Friday, May 25, 2018

World Cup 2018 - Group Stage Predictions

Group A: (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay)

Host countries usually do well in the World Cup. Even USA got out of the group (with a surprise, and later tragic, win over Columbia) in 1994. Remember Korea's magical run in 2002, and Japan qualifying for the second stage as well? However I don't expect Russia to repeat those feats. Uruguay will easily top this group, but expect Egypt's Mo Salah to carry them through. Maybe it's my romanticism of being a Salah fan, but I don't think Russia has it.

My picks for this group: Uruguay, Egypt.

Group B: (Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran)

This is almost a no contest. Portugal are the Euro 2016 champions. They still have Ronaldo. Spain - despite being a pain to watch - are still Spain. Iran, Morocco - thank you for coming. Hope you enjoyed the goal fest. Have a safe trip home.

My picks for this group: Portugal, Spain.

Group C: (France, Australia, Peru, Denmark)

It’s hard to look past a strong Danish side with an on-song Christian Eriksen, but Peru are ranked 11th, ahead of Denmark. Yes, football rankings are a bit hit and miss, but Peru had a great qualifying campaign. Australia are no slouches, but they don't have the pedigree in soccer they have in other sports. They always manage to give a good fight and then lose. Cahill or no Cahill. France will blow everyone away in this group.

My picks for this group: France, Peru.

Group D: (Argentina, Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria)

I actually expect Argentina to win it all again this year (and hopefully in a final against Germany), so will pick them to top this group (and also, Messi). The second place is a harder pick. The young Croatia squad is a strong one, while Nigeria is also no slacker. It’s hard to see Iceland getting much out of this group. Their dream ends here. Croatia vs Nigeria will decide the 2nd place, and I expect Croatia to win it. With probably a disputed penalty in the 90th minute.

My picks for this group: Argentina, Croatia.

Group E: (Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia)

Well, Brazil, despite the painful memory of 7-1 against Germany, is still Brazil, so expect them to top this group. The question is who will join them. Costa Rica may have done us all a favour by denying the Americans a World Cup place, but I don't see them repeating their 2014 heroics. Serbia hasn't been a power for so long, so it has to be the Swiss.

My picks for this group: Brazil, Switzerland.

Group F: (Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea)

They say football is a game of 22 players kicking a ball and in the end, the Germans win. So expect the defending champions to get out of their group in pole position, but they won't have it easy. All the other three sides are equally competent and would have gotten out of the group had they been in ANY other group. What a waste! I would have to pick either Mexico or Sweden, and I think it has to be Mexico for their firepower up front.

My picks for this group: Germany, Mexico.

Group G: (Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England)

This should be a straight forward campaign for England to get out of their group. Should be. Then again, this is England. Expect Belgium to top the group, and the English to huff and puff their way into second place. The heart wants Tunisia to qualify, but it probably won't happen.

My picks for this group: Belgium, England.

Group H: (Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan)

This is the hardest group to pick. Any one could beat anyone. Who cares though? None of them are strong enough to win the Cup. But they can all win their group. I would have to go with the flair of Senegal and the hardwork of Colombia.

My picks for this group: Colombia, Senegal.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Power of Voice

Take a look at this picture.
For many of you, this might not be such a big deal. Here's a food booth at a cafeteria and they have halal meat. So common here in Toronto.


But this is not Toronto. This is a city way up in the north of Ontario. Now let met tell you the story of the power of the voice that leads to this picture.

When I moved here in Canada, not only were halal stores far and few in between, but food and religious services in campuses across Canada were not very minority-friendly. In the late 1990s, a major Quebec university actually went to court to prevent the Muslim students from booking a room and using it as a prayer space. And there was a scandal as one of the universities were serving "vegetarian" food but the gravy was beef based, which incensed the Hindu students.

Now there had been Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) and Hindu Student Associations (HSAs) in Canada for a long time, but they had often been neutral in student elections, existing merely to organize some cultural events. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, that started to change. Both the MSAs and the HSAs started to actively participate in student elections. They would field candidates and promote candidates. Often many of these organizations would collaborate and coordinate to create a voice. After all, it's nice to have a student president who is friendly to Muslims (or Hindus), but only a Muslim or a Hindu student would know the importance of dietary restrictions and ensure school functions would either cater properly to a diverse student body or at least label their food properly. In addition to prayer spaces. After all, in a Toronto university, a Hindu pooja function set off the fire alarm. Letters of request written to the university had no effect.

Suddenly, these candidates started to win. And ALL of a sudden, you could see the affect. UTSC first got a permanent prayer space in 2001. Suddenly other universities followed suit. Halal became widely available across student cafeterias, as did proper vegetarian, vegan and other options. Prayer space fire detection system at the University of Toronto Multifaith Building now cater for pooja that will have incense and fire, etc.

These are not just mere stories or the achievements not just mere trivial issues. They are important to those who take their religion and their lifestyle seriously. MANY of the things we take for GRANTED today came about because SOME people ahead of us chose to UNITE, ORGANIZE, and create a VOICE.

The first step is of course to vote.
YOU MUST VOTE.

The second step is to run.

Be a Candidate.

Get involved in the political parties here. Know the issues. Knowledge is power.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Cherry Blossom, Spring 2018 in Toronto

As winter sunsets and heralds the dawn of spring (and then summer), the weather can change drastically in Toronto. You would remember we had an ice storm in mid-April and the landscape was tundra-like. That is all gone now, and one of the first true signs of spring (and the oncoming summer) are the cherry blossoms.


A cherry blossom is the flower of a cherry tree (usually in Canada it's the Japanese Sakura tree). The flowering of the Sakura trees is spectacular, but peak bloom (typically in late April to early May, depending on the weather) only lasts about a week.


This weekend (May 11-13) was peak viewing time. Typically almost everyone in Toronto descends on to High Park, where parking, traffic etc. can become a nightmare if you don't plan your trip strategically. But there are a few other spots in Toronto that also have lots and lots of trees.


The beauty of the cherry blossom is of course the huge number of trees blooming at the same time, which makes the white and red background striking and extremely majestic. Moreover, as the flower blooms, its petals slowly wither and drop to the ground. In the wind, with hundreds of trees and thousands and thousands of flower, it can make a magical sight.


But if the crowds in High Park there are just too much for you, check out the other top places in the GTA to take in the spring sight and snag that perfect Sakura selfie:

Trinity Bellwoods: There’s a cluster of young trees on the southeastern part of Trinity Circle. Plus visitors have the advantage of looking at the CN Tower through the beautiful flowers.

Centennial Park: This Etobicoke garden is believed to be the second largest place for the cherry blossoms in Toronto behind High Park, with over 200 cherry trees.

Toronto Islands: There are about 30 Japanese cherry trees on Centre Island near the fountain at the south end of the bridge, a great alternative for those seeking to avoid crowds in mainland city parks.

Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre: The first ever cherry tree to be planted in Toronto was a present from the citizens of Tokyo, so it’s fitting that the garden at the Japanese cultural centre in North York (near Eglinton just off DVP) would boast some of these blossoms.

Robarts Library at the University of Toronto: Dozens of cherry trees are planted on the Harbord-Huron stretch, forming a beautiful canopy for the university crowd and passersby when in peak bloom.

Kariya Park: The Japanese-style park near downtown Mississauga has its own cherry blossoms. The garden is named after the small city southwest of Tokyo, which has a strong relationship with the city of Mississauga.

Royal Botanical Gardens: Cherry blossoms at this Burlington park are scattered at various locations, but the main collection is near the Rock Garden.


As the cherry blossom ends, another flower slowly marks its appearance. Yes, it's now time for the annual tulip festivals across the country. The Abbotsford Bloom Tulip Festival in BC has just ended, but the Canadian Tulip Festival (in Ottawa) has just begun. Below is the picture of a tulip I snapped near one of the cherry trees in Toronto.
 

Did you attend any of the cherry blossom viewings in and around town? Let me know what you thought of it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Visiting Cuba for the First Time


Everyone in Canada needs a break from our (seemingly) never ending winter.

I was of the type who takes vacations to sight-see and discover new cities, but this winter my family decided to take a sunny vacation.

We were not alone; Canadians do it by the hundreds of thousands. After debating for some time, we decided on Cuba.

Why Cuba? a) it was cheaper than other sun vacations b) it was a short flight away c) it had all inclusive so we didn't need to worry about restaurants etc.


People had warned me about the food in Cuba but our resort had really great food. My family eats zabiha halal only so we stuck to seafood and veggies, and there were LOTS of options.

 

None of the food was labelled, however, and for vegetarians there is always risk of cross contamination with meat as same spoons/ladles were sometimes used at the buffet line for meat / non meat items. Even the guy making eggs during breakfast used the same dish for bacon and meat omelettes as for veg omelettes.

 

 

Seafood was fresh and really tasty, and often grilled right in front of you. For the very strict observant folks, there will always be issues of cross contamination, but you have to overlook that.

The beach was really good.


White sands, blue water.

 

The sun shone brightly. People at the resort (mostly Canadians, many of them returnees) told us this year it was colder in Cuba than it usually is - but we got lucky.


Every day we had 26 degrees in the day. We went out on a couple of excursions and it was really comfortable.


At night time after sunset it got low (20c) so you may need a light windbreaker for the kids. I was in my T-shirt and shorts all day.


We were also told that Cuban standards for hotels were really low. This was true - we booked a 5 star and it is really a 3 star anywhere else.


So if you want Western standards of hotels, Cuba may not be for you, but if you want an affordable sun destination close by, Cuba fits the bill. 53% of tourism in Cuba comes from Canadians. Overall we had a good stay, but I felt Cuba must improve certain things for a much better experience if they want to get a larger share of the tourism market.


For example, on our first night the toilet didn't work from the very beginning and we had to call the plumber three times (the last time he finally came with proper tools and did an OK job). After that the rest of the stay there were no toilet issues. It wasn't a good check in experience after a flight to be honest. Moreover, the light circuits malfunctioned throughout our stay (there were some loose circuitry). It didn't bother us much but it is definitely something you don't want in a hotel on a holiday. Daily room cleaning was light, at best.

 

Where do YOU go for your sun destinations?


PS. Some people have asked me what to take to Cuba (due to it being a poorer country, and things being less available due to embargo etc.). Here is the list I used.

Cuba THINGS TO TAKE (PACKING LIST)

Toiletries
- toothpaste
- toothbrush
- mouthwash
- shaving kit
- lotion
- shampoo & conditioner
- kleenex (small box)
- toilet roll (1 roll, for emergencies)
- sunscreen (kids and adult)
- small first aid (band aid)
- small bath gel/body wash
- ladies sanitary products
- hand sanitizer
- baby powder

Medicine
- Tylenol
- Advil
- Motrin
- Peptobismol
- Octavin
- MultiVitamins

Clothes
 - Socks & Underwear (if you plan on wearing either!).
- Sandals.
- Sea Socks (good for Catamaran Trips and exploring the island).
- Baseball Caps.
- T-Shirts (Fast-Dry Type).
- Shorts (Fast-Dry Type).
- Sweater (for cooler nights...hopefully you will never need it!).
- Jeans / Khakis etc...
- Rain Jacket (hopefully you will never need it!).
- Dress Shirt, Pants and Shoes (for A La Carte Restaurants and local Disco clubs...Cubans always dress their very best when going out in the evenings).

Electronics
- Power adapter / converter
- multiplug
- camera battery charger
- cellphone charger
- cell phone
- camera

Extras
- Pen
- Duct tape
- Face cloth
- Scissor
- Copy of ALL paperwork
- Get Hepatitis shots prior to arriving in Cuba (see Health).
- Beach Towel
- Lemon (will have to see food regulations)
- Ziplock bags
- Lifestraw water filter?
- Torch