Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Toronto: an Indian tourist perspective

A long vacation of two months in Toronto was a revelation in many ways. After the first few days of jet-lag, it was time to go around. Below is what I observed about Toronto. This post may prove useful to a first-time visitor.
The Travel:
In the beginning, the whizzing cars on Toronto roads scared me immensely. But then I realized, as a pedestrian, I was the queen. All I needed was to press the button at the crossing...and the red light would turn green for me. I would scamper across as I saw the timer begin its countdown from 22. I would be delighted to watch the vehicles wait even when the timer showed a 0 and I didn't have to zigzag across the road with my hand held up hoping to make it across the street alive! The pedestrian here is respected.
Despite those scary speeds at which the cars traveled, they would strictly adhere to their lanes. Lane changes are indicated well in advance.
And how much I miss the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission)! The TTC is a combination of subway, the bus and the street car. For a mere $3 we could travel anywhere...however long or short the distance! We traversed the whole of Toronto gleefully at these rates. Multiple ticket options are the Presto card, tokens, weekend and the monthly pass.
The subway consisted of two lines, Line 1 and Line 2, running perpendicular to each other. A big advantage was to have trains running every two minutes and so there was hardly a wait period.
TTC apologizes for any inconvenience caused due to the slightest delay or even when a train does not run at its optimum speed between two stations.The coaches are all air-conditioned and pretty clean, more so those on the newer Line 1.
Ours was Islington, almost the last station on Line 2.

The TTC Subway Map

The subways stations are all equipped with uninterrupted and strong WiFi signals. Not just that, WiFi is abundantly available through the town, almost at every restaurant and tourist destination. As a tourist when one does not have local connectivity, this comes as a blessing!
At the Stores:
When you step inside a store, you are greeted with a loud cheerful 'Hi!' Back home, I am used to browsing the store quietly and then select what I need. This loud cheerful "Hi" threw me initially. Their exuberant greeting would be met by a very meek and shy 'hi' from me. It's another story that hearing this day in and day out, it rubbed off on me so much so that when I returned to India and greeted the bank official in the same style, he was perhaps a bit thrown off and returned the greeting with a very hesitant "Yes, madam?"
This initial greeting would quickly give way to, "What would you like today?" I used to loathe this pressure of getting you to quickly select something and get moving. Eventually I learned to reply firmly, "I am looking and will let you know when I decide." Of course, this was not so at the bigger marts.
Unlike in India, where there is only exchange on items  you are not happy with, here, you get a full cash refund for items returned in 30-90 questions asked. It is so easy!
The mind-boggling array of brand choices in most of these medium-to-large stores is amazing! I took ten minutes just to select one shampoo. So, imagine the time I spent in the stores shopping! There is a wide variety of pharmaceutical products too...huge jars of vitamins and supplements to choose from!
A new experience was the absence of a standard MRP on the products. And as each store has the freedom to charge as they want, we got many a meaty deal. Walmart had select deals on select products on some days but Costco (membership-only) offered products in bulk at the lowest prices in Toronto. For comparatively smaller quantities, the No-Frills store claims to be the cheapest in Toronto.
Though electronic items are available at half prices as compared to India's, what I brought back are all those food items that are available at select shops in India and/or exorbitantly priced.
Every store, big or small, accepts the debit and/or credit card...that is the norm of payment there. We were one of the very few people to buy with currency. There was never an instance of 'chillar nahi hain' repartee. We even got away with paying with a torn note once. Some of these marts had self check-in. You can total and pay on your way out. You don't need a cashier to help you.
Most of these stores are grouped in a cluster in one place and no 'kirana' kind of places that you can quickly run to in case you need something.
The People:
What I found similar to India are its helpful people. Everywhere I went, I found that it was easy to ask a stranger for help with directions.The bus drivers, the TTC personnel were also very helpful in providing directions.
There was checking by the TTC once and I was quite amazed by their approach. They would ask everyone with equal respect and patience, "Please show the ticket proof". Once shown, a wide smile and a "Thank you". They don't make you feel like a criminal but treat you with dignity that a ticket-holder deserves.
I found a new meaning for tolerance in the acceptance of every nation, race and religion in Toronto. In fact, Air Canada had Punjabi and Hindi films on its flight. Brampton in Toronto has its signages in Punjabi!
The concept of space is brilliant here: The physical space includes vast expanses of greenery all around you, in the parks and in marked conservation areas.. Lesser population also meant more space available. Joggers in vast open spaces is a common sight.  The air smells so deliciously clean!
The unwritten rule is to walk on the right-side of your path (footpath, mall, walking area, or stairs) and give way to people coming from the opposite direction. Even the trains travel towards their right. While standing in queues, you are expected to maintain a distance of approximately a foot from the person in front. If by mistake someone bumps into you, there is an instant apology. 
The Public Place:
Most of the public places have a fully-equipped, very, very clean washrooms along with drinking water faucets. The tourist places come with the coats hangers room in the entrance.
All streets have  pavements which dips onto the road at the junctions making it accessible for the wheel chair. Not just the streets but all public places have ramps to enable easy wheel chair access.
The Home:
Most of them are condominium accommodations. The condos and apartments are accessible with a key fob at the entrance and managed by a building management inside it. You are similarly provided a key to the parking. No puny watchman guarding the building here.
The biggest blessing for me was to sleep in a noiseless house. Thick and double-glazed windows  and doors help keep the noise out and let you sleep  in peace. No sounds of cars (no honking anyways) or sounds from the neighborhood disturb you.
Must confess, Toronto has grown on me and I would have stayed on if not driven out by the onset of its harsh winter.