Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Toronto the Good" Gone Bad

The Berlin Wall of Fortress Toronto

Riot Police photo taken by a Riot Tourist

Many Torontonians think the city is boring. City fathers perpetually dream of elevating the city to "world class" status.

Well, Toronto has a famous landmark called CN Tower, that tall pointed thing that has become a recognizable symbol of the city. The city hosts the 2nd largest international film festival in the world (TIFF), next only to Cannes in importance. We have crowd drawing events like Caribana and Toronto Gay Pride, that bring a million visitors into the city. We have a parks system that is the envy of many cities including a downtown island park with an airport. We have a transit system that people actually use. The locals tend to say "please", "excuse me", "ooops I'm sorry "a lot.

At any given time, there are more than 20,000 international students, most in English language schools who think Toronto is one cool city. We have Much Music, hockey, football, baseball, basketball, alas no World Cup calibre soccer teams. Downtown, there's a theatre district that's 2nd only to Broadway; the financial center, a telephone extension of New York. Torontonians eat an assortment of culinary delights: samosas, kolbassa, blt, pita, multi grain, organic, transfats, bibimbap, Alberta beef etc. Name it you'll find it in the city. With such diverse communities, many citizens carry multinational genes in their veins.

In Mercer's Quality of Living report, Toronto (together with few other Canadian cities) has always been on the top of the world. It must be the weather then - long winters, short summers

Last weekend (June 25-27), changed all that. The PM in Ottawa gave the city a push to world class status, by donating the G20 summit right in the heart of downtown. With 6 months notice and nary an input from its citizens, $1.2 b budget, $900 m in "security" alone and approx 15,000 security force, Toronto had to show the world what a truly world class city it is.

However, things didn't go according to plans. As with any G# or world summits, the city expected demonstrations, protests and marches and that dreaded group called the "black bloc." In a city with 1001 causes, from cure a disease with unpronounceable name to free a country with multiple consonants, what can one expect - Oxfam marching next to anarchists in black.

Photo ops turned into bad optics over the weekend. One day, vandals performed their ritual, smashing windows and burning unattended (or abandoned) police cruisers while the integrated security unit stood down. This mini, micro mob was allowed to disgrace the city. How bizarre.

Next day, the ISU (integrated security unit) decided to do some "kettling" (new word of the day, meaning to box people in) on Queen St. W and Spadina for 5 hours, half of that in a record downpour. A small group of peaceful marchers, including a group that calls itself the "bike bloc" (advocating for more bike lanes), Chinatown shoppers, bystanders, teenagers gawking at the happening or people simply crossing the street were in "breach of peace". What? Queen St. West in breach of peace? The funky street lives to break the peace with its clubs, pubs, artsy fartsy shops, entertainment and Much Music.

That weekend, other than the usual suspects - the young and university age - anyone wearing black, carrying weapons of opportunity (Visine or dollar store pocket knife!?!), speaking with a Quebec accent or a riot tourist with a digital could be deemed an anarchist or sympathizer. A free weekend in a cage at the detention center sans vegetarian menu awaited them.

No one high up would like to acknowledge that this was a mess: bad for small businesses in the core, bad for tourism (80% of tourists to Toronto are from the US which issued an advisory before G20 - thanks!?!), bad for Toronto's finest (yes, we actually like our cops), and bad tv. Of the 900 arrested, so far only 1 has been charged. That was even before the G20 came to town. Authorities have not even identified the 2 people who popped out of a manhole they arrested in the wee hours of Sunday morning. That could be new material for a wicked movie - The Anarchist Ninja Turtles in Toronto.

The showcase for Toronto and tourism turned into a surreal reality show. G20 leaders did not even have a photo op at a tourist attraction. Toronto the good just turned bad.

Now for the real boring stuff, check out Tourism Toronto.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Stairways to Heaven

Terraces in Banaue

Our Local Guide, Moises in Batad

Batad Terraces

Whose minding the terrace?

Tappia Falls

The Cordillera Rice Terraces in Northern Philippines are often referred to as stairways to heaven. They are as impressive to see for real as they look in pictures.

Terraces are found all over Southeast Asia (even in southern Europe). However, the Cordillera terraces seem to be over the top. In size, laid end to end they could cover half the globe. In construction, these terraces are like giant steps on steep slopes, with as much as 500 metres in vertical drop. In age, these have been in continuous use for 2,000 years with the oldest complex over 3,000 years.

Many centuries ago, the settlers of the Cordilleras were in dire need of farm land to plant rice. There were no flat lands in the mountains so instead, they constructed strips of rice paddies on top of each other. Today, these terraces serve as a living testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of man. They accomplished the task without John Deere or Caterpillar, high tech gadgets and slaves.

Banaue Terraces is the grandest, most well known and photographed among the terrace complexes of the Cordilleras which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage. My visit to Banaue in the 2nd week of May this year, was accidental but in hindsight, it worked out for the best. After I completed my work assignment in northern Philippines, I had planned to go straight to Sagada bypassing Banaue. However, there was no easy route direct to Sagada and the best way to go is through Banaue.

With 2 local colleagues for company and the boss' car for transport, we drove to Banaue and got into the mountain town at night. We checked in at Banaue View Inn where the lady of the house happened to be Lily Beyer Luglug, the granddaughter of noted anthropologist, historian, and Cordillera expert, Prof. Otley Beyer. Prof Beyer's collection is now at the Banaue Museum, next door to the inn.

The town itself is built on terraces slowly being overtaken by "town sprawl". Some of the retaining walls have been reinforced with concrete, but most still show the original stones of the terraces.

Next day as Lily recommended, we headed off for Batad to visit the amphitheatre shaped terraces and Tappia water fall. Batad is about 45 minutes away, via a gravel road 15 minutes off the highway. From Batad saddle (a ridge overlooking the tiny mountain village, and part of the terraces), we followed a trail down the side of the mountain until we reached the edge of the village. From here, the 3 of us decided to traverse the terraces, then hike further to the falls. Ignorance is bliss. We were to find out 4 hours later, that the trek down and back up is not for amateurs with weak hearts, loose limbs or wonky knees. Someone forgot to mention that.

Coming into the middle of this humongous amphitheatre, one feels more than views the terraces: huge, complex engineering, hemmed in by steep mountainsides, but oh so peaceful. How ancient farmers managed to match and fit the stones to form 6-9 feet of solid walls holding rice paddies in a complex this size and a few others was beyond me. That's like putting together a million piece jigsaw puzzle tight and snug, without slack, a few times over. The rocks that form the steps were just as solid, without the slightest wiggle or jiggle as we came down. Simply awesome and inspiring.

At the far end of the terraces is a rest stop on a ridge just before the trail down to Tappia Falls. Sitting on bamboo benches, we could hear the heavy breathing and labored steps of hikers coming up the trail from the falls. It was almost amusing to see people pop out of the trail, in such a state.

From here, we hiked or awkwardly clambered down broken concrete steps about 500 metres and at last, the falls. A young French tourist in one of the rest stops assured us that it is very nice down here, worth it. The 50 metre waterfall and the pool were definitely worth it, a reward for that knee busting downhill trek.

Going back up to the ridge, traversing the terraces one more time, then hiking up the mountain trail to the saddle took 2 1/2 hours. It also required numerous stops to deal with leg cramps, shot knees and catch one's breath. However, it was simply exhilirating, a once in a lifetime experience.

Test of the Heart and Legs
, Trip Advisor review.