I came within inches of a traffic violation, on my way into the country! Not understanding the way tolls are handled in Canada (or perhaps at any border crossing), I followed deep instincts instilled in me since Driver’s Ed. The car in front of me pulled forward. My Subaru, decked out with the complete tech package, sounded a beep to let me know, and I cautiously followed along. It turns out that the stop sign, bright red, at eye level, is at least 4 car lengths from the booth. The traffic signal is meant to hold the next vehicle far back from the booth, where the car in front of them is being interrogated. This is not what I’m accustomed to, and I just about ran the stop sign.
In that moment, I realized that this was the first time I’d driven internationally; I’d relied on shuttles, trains, boats, tuk tuks, camels, elephants and fellow travelers (not necessarily in that order) for my previous international transportation needs. The booth attendant eyed me suspiciously, as I confirmed that my breaks . The car in front of me advanced through the gates, and I hesitated until the border patrol waved me forward. Then the interrogation began:
- You’re traveling alone?
- What do you do for a living?
- Who do you know in Canada?
- When was the last time you were in Canada?
- What brings you to Canada?
- Dinner. . . why did you decide to do that?
- So, you’re coming across the border just to eat. . . ?
- You’re here for work?
- So, I see you’re here with your bike. Are you going to ride?
- Are you staying the night in Canada, or returning tonight?
- When was the last time you crossed the border?
Enjoy your visit.
It’s only $3 to cross the bridge from Port Huron to Sarnia, Canada. Signs warn drivers well ahead of time, and with time to make an exit, that the bridge they are on is about the leave the country. I’d asked at the front desk for a dinner recommendation. The 20-something had nothing to suggest, admitting that she’s only been over the bridge to Canada once, although she’d lived all her life in Port Huron. I was perplexed, saddened, and considered offering to take her along with me. She confirmed that I’d need my passport, so I was glad that I brought it along on my work trip to Michigan
Dinner was at Stokes on the Bay – a family friendly bar & grill with a view of the bay at sunset. The place is known for its ribs, but that’s something I haven’t eaten in almost 20 years. The restaurant had just changed their menu, so the waitress was hesitant to make a suggestion. She hadn’t tried the pasta I was interested in (with a rather unique lentil marinara), but she raved about the fish tacos. I went with the “safe” option and ordered the tacos, though I wondered if I should have saved this meal for a trip across a more southern border.
I was offered a “paddle” of beer – a sampling, in a format that the restaurant just started offering that day. A wooden slab, carved into the shape of a paddle, was brought to my table. There were three holes drilled out, with a sampling of 3 different beers. How could I say ‘No’ to that? I went with Canadian (just for kicks), Refined Fool (from Brouhaha) and Alexander Keith’s Red Amber Ale. I know myself, or I’m a creature of habit, and I liked the Amber the best!
I wasn’t brave enough to try the Poutine, which Canada is known for. I’m told it originates in Quebec, and is made with French fries and cheese curds topped with lots of dark gravy. I did accept a small sampling of the gravy, when it was offered with my side of fries. Ketchup, which I adore in a way that borders on patriotism, was nowhere in sight. As I’ve traveled internationally, I do make exceptions to my odd form of vegetarianism, to try the local cuisine. I use the term “cuisine” loosely in this case, referencing a murky brown sauce to dip my French fries in. A taste was just enough. The combination brought to mind an odd memory of boxed mashed potatoes and canned gravy, a warmly remembered staple of my childhood
The fella at the next high-top bar table asked me “Are you done with those fries?” “What’s that?” This is Ohioan for “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. . . what did you say?” He repeated, “Are you done with those fries?” I wondered. . . is sharing a stranger’s leftovers a Canadian thing? “He’s kidding!” his date chimed in. Seated facing a construction fence, the woman wanted a better view of the bay, and her husband was quite the gentleman, offering up a seat that would allow her to gaze out on the water, full of small sleeper boats. They shared a deep fried appetizer platter, complete with potato skins, onion rings, and hot wings. It looked like there had been a big heap of fries, that he’d already finished.
It was sunset, there was a walking path along the water, and I was anxious to ride my bike in another country this year, just to check it off of my travel wish list, so I moved along quickly. I spent about an hour exploring the area by bike, then just sat and watched the last of the lights rays disappear.
On the way back into the United States, I felt obligated to make a quick stop at the Duty Free Shop, which is just after the toll booths, but before the 2nd set of booths set up to check for your Passport. I quietly wondered if the interrogation would be as tough as it had been earlier in the evening. I was trying to get back into my home country, after spending a very short amount of time in Canada. I realized that this was suspicious behavior, and I was sure there would be questions of what I’d been up to. I thought it best not to load up the back of my Subaru with liquor, cigarettes, chocolate & perfume.
Having traveled to Ireland, Morocco, Thailand and Costa Rica in the last 5 years, I was curious about the duty-free shops, but what they offered were indulgences that I wasn’t willing to spend my travel fund on. There were too many other countries that I had my sights set on. I did a little research, to find out what was up with this type of retail. The concept centers around avoiding duty fees, and related taxes for bringing these items to your home country, but shoppers are warned to beware!
“But not everything in the duty-free shop is a steal. Duty-free stores once specialized in heavily taxed items, such as alcohol and tobacco products, but now they hawk other products that aren’t as deeply discounted.” (CNN)
What startled me was the Canadian approach to warning its consumers of the dangers of smoking cigarettes. So shocking was the packaging, that I again had to do a little research. I grew up in a smoking household, but thankfully never took up the habit myself. Canada is quite serious about educating its consumers about the associated dangers.
“Canada became the first country to implement pictorial health warnings on cigarette packages in June 2001. Health warnings were required to cover 50% of the front and 50% of the back of the package (one side in English and the other side in French)” (Tobacco Labeling Resource Center).
The warning labels had an immediate sobering effect on me, though it clearly does not impact other American tourists the same way. There was a long line at the registers as I made my way out of the store empty handed, and at least half had cigarettes in their hands.
I returned to Port Huron to turn in for the night without a new stamp in my passport. Although the border crossing had been a bit intense, and I’d turned my passport over to the agent for the duration of my interrogation, it was returned without any new ink. I don’t collect many things, but in recent years I’ve been pretty proud of my collection of international passport stamps. I’ll have to find out which border crossing into Canada would warrant a stamp. I’ve also set my sights on Mexico this year, so I’m working on filling up my passport.
Join me on my next adventure!
Duty Free Shops (CNN): http://www.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/traveltips/02/13/duty.free.shopping/
Tobacco Labeling Resource Center – Canada: http://www.tobaccolabels.ca/countries/canada/