Sunday, October 7, 2012

Travelling Light in Regina

I'm taking a quick pause between interviews to mention something that's been on my mind since my late September vacation in Regina, Saskatchewan. (For best fun, click that link and keep zooming out until you see the second big city, Saskatoon.  Check out all that checker-boarded farmland.)

Now, I'll admit, most people wouldn't expect someone to take a vacation in a place like Regina, but dang it, I would recommend it.

Granted, the trip wasn't originally booked as a vacation.  The original plan was to meet with a client of mine, for whom I'd written a book - which is based primarily in Regina.  Unfortunately, the client couldn't make it, due to a last minute wedding change in the family, so instead of cancelling altogether, I decided that I should at least see the city that I'd been writing about.

Now, everybody goes to the east coast or the west - or, heaven help them, either to Toronto or Montreal - but few people break out of the ordinary and go some place...well...ordinary.  Whenever I travel, I tend to sniff over the tourist areas, then march off the beaten track to go find out how the locals actually live.  Sometimes, this has proven to be one of my better decisions (best latte ever:  someplace over the bridge at Shrewsbury, Shropshire in England), and sometimes, not so much (stumbling into the Lower East Side in Vancouver and coming upon a pair of youths shooting what looked like blue Gatorade into their veins).  But you learn more about a place once you slip the velvet rope and go where tourists probably shouldn't venture.

Not my hotel! But the Regina Inn was directly across from the under-construction place that *was* my hotel.

And Regina isn't exactly a tourist trap, which meant I felt perfectly at home.  As soon as I was out of the hotel, I could turn left and go downtown, or turn in any other direction and be among the denizens of Regina.  (The airport was disorientingly small, and it was weird to see this one dollop of urbanization in the midst of vast, sprawling, farmed terrain.)  One thing I will say though:  if you're not accustomed to prairie air, you might be taken aback by the smell of roasting, ground nutmeg.  At least, that was the impression I had for the first 24 hours.

But it really is a charming place, with lots of grass roots cultural events, an engaging night-life in the centre of town, a bustling and dynamic university, a huge park, and - unsurprisingly - a lot of open space.  My one regret is that I didn't get a chance to see enough of it.  I'll get to that in a second.

It was a perfect day of sunshine.  Boy, I wish I had more pictures to share. Read on to know why I don't have any.

I had left Montreal at dark o'clock (I think I was at the airport around 5:30 a.m.) on the Tuesday morning, and after a 2.5 hour layover in Edmonton, Alberta, I flew over the well-defined city boundaries of Regina around 2:00 in the afternoon, local time.  (Seriously:  farm land, farm land, farm land, metropolitan area! farm land, farm land, farm land.)  Both flights were swift and easy, populated with quiet readers who practised good hygiene - very much a change from the last few flights I've been on.  Regardless, I'm lousy on a plane, so I went directly to the hotel and crashed for about an hour.

After that, I got up and went to see what Regina was really like.  That's when I kept looking around for people smoking all those funny clove cigarettes, only to find myself surrounded by non-smokers and wondering where the heck the smell was coming from.  It took half an hour for me to realize that not all cities smell the same (for better or worse), and this was the dusty, spicy smell of the Great Plains.

And without a word of a lie, I'm telling you:  as soon as I was outside the hotel, my lips shrivelled up like slugs in a salt-shower.  The air was so dry, my lips chapped within a sentence.  Between this and my post-flight/pre-migraine stupor, I thought all this was rather funny.  And I hadn't anyone present with whom I could share this humorous observation.

I bought my first few souvenirs a few minutes later:  high-calibre lip balm, and a few maps - considering I hadn't figured out my easties-and-westies since we landed, and I can't stand not knowing my cardinal points.  A few minutes later, I realized:  I had no plans until the following day around dinner, I had no idea what to do, and maps are lousy conversationalists.

That's both a boon and a pooper:  when you're travelling alone, you can do whatever the heck you want.  Eat what you want, when you want, where you want.  Go catch a show, go back to sleep, sit around drinking bad coffee and pretending to read a book while you watch life go by...Unfortunately, when you're bored and out of ideas, you have no one to provoke but yourself.

I also eat worse when I'm on the road.  Now - I should know better.  Having had round after round of food poisoning, I should know to adopt a fully vegetarian diet on the road.  So in Edmonton, I had a burger (with fries), and in Regina, I had another burger (with fries).  The second burger I couldn't finish, and I blamed it on both fatigue and the prior burger.

Where in Regina this is, I don't know.  But I'm glad I wasn't driving.

The next day was a bit more engaging. 

For the record, I've spent most of my life in "Tall-and-Sprawl" urban centres like Toronto and Montreal, so I'm not accustomed to so much sunshine.  What struck me most odd was how long it took for the fricking sun to fully rise!  I swear:  there were 90 minutes between first light and the point at which the sun fully cleared the horizon.  They're not kidding when they say it's the sunniest city in Canada.

1 hour after first light.  All the way back to the hotel I felt like I was stepping on my own shadow.

I went off in search of an army surplus store because I desperately needed a backpack that could outlast me.    (I broke my carry-on luggage by carrying it.)  Here, I had a splendid reminder that the distance between two points on a map are probably not within walking distance, and that once afoot, I'm too stubborn to stop or turn back, no matter how tired or sore I am.

That's another one of those boons-and-poopers:  you can't shift the blame when you're lost, and you can't delegate someone else to ask directions.

Honestly, if you think you're in a small town, I recommend getting out and walking.  It's never as small as you think it is, if you're on foot.  The eyes can be fooled, but the feet are never wrong.

From there, I walked into the taxi office (because I didn't know the number for the company, and I just happened to pass the place), and I took a cab up to the University of Regina, 'cause darn it, I was bored, and because darn it, my mother wanted a travel mug from the place, and darn it, because Kevin O'Brien just might have been on shift, since he works there.  So, I surprised Kevin O'Brien at his place of work, and we went for an impromptu coffee.

Kevin and I went to high school together, many, many moons ago.  Much has happened since then.  He's now married.  I'm not.  We got to talking about our various careers, and about what had brought us both to this place.  I told him about my writing contract and the last minute change of plans.  He told me about his emigration from Kingston, Ontario.  Kevin's husband Kyle had landed a teaching post at the University, and it was a good job; and fortunately for Kevin, the same day he'd landed in Regina, he had a job interview of his own, and (despite jet lag) he scored high.  He'd found his own employment at the University.  Then, we scheduled dinner for later that night, for a party of three.

Let me tell you:  that was probably one of the most fun nights I've had in a long time.  We went out to a relatively posh restaurant and gabbed and laughed and guffawed over memories we'd shared in common - or had forgotten - and realized things about each other that we probably couldn't have expressed when we were younger.  I asked about their wedding and they gave me all the funny details; we talked about my church; we talked politics and economics; and we talked about the experience of being in Regina.  It was so much fun that we relocated the party to a pub a few doors down to continue the laughs and conversation.

But partway through dinner, before we left the restaurant, I realized that I couldn't finish my meal (fancy chicken and fancier veggies).  I'd thought I would have been hungrier, since I hadn't had anything since breakfast.  It felt as though I hadn't finished digesting the two burgers I'd had the day before (which could also have been true).  Still, I managed to share the better part of a dessert with Kevin, but that was more because of greed and awesome flavour than because of need; and after that came some "spirited" conversation, which made matters only worse.

To no one's surprise and due entirely to my own fault, I woke up in the night feeling very penitent.  I went back to bed feeling bleh but not bad.  The pressure and pain in my head were localized to one half of my head, indicative of a migraine and nothing else, so I didn't think anything of it.

Later that morning, I woke up feeling completely out of sorts, weak, exhausted, snuffly, nauseous - the gamut.  I tried making coffee, but the very smell of it made me run to the bathroom with all due haste.  Fortunately, I hadn't had food or water in a few hours, so it was a pointless exercise.  A vigorous, emphatic but pointless exercise.

This, I was soon to realize, was to become a routine every 20-30 minutes, whether I smelled coffee or not.  Within an hour and a half, I gave up trying to slither back into bed; between futile visits, I just sat on the floor at the end of the bed, my clammy and pallid face not six inches from the oversized TV.  I couldn't even be bothered to get to my feet; crawling was the safest and only effective means of travel that day.  Unfortunately, I think I wore a trail in the hotel room carpet, going from Point A to Point B and back.

After five hours of CSI reruns, I oozed back under the sheets and slept for at least three dramatic gun battles and one big reveal.  I was feverish, groaning, miserable, and completely alone.  Nightmares came and went, and as I emerged from the haze, I had one clear and horrifying thought:  "This is how I die.  I'm all alone, and it'll be housekeeping who'll find me wrapped around the toilet wearing nothing but sweat and mismatched unmentionables."  (Note to self:  don't watch murder mysteries when feverish.)

I'd left my itinerary with my family, and I'd originally had plans with Kevin and Kyle for the Thursday night as well, so I would be missed if worse came to worse; but the thought of being completely alone, two time zones away from home, without anyone knowing what was going struck me to the core.  There was only one person who could be responsible for me, and that was me.  So if I had to walk to the pharmacy, there was only one person who could do the walking for me.  I decided walking was a stupid and infeasible means of locomotion for any self-respecting life form, so I stayed in bed and went back to sleep instead.

A couple of hours later, I felt all neat and squared away inside, as if nothing had ever been wrong, so I decided I should at least get some water and food into me.  I figured the worst was over, and that the nap was precisely what I'd needed.

Fifteen seconds after food hit stomach, what had been dry trial runs now became a grave, projectile and unmistakable reality.  I had the flu.  This was not going to go away after rehydration and some guilt-laced aspirin.

Worst of all:  I had a flight to catch at six in the morning, local time.  I get airsick.  I had a migraine.  I had the flu.  There was not a chance in a million that I was going to survive the flight to Toronto, and then onto Montreal, without a barf bag surgically taped to my face.  I seriously thought they would take one look at me, flash back to the days of SARS and Swine Flu and refuse me aboard.  I would be stranded indefinitely in Regina with all manner of bodily fluids issuing forth from my body.  At one point I honestly thought I had Ebola.

So, running like Patient Zero from soldiers in hazmat suits, I flung myself three blocks toward the nearest pharmacy and plunked down a ridiculous amount of money for a ridiculous amount of tummy-soothing medication.  I ran likewise back to the hotel with my stomach in my mouth, counting the very seconds until I was safe in the bathroom once more.

I drank at least two litres of ginger ale, popped a gazillion Gravol and managed to sleep fifty minutes of every hour from then until four thirty in the morning.  I felt bad about ditching Kevin for dinner #2, but he was very understanding and compassionate about the whole thing.

The plane ride was every bit of agony as I'd expected, only with more limping, more congestion and more ear pain than foreseen.  While I should have been concentrating more on my nausea-reducing mantras, I couldn't help but think things like, My gosh, I've infected every passenger aboard this plane.  Every one of them is bound for a different destination, and they're going to infect everyone else, and then they'll infect more people...I've started a plague.  I will go down in history as the new Typhoid Mary.  No - don't touch that, you'll infect - aaaaah, too late now.  Good job.  You've just murdered somebody.  Now, will you stop breathing on people?  Jeez, I really do wish we could crack open a window...(For the record, I did use antiseptic hand wash, but that never gets rid of the sweaty cooties in your brain.)

I staggered after my luggage (which was mercifully swift) and hobbled outside to wait for the parking shuttle (and strangely, people gave me a wide berth at that stop).  Once deposited at my car, I realized my keys had fallen to the seventh level of hell, somewhere inside my luggage, so I sat on the parking lot pavement and undid every zipper and clasp.  I thought, "My gosh, this is a stupid way to travel.  I'm sitting on the ground behind my car in a parking lot with dirty underwear and half-consumed Gravol strewn about me."  The keys were in the last place I looked for them, for which I was glad.  At least I hadn't left them at the hotel.

I drove home with all the windows down, and upon arrival, I left pretty much everything in the back of the car, took the dog outside, called my mother (I'm not even sure she recognized my voice), then crawled into bed with every electrical thing turned off, including the phones.  The dog was more than happy to nap with me, though she did get a bit restless after the third or fourth hour.  We got up long enough to take her out again, and I turned the computer on to prove to concerned friends and family that I was still alive.

Over the next forty-eight hours, I slept for twenty-eight.  By Monday, except for some sniffles, it was like I'd never been sick at all.

But what stuck with me was the fact that I could just as easily have been poisoned or drugged by a random stranger...Well, suffice to say, it would have been a horrible inconvenience to someone to come and pick me up, if the outcome had been worse.

This hasn't discouraged me from travelling alone.  Because of the current cost-prohibitiveness of taking someone with me, I'll either have to travel alone or stay home.

But I have learned a lot.

For one thing, I probably could have called Kevin (in my best flu-like and pathetic voice) and begged him to swing by after work with a loot bag of meds.

For another thing, I could have called any number of kind friends in Montreal to come by with a spatula and peeled me off the Park-and-Fly tarmac.  Having one of them drive me home probably would have been safer for the rest of Montreal.

But these things don't occur to me.  I quite literally forget to ask for help.  I forget it's an option.

For a third thing, I did do right to make sure others knew my itinerary; and thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I was able to keep in contact at all times, either by phone or by wifi.  This is definitely a good habit to continue:  keep in scheduled contact.

So the moral of the story, I guess, is this:  yes, travel alone; but make sure others know where you're going to and when, and whenever possible, have plans to meet up with someone local, someone you know and trust.

And yes, I would definitely like to go back to Regina.  There are so many pictures I didn't take!  But I have another "ordinary" place to visit first, and a few extraordinary ones as well.

2013, I hope, will involve more travel than the usual Montreal-to-Toronto runs.  If I'm going to be an awesome Canadian author, I'd better see a little more of my own country.

With thanks to Kevin and Kyle for a wonderful visit, just the same!


Quick and interesting post-script (because one should always write a good story with a twist ending):  a couple of days ago, Kevin contacted me by Facebook.  He mentioned that food at that same restaurant we'd been to had tested positive for e.coli, and that at least one other person in that same week had contracted food poisoning.  So it may not have been the flu after all.