We must have looked like two fugitives with a kid when we showed up at the hotel forty minutes later. The fact I asked for free toiletries (I had emptied my backpack in São Paulo) and that Mark was wearing two layers of clothing to make up for the fact we didn’t have winter gear probably didn’t help. Of course, Canadian customer service was too polite to comment on our appearance.
“Yeah, we booked a room… ahem, forty-five minutes ago?”
We were lucky: it was apparently the warmest March 1 ever in Toronto. By Canadian standards, it was pretty nice, which meant it was “cold,” not “fucking cold.”
I figured I could survive just wearing my one pair of jeans, my hoodie and carrying a cup of hot coffee.
“You guys can nap, I’m going out. Where is Dundas, already?”
“Okay, see the front of the hotel? This way.”
“Oh yeah! Right.”
I know Toronto pretty well, I just had to load the right map. I followed Dundas, arrived on Spadina, explored Chinatown—stopping at every bakery for a little treat—,Kensington Market, then the downtown core. I suddenly realized that I had never explored Toronto alone and that it had been a while since our last visit—2014, Mark was barely walking. Funny to think he knows many South American cities better than Ottawa’s big neighbour
“I’m starving,” Feng announced when I came back to the hotel.
We were both looking forward to eating real Chinese food, the kind you can only order if you speak Mandarin and know what you are talking about. I got 炸酱面 (zhá jiàng miàn is a Beijing specialty, cold, handmade noodles topped with beef with salty fermented soybean paste), Feng had 拉面 (lāmiàn, hand-pulled noodles), 拔丝地瓜 (básī dìguā, sweet potatoes coated in sugar) and Chinese flatbread. The meal was delicious. I was shocked at how cheap Chinatown was. Bakery treats were less than a dollar each, cans of soft drink were $1, and even the restaurant bill was less than $50 for two with drinks.
That evening reminded me when Feng and I landed together in Toronto in 2002, my first time in North America. We were also coming from Rio de Janeiro and it was about the same date, late February. Again, we didn’t have any warm clothes but Feng’s “Peruvian jacket” (a thick wool jacket we had bought in the Peruvian highlands) and my leather jacket, bought in Buenos Aires when the peso had crashed. Feng had taken me to a small dinner close to the hotel, then to Chapters. I still remember the cold, crisp air, how dry it felt, the smell of coffee and fast-food joints.
Fifteen years later, we were recreating this special day in Toronto, with Mark tagging along this time. Like kids, we explored the Eaton Centre, rediscovered Canada and eased back into the culture. “Shit, totally forgot taxes were extra! Do you have a dime?” “How many bubble tea shops do they have in Toronto? That’s crazy!” “The streets look so clean!” “Eh, this guy just said ‘sorry’ when I bumped into him!”
Then, at 10 p.m., we realized we should sort out how to get to Ottawa the following day. We didn’t feel like flying anymore. Greyhound it was. We walked to the station to buy the tickets. We were actually looking forward to the five-hour trip through Ontario—it had been a long time since our last Greyhound ride.
Back at the hotel, Feng called his parents who, once again, found us completely irresponsible. “It’s cold, you don’t have winter clothing, think of Mark! Take the plane to Ottawa tomorrow!”
“We already bought bus tickets,” Feng shouted in Mandarin. “It’s okay!”
“They won’t sleep tonight,” he said, rolling his eyes as his parents were still trying to convince him to take a taxi to the airport and fly.
“I wish there was a middle ground between my parents who haven’t picked up the phone in two months and yours who constantly worry about us,” I sighed.
The night was short.
“Fuck, it’s cold! What are we going to do today?” I thought when Feng woke me up the following day. For a second, I had thought we were still in Rio. The bed looked the same—modern, crisp, white sheet.
Oh, right, Toronto.
I got dressed and we walked fast to the Greyhound station. Now, it was actually cold.
The bus had this typical early-morning winter smell, a mix of soap/cleaning products and coffee. I smiled when the driver gave us the Wi-Fi passport—here too, Wi-Fi in buses! So instead of catching up on sleep, I caught up with work. We stopped for fifteen minutes at the same convenience store the Greyhound has been stopping at for decades, then we sped to Ottawa.
In 2002, I had spent the entire ride terrified at the prospect of meeting Feng’s parents for the first time in Ottawa but looking forward to discovering Canada. Fifteen years later, my in-laws still make me slightly nervous for many reasons but I’m not scared of them and I’m not looking forward to living in Ottawa.
The trip is over, this time.
I don’t need a plane, I need a plan.