Friday, August 09, 2019

Reflections of Bakri Eid (or Eid ul Adha)

It used to be growing up that Eid ul Adha was often the bigger Eid. Going to the cow market, choosing your cow or goat, then bringing it home and caring for it. And then, on Eid day, watch - a little sad but also a little awed - as four men wrestle with the ropes and bring the cow down, before the throat is slit and the cow is sacrificed. And if it's a goat, one or two is enough to kill the goat. Skinning of the animal was done next, followed by cutting up of the meat.

Soon you are busy helping the adults sort the meat into three piles. One for yourself. One for the friends and relatives. One for the poor. Although it is not mandatory to donate or give the meat - you can keep everything for yourself, most people do donate.

Growing up, this Eid taught me many lessons. First, it taught me that where food comes from. The burger or hot dog is not magically there, it is there because a life was taken to feed me. So don't waste food, especially meat. Second, it taught me that while human life is preferred over animal life (the animal is killed to feed us), it also means we have to be responsible and to take care of our environment. Kill the animal in a humane manner. And finally, it is about sacrifice. We are taking care of the animal for a week before we kill it. You do grow attached to it. And then you have to sacrifice of what is dear to you. This is a recurring theme of life.

Once I was in Canada, suddenly Eid ul Fitr became the "bigger" Eid. It was suddenly hard to fast in Canada when everyone else is eating. While Ramadan here is fun in its own way, especially the night prayers, Eid ul Fitr becomes the day you rejoin the "normal" Canadians in eating and drinking. Whereas for Eid ul Adha, you just order a Qurbani from the butcher, and then go on Day 1 or 2 of the Eid to simply pick up your meat. It's Eid, delivered.

I was fine with it, but what about the kids? What would they know about our rich history of Eid ul Adha? For this reason, last year I took my older son to the farm on day 2 of Eid. Day 2 is always far, far less busy than Eid day itself (you can sacrifice on any of the three days). We picked a fat goat. After petting it and taking pictures with it, the goat was taken by the butcher to the slaughter place. I told my son about the history of Eid, of Ibrahim (pbuh) and why we do what we do. I thought the concept might be difficult, but kids have remarkable tendency to process religion. We do what we can.

This year we are giving Qurbani again, but not here. I also plan to ask my sons to take a little of the Eidi they get, and donate a part to the poor. Let them feel the pinch of sacrifice. This is how I try, little as I can, to build the traditions.

How do you build your Eid traditions? What are your Eid memories? Do share.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Canadian Rockies: Jasper

If Banff National Park is the most visited national park in Canada, then Jasper National Park is the crown jewel of the Canadian Rockies. Whereas Banff is more developed, has more infrastructure for tourists and has the more popular spots, it is also the more crowded (sometimes overwhelmingly so) park. Jasper is more wild, more scenic, and is for the more adventurous.

You access Jasper from Banff through the Icefields Parkway. I have written about this highway before - it is the most scenic highway in the world. You may think this is being over hyped but it's not. It really is that pretty. You have to stop numerous times on various lookout points just to take it all in.

There's not a lot of hotels or options in the southern part of Jasper, so we stayed the night at a resort midway between Banff and Jasper.

Columbia Glacier and the Canyon Glass Floor

This is the last outing you do as part of the Ultimate Explorer. The Athabasca Glacier is at the heart of the incredible Icefields Parkway, and is one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. It is also the most visited glacier in North America.

Here, you’ll travel on a massive Ice Explorer to a place where you can walk on, feel and drink from the fresh waters of the glacier. These vehicles are massive - each of their tires is almost as tall as a man and is worth $5000!

The glacier waters are ice cool (of course!) and incredibly fresh. No mineral water tastes like this! You can drink it straight from the source.

Then, take a jaw-dropping walk along the glass-floored Skywalk at the cliff’s edge, a short five minutes drive away.

One big difference from my last trip to the glacier three years ago is the size of the glacier. It was noticeably smaller, and I have read that they are losing a little bit of the glacier every year. The area you could walk around was definitely smaller. Another difference, though not an important one, was the variety of food in the cafeteria. They have much better vegetarian and seafood options now! Still no halal though ...

Sunwapta Falls

You must visit this falls if you are travelling through Jasper. There are two famous falls in the park (the other being Athabasca Falls), but this was is more accessible.

It is not too far off the highway, has ample parking (it can fill up but enough people are always leaving, so there's always space) and the lookout point is quite close to the falls.

First Sighting of Wildlife: Mountain Goats

Imagine going through Jasper National Park, famous for its wildlife, and not seeing any! It was our last day in Jasper and we hadn't really seen anything of note. When suddenly my son pointed this out:

Do you see it? I wonder how he saw it. And then we saw it.

It was a whole family of mountain goats.

Jasper Skytram

This is often an overlooked attraction, but do not miss it. On a clear day you get some amazing views.

We could see the peak of Mount Robson (all the way in British Columbia). That is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 metres (12,972 ft). Our guide told us such clear weather (to see Mount Robson) we were enjoying happened once every week for only two hours at the top.

The small town of Jasper (from which the park gets its name) can also be seen from the top.

Keep in mind that Jasper is more "wild". Look at the barriers. These are not the child friendly barriers that are common in Banff. A small child can easily slip through them, so be careful of where your kids are at all times.

You can even go for further hikes up the mountain. Many people do. We did part of the way.

After exploring the peak, it was time to get down and go towards Hinton, a small town just outside of Jasper to the north - our pitstop for the night. On the way there, we made a small detour to Pyramid Lake, and boy we were glad we did.

Pyramid Lake and more wildlife

The Pyramid Lake (just five minutes away from the town of Jasper) is a beautiful lake, but nothing extra ordinary about it compared to the other magnificent lakes we had seen so far. What made it special was the forest and woods around it. As we were driving back, suddenly we see this ...

It's a deer. And then we see other moose and elk nearby. And then a whole family of them decided to cross the road.

More of their cousins were dotted around the small road. We drove by very slowly.

Then we approached a heavily wooded area. It reminded me of the story of Red Riding Hood. But instead of a wolf, would we see a bear?

YES! There it was!

A bear sighting is usually the highlight of wildlife spotting in Jasper. We were very lucky indeed. The bear was merely 500m away, and happily munching on her food, while we stayed safely away and took pictures.

Overall we spent two and half days in Jasper National Park, and I wish we could have spent more. There were so many other things to do, other sights to see, other trails to hike. Canada is very lucky to include Jasper!

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Canadian Rockies: Lake Louise - Heaven Turned into a Zoo

Lake Louise is the most photographed spot in Banff National Park. It is also the most visited, the most iconic and the most beautiful part of the park. And yet, Parks Canada is now killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Recall my visit to lake Louise three years ago. I visited Lake Louise three times on that trip and Moraine Lake twice. Whenever we wanted to go to the lake, we just WENT there. Parking was abundant, readily available, and this was just three years ago. It was a slice of heaven, and the beautiful glacier waters trickling from the mountains and forming the lake was a sight to see.

Now? It's a zoo.

I get it. The number of visitors have boomed in recent times. But there must be an efficient way to manage that?!! Rather, the way Parks Canada has implemented shuttles leave a lot to be desired. I mean the Athabasca Glacier is the most visited glacier in the world, but Parks Canada manages that extremely well with the timeslots and the shuttles, so why can't they manage this well?!!

First of all, the parking lot gets filled around 6 am. Like what?!! OK, so apparently a lot of people want to catch the sunrise. So why not build more parking? But no - Parks Canada has a park and ride about 10 km away where you drop your car and take a shuttle to Lake Louise.

Fine. That should solve the problem in theory. But it doesn't. The shuttle timings are really inconvenient. They are supposed to run every 15 minutes but don't. You sometimes have to wait as much as 40-50 minutes in the line especially if you go late, say noon.

Second, the last shuttles are around 530 pm. Why?!!! The sun sets in the summer at 10ish. So why not run the shuttles till 9 ?

Third, the shuttle to and from Moraine Lake runs from Lake Louise. So if you want to go to Moraine Lake and the parking is full, you have to take the shuttle to Lake Louise, and then another shuttle to Moraine Lake, and then be back before the last shuttle departs Lake Louise for the park and ride location. All of which makes for a crummy time if you arrive slightly late (say noon) because you will end up waiting over an hour for your very first shuttle - that way if you are doing anything in Lake Louise, such as boating, then you can forget Moraine Lake.

And finally, the shuttle? It's a damn school bus.

So my advice for anyone visiting Lake Louise? Visit early. Try to be there by 9 am. Then even if you have to get the shuttle, at least you have enough time to do all the activities at both the lakes. And what activities can you do in Lake Louise? Other than the numerous pictures you will probably take?

Why, boating, of course.

Canoeing on the lake is a Canadian tradition, and most people go for the hourly slot. It is also more expensive ($130/hr) to rent a canoe here on this lake than on any other lake (duh, commercialism) but it is so worth it. This was honestly one of the highlights of the trip. You can fit three adults or two adults and two kids / canoe. I would recommend everyone to do it, particularly when the sun is beating hot overhead.

You don't have to paddle too hard, although the lake does have a small current (the water flows from the mountains in the distance towards the hotel) so no matter how deep into the lake you go, you can easily make it back to the dock. They do say they are very careful about you going over your time, but I didn't find them checking the time when you return your canoe - though they probably will go hard on you for anything over five minutes.

It is simply too beautiful once you are on the lake.

Keep in mind not to stand up on the canoe or change directions once you are seated, as that's the best way to tip over the boat. And trust me - you don't want to fall into the water. This is a glacier lake. The temperature of the water is just around 5℃. That's cold.

So while Parks Canada can do a much better job in managing the crowds, and the overcrowded nature of the lake does tend to take away from its enjoyment, Lake Louise is still so beautiful. It is amazing. It still remains a slice of heaven.

It's just that more people are now visiting this slice of heaven than before. So be prepared and plan accordingly.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Canadian Rockies: Banff

Lake Peyto, as seen from the viewpoint on the hike to Bow Summit, Banff National Park

Banff National Park.

The last time I was in the Canadian Rockies was in 2016, as part of a trip to the Western Coast of Canada. The Canadian Rockies are a place you want to visit again and again. This time, three years later, opportunity presented itself and I took the chance to visit Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Parks. So much has changed, even in this short time, yet the beauty, majesty and magnificence of the place still remains unchanged.

Banff Gondola and Lake Minnewanka Cruise

The place to start with any Banff trip is Banff Gondola to Sulphur Mountain. I wrote about it in more detail in my last visit. If this is your first time, you must buy the Banff Ultimate Explorer Package. For each item in the package, you can give the time, but you can give it later if you are not sure. I would suggest to do the gondola in the morning, and then the cruise later in the afternoon (5 or 6 pm). You can book the times for the glacier on another day and call one day before to book a timeslot.

You can easily spend a few hours atop Sulphur Mountain. The views are amazing on a clear day, so make sure to check the weather before you go. Even if it's raining, remember the weather can change quickly in a short time.

Do remember that the gondola parking lot can get filled by 11 am. So if you are coming later, you can park in the free lot near Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre, walk to the Elk+Avenue Hotel (about ten minutes) and take a free shuttle to the Gondola. Or you can always try your luck with the parking near the Gondola as someone is usually always leaving.

The Lake Minnewanka cruise is something you may not think is worth it on its own, but as part of the package it's a great hour spent. The tour guides and the captains can be hilarious (ours certainly was!) and it's highly enjoyable - especially when they talk of the Devil's Lake.

There's ample parking so don't worry about driving to the lake cruise boarding area. For an in depth look at the cruise, refer to my post from three years ago.

Vermillion Lakes

These are an underrated and understated part of Banff. Many people miss it, as it's really outside of the town of Banff, and doesn't have a good parking lot but just viewpoints along a narrow road. But you miss it and you have missed a great viewing point. The lake and the mountains can be very scenic, especially during sunset, and more so if you happen to catch a train passing on the horizon.

Surprise Corner, Bow Falls, Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and Banff Hot Springs

If you drive up (or hike up) to Surprise Corner, this is where you have a jaw dropping view of the magnificent Banff Springs Hotel, the majestic Bow Falls and Bow river, along with a glimpse of the Banff Gondola and its ride to the top, as well as the magnificent scenery all around you.

Unfortunately there was a light drizzle when we went up, so it did make for dynamic pictures, if not very clear. Even then, do remember that no pictures will do the scenery justice. You just have to see it, and absorb it. Try to enjoy your surroundings and forget about taking a checklist of pictures. I wrote in greater detail about Bow Falls on my last trip.

The Banff Springs resort is an iconic hotel and resort built in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Yes, it's expensive, but it's also something to see. Parking nearby was $10/hour. We parked for two hours and it was more than enough to explore the hotel picture gallery, the famous dining hall, the lobby and other parts of the hotel open to the general public, the various shops inside the resort, along with the grounds and statues outside.

If you are in Banff, you must visit the hot springs. There are many hot springs in and around the Canadian Rockies, and many have been left in their natural state, but in Banff they have taken the hot water and piped it into a pool so people can sit, chill and relax. It can get crowded depending on the time of the day and date you visit, so do check, but even then it's very relaxing to sit in the open air, in waters that are 40C, and the gorgeous mountain scenery all around you.

We were very lucky with the weather. It had been drizzling on and off throughout the day, but the two hours we were in the hot springs the weather stayed dry. As soon as we got out of the pool and started to change to head out, it started to pour again!

Emerald Lake

Now to be very technical, Emerald Lake is in Yoho National Park, not Banff. And Yoho is actually in British Columbia, not Alberta. But Emerald Lake was the only place we visited in Yoho, and it's a short drive away from Banff, so I have included it here.

The rain was gone, the sun was shining and what a beautiful lake it was! Unlike Lake Louise there's hardly any body there at Emerald Lake at that time of the day - we went in the early evening, about 6 pm. You could enjoy the serenity and tranquility of the beautiful lake completely by yourself.

Of course, by 6 pm, the canoe rentals were shut, so if you wish to boat in the lake, you must go earlier (or have your own raft).

If you have no plans to visit Yoho National Park or explore BC, you must still visit Emerald Lake if you are in Banff. It's a must see.

People always ask me how long to plan for a trip to Banff. I always suggest three to four days, minimum. This is enough to complete all the highlights, especially if you are travelling with family (and kids) who do not like to get up at the crack of dawn. Moreover, with four days, you are playing safe with the weather. This is mountain area, so rain and bad weather can always be around the corner. If you only have reserved a day for Banff, and it rains on that day, you are out of luck. Best to plan for at least three days.

Next up: Lake Louise