At the end of June I took my annual trip to Canada. For the third time I traveled cross-country by train - the VIA Rail Canadian - fromVancouver-to-Toronto. It is a three-day trip. Departing Vancouver just before dinnertime we traverse the British Columbiamainland during the night and wake up on the second day in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. By lunchtime we are in Jasper. Departing Jasper we get out of the mountains surprisingly quickly and scoot across the northern Albertaplains for dinner in Edmonton. The second night we cross eastern Alberta and much of Saskatchewan. I wake up on the second morning approaching the Manitobaborder from the west. If all goes well it is lunch in Winnipegand dinner on the second night near Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario. The third and final night is spent slowly winding through the woods and lakes of northern Ontario, in the midst of almost-wilderness, far from the trans-Canada highway. On the third morning I wake up and the train is still curving towards the south and Toronto. It is a long trip. Ontario is so large that it alone makes up about half the trip, and the landscape outside the window is not nearly as varied and interesting as what the West offers. We don’t make our destination until 8:00 p.m. if we are lucky. It is common to fall behind schedule because VIA Rail does not own the tracks that its passenger trains use. Those tracks belong to either Canadian Pacific or Canadian National whose freight trains have priority. CP and CN both got out of the passenger train business decades ago because there wasn’t any money in it, or not enough money anyway. Freight is where the profit is. But it is scandalous for a country - especially a large country like Canada - not to have a passenger train service, hence VIA Rail’s government subsidized existence. Perhaps many Canadians do not realize the importance of rail travel in the westward expansion, consolidation and development of our country. It is a history that establishes a certain prideful tenet for Canadian passenger train service. In addition, I suspect that many Canadians, especially Ontarians, do not realize exactly how big Ontario and the other provinces are. By world standards, each is larger than most counties.
The train is expensive - more than an airline ticket - so it is not a whimsical travel choice. (The first time I did it, in 2002, I did it on a whim. Since then I have had to work harder to afford for it.) But it is a travel experience unlike an airplane, as filled with pros and cons as any other. I like it because it is comfortable and relaxed. It lets me decompress from the stress of living in Japanand gives me time to adjust from jetlag and to get a little reacquainted with my country. As an expatriate, the train trip is a great way of ‘experiencing’ my own country and reaffirming my Canadian identity by looking out the window at the grandness of it that I just cannot get from an airplane. In addition, there are some interesting people to meet on the train. Mostly retired Americans making their big retirement trip - but interesting nevertheless.
Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay shore is just a name to me. I know it is a destination for aurora tourists and polar bear watchers. (The polar bear migration through the town is what it is known for in Japan.) I know that a train from Winnipeg goes there. I know it takes a day-and-a-half or so to get there. I know the town is a major port for Canadian wheat exports when the bay is free of ice. I know that unless a person is an avid camper, fisherman, hunter, train aficionado (“otaku” in Japanese) there is really precious little to attract visitors. But going there is something that has never struck a real vein with me until I actually met travelers returning from Churchill when I first rode the Canadian a few years ago. When the Canadian stops in Winnipeg travelers returning from the Churchill journey join the cross-country route to return to Toronto. I get to meet interesting folk with interesting stories to tell.
To prepare for any overseas trip I have to deal with Japanese banks. Let me tell you about that. I keep my holiday money in a separate bank account - airfare, projected spending money, etc. Rather than travelers’ checks, which I have had trouble trying to cash at Canadian banks in the past, I exchange my money for cash. I’m an old-fashioned cash kind of guy. But Japanese banks only offer $10 bills and $100 bills in Canadian currency. Now, I know from previous experience that it is very difficult to spend $100 dollar bills in Canada. Stores don’t want to accept the risk of receiving counterfeit currency. So I don’t want $100 bills. I asked for and received all my spending money in tens. It’s ridiculous because the total amount makes for a pile of cash 20 cm thick. It takes up a lot of space on the carry-on bag that I keep on my person, it seems to represent a greater danger of theft, plus it makes me look like a money launderer for the mob, trying to smuggle small denominated, “unmarked”bills across international borders, or something. Nothing I suggest to the banks I patronize here can make a dent in this silliness of theirs. Oh, well.