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Maps

I’ve always loved maps. As a kid, I waited excitedly for the National Geographic magazines, hoping that this would be one of the lucky months with a beautiful double-sided highly-detailed map. I’d pore over every feature of the map, looking for any oddities in the route a road took, for example, or what I considered to be strange naming conventions (West Virginia and Virginia? Baja California and Baja California Sur?). I’d try to imagine myself living in that location, and how the geography of it would affect my daily life. How would I get to school? Where would I play with my friends?

That fascination and imagination continues to this day when I look at maps. I am fascinated by enclaves, exclaves, and any other -claves you can think of. The quirks of human history and geography, laid down on a map with different splashes of colour. I try to imagine what it’s like to live in the various exclaves in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Are they cut off from their families and friends?

My love of maps evolved, however. As is well known, I am an admirer of public transit maps, especially metro maps. Why? At its core, the fascination is for the same reason. How do people go to school, to work, to play, to shop, every day in their city? Which stops are the busiest, and which are the quietest, and why? Beyond that, it’s also because the maps bestow a certain order on the organized chaos that is any modern city. No need to navigate traffic, or get lost by taking a wrong turn. You look at the map, you find your starting point, and you take the shortest route to your destination. Of course, in the larger cities (Mexico, New York, Moscow, Japan) the systems are quite complex and the shortest route may not be so obvious; but still, taking the metro is much, much easier than driving in an unknown city.

Last year, I read a book by Ken Jennings, who holds the record of the longest win streak on Jeopardy!, called Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonksand I was pleasantly surprised that I’m not the only person with this “affliction”; I nodded my head in vigorous agreement many times while reading it, saying “That’s me! That’s me!” while the cats stared curiously.

And then there are metro maps. In many cities, the metro/subway/tube is almost a symbol of the city itself. When I think of the world’s great public transit systems, I think of Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Mexico City, Madrid, Barcelona, and of course, my home city’s system, Montréal. And oddly enough, I am not the only one who thinks like this. There are many other people out there who are as fascinated by metro maps as I am. Take a look at this site, for example, as a recent one I found. And of course, the classic UrbanRail.Net. And then there’s the well-known book, Transit Maps of the World.

To finish off this exploration of maps, here are a few interesting videos:

Weird choice of music on this next one:

 

Maple Taffy / Tire sur la neige. Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jw1697/6974621697/

Mission: Cabane à Sucre

Going to the Cabane à Sucre is a Québec tradition. The maple syrup flows; the ham and eggs drown in it, the baked beans are sweetened by it, the pea soup is drizzled with it. I love going to the cabane and eating the taffy on the snow. I’m certain that every Québecer goes at least once (if not more!) as a child, with school or family. It’s a great tradition, but it’s become tainted by the “industrialization” of it.

This weekend, I went to Mont St-Grégoire, hoping to take my boys to eat some maple sweets. It was a beautiful day, probably the first warm day of the year, sunny, and perfect for a family outing in the countryside. Of course, as you can expect, half of Montreal thought the same thing. The first hint of a problem came while we were on the highway; we were stuck there in traffic for about 20 minutes, lined up with everyone else who wanted to get off at the exit. Then, we went to one of the cabanes that I had heard good things about, smaller than others. I pull in to their parking and the first thing I’m told is, if I don’t have a reservation, I’m out of luck. We then tried to go to the two larger ones nearby, and the line snaking out of the place must have had several hundred people waiting to get in. We decided that there was no way we would wait there, because in the past we’d gone there and we were treated like cattle, the way we were herded through turnstiles to the table: “Ok, here’s your food”, “Are you finished yet? Others are waiting”, This way to the exit, go on the tractor and then your time here is done”. We did not want to do that again, so we did not get in line.

As a last attempt, we went to another one a bit further away, not at the foot of the mountain. It didn’t seem too busy when we pulled in, so we walked in an inquired about the cost. We were told that we wouldn’t be able to eat until 5pm (it was 2pm by now; we had hoped to have lunch!). That was it, we gave up and turned around back towards the city.

So, why do I say that the cabane à sucre experience has been tainted? I understand that on a beautiful day, lots of people will want to go out and enjoy the first real day of spring weather, so I can’t blame the crowds. The problem is the how the bigger ones shovel people through, as many as possible as quickly as possible, without giving folks a chance to enjoy their meals and the experience. I don’t know what the solution to that is; they are obviously trying to maximise their income in the very short season for the activity, but… it still cheapens it, in my opinion.

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jw1697/6974621697/ by JaimeW

Me, Sam and Exan having lunch in Nicaragua

A Bike Ride

Back in my college days, when I was 18, I participated in a program called “North-South Studies“. The gist of the program is the following:

The North-South Studies profile is designed for students interested in exploring the living and working conditions of the developing world. This profile is unique in that students can choose to participate in a field trip to a developing country, usually in Central America. During the trip, students live with a host family, attend conferences, and participate in community projects.

In my program, I went to Nicaragua, near a small town called Nandaime. This was my first trip anywhere outside Canada, ever, other than a brief trip to visit family in Pennsylvania when I was about 8. Nicaragua is not at all like Pennsylvania! This trip affected me in so many ways, and I have many, many vivid memories of it, and the return trip I took 2 years later. I’ll tell that story another time, but I wanted to recount one evening that I will never forget.

Some of the students on the field trip that year were in Nandaime proper, and a few of us (me included) lived on a farming cooperative called la BDO (Bernardino Díaz Ochoa). This cooperative was located at about a 30-40 minute bike ride from Nandaime, if memory serves me. The road was a dirt road that spent most of its time going through sugar-cane fields, and as such, was in very, very bad shape. The trucks that went up and down the road carrying cane to and from the ingenio (sugar refinery) caused a fair bit of damage to the road, so it was full of huge potholes. The road was not lit at night. If my fellow students and I went into town to make a long-distance phone call back home at the Nicaraguan telephone company’s office (the only place you could make such a call; this was before cell phones), we always made sure to start heading home long before dark fell, because in the tropics, you don’t get the long languid sunsets that last for an hour as we get here in Montreal; it gets dark really suddenly!

One day, though, we were delayed in departing for some reason, and the going was slow, because we were a big group and some of the bikes we were using were not in as good shape as the others. I was having a fair bit of difficulty with my bike in particular; the air was leaking out of a tire, and I was pedaling nearly on the rim. Luckily, one of the group had a hand-pump, so I stopped, filled up the tire, and kept going. I had to do this every 5 minutes or so. I told everyone not to worry about me, I knew the way (I was as confident about my navigation skills back then as I am today ;) ), so “Just go on ahead, I’ll catch up!” Well, not long after everyone was out of sight, it started getting really, really dark. I got to the fork in the road at which I knew, I was certain, I had to go left. But…  the road was filled with water. It wasn’t like that before. Was I somehow mistaken? Did I take a wrong turn somewhere? I saw a man and his child go down the road on the right, and debated whether to ask for help, but my Spanish was rotten back then, and I had a really hard time understanding the Nicaraguan campesino accent. After he was out of sight, I stopped debating, and went down the road on the right, hoping to find the man. Luckily, I did, and managed to explain that I was looking for la BDO, and he said, “Está por allá,” indicating back the way I had come, and down the fork on the left. Troubled but forced to believe him, I went back, and again saw the water in the road still. By this time, it was really starting to get dark. My bike had a little flashlight, but it barely lit the road 1 metre in front of me. Back at the fork, there was a house that I recognized, and that I had previously thought was abandoned, but now, I saw a faint light under the door, as if from a few candles. I gathered up my courage, knocked on the door, and..   nothing. Now I was scared, and I was imaging that whoever was in the abandoned house didn’t belong there and wanted me to leave, and if I knocked again, they would come out and make sure that I left, so I hopped on my bike, and went down the left fork, through the water for a good 100 metres or so, if not more. The water wasn’t deep, though, so I kept going and finally made it to the other side, and by then, I was confident that I was on the right path, there was no other way to go but down this road! Finally I saw the lights of the cooperative, and the river that I had to cross by foot (there was no bridge, but during the dry season it was only about a foot deep). I had made it back to the safety of my host family.

The next day, I learned that they regularly flood the cane fields to irrigate them, but that on that particular evening, there was a problem with a pump or something and too much water went into the field, causing it flood everywhere, including the road that went by. So in the end, I was right, I did know the way, but I was just thrown off by the sudden flood.

After much scouring of Google Maps, I found the exact location of this fork in the road:

 

After writing this post, I went looking for my photos of this trip. I took a LOT of photos (or at least, what passed for a lot of photos, before the age of digital cameras): 8 rolls of 24!I still have all the negatives, so I will look for the best way of getting them scanned, for a future post, but meanwhile, here are three photos of photos I took with my phone just now :)

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My first trip to Mexico

Today marks the 12th anniversary of my first trip to Mexico. I already covered some of the details of that experience previously, but I wanted to reiterate what a life-changing experience that trip was, and to write down for posterity some tidbits of what I remember from that trip.

UNAM

Going to a Mexican university was quite different from from my Canadian university. For one thing, it’s huge, both in area and in the number of students. There were also other differences, such as:

  • the number of classes per semester. Back home, I was taking 4 classes at Concordia; 4-5 classes per semester was considered a full course load, so I registered for the same number at UNAM. It turns out that most students take 6 or 7 courses per semester for a full course load! I couldn’t understand how the students were able to take all those 3.5 hour courses and find time for homework assignments, travel time, home life, and often part-time work. Then, I found out why…
  • a 3.5 hour course was usually not a full 3.5 hours. I had one class in particular in which the professor would show up around 30 – 45 minutes late, the students would start showing up around 1 hour late, and then the class itself ended about 1 hour earlier than scheduled. Every single week.
  • For the Licenciatura (nearly equivalent to the Bachelor’s degree in Canada), one big difference was that to get the diploma, students need to write and publish a thesis paper. There were many, many printing shops near the University that catered to students who needed their thesis printed; I believe they needed to get several copies printed, to be deposited in the library, for example. At Concordia, and I suspect across Canadian universities, one only needs to complete the course requirements to get the Bachelor’s diploma.

Pumas

While a student there, I went to several futból (soccer) matches, and even painted my face blue and gold once. I had never ever done anything like that before; being in a different country where no-one knew me previously allowed me some freedoms that I never felt I had. In any case, one amusing anecdote: I had a hard plastic water bottle that I carried around with me everywhere. When I tried to go to a match once, the security guards who searched my bag didn’t want to let me in to the Estadio with my bottle, lest I throw it on to the field or somehow used it as a weapon against fans of the opposing team (who were kept on the complete opposite side of the stadium with their own entrance, never to mingle with us Pumas). I feigned total ignorance of the prohibition on entering with any bottles or cans, and played my best fake “English-speaker who is barely able to string a few Spanish words together” accent. Being an obvious extranjero was a benefit, for once!

Alburs

An albur is a pun, often if not usually sexual in nature. Whenever I went to the local market, I KNEW the butcher and the fruit salesmen were making fun of me, but I never could figure out what they were saying, really. Even to this day, I’m not sure what some double-entendres mean when I go to Mexico. Be wary of the laughing bus driver!

Buses

Speaking of buses, I really disliked taking them because most Mexico City buses are small, fast, and not the most organized; the bus drivers on a same route can be from different companies (or even individuals with their own bus), and so competition between drivers for passengers was sometimes fierce. Also, buses often took sudden detours, for what were (at least to me) inscrutable reasons. That’s why I liked the Metro so much: definite stops and lines!

I think I’ll stop there for today, but I’ll dig up and scan (yes, scan; no digital cameras or smart phones then!) some pictures from that trip for another post.