Saturday, April 01, 2006

Niagara Calling

Yes, this past weekend (starting Friday morning at 5 am and finishing Monday evening at 9) I was sent to Niagara Falls to be trained. Now, if you have never heard of the International Baccalaureate Organization, go look it up, but it's the way most schools across America are going (say goodnight, AP).
My school wanted me to be trained so I could warp even MORE fragile little minds. Thus my adventure began early Friday morning (five to be exact). I woke up and said goodbye to my not-so-happy wife. Fine, no problem there.
Now I was traveling with three of my colleagues, all guys. Two of them are older, one is close to my age. All three of them were, uh, unprepared for the travel.
Maybe it's just that I'm a nerd when it comes to traveling. I printed my boarding pass the night before, so I could just go through security and go to the gate. I also knew we were flying on a
smaller plane, so I packed a bag that would fit (I managed to put a weekend's worth of clothes, including shoes, a laptop, and some books into one bag that could fit in a tiny overhead bin). The other three...had more than one bag, which meant checking baggage. We also discovered that when the seats were booked, the other three were all seated together in the back, while I was banished to the front. Still no problem. At least we made the same plane.
After an hour and a half of hearing every little bit of our plane strain against the wind, we landed in Cleveland. Have you ever been to the Cleveland airport? It's probably where Dante traveled in The Inferno. Maybe that's too harsh...WAIT, it's not. Looking around the airport as we were landing, I noticed that it's all developments. Neat little squares surrounding an airport built in a gorge. So attractive.
Of my group, I was, again, the only one really prepared. I knew where the gate was, the amount of time we had, and more. Did I get made fun of by my colleagues? Oh most definitely, but I knew what was what. They ended up following me to find everything.
A quick 38 minute flight later, we landed in Buffalo. If you don't know, there are two ways to get to Niagara. You either fly to Buffalo and drive up, or you fly to Pearson Airport in Toronto and drive down. My school chose Buffalo, which, much like Cleveland, has developments around it...and not much else (Again, if you're reading this and living in Buffalo or Cleveland...uh...sorry, but...prove me wrong).
Once again, my nerdiness came through in Buffalo. I had booked myself on a bus which would take me right to my hotel. A roundtrip ticket was 80 dollars American. It was seventy-five dollars American one-way by cab. I thought I had the better deal. The other guys traveling with me had not done anything, so they took the cab (In the end, with tip, they ended up paying 60 U.S. dollars each. Guess they showed me...oh well).
The bus ride was quite eye-opening. There were 22 seats and 21 people on the bus. Guess who had the open seat the whole way? Come on....Yes, you in the back. You have an answer? That's right, it WAS me. I was smiling, I was congenial, but not a single person wanted to sit next to me. I rode that hour long bus ride all by my lonesome. There were a group of gals from Florida who ended up talking to me at the border (and then followed me around all weekend, but that's a story for another time).

The Canadian border. Wow, what can I say? It's kind of disappointing. When I was a child, I traveled from West Berlin to East Berlin with my father. We had to go across the famous Checkpoint Charlie. It was frightening. Large men in uniforms looking over my father and me and talking in a harsh language (If you've never heard German, it's very gutteral and very harsh to the ear. Not a romantic language). When we teachers made it to the border, it wasn't imposing. It was a shack on the side of the road. Not a building, folks, but literally a shack.
The biggest problem? The teachers who had obviously never been out of the country. The officers asked us each one or two questions:
"Country of origin?"
"Why are you going to Canada?"
Etc, etc, etc.
The first few of us went through with no problems. Then Carol stepped up. I can't forget her name, because she's one of the ladies from Florida who followed me around all weekend. Carol stepped up to the counter and promptly said, "Wow, I don't have ANYTHING to smuggle into Canada...wink, wink."
It was one of those moments where everyone in the room just thinks collectively, "OH MY GOD! SHUT UP, YOU IDIOT!!!" The border guard's face turned colors, because he was so angry.
He called everyone back and asked us all the same question: "Do you have anything you cannot bring across the border?" Another ten minutes, and we were on our way.
I got to my hotel long after the other guys (However, they were held up at the border as one of them is a nice shade of brown, which makes him look Middle-Eastern...not fun for him). Again, as a travel nerd, I booked my hotel room well in advance. The other guys? Waited until the last minute. Now, the Sheraton is one of the newer hotels in Niagara, and it's where the conference was to be held. That's why I wanted my room there, and why I booked early. Lots of gorgeous, new, gleaming rooms waiting to be inhabited. The hotel, however, had other ideas.
I stepped up to the counter and spoke to the nice Canadian woman.
"Hello, you have a reservation for Leab?"
"Hmm. Oh... Mr. Leab, yes. We did have a reservation for you...."
"Um..I'm sorry. Did? As in no longer?"
"Well, Mr. Leab, we had a problem. Our computer...lost your reservation. Then we booked up fot this conference...and we found your reservation again."
"So what you're telling me is...?"
"We don't have a room for you here, but we did book you a room at another hotel. Um, sorry sir."

Now, a less civilized person would have probably exploded in anger. I admit, I did have a flash of annoyance, but I just rolled with it.
"So which hotel is it?"
"The Brock Plaza. It's not a far walk from here. Go out that way and turn left. Then walk all the way down, you can't miss it."
I felt lucky to have a room, but as the weekend would roll on, I would become upset. While the other guys had views of the Falls, I could see...a wall. Two of the other guys had a fireplace in their room, and one guy was bumped up to a suite. Bastard. I had a bed, a table that hovered slightly over the bed (and I hit my head on once), and thin walls. I would hear my neighbor's gymnastic-like sex all weekend long. Oh how I WISH I was kidding. The other guys could roll out of bed and go to breakfast and the conference. I had to roll away from the table, shower, and walk over. Don't get me wrong, the hotel was nice, and I'm glad they had a place for me, but I was annoyed that I wasn't with my colleagues.
At least going to the Falls that first day was nice. With overcast skies, everyone tried to stay inside. Not me, I walked straight toward the Horseshoe (I can't tell you how far away it was, but I know that from my hotel, to the Horseshow Falls (with a twenty minute stand and stare), to walking back took almost two hours. It was gorgeous. I don't care if the sun was shining or not (later it would), but I thought it was nice. The roar of the water drowned out the people around me. I couldn't hear them unless I really tried (in this case, there were Germans, French, Japanese, Chinese, Iranian, Indian, and more around me speaking their native languages. It was like the UN, but more relaxing). If you ever get the chance, go and see the Falls. It's amazing to see this natural wonder of the world. Awe-inspiring power created by nature.
The opening night of the conference was a waste. The Plenary (or introduction in laymen's terms) was basically a giant "congrats for being on the right team" speech. Lame.
My colleagues and I headed out to dinner that night. Not really knowing Niagara, we stopped where our "Elder Statesman" told us looked good. In this case, it was The Pilgrim Restaurant. This was a mistake. We ate alone. An entire restaurant, and we were the only customers. This is one of the only restaurants in Niagara that is not a chain. Obviously, most tourists want nothing to do with this restaurant. They are not necessarily wrong. While our waitress was great, the food and the atmosphere weren't. As one of my colleagues put it, "I ordered a burger. It's hard to screw up a burger. They DID screw up my burger."
That first night was, honestly, not too bad, but Friday as a whole would come to represent my weekend. A roller coaster ride of positives and negatives wrapped in the neon warm glow of a town that used to be so innocent.
Tomorrow, day two, or how Leab became embarrassed when women made indecent proposals.
"I ain't getting on no plane!"

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ramblings for the Evening (3/29/06)

It's Finals Week this week (we're on a quarter system, so fourth and final quarter starts after Spring Break).
I'm trying to keep my head above water and get grades in and such. Good stuff.
Let's get to it.
So, without further ado: OLE JACK SAYS, "WHAT THE HELL?"
The Death of a Great Show:
Well, it's
official: Arrested Development is dead. It's creator is taking a walk rather than deal with all the strife that Fox, Showtime, and ABC are giving him. I'm not sure I blame him, but, DAMN, I love that show. I'm sorry to see it go. At least its ending was such that the loose ends were tied up. I really hate when a show ends with either unfinished questions (Um, The X-Files) or with lame plot twists (Damn you, St. Elsewhere).
Au revoir AD. I eagerly await season three on DVD.
The "American" Past Time:
I know I'm late with this, but I find it absolutely fascinating that the United States, the INVENTORS of Baseball, could not even make it to the finals of the World Baseball Classic. That's right, the finalists of the TRUE World Series were Japan and Cuba. Baseball is HUGE in Japan (More so than here, I believe), and Cuba's baseball heritage is very rich, but there's something so incredibly funny about the U.S. team just stinking it up. Am I the only one who thinks this?

The school I work at sent me to a training session this past weekend. (Those who are interested can see the organization who sponsored it
I had not been to Niagara for ten years. The last time I was there was with my mother. We were driving to Michigan from New York, so we went upstate to take the Queen's Expressway across Canada (It's faster than going through Pennsylvania).
Now, ten years ago, Niagara was, well, quaint. There were some hotels, but almost everything was geared toward the falls. It made sense that people would go there to get married or honeymoon. It was quiet and serene.
My return was unfortunate. Beyond the travel issues (to be dealt with in a later post), Niagara was now, for lack of a better term, Mini-Vegas.
When my colleagues and I got to Niagara, we went our separate ways until the opening ceremony (also known as "The Plenary"). I decided to walk around Niagara, get some exercise, and see how things had changed. The hotel (and the waterfalls) were near Clifton Hill. Signs proclaim it as, "The most fun street in Niagara!" Sadly it was "fun" because of the THREE haunted houses, the TWO wax museums, and the chain restaurants (such as Burger King). Looking up Clifton Hill, which is a hill, I saw tourism run wild. Behind me, the beauty and power
of the falls roared. It was an amazing dichotomy.
At night, the true changes could be seen. There was no darkness anywhere in the town. With a brand new casino lighting up the night, you could see everything regardless of where you were. They even light up the falls now, which, while beautiful, seems slightly insane.
The Canadians I spoke to have
tried to disassociate themselves from the Canadian side of Niagara. One guy I spoke to, from the lovely town of Kenora, explained to me that Niagara was now, "an embarrassment."
"Why?" I asked.
"We're quiet folk up here, eh? This's too American now."
"Not to be rude, but what does that mean?" I inquired.
"You guys like the flashy stuff. That's why you're the biggest tourist percentage here. You and the Japanese. You love the flash of this place."
Honestly, the more I think about it, I'm not sure he's wrong. Seriously. The more I travel, the more I see places that are tourist traps. They are designed to bring in people who spend money like crazy. With SO many places, Niagara is now a tourist trap. On a side note: The Museum of Crime! You cannot have Michael Myers as you first "real" criminal. HE WAS NOT REAL! Charles Manson? Real criminal. Al Capone? Real criminal. Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger? Not even close.
It's unfortunate the way the place has changed, but change is a natural part of life.
Tomorrow, more on the conference and the details surrounding it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Border Crossing

I'm back.
I'm tired.
I hurt.
It was a long weekend.

There was good, there was bad, and there was weird.
I could easily write a week's worth of posts on what happened over the four days in Niagara Falls (and I just might do that).

Niagara Falls has changed a great deal since the last time I was there (which was ten years before this visit). The simple beauty of the place, such as the Skylon Tower reaching to the sky, is now overrun with neon.
However, I'll talk more about that later.
The conference was successful, but slightly frustrating and, in some ways, strange.
Again, I'll talk more about this later.
It's finals week, and I have a lot to write.