Bagnapper’s delight

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5 o’clock shadow. Chicago.

Just in case you were mystified by my lack of updates, let me direct you to my Twitter.

Long story long, I’ve been a tad preoccupied with a major research project at work, on top of being gone for nearly three weeks for Thanksgiving and meetings in Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, Silicon Valley and San Francisco again – in that order.

I just got back last night and have quite a few pictures to post. Much of them I’ve already tweeted (giving you non-Tweeters the side eye yet again). I’ll try to post the rest, stories attached, over Christmas break (Yes, I’m referring to it like I’m still in college).

For now, here are some highlights:

This experience aside, Torontonians are lovely. I’m told there’s this thing on the CN Tower called the Edge Walk, in which you’re suspended above the cityscape with nothing between you and the hard, hard concrete but a flimsy-looking cord. It’s only open in the warm months, and I’ve been invited to do it should I return in the summer.

I think I’ll pass.

Chicago is an awesome city.  This place is delicious, and the aquarium was fun. Jellies are always my favorite, because ain’t no party like a cnidarian party.

For my first stint in San Francisco, I stayed in the Tenderloin — a result of coming into the research process quite late and having limited time to book and schedule meetings. Upon dropping me off, my cab driver asked why the heck I was staying there. He also answered my questions of “Am I going to die?” with things like: You’ll be fine. Pause. If anyone comes up to you, just walk away. Pause.

Cab peels away the second I close the door and I’m left standing there with my luggage, a lone tumbleweed rolling by.

Silicon Valley is a neat, smart town. Lots of tech companies and charming downtown strips. There, I saw the Apple Store Steve Jobs frequented, Stanford in all its splendor, and the mighty HP shed where it all began.

I was almost the victim of The Great Bagnapping Disaster. Granted, half of it was my fault for not paying close attention to the carousel (My name is Karen, and I’m a Tweetaholic). But that had never happened before, even when I used a very generic black suitcase, so I figured: Why now?

Sure enough, I looked up from my phone long enough to realize I was the last one standing at baggage claim while a sole red suitcase that kind of but not really resembled mine rolled past.

I lifted the noticeably empty suitcase and checked the tag: Blank.

It was time to panic. I debated between running to SFO airport security and fruitlessly filling out paperwork or hunting down the bagnapper.

I decided to go a-hunting.

Potential Bagnapper #1 was a girl in her late teens or early 20s. I could tell she was creeped out by the little Asian girl chasing her down. “Excuse me?” I said. She walked faster. “Excuse me?” She stopped once she realized her ride hadn’t arrived yet. She was cornered.

Me: Hi, I can’t find my suitcase, and I just wanted to check if (looks down to see her identical red suitcase has a big black tag on the handle. Internal monologue: “Crap. That’s not mine. Or is it? She could have just added it really fast. But it looks like it’s kind of hard to add and remove quickly. Or maybe –“) you might have taken my suitcase by mistake.

Her, not amused: It’s mine.

Me: Yeah, I just noticed the tag. Well, thanks anyway; I wonder where mine went.

Her, still not amused: Well, this is mine.

I walk away, muttering expletives.

Potential Bagnapper #2. Mom standing by the curb waiting for pickup. She’s with some kids, possibly hers, and totally not the bagnapping sort. I approach anyway.

Me: Hi, did you just fly in from Chicago? (Looks down at suitcase. No unidentified tag to be found, and it appears as plump as mine).

Her, friendly: Yes.

Me: Well, my suitcase looks just like that, and I was wondering if it might be mine. Can I just see the tag?

Her: …

Me, not waiting for a response, already looking at the tag tucked into the backpocket: It’s mine.

Her: Oh my God! I’m so sorry. Here you go. We just bought a new red suitcase just like this.

Me: It’s on the carousel. I’m just glad you’re still here.

Her: I’m so sorry!

I run to catch a cab, aneurysm averted.

Now, I tend to be discerning of people and their intentions, and she very well could have been a tired mom. Except for one big discrepancy: The suitcase on the carousel was empty. Mine was nearly 50 pounds. There was absolutely no way she could have mistaken mine for hers unless she happened to possess Buffy-like strength with the inability to gauge weight.

Somehow, I doubt that.

Final Score —

Me: 1

Attempted Bagnapper: 0

The Undead: Eternity

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Poor Man’s Shia & Other Things

I’d read somewhere Toronto had a thriving underground nightlife, and my friends were determined to find it. Luckily some Torontonians they’d met on another trip showed us the places to go to be seen. I went along with it, despite my usual desire not to be seen by anyone but the people I want to be seen by.

Among the recommended places was an upscale lounge frequented by pretentious sorts, a prime example of my aversion to places like it. For one thing, the bartender, a  poor man’s Shia LaBeouf, flirted with tall blondes and brunettes before serving drinks to the commoners. And when he did serve drinks, an attitude came with them.

“I don’t know what that is,” he said with an eye roll.
“But,” I said, “it’s on the menu.”
“No, it’s not. You can ask HIM how to make it,” said Poor Man’s Shia, referring to the other bartender.

It was big-city snobbery without the big city.

A cab driver blamed the recession for the lackluster nightlife. After I’d lamented the empty streets and muted energy, he said people had become more careful with their money, but “It’s not New York.”  I nodded in agreement, though I hadn’t expected it to be New York in the first place.

During the day, it was no better. At around 5 p.m. everyone downtown passed in a blur of suits and briefcases. A suited drone rammed into my friend and kept walking, barely missing a step. It’s a familiar sight in big cities, but the colorless backdrop made it seem even colder.

This isn’t to say there weren’t good things about Toronto.

I was surprised by the narrow interpretation some people took of my Kensington Market entry. Though I can’t control how my writing is interpreted, it’s interesting how people project their biases onto the situation, depending on how well they think they know the people in the story.

I highlighted the interesting parts of Toronto in pictures. But because pictures can be deceiving and it’s not always easy to capture frustration visually without going into abstract or extremely literal territory (cue picture of me scowling), I felt it necessary to use commentary to provide a more complete perspective. I’m not interested in reading the censored version of anything, so why should I write such drivel on my blog?

I aim to provide accurate accounts of my experiences — at least how I see things, which is the key element here — whether or not they were pleasant. I’m not going to say something was life-changing and amazing when it wasn’t, but I’m not going to portray someone negatively without merit either. Something less than adoration is not necessarily criticism of the person but an analysis of someone’s behavior and my reaction to it, which could just as well be a criticism of myself. And because I’m a writer who thinks too much and analyzes too much and deconstructs too much, I always try to learn from these experiences and, unfortunately (insert wink), try to share what I’ve learned with others. With that said, Poor Man’s Shia LaBeouf was a douche and certainly deserves the title.

Toronto reminded me that more often than not, especially when traveling, things don’t always go as well as you’d hoped. As with anything in life, it’s all about how you react to things. I reacted by taking an hour to explore the city alone and by dissecting the trip afterward. It also further reinforced that travel means different things to different people. Some trips you take to enjoy friends and to make them, some to get away from the drudgery of daily life, some to explore the unfamiliar, and so on. All of them, ideally, allow you to learn more about yourself and things outside of it. All of them hopefully don’t hinge on a solitary landmark or mishap, because if something ever goes wrong — and, chances are, something will — then it would all be a waste of time.

Of course I would have loved to come back with several tales of misadventures and glorious encounters (though there was some of that), but not all trips are like that, just as life isn’t always like that. If it were, it would condition us to grow accustomed to extreme highs; monotony would ensue. This way, the moment something amazing does happen, it heightens the senses and makes us all the more aware of its rarity.

More common still is the sameness of life, briefly interrupted by glimmers of things less ordinary. And that, to me, was Toronto.

These pictures are completely random and didn’t fit into previous posts.
Here, a dog actually was sniffing these statues but I sadly didn’t get a good shot of it.

The day S. and I went to the Cambodian restaurant, we also came across a grocery store called “Manila,” named after the Philippine capital.

S. laughs during one of our impromptu photoshoots.

Rush hour zombies.

Flashy Chucks.

This guy hung out at Tim Hortons. When we gave him change, he started calling us his girls.

First glimpse of C.! In this picture, she’s passing through an air-blowing security checkpoint at the CN Tower.

I really liked this walkway, which led us to the tower.

The ROM. I enjoyed ancient Egypt the most. Women were held in high esteem
and could rule the country. Ahead of their time or are we just backward?

At Casa Loma after the Princess’s exit.

Subways and Streetcars

It’s easy to get around Toronto. One morning S. and I wandered over to the outskirts of Toronto to a Cambodian restaurant, where she talked to the owner in Cambodianglish for 10 minutes. “I’m proud of myself!” she said afterward. Here, we waited for the streetcar.

Just around the corner from our hotel, Union Station.

Their subway cars, at least on the line we used, were incredibly clean.

Their subway stations are pretty impressive.
Certain stops feature murals and other works of art.

It’s also a very green city. There are recycling bins everywhere.

King Tut was at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Sadly I missed it. I did see another mummy at the Royal Ontario Museum, and perhaps once you’ve seen one mummy you’ve seen them all. Yes? No?

Three impeccably dressed women sat across from us on the train. There was something graceful about them, even down to the leg-crossing.

Subway musicians are ubiquitous.

Leftovers and flowers.

Rush hour.

The Art of Undocumenting

“We should plan tomorrow better.”

We’d breezed through Kensington Market, a neighborhood in Toronto known for its diverse population, restaurants and nooks, and were in the midst of doing the same to Queen Street West. There went a bookstore, an art gallery, and so on, until we’d passed so many they might as well have been the same. My camera dangled from my right shoulder, unused, as my friend S. told me one of her detailed stories.

S. talks quickly without pausing. A simple question never gets a simple answer, as an inquiry of “Where’d you get that skirt?” can turn into a narrative of her particular mood the morning she might have bought the skirt, how her eyes might have been puffy from forgetting to take Claritin the night before, that the skirt she wore that day ripped from old age, and, after eating a grilled cheese sandwich, she saw an H&M, pulled over and…

“I think we’re going the wrong way,” she said.

Sure enough, she’d read the map upside down. We had to turn around. Our day had consisted of walking through neighborhoods in a city of neighborhoods without really taking them in. I knew we were in trouble seconds after arriving at Kensington Market, when I looked up from my camera to see S. standing a few feet ahead of me, waiting.

“Don’t you want to look at the thrift store?” I asked.
“I’m not here to shop,” she said.

Taking a picture often demands that its taker and subject be comfortable. I felt rushed, watched. She hovered.

“We should plan tomorrow better,” she said.

In my mind, the day was well planned. We’d visit two of Toronto’s vibrant areas and go from there. I’d missed her and another friend’s Niagara Falls excursion because I’d come a day too late, and we’d saved museums for another day. But without a singular popular landmark to focus on, it soon became clear we had different views about travel.

Though I usually pick a few landmarks to see, I also leave enough time to wander and document anything that interests me. This really evolved from my trips as a broke college student, when I was forced to be creative with my time and money. I rarely buy anything aside from a few trinkets or inexpensive jewelery; my pictures are my souvenirs. While I’m an observer of life, S. is an active member. She loves to talk, absorb the nightlife, and be the subject of photos, not take them.  She tells intricate stories; I listen. We get along because we don’t take ourselves too seriously, as our conversations often culminate in fits of laughter, mostly hers.

That afternoon I decided to put down the camera and see things her way. I tried to get lost in her stories, all the while inhibiting that gut instinct to document. I passed by much of Chinatown without taking a picture. There were many images, colorful ones, but I don’t remember them. I walked, she talked, and we missed everything in between.

When we got back to the hotel, we plopped down on our beds and opened our laptops. I wasn’t happy with the few pictures I had. I document things, I thought. It’s why I became a journalist. I’ve kept journals since I was 8, had cameras since I was 10, and once I learned I could publish my thoughts online, kept a blog at 14.

I looked at the time — our friend was due to return from her conference in an hour. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my camera and a map.

“I’ll be back,” I said, not really sure where I was headed.

I exited the hotel and turned right.

Tons of color and character on Spadina.

S. the model.

We didn’t figure out how to pronounce Spadina (spa DYE na) until a few days into the trip.


Kensington Market, one of Toronto’s most famous neighborhoods.

Mesmerized by the creepy bunny. Inside, there was another.

Asians & meat.

Here we met a nice Torontonian who gave me a rundown of the best coffee shops in town, naturally.

Anything but a white picket fence.

Something gritty, something neat.

Perfect for frolicking in a meadow.

On Queen Street West, we came across this contraption.
A sign on the door said no one under 18 allowed.

Overlooking Toronto

Toronto on the surface pretty much feels like the U.S., except there are slightly different accents, sentences punctuated with “eh” and signs translated in French. Someone lame is a dude bro, and fries with gravy are totally natural.

I knew little about Toronto and preferred to keep it that way.

“Toronto?” A Canadian friend said after I asked him what there was to do there. “Go to Montreal. Or Vancouver.”

“CN Tower,” said my friend in Virginia. “The glass floor is ridiculous.”

Other than that, my inquiries went unanswered, and I was beginning to think that despite being so close to American (Well, U.S. American) soil, Toronto was uncharted territory.

When it comes to travel, there are universal responses at the mention of certain places. Somewhere European, Asian or  exotic-sounding usually elicit unified expressions of “Awesome!” and “Wow!” My mention of Toronto, on the other hand, was met with confusion: “Why?”

While it’s perfectly acceptable to venture to certain places without purpose (No one ever asks “Why Italy?” for instance), places like Toronto require explanations. I’d like to say I had a real desire to learn more about our North American neighbor and its biggest city, but my reasons weren’t quite so ambitious. A friend needed to go there for a conference, and accommodations were provided. I hadn’t been on a plane in about a year, much less out of the country, so I figured it was time.

I rarely thought about Toronto before the trip and even after booking the flight I’d all but forgotten about it. The night before I left, it suddenly dawned on me I had no idea where we were staying or how close it was to the airport. A few quick Facebook messages solved that, and soon I was on my way to see Canada for the first time.

I often draw energy from places — New York has a distinct energy that at times can be overwhelming — but in Toronto I felt nothing. I was OK with that. Being a writer means having to possess some sort of imagination and the ability to find something interesting in anything. I briefly consulted some sites and decided the best way to take in Toronto was to wander somewhat aimlessly.

I was quickly reminded not everyone traveled this way.

For 31 years the CN Tower was the tallest free-standing structure in the world.
In 2007, Dubai unveiled the Burj Khalifa.

A burst of color.

Lovers above the city.

Tiny, tiny world.

Lurking behind my friends.

Long way down.

Shiny surfaces.