Monday, August 15, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 4. Calgary Olympic Plaza

[ Continued from Part 3 - Calgary ]

Olympic Plaza is a beautiful square in downtown Calgary, great for a leisurely walk or stroll, or for spending time people watching.

A rabbit was munching lazily on some grass in the park. 

 It's quite popular with office workers during the lunch hour, and was built in 1988 for the Olympics as a site for the medal presentation ceremonies.

Beautiful flowers lined the square in every direction.

Even the Duck Dynasty was out in full force.

A shot of the Calgary Tower in the distance.


Driving to the park from the suburbs can be a challenge, with the buildings and cloud cover sometimes hindering GPS - not to mention one way streets and streets that aren't really streets but LRT tracks!

Overall you can budget about two hours to spend some time on a nice afternoon at this park when you are in Calgary, especially if you are there to see the rest of downtown such as Calgary Tower.

Photos taken with an old Android phone camera.

Next post: Banff Sulpher Mountain Gondola.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Do you need to spend $100K+ on your wedding?

Desi weddings are notorious for being a big affair. Over 300 guests is normal (that's actually small). In India and Bangladesh you can easily have a guest list of over 500. Large halls in Mississauga and Brampton in Ontario are testament to the fact that brown weddings are a huge business.

Recently a status started to be forwarded on social media (mostly by already married millennials) about a guy stating how he did not want to get married in a huge and lavish ceremony. Here's an excerpt (emphasis mine).

 You "invest" $100,000 and what do you get out of it? A few nice portraits of you and your family wearing some South Asian Halloween costumes? Or for a dumb 3 minute wedding video to put on youtube?
$100,000 for some pictures and a youtube video. How's that not a ponzi scheme? And here's the thing. I know many people in our community may be wealthy, but who HONESTLY has $100,000 to spend? Who REALLY has that much money?

Now here's the thing. If you had asked a twenty year old me I would have agreed 100% with this writer. Of course weddings in our community are needlessly large and shamelessly an occasion to flout one's wealth. When you are twenty, you are idealistic. You aren't experienced in the nuances of real practical life.

And you of course bring religion into it because you think it supports your ideal fantasy.

Of course Islam tells us not to be lavish!

Of course we should not be extravagant!

Here's the thing though. Once you are thirty plus, you start experience life as it really is, not as it should be. And you learn that many things you once idealized as black and white really has lots of shades of grey.

For example, one of the weddings (with Ramla bint Abu Sufiyan) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was thrown by the King of Abyssinia himself. It's hard to imagine that wouldn't have been at least a semi-lavish affair. Moreover, when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) married Maymunah bint Al Harith, he wanted to invite all of Makkah to his wedding. That would have been at least 300 people, if not more. So while Islam does take a stand against extravagance, and urges people to invite both the rich and poor to weddings for there to be blessings, it doesn't define extravagance.

And that is the whole point.

The answer to Do you need to spend $100K+ on your wedding is very simple.

It depends.

Do you have over $100K+ to spend? And spend so it won't hurt you, bankrupt you, derail your future etc.? Then go ahead ... spend it.

If you don't have that money to burn, then simple. Don't burn it.

Recently a friend of mine got married. His marriage was a blast. There were days of functions, of music, of masti, etc. It felt like I was back home in Bangladesh. Except it was all here in Toronto (or, to be precise, Brampton). I am guessing he has the money to burn. Who am I to tell him that this money is not going to buy him happiness? Maybe that's what he always wanted to do - have a huge blast at his wedding.

More and more millennials are now not following the older generation's lead in inviting every body in their contact book for their wedding. They invite only close friends and then have a huge party. What's wrong with that?

And also, there's nothing wrong if you don't want to spend that much. It's all a matter of what you want balanced with what you can afford.

When I was a student, I bought an old used car for $5K. Even that seemed a lot of money, but the car took me everywhere. I maintained it well and it served me for over ten years.

Then, when it broke down, I bought a brand new car for $25K. It did the same things as the first car did. I could have spent less, but I didn't. I wanted a new car, and I could alhamdulillah afford it. I knwo there's lots of comparisons between getting married and buying a car, so I am adding this one there as it makes the point.

I am not going to get into shaming anyone who had a big, beautiful, desi wedding. If you can afford it, and if you wanted it ... all the more power to you.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 3. Calgary

[ Continued from Part 2 - Planning ]

Calgary's official slogan is "Be Part of the Energy". They should just rename it to "Be Part of the (Oil) Energy". You get a reminder of how important Big Oil is in this province. Everything seems to be sponsored by them, even universities.

The size of Calgary really caught me by surprise. Coming from Toronto, we Torontonians are used to the importance of Toronto in Canada, and sort of visualize Toronto as the largest city in Canada. While that is true by population, when you take land area into consideration Calgary is much larger than Toronto.

You could start in one corner of Calgary, drive for 40 minutes and still be in Calgary. They have divided the city into four quadrants and most people live in the suburbs. Travelling from the NE corner to the NW corner can take half an hour, driving 90 km per hour on the wide, open highways.

When you compare with Toronto, Calgary is definitely cleaner. There’s no rubbish on the streets and even in the suburbs the houses are kept immaculate.  However the weather in Calgary is awful. It’s July - the middle of summer - when we went and the temperature is 13 degrees at night (and sometimes it fell to as low as two or three degrees!). I was shivering in the night, and reading about hot weather alerts of 37 degrees back home in Toronto! In the day it was a comfortable 20 degrees ... if it wasn't raining cats and dogs.

There's not a lot of unique things to see in Calgary (you get a stadium, a tower, a zoo etc. everywhere), but there are a few. Most people spend a couple of days in the city before they hit the Rockies, which is what we did.

Next post: Calgary Olympic Plaza.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 2. Planning

[ Continued from Part 1 - Overview ]

It's very important to plan in detail for a trip to Banff and Jasper National Parks. It's not like a trip to a beach resort where you just show up. That's a lot to see and do, and if you want to get your money's worth you have to put in the proper planning.

June, July and August are peak times for hotels in Banff and Jasper, and they fill up fast. Banff and Jasper are small towns (located inside the respective national parks) so there's not a lot of hotels and accommodations. Some places fill up to a year ahead, while others are fully booked by April or May. If you want a block of dates, it's best to book ahead.

But what about the weather? Sure, it would be nice to be able to wait until the last moment and book according to sunny weather, but that's something you can't control.

Renting a car?
Well, you will need to rent a car. There's hardly any public transit between the sites in the park. In the city of Banff itself there's public transit that's small and inadequate, so most people rent cars. This is where I find Tripadvisor and Google Maps extremely useful. I use TripAdvisor (particularly the forums) to make a list of attractions I want to see, and how long I need to budget for attractions. I then plot the points on Google Map.

This gives me an idea of the distances which help in itinerary planning.

How many days?
This of course depends on what you want to do exactly. At the very minimum, I would recommend booking for three days in Banff and two in Jasper. If you are doing other activities such as hiking or biking along trails, or taking time off to canoe, you might need more time.

Where to book?
To see Banff National Park, most people book in the city of Banff itself. Some also book in nearby Canmore (which is about 30 minutes away). Calgary is about 90 minutes away from Banff National Park.

For Jasper, the choices are further limited. You can book in the town of Jasper, or Hinton (about an hour away). Another option (if your itinerary is well planned out) is to book in lodges or hotels along the Icefield Parkway (which we did). More on that in a later post.

You need to be prepared for all types of weather. This is mountain territory, and the joke is if you don't like the weather - wait ten minutes and it will change. If you don't like the change, wait ten minutes again.

The mountains are gorgeous but make for unpredictable weather.

It could be sunny and hot, then it could rain, and then a mist can come in with temperatures dropping, and so on. I wouldn't take winter coats for June, July and August, but rain coats, a light jacket etc. are a must. As are T-shirts and shorts. And full pants. You get the picture. If you have kids, this means you need all types of dresses, and backup dresses.

Do you need a park pass?
Well, yes. To enter and partake in any activity in a national park you need to purchase a pass. The question is weather you need to purchase a Discovery Pass (valid for a group in a vehicle for two years - 2016 and 2017).

If you are going to rent a vehicle for your group and be in the parks for a week or more, it's well worth it. Daily entrances are $20 for a group. It's valid for all parks across Canada.

Cell Phone Coverage
It is important to remember that there is NO CELL COVERAGE past Lake Louise through the Icefield Parkway up until you are in the town of Jasper. Absolute nada. You are literally in the middle of nowhere.

Next post: Calgary.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 1. Overview

Years ago I did a series called the "West Coast Diaries" where I recounted my travels of the Pacific coast of USA. This year, I fulfilled a long time dream of touring a couple of provinces in Western Canada. Along with my whole family, we flew to Calgary and from there on travelled throughout Alberta and British Columbia, putting on nearly 4000 km on our rental. Along the way, we saw breathtaking sceneries, from high mountains to prairies to untouched serene lakes to glaciers to cozy little coastal towns to big cities. Canada is truly a beautiful, and vast, country.

My brother took this shot of an elk in Jasper

Our trip included kids (a one and a four year old) as well as elderly folks (my parents). Thus we had to take lots of preparations before we embarked on our trip.
  • We went to the Dollar Store and bought lots of sticker books and colouring books for the kids so they would be busy and entertained on the long drives. In addition, I downloaded quite a few of their favourite movies on to the iPad, as well as taking some small toys for the road. The advantage of the colouring and sticker books was that they could be thrown before we flew back to Toronto.
  • Each trip was planed with plenty of pit stops, along with a limit on maximum amount of driving per day, and rest days in between.
  • Thus we chose quality over quantity. We would rather see two or three things every day, and spend on time on each, rather than trying to rush and see much more. There's always more things to do and see than you can or will on any sightseeing vacation.
  • I also had to cut down on some things that we simply would not be able to do with kids (especially one in a stroller) such as hiking in the national parks or parasailing in the Okanagan Lake.
This was a rough map of our travels.

We chose to drive in a circle and see Calgary, Banff, Jasper and Edmonton (before returning to Calgary). We also took a side trip to Drumheller before this trip. After suitable rest, we drove across British Columbia to Vancouver (via Kamloops and Whistler), before returning to Calgary via Kelowna. When we were in Vancouver, we took a couple of days to visit Victoria.

In the next post, I will iA talk about what to do before you even start the trip, planning and resources to check out before your trip.