Pip and John Smith (who runs The Urban Bakery in town), alongside producer mcenroe, had long established themselves as Manitoba staples. Five years ago, back when I was co-hosting a college radio show in the Maritimes, we got an anonymous late-night phonecall — the muffled voice on the other end hissed the words Fermented Reptile and hung up. That right there was the beginning of my relationship with Peanuts & Corn music, and the beginning of my very own Manitoba story.

My first day in town, I took my time. I wandered along Broadway, cutting through to Portage Ave, and eventually making my way to the Exchange District. Whereas much of the landscape along those two main arteries is a mix-and-match collection of shiny government buildings, smaller brown-brick structures with character, and weirdly bland commercial spaces, the Exchange District definitely has a strongly defined presence. Classy, beautiful spaces. Good energy, the hum of voices, tasty food. The Mondragon Cafe makes a wicked veggie burger, second only to the hemp-pesto burger at Fresh.

I spent a lot of time criss-crossing Broadway and Portage, and each time I was struck by the amount of street art that popped up in seemingly random public (and private) spaces. Lots of mixed-media and textured murals, larger-than-life sidewalk installations, and surreal little sculptures. Even homemade efforts abounded — I caught sight of a pink elephant painted on the dry, cracked banks of the river that runs through town, waiting for the water levels to rise again so that it could take a dip. I also walked by the infamous G-Unit House, where some kids (I assume) had spray painted the sidewalk in both directions with the same message: “Fuck 50 Cent! Stop snitching! G-UNOT” (or something to that effect). There was another big sign in the front window that read: “RIP Proof”. Rap lives on in Winnipeg, take note.

Although Toronto apparently has the country’s largest urban Native population, in Winnipeg they make up a significantly larger percentage of the city’s residents — or at least, through my outsider’s eyes, it definitely seemed that way. I snapped a photo of a First Nations Bank and skimmed a story in the local Free Press about Canada’s first urban reserve — a space right in the heart of downtown Winnipeg.

As compared to Toronto, Montreal or Halifax, Winnipeg is a driving city. It’s not unfriendly to pedestrians—it’s too small to be a mess of un-walkable sprawl just yet—but streets stretch many lanes across, and there was a healthy flow of traffic all along the main arteries downtown. Downtown itself was a bit of a mind-boggler for me. I’ve always thought of a city’s downtown core as being the place to be, where people gather on summertime patios for drinks, wander streets window-shopping, hang out in public squares or gardens, business towers stack up to the sky, that sort of thing. In this town, downtown was synonymous with crime, muggings, stabbings, nothing good. Residents steered clear of downtown, going to lengths even in the daytime to avoid a downtown bus transfer. The city’s response? A marketing campaign designed to re-kindle positive associations with downtown, almost in a touristy vein — Come have a good time, DOWN TOWN! Giant posters and bus shelter ads feature bright-eyed, smiling white families and couples, having a whale of a time on their respective downtown sight-seeing vacations. It’s a little bananas.

[ John Smith :: Kinship of the Down and Out (Bastid Rmx) ]

While in town, I was informed that Winnipeg is the holder of a number of titles within Canada; among other things, it’s known as being both the car-theft capital and hard liquor-consumption capital in the country. Until recently it was also the murder capital of Canada, but I was later corrected by the residents of Edmonton, Alberta that the title now belongs to them. Apparently the two cities switch off every so often, back and forth, Killerpeg and Deadmonton. Both “dangerous” places, but for vastly different reasons, and with vastly different vibes.

(A week and a half after leaving town, I would find myself wrapped in a conversation with a friend in Vancouver, where she shared her own impressions of Winnipeg. Some friends of hers, while shooting the series “Moccasin Flats” on location there, had apparently found the city way too “hood” for them and didn’t feel fully at ease hanging out at local bars. Her story echoed the sentiments expressed to me by a friend months earlier — a Toronto-raised rap dude who rolled with violence and vice on the regular. “There’s something about Winnipeg,” he told me, “that you just do NOT want to fuck with.” John Smith’s anthem for the city’s North End looped in my headphones and in my mind for the days and weeks leading up to my visit, and I wanted to see that North End, wanted to touch the un-fuck-wit-able-ness. Like the North End in Halifax, or the “rougher” part of any city, calling it the rough part is generally synonymous with coloured faces, louder voices, and different body language. Dangerous to the mainstream in their difference, dangerous to outsiders who don’t quite understand. They are also the most interesting parts of any city, and the parts I find myself the most at-home in.)

My “official” business in town revolved around a meeting with Jino Distasio from the Institute for Urban Studies. It was pouring rain the morning we were to meet, and as I soon learned, when it rains in Winnipeg it doesn’t rain for long, but it sure does come down hard. I hailed the sweetest cab driver in town for a ride — an older South Asian man, about my dad’s age. (He’d been living in Winnipeg for about as long as I’ve been alive, and had a thing or two to teach me about Canadian winters. He made me feel like a total wimp for ever complaining about wind chill in Toronto.)

The offices of the Institute are located within the U of W campus. While it is primarily focused on issues of urbanization, particularly in the Winnipeg region, Jino had much insight to share in overlapping areas of interest. I was lucky to be visiting during a World Cup year, he mentioned, because every community in town had whipped out their respective flags for the occassion. “Suddenly,” he observed, “we could see our neighbours. They became very visible.”

Lucky indeed. The games had long since finished up, but I caught sight of a surprising variety of nationalities and loyalties around town, all played out by way of flags, logos, colours, murals, tiles, signs, clothing and proud thick accents. A Halal meat shop around the corner, a Sudanese church down the way, and an enormous Portuguese flag draped across a crane at a construction site. The Eastern European influence, of course, was a given.

The conversation drifted back to World Cup, and I had to laugh at Jino’s observation that, regardless of which country had won their game, that particular victorious group of people would always go to celebrate in Little Italy. That, he explained, was the spot to be for World Cup.

We discussed not only the urbanization of Winnipeg, but the suburbanization; the inner city, weighed down by a terrible reputation and the flight of wealth, had become a sort of stepping stone for immigrant and disadvantaged communities. The “helping hand” tendency or mentality among these groups of people has seen them band together, share property and housing, and support one another until the members of their make-shift extended family are stable enough to move to a “better” part of town, or afford their own housing. “Part of the immigrant experience,” explained Jino, “is knowing you have to help.” It’s knowing you have to stick together. Loyalties and sacrifices, and the guilt that’s passed down. This part of the story struck a chord.

Because so much of Manitoba’s population, as well as Winnipeg itself, was founded on immigration, the barriers to adjustment and acceptance are perhaps less sharply felt here than in other, more established communities, Jino explained. Aside from the sizable First Nations community, most of the people who live in this region came from somewhere an ocean away, either very recently or just a few short generations ago. The Ukrainians, the Germans, the Italians, the Filipinos. They know displacement. They remember. Their children remember.

* * *

[ mcenroe :: Track 10 from Billy’s Vision ]

Regrets? I have a few. Mainly I wish I had had more time to wander, explore, get over my camera shyness, and simply soak in the city. I didn’t make it to Chinatown, or to the French Quarter across the river. I wish I’d had more time.

I had been eight hours delayed getting into Winnipeg, and my departing train bound for Edmonton was five hours late in arriving—a total of thirteen hours out of whack. Lucky for me, a wonderful, wonderful woman by the name of Sharon at the Winnipeg VIA Rail station took pity on me, and I got upgraded to First Class at no charge. The high life!

It was late by the time I actually boarded the train, and a warm bed was waiting for me, complete with silver-wrapped chocolate mint. Cozy atop a pile of soft, luxurious pillows from my Lower Berth, I turned up “Galaxy In Turiya” on my headphones and watched Winnipeg’s moonlit curves and edges roll away, away, away… and out of sight.

dispatches from the west, volume one: escape from northern ontario

Toronto to Winnipeg

I’ve taken the train a million times. Or, at least what’s felt like a million times. The corridor of tracks that runs from Toronto to Halifax has been well oiled by wheels upon which I’ve traveled several times a year for four straight years. Twenty-four hours on the rails to Sackville, an extra five (give or take) to Hali, plus a brief-ish stopover in dear Montreal. Piece of cake.

Going West of Toronto on those rails, however, is a completely different story. Ohhhh, I could tell you some things.

* * *

01 August 2006; 9:24 am departure.

Observations from the train, written along the way. “Things” so far:

1. There’s a spot where the train passes through Richmond Hill, sandwiched somewhere between a big box multiplex and an eerie row of perfect clone houses — the big sloppy scrawl sprayed on the side of an underpass reads: WHITE PRIDE WORLD WIDE.

2. Pulling into Perry Sound is about the grandest entrance any small Ontario town could ever hope for. For a second, it felt like we had just magically arrived in the Maritimes. Water glistening, curved shoreline, boats holding their places, waiting for their chance to purr again.

3. Sitting in proximity to the only plug on the coach car is priority one.

4. Sioux Lookout is known for hunting, fishing, and drunk _____ men passed out on the grass by the train tracks.

* * *

We departed Union Station in Toronto at about twenty, thirty minutes past 9 am on Tuesday, the 1st. Already behind schedule. Forty hours, one fatality, and a timezone change later, we pulled into Winnipeg’s Central Station, at Broadway and Main.

The accident — a car-train collision, vehicle got dragged, and the driver did not survive — put a very strange cloud over the trip. It happened just a few hours outside of Toronto, sometime past noon or one pm, and set off a weird domino effect that would eventually snowball into an overall eight hour delay. In a coach car full of antsy kids, chatty cathys and the inexplicably morose, I admit that cabin fever really did start to get to me.

Because the world is stupidly small and strange, I ended up sitting across the isle from Kevin Williams, aka Ofeld from Winnipeg’s own Mood Ruff. Word! I told him how I used to spin his single on college radio four years ago. We bonded over KMD and MF (Doom, not Grimm), he cut me down for not having enough Biggie on my ipod, and then gave me about 6 gigs of classic rap from his harddrive to take with me. Peace, you’re a good dude. Sorry I didn’t call.

Chatted for far too long with quite possibly the oldest bike courier in the world, also across the aisle. By the time our temporary friendship had come to an end, I had learned about his dangerously low body fat count, his crazy non-profit housing situation, why he thought bike lanes were a bad idea in Toronto, and how he cycled across Canada two summers ago at the sprightly age of 64. Note to self: choose your seat carefully.

* * *

I’d really like to keep a proper account of this three-week cross-country odyssey, and I’ll do my best not to slack too hard. The train is an excellent place to concentrate and let ideas kick around, and there’s nothing like wandering unfamiliar streets and taking in the quirks of a new city to get your thoughts flowing. If ever there was a cure for writer’s block, this is it.

I’ve been writing. Writing a lot. Writing about four different projects at once. As far as the Dispatches series, expect several more (perhaps even coherent) installments in the days to come:

Volume Two: Killerpeg, Manitoba
Volume Three: Rolling Through the Prairies
Volume Four: Big Sky Country
Volume Five: The Battle for North Texas

And more to come once I actually roll out to British Columbia at the end of this week. It’s 3 am local time, my days and nights are hectic and beautiful, bear with me! This is all a part of the process…