Moments: Thursday on the Blue Line in Delhi

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I am sitting on the train next to an older man who has just beckoned me to sit next to him in the seats designated primarily for older people (but I’m one of the oldest now not already sitting). Daegan is standing next to me with his sketchbook and pencil out, drawing the old man I’m sitting next to.

A few stops later the doors open and two older bearded men came on board, both in pure white shalwar kameez, vests, and big white beards. I got up instantly as I was no longer the eldest and said to the older of the men “Baitiye” – “Please sit.”

Daegan continued his drawing – now with a young man watching over his shoulder as he drew. Meanwhile the older man still standing started talking to Daegan and I asking where we were from and getting interested in what he was drawing.  “Artist badiya hai” – “You’re a good artist” he said and Daegan smiled.  The young man over his shoulder gestured with his phone, asking if he could photograph the picture he had drawn before exiting the train.

Having finished the one picture, Daegan started on one of the older man still standing. A stop before we left he took that picture and gave it to the man who said “Hey, that’s me!” and smiled. He took out his business card and gave it to him and invited him to call him if he needed anything. Meanwhile, Daegan took the first picture out and gave it to the first man he drew who also smiled and thanked him. And then the doors opened and we left the train.

As I asked Daegan if he had a chance to take a photo of the pictures he had given away. He hadn’t. The pictures, like the moment itself will be etched only in our memories.

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Landing in Delhi

It’s 5:30 AM, my usual wake-up time at home but here it is not work that wakes me, but my stomach. My stomach is telling me that something is wrong – it is dinner time back home and I need to eat. It’s not got the memo yet. Meanwhile, the sounds of the city go on.

As the sound of horns honking decreased, peace entered the area. But soon after the chowkidar (watchman) started making his rounds. You could tell because he bangs his lathi (a big stick – don’t get up to any mischief or you’ll feel it!) on the ground every few seconds. And once in a while he will blow his whistle. It sounds like this:

Other than dogs occasionally getting upset about something it stays quiet like that all night. That is, until a few minutes ago, when the nearby mosque played its call to prayer.

We’re nearing the end of the first of two short visits to Delhi. It has been something of a whirlwind. It all started late Tuesday afternoon, 12 hours later than we thought it would.

It is 5PM and we’ve landed in Delhi. A bus takes us to the airport terminal and we make our way to baggage claim. This arrival feels less stressful and more “normal”. We get our bags at baggage claim and then head over to buy our SIM cards. We both have unlocked phones and want to be able to call each other if we get separated – it’s also helpful to have for our hosts to get in touch as well. And so we make our way to the stall where they’re sold, walking past several taxi stalls, each calling to us asking if we needed a taxi.

SIM card purchasing isn’t hard. We paid Rs 700 (about $14 Canadian) for each and they give us 1GB data a day and unlimited calls in India. They won’t work until midnight so we pack the cards in our bags and head out.

We decide to take the airport express train to Delhi. Last time I was here it either wasn’t working or I missed it but it was an excellent alternative to getting a cab and right in the airport terminal. For Rs 60 each ($1.20) we got to the centre of the city and then another fare of about the same to get us to Janak Puri West station – right near our Airbnb.

Buying fares is really easy, find your destination on a touchscreen (either map or text – there seem to be at least two different versions of the interface) and then insert your money. Out will pop any change as well as the tokens you need for your journey. Fares are by location so you need to be sure to get off where you purchased your ticket for. Scan your token on the turnstile and then keep it safe. You’ll need it to exit.

This time it isn’t too busy – we have to go a couple stops on one line, then switch to another line for the rest of the way. Switching isn’t hard, though. If you know the line you’re looking for follow the coloured footprints on the floor for the line you’re looking for.

Though it can be really busy, I’m happy to see that it isn’t at this time and we’re at our station in no time. But to get out you now have to put your token in the turnstile to be let out. You didn’t lose it, did you? You’re not at the wrong station? Either way could put you in a bit of trouble. (I’m not sure what kind but Daegan surmises that this is how the Delhi Metro finds employees. Once you do this, you now work for them)

Once we get outside there’s even more life. Food stalls have set up to sell various street food items and other small meals. Beggars are asking for money, and drivers are lined up with cycle rickshaws, electric autorickhaws and the standard yellow and green autorickshaws many people associate with India. As we haven’t far to go we take a cycle rickshaw.  I ask, in Hindi, if he knows where we’re going, giving a nearby temple as a reference point and he knows and quotes a good price. And we are off in to the traffic. I am amazed at this man’s strength. He’s easily 10 years older than me, is pushing a heavy bike, two good sized men, and two suitcases – all with a fixed gear bicycle. No gearing down to an easier gear for him. If he needs to get more power to the wheels he can only stand up.

Cars, electric rickshaws, bikes, scooters, buses and trucks pass us by and we weave through them with many of them coming within inches. Keep your arms and legs inside the ride, folks! All around us people are honking. Some honk to ask us to move, others do it to indicate they’re passing on one side or the other not unlike how cyclists will tell one another “On your left!” or “Hold your line!”  It seems to work well. As a passenger I never feel particularly worried but I do feel like I haven’t the level of attention required to take all of that information in and process it.

After asking a couple of people, how to get where we are going, we roll up to our Airbnb. We settle the bill and find our way inside. Our hosts are warm and friendly and the space is peaceful and comfortable. We’ve our own kettle, a few snacks, our own balcony and an en suite all for $28/night.

It’s getting to be past dinner time so we ask where to find food and are shown where to go – about a 10-15 minute walk away. Off we go on our first exploration. It is clear we’re both getting tired as the surreality is creeping back in again. We pass a mall with a few kiddie rides in it along with somewhat sinister looking bouncy castles with faces that are almost, but not quite, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.  A bit further on and we see that all of the restaurants are on the other side of the street. Well, then. off we will go.

Crossing the streets in Delhi is not like crossing them in Toronto. There is no button, no walk sign. There aren’t usually cross walks, or sometimes even breaks in traffic. Instead it requires a bit of a leap of faith, confidence, and some mental calculations. Watch the traffic until it lightens a little and maybe the traffic is smaller, more agile traffic like scooters and autos. Now calculate – do you have time to cross before they would hit you – allowing for them to move a little to go around you. Yes? Good, start walking. Raise your hand gently to indicate they should stop as you go and just keep walking. You will be surprised to find yourself safely on the other side in no time.

We look at a few different restaurants and settle on a vegetarian South Indian place. This one has a large tawa (round griddle) out front and a pot of boiling oil for frying things. We go inside and order: bottles of water, dosas and some dal vada – fried dal cakes. All are brought to us. as they’re ready.  Unfortunately as sleepy as we all were I only got a single photo – of the vada.

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Each course came with coconut chutney (the white liquid on the left) and sambar – a spicy lentil and vegetable soup. These are “all you can eat” and our waiter refills them when people want more.  In the end this dinner for two cost about $6 but was as delicious as any comparable South Indian meal we had in Toronto.

Now that we were full and comfortable we were even more tired. We made our way back to the apartment and slept beautifully. Until my stomach, and the chowkidar’s lathi, woke me again…

The Trip Begins

It’s finally Sunday afternoon and and Daegan and I get off the bus and pass through the doors of Pearson International Airport. And instantly something seems different from my usual visits there. No, it’s not just that I’m going left instead of right – toward the US. There’s a sound and it’s growing louder as we get closer. Finally we are close enough to see: It’s a large group of Hasidic Jewish men – maybe 30-40 in a large circle, singing, clapping, dancing and jumping. The crowd is split, half are enjoying it, and the other half is pretending it doesn’t exist. We are among the first. But our excitement is carrying us further to the check-in counter and through security. Before we know it we’ve been loaded up in to a 747 on a 6:10 PM flight to Amsterdam.

Well, we are told it is a 747, but I’m not sure. It may well be a tardis because a little over six hours later we are landing and it’s now morning and the sun is coming up only about 6-7 hours after we saw it set. But hey, it’s 7:00 AM and so we go for breakfast.

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Poffertjes are tiny pancakes made in small cast iron molds. They’re served with powdered sugar and I added some nutella and a few jams. We had already had a large meal at the airport and another dinner on the plane so this was about all we could do.

Well fed, we wander the airport. I’m reminded of toddlers – or at least Daegan – who, faced with exhaustion, refuse to actually sleep and instead resort to endless movement to keep from falling asleep.  Daegan, being Daegan (also known as the cat whisperer) makes a new friend. Looking back, this might be the first sign of surreality creeping in.

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Finally, it catches up with us and we go sit near the gate and wait for our flight to Mumbai. I read and doze and Daegan draws. Before long the plane is boarding. Or no, it’s another tardis.

This flight is more surreal. I doze as much as I can but can’t really sleep. Daegan sleeps from about Romania until we’re nearly over Tehran.  More food is brought to us. First comes dinner – a large meal of rice, shahi paneer, dal, yogurt, and a couple of rotis followed by tea/coffee. Worried I’m going to get a caffeine withdrawal headache I have a coffee. I wake up and read more, then Daegan wakes up and we spar at bowling on the in-flight entertainment system. I’m about as good at bowling on the computer as I am in real life and Daegan wins with neither of us topping 100. More food is brought – this time a vegetarian wrap that I think was TVP (nutrela) and was quite good. And then a few minutes later it was followed by ice cream. Finally the time comes and we’ve landed in Mumbai. We’re both getting pretty tired by this point. Meanwhile the tardis has done its thing again. Seven and a half hours have passed but now our flight that left at 11AM is now landing just after midnight. All told, our Monday appears to have lasted about 14 hours. My brain is twisting trying to figure out what time is. Not what time it is but what time is.

Our flight to Delhi leaves just before 3:00 AM – about 3 hours later and we make our way to immigration. We’ve already got our visas processed so we need only check in, get fingerprints and photos taken and passports stamped.  We walk through the halls and finally enter the immigration area.  There’s a huge line for general immigration and visa holders, another smaller line for people who are in wheelchairs. Finally we come to the line for e-visa holders.

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This is nothing like the worst I’ve seen at Toronto. This line goes in to a snaking line that eventually goes to the kiosks at the far left and out to baggage claim. We slowly move from the “tail” of the line where we are in to the line itself. Then we see a second line that appears to be much shorter but is only served by two kiosks. We debate on changing and finally think we have nothing to lose. We leave the line and go to the shorter line. Which promptly seems to stop.  Our flight now leaves in less than an hour. A man and his daughter are panicking in front of us. He’s on the flight we’re on and has friends meeting him to pick him up in Delhi. He goes to the front of the line and tells them he’s got to go. They are unsympathetic. We all are told we have to wait. Behind me a boy of about 6 from England politely but firmly tells his dad that he needs a drink and will likely die if he doesn’t get one. His dad tells him there’s nothing he can do. He understands but asks a couple more times just in case he might be able to encourage creativity in his dad. But it’s no good. We’re all stuck in the line. He moves on to fantasy, telling his dad about the water he would have. “And you can have what you usually have, dad. What will you have, Dad?”  Dad responds with a bit of a laugh and says “A stiff drink.” He is also likely to miss his flight also.

The line inches forward and finally we get to the front. We look back at the big snaking line and see some of our line-mates from there with a long wait ahead of them still. We’d made the right choice. But it hasn’t helped. We have our visas now but we haven’t made our flight.

We pick up our bags just before the airline staff was going to be taking them away and then go to get transfers. Here the chaos of India begins with people pushing, carts going in all directions, and only the merest suggestion of lines. Still, we manage and are told we have a choice: We can split on to two flights – Daegan on one at 8AM and me on one at 1PM. I imagine us, neither with working cell phones getting split across two cities in India and I asked when we could get on one together. If we wait until 3PM I can get on a flight together. It may be 12 hours later but what can we do. We are ticketed and given vouchers for breakfast and lunch. By “Vouchers” I mean that the ticket agent wrote “Sorry, Breakfast & Lunch – Punajb Grill” on our tickets.

By now it is close to 4AM and we are really tired. We make our way through security and in to the airport proper. It’s a dazzling bunch of stores that could rival any shopping mall. We wander the airport looking for something comfortable. Finally, we come across a dimly lit gate area where nobody is and settle in to seats.

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Quiet Carnatic music is playing and we make our best efforts at sleeping. It isn’t the most comfortable space. The chairs have low backs so you can’t lean back, and they have hard armrests between so it isn’t easy to lean to the side. Still, we manage…

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After a bit we wake up and decide to walk more. Much of the area has museum exhibits from around the country – interesting combinations of past and present and it is all a bit surreal. We both wonder if this is what it is like to be on drugs. Still, it is really beautiful and we wander and look appreciatively at everything.

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We laugh at ourselves for having no idea what time it is, and for being so tired and disoriented. “Time no longer has meaning.” we say to each other more than once. We amuse ourselves by sending Sage a photo postcard and laugh at how dazed and confused we look.

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We find another spot with more comfy chairs shaped like hooves. We rest our necks in the cloven part of the hoof and put our feet up and watch a TV show where the actor from 50 Shades of Grey is being interviewed.

Finally we decide that maybe we should have breakfast. We head on over and order some. Daegan gets a masala omelette and masala chai. I choose one of my favourites: channa bhatura and am glad to find myself back somewhere that the food is served with a pile of sliced red onions.

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As we walk out of the restaurant we see one of our comrades from the lineup with his wife. It’s 6:00 AM and he’s finally getting his stiff drink. His son is nowhere to be seen and I hope that he has survived his lack of water. Fortunately, but also strangely, we see him again, by himself at the other end of the mall in the play area.  I think to myself that I’m a bit nervous about losing my 19 year old son in India but this family seems OK with just letting their 6 year old go off and play. “Just stay in the play area and don’t talk to anyone.” I imagine them saying.

After that we go to Starbucks and I get a bit of coffee. Time to start aligning myself with the time zone.  I get a nice strong Americano and begin enjoying it. In an apparent nod to my feeling like I’m living outside of time, the barista has a big misunderstanding of my name and I am rechristened “Kal” – which, in Hindi, can mean either “Yesterday” or “Tomorrow”. (For the curious: how you tell which is based on the tense of the verb in the sentence. Use future tense and it means tomorrow. Use the past tense and it means yesterday. Use it as a name and apparently it means “You have no idea where and when you are.”)

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After much more wandering (Google says we got about 10,000 steps in – but who knows how and where it divided our days?) and another meal (vegetarian thalis for both of us) we ended up going to the gate area and boarded our flight for Delhi. We’re not able to sit together but at least we’re on the same flight. I put my earbuds in and fall asleep. I wake up briefly for the takeoff, again for the meal (I’ve eaten so much by this time I ask only for water) and then again as we’re about to land. The nearly two-hour flight has passed in the blink of an eye. Somewhat more rested, we get off the flight and head off in to Delhi and more adventures.

 

Toronto by Library #10: McGregor Park Library

Last weekend we hit a milestone. I’ve now officially visited 10% of the libraries in Toronto. Of this ten, eight were brand new for me and many were in parts of the city I’ve never been to before.

The day itself was really cold with a windchill of around -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). But it had recently snowed and the day was clear so the day seemed almost impossibly bright. And this time, I had a different person to visit with. Daegan was off of work and was actually meeting someone about the possibility of exhibiting his photos at a cafe in the same area and so off we went.

Anyone who knows Daegan and I know that above all, our meal of choice is breakfast. While sometimes it will be pho, foul medames or nihari, one of our favourites is the standard “Greasy Spoon” diner breakfast. That means big portions, eggs, sausage or bacon, home fried potatoes and toast. And right near where we were going was The Wexford.

It was about a 40 minute ride on two buses to get there. The restaurant was tucked inside a standard Scarborough strip mall. Unlike many suburban areas which sport strip malls with the same chain stores in identical storefronts, the strip malls in Scarborough are different. They have a different feel to them with a huge diversity of businesses from video stores with Tagalog videos to Caribbean grocery stores to Lebanese bakeries and more. And in the middle of all of these businesses you’ll occasionally get a glimpse of what Scarborough and Toronto was like 50 years ago – places like The Wexford.

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There’s been no retouching on that photo. It’s that dazzlingly bright and clear out.

This place is a Scarborough icon and has been around since 1958. Stepping inside was like stepping back in time. The walls were paneled and covered with Canada and hockey-themed photos, many autographed. A long counter went down one side with several people to be found sitting at stools. Like any good diner, we had coffee in front of us almost the second we sat down.

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We both went for pretty basic breakfasts. I chose sausage, toast and eggs, but passed on the home fries as I am trying to lose a bit of weight for the beginning of running/cycling season.

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It does seem to be missing a little something without the home fries, though…

As we ate we planned our day ahead a bit and also discussed our upcoming trip to India. We ate slowly, not really wanting to get back outside in to the deep freeze again but eventually there was no avoiding it.

Looking at the app that tracks city buses, I could see that it would be a while before a bus would come to take us to the library. It was only a kilometre or so (half a mile) so we decided to brave it. Off we went.

Another thing I’ve noticed about Scarborough, is that there are more glimpses of the past available if you look. Here, for example, next door to a body shop and across the street from a muffler repair shop was the Wexford Heights United CHurch  – over 140 years old, with its associated cemetery. And there, on its front lawn sat something unexpected: another library!

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The church had placed a Little Free Library outside. We quickly stopped to look through it but nothing caught our eye. There was not much of interest. A decent selection of young adult books and then some other books for adults that seemed more to be cast off because their owners found them as uninteresting as we did.

It didn’t take that long to get to the library and surprisingly enough, we didn’t freeze before we got there. In fact, we had a reasonably good time and didn’t really notice the cold after all.

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This library was a bit bigger than ones we’ve gone to recently. It is located in a community centre that also appears to have an ice rink and fitness centre – and in the summer has an outdoor swimming pool. Were this available near where I grew up I am not sure I would have needed much else. Year round I would read and all summer if I wasn’t wandering in the woods, I would be swimming.

Going inside we found the space really bright and open. Newer libraries in Toronto and ones recently renovated seem to make sunlight a priority and I really appreciate it. It makes the space so pleasant.

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Daegan and I wandered about. This site had a great selection of books about Toronto history, geography, and urban design, and I got a couple of those. Daegan got a few books as well including an interesting looking book that was a combination graphic novel and book of photos of the author’s time in Afghanistan. It was, intuitively, called The Photographer. He later devoured it in about a day and gave it high marks. A few days later he picked up Afghanistan by Steve McCurry. His photos are stunningly beautiful. Probably most of you have seen at least one of his photos, one of Sharbat Gula that was on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. I am not sure the licensing of the photo so rather than embed it here, I’ll point you to this link which also has an interesting update about her life as of last December. I suspect most people over 40 know the photo, though.

After packing our things we headed back home. Not a lot of exploration for us at this time. It was cold! I grabbed all the books, including Daegan’s so he could go to his meeting.

When he got home he had good news, confirmed by a call a few hours later. He’ll be having a public exhibition of his photos in April.  (For the curious, you can see his photos on 500px or you can follow him on Instagram.

Watch for a couple more library visits but then there will be a break from Toronto library visits. Daegan and I will be leaving for India in 15 days. If you live in Delhi, Jaipur, or Mumbai, let us know. We’d love to meet up for coffee, a meal, a photo walk or a chat!

First Race in a Long Time

Today was going to be an exercise day and out of habit I thought I’d look at the Zwift Events page to see if anything fun was happening. As it happened, there was a “One Flat Lap” race that was on for tonight. Most of the races I had done before were longish – 25-40 kilometres so 60-90 minutes. This was under 10. I could knock it out in about 20 minutes.

It sounded fun and so I gave it a shot. I made sure I set my expectations as low as I could get them. After all, while I’ve had some good races, I’ve had some bad ones also. I’m also hugely undertrained – I haven’t been exercising as much as I should. So I set things up and told myself I was in it to have fun and nothing else.

Like every race I got their early and sat behind the starting line warming up my legs with the others.  Before long it was time to go.  Knowing I didn’t have to save power for Future Todd, I could really push, and push I did. I made sure to ‘latch on’ to a few riders, drafting them for a while.

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There was something really nice about the view. This was “Virtual Richmond Virginia” – not a course I like that much, but it was just the kind of day I like. It felt like about 7:00 AM on a summer morning. Or better still, 7:00 PM on that same night. I had some high energy music to push me along.

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last.fm puts these in reverse order…

By the end I was really pushing hard. And the end was approaching. I was riding with two others most of the way. We each took turns leading while the other two would let the draft pull us along with a little less effort. That is, until we were within a few hundred metres of the end. Then it was every person for themselves. I stood up in the pedals, pushed with all I had. One of the two finished ahead of me by a matter of inches, the other person ended a second behind me. Meanwhile, I had used up everything I had. My heart rate maxed out at 196 BPM – my muscles were getting all the oxygen they were going to get.

In the end I figured that I did OK, I wouldn’t be last, but probably wasn’t first in my class. (They group everyone in 4 classes based on how much power we can put out steadily relative to our weights).  A few minutes ago, though, I pulled up the results and was pleasantly surprised to find that the other two I was racing with were in different classes than I am. And the end result was….

I won! I came in first ahead of 8 other riders in my class and four other people in faster classes. I’m glad I decided to do it after all!

(Details – and a link to follow me on Strava below, if you’re into that kind of thing…)

https://www.strava.com/activities/1353978526/embed/f86266ae46287a4631b54786c7537ab1de2b9876

Hey Delhi and Jaipur! Tell Me Your Stories!

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As many of you know, my partner, Sage, is a storyteller and teacher of storytelling here in Toronto. But she also has a podcast in which she shares other people’s stories as told by them. Some are by people she has met in Toronto either through storytelling performances or through her workshops and classes she’s offered over the years. Others, though are complete strangers who had a story they wanted to share.

In just over three weeks, my son, Daegan, and I will be headed to Delhi to spend a week there, and another week in Jaipur. Do you live in or near these cities? Do you have a story you would like to share with the world? Let me know – we can get together and I can record it. Specifically I’m looking for stories from your life or someone in your family (you can tell it for them or I’d love to meet them as well). The only thing that is important is that they have high stakes.  What does that mean?  From Sage’s story submission page:

What do you mean by “high stakes”?
The story must be about something important to you. “I got drunk and got lost” is fun to tell friends at a party, but a high stakes story is the one you tell someone special to you, in an intimate coffeeshop.

High stakes stories usually fit one or more of these points:
* high stakes categories: birth, death, war, fear, crime, struggle, bravery, love, kindness, religion, addiction
* something very important is gained
* something very important is lost
* outside events create a crucial struggle

Low stakes stories that do NOT work:
* while travelling/doing yoga I discovered my life at home is nice, or I should change the path I’m on
* stories of personal transformation that take place largely inside the teller’s head
* “I thought ______, but then realized that actually ____ was true”
* stories that are focused almost entirely on the teller with little mention of other humans

Comment below or contact me if you’ll be in the area and you’d like to meet up to tell your story. Or for that matter, just message me if you’d like to meet even if you don’t have a story to share. I love meeting new people when I travel.

Toronto by Library #9: Black Creek

Tuesday afternoon my phone gave me a notification: “Library visit at 6PM”.

“ACK!” I thought, my poor time management has caught up with me. I’d forgotten it was even coming up. But wanting to be sure to stay on top of things, I packed my bag and headed out. Sage was free and happy to join me and so off we went.

Black Creek Library is a bit of a ride from where we are. It was about an hour and a half from home. A good thing to remember for the future: Perhaps I can make the long trips happen on the weekend rather than being completely random about this.

The ride took us to Jane street, near the western edge of the city. When we got to the subway station. As we waited for our bus, Sage spotted this:

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Yes, a life sized sculpture of an elephant in the back yard of a restaurant. A bit of research tells me it is owned by the folks who own the restaurant and was purchased for a festival but no further word on what the festival was or what it’s doing there.

The bus ride was long and dropped us at the end of a busy intersection. Sage and I remarked to each other as we stood there how there seemed to be fewer than normal streetlights. On a wet night – one of those nights that seem to absorb light, it seemed especially gloomy.

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Though I didn’t know it until just before we left, I had unintentionally chosen another of Toronto’s “Mall Libraries” – this one in the Sheridan Mall. I’ve been to a few throughout the city. They tend not to be in high end malls (You won’t see a mall in Eaton Centre or Yorkdale Mall) but in little neighbourhood malls.

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This one was very typical but seemed a bit less down on its luck than the Agincourt mall I went to last weekend with few vacant stores in the space and lots of activity. Though there were anchor stores (groceries and Wal Mart), like most of these smaller malls, there were also a good number of cell phone shops, discount clothing stores, nail shops, and jewelery shops.

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The other thing that many of these small malls have going for them are interesting food choices. In our local mall, for example, we have an Indian restaurant that makes some of the best restaurant chole I’ve had along with freshly made roti. They further warm my heart by complimenting my Urdu and asking “Aapka beta kaisa hai?” – “How is your son?” and complimenting my Urdu skills when I answer even with a simple “Vo achchha hai.” He is well.  This one had a couple of interesting options. The first was a Japanese place.

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And the second place, where we ended up was a restaurant serving Salvadoran food. The menu was amazing. They had me at ‘pupusa’.

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Sage ordered a burrito and I chose two pupusas. For those not familiar, from the outside, a pupusa looks and even smells like a normal corn tortilla. But when you open it you realize you have something a bit different. Inside is a filling – chicken, cheese, pork, or some combination).  As we waited, we watched the comings and goings of the mall. Some folks ordering from the restaurants (there were a couple of others around the other side including some Chinese food and a Caribbean place), a few people came by with scratch-off tickets and did those while they drank a coffee.

Finally our food arrived. It was delicious!

 

Mine came with a bit of fermented cabbage – like a homemade sauerkraut. Very fresh and crunchy. The green hot sauce was good but I needed much more. But all told it was well worth it.

As we sat there, we talked about the mall and how in some ways these independent malls feel unsuccessful. But this one was bustling. The stores had people in them, all of the stores were open. Why did we feel that it wasn’t doing well? Then Sage suggested a great exercise. She suggested I look in a random direction and focus on what was there. “Now,” she said, “Imagine it is 1986. Is this place successful?” My answer was “Absolutely – it’s doing really well!” So I guess that it was clear that what we were thinking of as “Success” was actually “Trendiness.” Interesting point.

Then it was off to the library:

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It wasn’t terribly large, but as you can sort of see through the window in the photo above, it was filled with people. People were browsing for books, others were lounging in chairs reading, still others were using computers. We have 100 libraries in this city and so far, every one is well loved and well used.

The book selection was pretty decent. I did my first walk-through and browse. Oddly enough, this one also had a large romance section – though the titles were a little tamer than that last one. There was also a great collection of 300’s, as I’m starting to think of them – books in the low 300’s of the Dewey Decimal catalog – some of my favourite topics including:

  • 300 Social sciences
  • 301 Sociology & anthropology
  • 302 Social interaction
  • 303 Social processes
  • 304 Factors affecting social behavior
  • 305 Groups of people
  • 306 Culture & institutions
  • 307 Communities

I tend to enjoy books in this range a great deal. They’re fascinating.  I also picked up “All Our Wrong Todays which looks interesting. It’s described as:

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.
Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

Cool, huh? Now I just need to make time to read more so I can read all of these great books I find.

The international language section was pretty small but there were a lot of DVDs in many languages:

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After that we headed out, to head across town where we ended up stopping at Ikea and getting tied up there for over an hour before just giving up and leaving – and then taking forever to find the way out.

Today when I went to write this up, I did my usual search for information about the neighbourhood – history, notable facts, and the like. I was surprised to find out that the city considers that area the least livable in the city. According to a Toronto Star article:

Black Creek is considered the least livable of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods, based on 15 criteria like employment, high school graduation rates, mortality, green space, walkability and the prevalence of diabetes.

A low score out of 100 means a high level of inequity, according to a staff report released Monday. The benchmark score was set at 42.89 and those falling below are now considered a “Neighbourhood Improvement Area.”

Black Creek falls the farthest with a score of 21.38. [Todd’s note: Compare that to the rating for the area around Swansea Memorial Library from a couple of entries ago: 85.85 – my own neighbourhood is in the low 30’s and is also a Neighbourhood Improvement Area]  Nearly a quarter of its residents are on social assistance, a third are considered low income — nearly three times the city’s average — and high school graduation rates are low.

Another article talked of two people shot (at two different times) outside the mall we had just been in. It didn’t seem like particularly well off but I had no idea that it was having so much trouble. It makes it clear that not only are things not necessarily what they seem in a passing glance – in a 1 hour snapshot on one night in one season. Also, if it is anything like our neighbourhood, it isn’t as simple as “this is a bad neighbourhood.” In our “Neighbourhood Improvement Area” there are some amazing people and really cool community development projects happening. After living throughout the city for 14 years, we’ve moved back here.

Here’s hoping that some of the investment suggested as a part of being identified as a Neighbourhood Improvement Area has materialized and has been helpful. I’m also glad that there’s a library there so easily accessible. While it isn’t a panacea by any means, libraries have the potential to offer so much – from educational programs, to connecting people with resources and knowledge they need in the community.

Tomorrow I’m off to another library. I had originally planned for it to be nearby but based on my realization at the beginning of the entry I may swap it for something a bit further afield and save that one for a weeknight visit.

Toronto by Library #8: Agincourt

This entry starts only a few hours after I got back from my last visit to the Swansea Memorial branch. I happened to be on Facebook around 8:00 that night and a friend of mine put out an urgent plea. By the time I got the message it was -20 out and felt like -30.

EMERGENCY!!

PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE!!

SLEEPING BAGS/WOOL SOCKS/WARM ANYTHING! ARE NEEDED AT THE ‘ALL SAINTS CHURCH’ ON THE SOUTH EAST CORNER OF DUNDAS AND SHERBOURNE!!

JUST GO!! GIVE UP YOUR CAMPING GEAR! PEOPLE ARE FREEZING!! GO ANYTIME OF DAY, PREFERABLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT. EVERYTHING YOU BRING WILL BE IMMEDIATELY SNAPPED UP. CANVAS YOUR FRIENDS, LET’S NOT LET PEOPLE FREEZE OR LOSE HOPE.

THE CHURCH IS SO HUGE THEY JUST CAN’T HEAT IT.

PLEASE PLEASE HELP!

She and her partner have been raising money from friends and using it to help the homeless from just before Christmas, and through the cold snap that hit. There’s an excellent article about the two of them here. Needless to say, I took the message seriously.

First I went in to the closet and pulled out the camping gear. Two sleeping bags and one compact sleeping mat. I hadn’t used them since 2015 and had no plans to in the near future. If I do ever need them again I can afford to buy or rent some.

Then I looked in the basket by the door where we keep our hats, mittens, and scarves. There were a bunch of extras in there: a hat, a balaclava, some gloves, a couple of scarves. A whole bunch of warm stuff we don’t need. Into a bag it went.

Then I remembered that I had a drawer full of sweaters. I looked in there. There were a couple I often wear and about four I rarely if ever do. Into the bag it went.

Finally, I reached in to the change bowl by the door where we toss all our loose change when we get home, and loaded up on money. Someone was bound to need it where we were going.

Loaded down, Sage and I headed out into the night. Not only was it bitterly cold, the wind was howling. It was the kind of cold that you can’t breathe in too deeply or you’ll start coughing. The kind of cold that makes any exposed skin start to hurt within a few seconds. Fortunately, transit was on our side. 2 minutes after we got to the bus stop, there was our bus. And then when we got to the station we waited 90 seconds for a streetcar, and 15 minutes later we were at our stop.

As soon as we got off the bus a man asked us for some change. I gave him all of the change I had packed. Then we headed in to the church.

As we walked inside, there was a man sweeping who, seeing our bags of things, asked if we happened to have any underwear. Sadly we didn’t. We walked in and donated the things we did have and headed back home. Fortunately our transit luck held out again and we weren’t out in the cold for long. This was not a night for anyone to be outside.

The next morning I woke up. I had a plan to go to another library a short distance from our neighbourhood. But then I remembered the guy asking for underwear. I wonder if I could find a library to go to that was near a Walmart where I could likely get a lot of underwear for my money.  A bit of searching on Google Maps gave me my answer. I had my choice of several. I picked one that was not going to require lots of time outdoors and headed out in the early afternoon. Somehow I had forgotten to eat lunch, though. Hopefully there would be somewhere good to get food. If my previous trips were any indication the answer was that there would be.

It was still quite cold and the wind was whipping around the highrises in our neighbourhood making it feel positively bitter – as bad as it did the previous night. Not only that, my transit luck ran out. I had to wait almost 10 minutes for a bus – about 5-7 minutes more than usual. But eventually I got on and found my way there.

While the name of the library is Agincourt, the neighbourhood is in the eastern end of an area called “Tam O’Shanter – Sullivan” named after the Tam O’Shanter golf course and O’Sullivan’s Corners, a former hotel and post office in the area that opened in 1892. The most obvious landmark in the neighbourhood I could see after getting off the bus was the Agincourt Mall and No Frills Grocery Stores.

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As I got closer I saw someone sitting on the ground outside of the grocery store. She was bundled up so much I could only see her eyes and she had a sign asking for money and an empty coffee cup for her change. I stopped and opened my bag – I had reloaded it with change by the door when I left and emptied most of the contents in to her cup before heading inside.

The mall itself had seen better days. Many stores were closed, others were barely having any traffic. There were only a few exceptions: the grocery store, a Chinese bakery and, of course, Wal Mart. I had hoped to find something more interesting to eat inside but there was no food court. And so I went back outside to a restaurant I saw on my way in, Congee Queen.

For those who haven’t had congee before, it’s a delicious Chinese rice porridge – the consistency of thin oatmeal. It’s usually savoury. I had a big bowl of chicken congee on my mind as I walked up to the door. And then I saw it. Though this is a huge restaurant and it was after 2PM, the line for a table literally snaked back and forth inside. There was no way I was going to get any food for at least an hour if I waited here.

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What I wish I had eaten – Photo via Wikimedia Commons

So I wandered a bit more, finally settling on a Tim Horton’s where I got a chicken wrap. It was as good as you might expect from a fast food restaurant. But not to miss out on something interesting, I made my way to the Chinese bakery. I grabbed a tray and a pair of tongs at the beginning of the line and started looking. I finally settled on a “Raisin twist”, a BBQ pork bun and a cup of tea. Sadly they were all out of the “Hong Kong Style Tea/Coffee” they were advertising. This was very disappointing as I had just heard about it from Richard Ayoade on Travel Man earlier this week and was wildly curious. I wasn’t too disappointed. After all, he didn’t care much for it himself.

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While they could have been more generous with the filling, it was tasty with a hint of five spice. (To be fair to them the entire order cost $3.25 so how much pork can one put in a bun at that price?)

After that I headed over to the library which was right behind the mall.

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This one was warm and welcoming. (I wonder: will I be remarking how warm and cozy libraries feel in June? I think not!)  Their collection was excellent. I got a number of books, mostly on the subject of sociology, particularly relating to the impact the Internet and Social Media have on us. This included:

I also found a guidebook for Delhi and Rajasthan where we’ll be going to be spending much of next month.  Now I just need to find the time to read all of these things. Maybe if I read more of the first book and a bit of the fourth one in the list I’ll find it.

I’d actually been to this library before just after it was renovated. One thing I was sad to see was that the Hindi children’s books had been packed away in storage. No more browsing for kid’s books to practice my reading. They did have lots of books for adults, though. They’re intimidating, though, with lots of words I don’t know and no pictures. Who knew I would be back at my Grade 1 book selection criteria again after all of these years? They also had a lot of other great books in other languages. Take a look!

I wandered a bit more and loaded my pack with books before heading out. On the way out I noticed a futuristic installation. Librarians no longer have to check books in at this branch. (They still do at many other ones) This automatically scans each book as it is returned and automatically checks them in and gives you a receipt.

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After that it was over to Walmart. Normally I’m not a shopper there. I’d rather support small businesses and am not fond of what Walmart has done to many communities in North America. On the other hand, a lot of people needed things and I only had so much money so I grabbed a few things:

  • 1 package of four each S, M, and L men’s briefs
  • 1 package of six each M, L, and XL women’s underwear
  • 2 packages of 20 tube socks

And then it was time to brave the cold and take the long ride downtown. But my luck was back and before long I was back on the bus and the bulk of the trip would be on the subway.  I zoomed downtown, dropped the donations off and then headed back to the subway station. When I got there I was craving some coffee (I was pretty tired and had been dozing on the subway ride down there). While I was in line for a coffee, another man came up to me and asked for a quarter. When I got out my change (I still had a fair bit left), he asked for more and I gave it to him. It is interesting to note that once I started paying attention – being on the lookout for more opportunities to help they presented themselves.

Tomorrow night Sage and I will be off to visit another one!

 

 

Toronto by Library #7: Swansea Memorial

I’ve started randomizing the visits a bit more to the point where I now have a spreadsheet with all of the branches listed and use a random number generator to give me a number and I’ll plan for that one. This is the first of that approach.

But yesterday morning wasn’t looking good for anything. It was -20°C out with a windchill of -30°C (for Americans that’s -4°F and felt like -22°F). I didn’t even have to look at the temperature to know it was pretty darned cold out, though. Just look at the window! One side can be seen out a little bit, but the other one is completely covered in frost. 20180106_125302.jpg

Don’t worry, though. While it’s terribly cold outside, our heat and insulation are both very good here. It’s toasty warm all the time in here. This doesn’t make it easier to get out the door on a day like today.

But get out I did, and Sage even came with me today. Mercifully transit was very good. We only had to wait 2 minutes before a warm bus pulled up. (Another advantage of transit over driving: There is no waiting for the car to warm up while you scrape the ice and brush off the snow). In less than an hour we found ourselves at the corner of Runnymede and Bloor in what I’d call Toronto’s “midwest”. It’s a little more suburban, less dense than downtown and not far at all from High Park – one of the biggest city parks in North America.

As it was lunch time, Sage and I shivered our way down Bloor street. It even looks cold.

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Fortunately in this case we didn’t have far to go to get to our destination. After about 5 minutes we found ourselves at Queen’s Pasta Cafe which, according to Yelp, has great freshly made pasta. They won our hearts from the moment we got in, though, by seating us at a table far from the door – so no cold breezes – and right next to a radiator that warmed us from under the table. Heaven!

Though dairy and I are not always the best of friends, I couldn’t stop myself from ordering gnocchi in burned butter sauce with chunks of bleu cheese, bacon, and walnuts.

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I do have the headache I was expecting when I ordered it but it was worth it.

Sage got a classic spaghetti and meatballs which was also amazing. The sauce was really good – very balanced flavour. And then she ended with one of my favourite desserts: tiramisu.

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I only had a bite – I’d had enough dairy for a day but it was delicious.

Then it was time to layer up again and head to the library – now about a 5 minute walk away.

Toronto has a history of eating its neighbours, gradually consuming villages, boroughs, and municipalities until it became the megacity it is today. Up until 1967, though, Swansea was its own village and the library is in the former town hall. As I read up on the village, I was surprised to see that Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, lived there from 1935 to 1942. Though it is clearly part of a big city now – after all, we took a subway directly there – it still retains some of its village feel.

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You can just see Bloor Street (the main street in the area) at the end of this street

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Houses in the area are getting larger and larger. But I still prefer the tiny cottage on the right there – and not just because of the wood smoke cozily wafting from the chimney.

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Even the fire station looks like it belongs in a small, charming village.

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The demographic for the neighbourhood around this library is different from many of the others I’ve been to thus far. In this neighbourhood, the largest ethnic minorities are from Eastern Europe with languages like Polish, Ukrainian, Serbian, and Russian being the most common non-English languages in the area.

Eventually we got to the library, in the old town hall.  As you can see, Sage is rather heavily bundled up. Believe it or not, I’m bundled up even more!

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The library is only a small part of what’s in that building. It appears to be mostly a community centre, based on the sounds of happy children playing elsewhere in the building. We made our way inside.

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It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed: The wallpaper, which I originally thought was tacky, actually is based on the neighbourhood. Look on the middle of the right side to see the building we’re in.

As we approached the door, Sage said “I think we might be seeing the smallest Toronto library.” While technically that isn’t true (I’ll tell you when we get to it). boy was it close. I was standing near the door (which is near one corner of the building) when I took this photo.

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In the children’s section – no kids to be seen. But I do like the poster: “Be Curious” – isn’t that what this project is all about?

This is one of the smallest libraries I’ve ever visited. I think the only one I’ve visited that was smaller was in Hancock, Vermont where my grandparents lived.

That library is so small that a few days after I visited there, there was a small write-up in the local paper saying I was in town and had come to visit my grandparents. You don’t know slow news days until you visit a tiny Vermont town in the 1980s.

When we were there there were seven people there including two librarians. We were the youngest patrons to be seen there by far. I hate to say it, but the book selection was one of the least appealing to me of any branch I’ve visited. While they had an excellent sampling of Margaret Atwood’s work which I love, it ended there. There was a surfeit of Ken Follett and Danielle Steele and other trashy fiction. But perhaps most surprising was that I’m pretty sure that this branch has the collection with the highest percentage of romance novels of any collection in the city including this gem:

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But I shouldn’t judge. After all, the purpose of a library is to bring people books they want to read, not books people think they should be reading. And who am I to be the arbiter of book taste?

And all in all, as a library branch, this seemed to be very successful. It was the right size – there were enough seats for everyone who was there to be comfortable, and everyone had a book they liked. It was cozy, friendly, and welcoming. And best of all, because it is part of the Toronto Public Library system, it is an extremely simple matter to place a hold on any one of the 10.6 million items in the system. If it’s available in another library it will be brought over in just a couple of days. If it’s checked out, it will be brought over to you as soon as it’s your turn.

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Sometimes you may have to wait a while for a popular book!

So all in all, though I would probably pass over this library in favour of a bigger one for my routine library usage, this is very good at fulfilling its purpose. And the neighbourhood around it was pleasant and interesting.

 

 

 

Looking Forward by Looking Backward

 

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According to the ancient Romans, Janus is the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. For this reason many associate him with January when one year ends and a new one begins.

Now normally I’m not one for ceremony. I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions because I think January first is just an arbitrary day. You could choose to have “New day’s resolutions” any time of the year – and it might even make more sense – adding new goals whenever it seems appropriate rather than when the calendar tells you to.

That said, one of my Hindi practice partners asked if I would do an exercise with her going over the past year, listing 33 different things you are proud of in 2017. It was more difficult than I expected. After a while, including consulting both this blog and my Google Photos account for the various months of the year I managed to finish.

There was a really unexpected benefit from doing this, though, and that is the insight this gave me as to what makes me happy and thus what I feel I should direct more energy to going forward. As I’m writing this I’m also thinking that in those times where I’m feeling down, I should ask myself what I’m doing in those categories. If the answer is “very little” then the path forward out of my funk is, I think, quite obvious. Here are some of the categories I came up with along with some goals for them going forward.

Seva (सेवा) – Selfless Service: 

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This year, as in most years, I have done various types of volunteer work, helping other people where I can. This year it manifested itself by helping with everything from helping people learn English to navigating Canadian forms and paperwork to cooking to dressing up in ridiculous outfits and encouraging people to donate turkeys and other food to a food bank. Helping others has always made me feel good. No matter how bad I might feel on a given day, doing something kind for others can completely turn my mood around.

In 2018 I need to keep this up, more actively searching for organized volunteer opportunities, particularly when on long business trips. One of the best times I had on a business trip last year was when I helped out at a Habitat for Humanity home build.

Physical Activity: 

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This is a constant for me and one I never really knew about until I was in my late 30’s. It is really important for me to exercise and do it regularly. It’s also one of the first things to go when I get busy. I have lots of great ways to rationalize not doing it on any given day and those days add up.

2017 was the year I discovered Zwift – a multiplayer virtual cycling game. People from around the world can ride together, train together, and even race together. I haven’t done it in a few weeks but I need to get back in to it.

In 2017 for a number of reasons I didn’t do much running. I did have an injury – some pretty awful shin splints – possibly even stress fractures that kept me from running. I have rested though and am ready to get back to it once the weather improves.

In 2018: More running, more cycling. And also more simplification. Sometimes I try to build too many things in to it. I tried a few times to do some intensive training programs for cycling or an aggressive speed training program for running. The former made it too complicated and I just avoided the bike, the latter probably caused my injury that kept me away from running. Time to get back to simple, no excuses, no complications activity. That said, I really want to run a half marathon this year. I don’t think I can manage the spring one with travel and my dislike of winter running, but October is do-able for sure.

Hindi practice:

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I’ve been cruising for a long time in this realm, having one 2 hour class every week or so and doing next to nothing outside of class. Sometimes I would do about 20 minutes of homework before leaving for class but mostly not. Once every few months I might see a Hindi film. I got about as much progress as you might imagine from that. In other words, not much.

For 2018: I have already started some of this, making flash cards for new vocabulary, watching many films and TV shows to practice my listening skills, and working with people online. I need to feel less shy about speaking Hindi also by doing more Skype calls and similar voice chat. I’ve done a little but I need to do more.

Everyday Adventures:

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Some of my best times in 2017 were on library trips and other small adventures throughout my city. Those library visits and “Appreciating my own Backyard” visits were incredibly fun and took me places that were as new to me as they were to most of you.

In 2018: I’ve been here almost 14 years now and have seen only a fraction of our city so not only do I  need to keep that up, I need to increase the frequency. I will be putting together a library schedule for the next few weeks to ensure that I get back on schedule. If I keep up at the rate I did it last year it will literally be 20 years before I see all of the libraries.

Cycling:

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This is one I get tremendous happiness out of. I love going for long bike rides with Daegan or on my own. But I also make the biggest excuses for not going.  A few weeks before I started this blog, I remember a day where Daegan and I had planned to take a ride of about 100 kilometres up to a small town north of us where we’d found a burger place that had great reviews. And then I woke up that morning and saw there was a 40% chance of rain. My usual response to that is to cancel. This time, though, I decided that I would see how it went. The worst thing was likely that we’d get wet.  We rode all the way there in record time and ate a delicious lunch. As we were finishing lunch, the clouds were starting to pile up. There would be thunderstorms. And so, rather than lingering we decided to make a break for it. It sprinkled a little but it wasn’t bad. And then about 20 minutes later, still a good 2-3 hours from home we saw it: A wall of water coming toward us. The downpour was on the way! We also saw a gas station ahead. And so we pedaled as hard as we could and got there just before the rain arrived.

Daegan made a mad dash in to the gas station to grab coffees for each of us and we stood outside watching the downpour and chatted with people passing through until the storm passed about 20 minutes later. After that we pedaled home with no issues.

Yes, we might have avoided being a little wet had we stayed home but we wouldn’t have had such a great time either. The unexpected excitement of a storm along with the relaxing downtime of drinking coffee and watching the world go by was something I would’ve been sorry to miss.

In 2018 I need to plan more of these short day trips or even an overnight trip or two. Instead of agonizing over finding the perfect destination, just pick something and go. No need to have the perfect trip.

“Pushing through it”

Above all, this theme came up all of my favourite stories of 2017. “I didn’t want to do this potentially uncomfortable thing but I did anyway.”  Stories like the one above, or speaking Hindi loudly in front of people I didn’t know when I visited my Hindi teacher for the last time. Even those cases where the discomfort was even worse than I would’ve imagined, I came out on the other side glad I had gone through the experience.

Takeaway for 2018: Find more ways to face discomfort. I particularly need to when it comes to speaking with people I don’t feel fully comfortable with – whether English or Hindi, people I’ve just met or public speaking, I need to engineer more opportunities to push through that discomfort to get to the point where I feel comfortable. In the new year I’ll be taking improv classes again for the first time in about 5 years. There’s nothing like standing up on stage in front of an audience to feel both uncomfortable but also proud for facing it successfully.

Of course there are other goals for the new year but many of those are in the realm of what I’d call easy things to do.  Yes, I want to travel more but that’s only as difficult as buying tickets and making itineraries. There are work goals as well but those, too, are not things I really need to push myself toward except, perhaps, more finely honing my workflow.

What are you all working on in the new year?