Life in a Small Town

Tumbler Ridge Panorama
A panoramic view of downtown Tumbler Ridge.

I know, I’ve been negligent in updating this blog! I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post, and frankly, I’m a little embarrassed… But, let me try to explain.

For the past 9 months, I’ve resided in the small “frontier” town of Tumbler Ridge. Nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in the Murray River valley, Tumbler Ridge is like many small towns in Canada. It is quiet and peaceful, surrounded by mostly untouched wilderness (if you discount the coal mines, the occasional cleared area, and natural gas pipelines). Settled in 1981, Tumbler Ridge was a town built by coal companies to house a thousand (mostly single male) workers in a man camp, which eventually attracted a curious number of female hairdressers. Tumbler Ridge has since grown to become a respectable town complete with a quaint town hall, a golf course, and its own music festival. Every morning, workers donned in high-visibility clothing and carrying their lunch boxes gather at street intersections as they await the white bus that will take them to work in the coal mines. The town’s one and only tavern is also fondly named “The Coal Bin” and is located around the backside of the Tumbler Ridge Inn. Instead of a historical figure mounted on his trusted steed, you will find a large bucket from a coal excavator taking centre stage in the park across from the Town Hall.

Like many small frontier towns, Tumbler Ridge rides with the ever-fluctuating prices of natural resources. In late 2008, when over-inflated coal prices plummeted, mines closed down, workers were laid off, and the town stood nearly abandoned. In 2010, when coal prices recovered, mines re-opened and new mines were founded. It was also at this time that the Quality Wind Project commenced, bringing a diverse mix of workers from all over North America to a town that was suddenly struggling with lodging. In just a few short months, the town’s population doubled and every hotel was at maximum capacity. Houses, which previously sold for under $20,000 a few months earlier, were suddenly valued at over $300,000 as coal companies fought to find rooms for their employees.

While the town is endowed with the basic amenities one needs to survive, prices are inflated almost everywhere. The nearest town with a No Frills, Walmart, and Tim Hortons is Dawson Creek (approximately 140km away), famous for it’s “Mile Zero” monument for the Alaska Highway, where thousands of prospectors once passed through on their journey to their great gold-mining Meccas of Alaska and the Yukon. Grande Prairie, a booming town of 50,000 is located just across the BC/Alberta border directly east of Tumbler Ridge and is about a two-hour drive away (that is, if you are adventurous enough to navigate Northern BC’s network of unpaved resource roads). Located at the Western reach of the Oil Sands, it is truly the place to stock up on supplies and enjoy the finer comforts of modern society. At some of Grande Prairie’s many fine establishments, such as Starbucks, Costco and The Keg, the parking lots are packed with more Dodge Rams and Ford F150s than you will find at your neighbourhood dealer.

So what did I learn from my experience in Tumbler Ridge? First off, living in a small town constitutes that you plan ahead. When I flew into Grande Prairie after some days off work, I would immediately head to Costco where I would stock up on all the supplies I needed for the next month. When work is crazy, there is simply no time to afford a four-hour drive to pick up supplies. And if I do have a day off, the least thing I want to do is spend half my day driving just to buy groceries. While the majority of my time spent in Tumbler Ridge was during the spring, summer, and fall seasons, there were enough freak snowstorms to teach me that you can never take the weather for granted. A sudden squall can immobilize you in Tumbler Ridge for a day or more, as the only two paved roads out of town can take as many as 2 or 3 days to be fully ploughed. And if you do manage to slide and skid your way into Grande Prairie, you might just find that your flight home was cancelled. Already this fall, we have had two significant snowfalls and it’s only mid-October.

Bergeron Cliffs
A well-deserved view after climbing to the top of the Bergeron Cliffs.

It took me some time to get over the fact that I’ve been spoiled by a modern society for nearly my entire life, but once I accepted my fate, something curious happened. I suddenly enjoyed my 20-minute drive to work every morning in my Dodge Power Wagon as I beheld the views of mountains and wildlife in the early morning light. I embraced the proximity to nature and spent my free time bushwacking (exploring new roads and happening on unexpected surprises like a mother doe teaching her newborns to walk, or finding a spectacular vista). There are also a plethora of waterfalls to discover and riverbanks to wander. The local golf course, just a 2-minute drive from my house offers a bucket of balls at the driving range for $4, and an impressive community centre offers everything from an arena to an aquatics centre. I also capitalized on living in British Columbia by exploring Southern Alaska and the Canadian Rockies on two separate occasions. Skiing at Powder King, BC’s best kept secret, was truly a treat as you are guaranteed to find fresh powder there from early November until late April. With just four hours of darkness in the summer, many nights were spent around a campfire enjoying some cool brews, and the summer highlight was a terrific day spent heli-fishing at an otherwise inaccessible lake in the mountains.

My catch at Hook Lake
A fresh catch of Bull Trout at Hook Lake in Northern British Columbia! (Photo credit: Antonio Baldovino)

The most gratifying moments of my whole stay in Tumbler Ridge, however, were spent with the people of Tumbler Ridge, who were both welcoming and accepting. I’ll never forget my first weekend in Tumbler Ridge, which happened to be Easter. While most everyone from work managed to fly home to be with their families, I stayed, having just arrived in town. What I thought would be a morose and lonely weekend, became one that I now cherish the most. Ray and Josh, an amazing couple that truly embraced living in Tumbler Ridge, hooked me up with some avid powder seekers who were going skiing the following day. So, not knowing anyone in town, I immediately befriended Mark and James, two Brits who found a new home in the mountains of BC, and we were off to Powder King. On Sunday, Ray and Josh invited me to Easter dinner with their family, and I was simply blown away by their kindness after just meeting me a week prior. This good nature is shared by others in town as well! In fact, it was just last weekend that another family, whom I’d met at church, invited me to their Thanksgiving family dinner.

In a small town, everyone plays an especially important role in the continued success of the community. From the diligent workers at the post office that receive truckloads of mail-order goods every day to the local newspaper editor who patiently listens to each excited resident that rushes into his office and divulges the latest breaking news story. No matter someone’s place in society, they are happy with who they are and where they live because it takes someone with a deep love of their surroundings to weather blizzards, extreme cold, and long drives into town.

Certainly, the most important lesson from Tumbler Ridge is that small gestures make all the difference, because when you’re in a remote town, nothing is ever taken for granted. The community spirit in Tumbler Ridge was often surprising and refreshing. I saw people rush to help in the aftermath of a potentially fatal car accident. I saw strangers help a struggling old man lift his new mattress from the Sears Catalogue Order Store onto his car and tie it down. More so than simply good spirit and kindness, residents of Tumbler Ridge realize that if something serious were to happen, they must help themselves. When a heli-logging chopper had engine trouble and started a wildfire in a field, it took the local fire department over half an hour to respond with nought but a pickup truck. It was a water truck from our construction site that extinguished the blaze. This is in no way a poor reflection on public authorities, it is simply a fact that small towns have limited resources and they do the best they can with what they can afford. As a team at the Quality Wind Project, many individuals brought forth initiatives to help the local community, and the response was always immediate and overwhelming. We raised money to replace the gymnasium floor of the local high school, we raised over $10,000 to help a family who’s son is diagnosed with terminal cancer, we collected enough food for the local food bank to fill an enclosed trailer, and we helped a local church repair an overhead door that was left broken and unused for over 3 years.

Leaving Tumbler Ridge is a little bittersweet for me. While I am excited to move on to my next project and spend time at home with my family, I had just started to feel like a member of the Tumbler Ridge community. I will always remember those who welcomed me in this town, and surely hope to visit again in the future!

Are you from a small town? What’s your story? Feel free to comment below and share your thoughts (p.s. you can now login using Facebook!).

A Proper Visit to London

Exploring the lanes in Brighton upon my arrival in the UK.

It’s amazing that the entire year I spent in Spain, I only travelled to London once, and it was just a quick weekend visit of 24 hours. When I left Spain, I vowed to return to London and truly enjoy all the city has to offer. Last week, the opportunity presented itself: I had some time off from work and found a flight with Air Transat for just $620. Three days later I was boarding a plane to the Royal City.

My friend Alan, who is currently studying Pharmacy at the University of Brighton graciously offered me a place to stay, and so it was Brighton, on the southern coast of England, that was my first stop. I quickly discovered how easy to use and efficient the rail service in the UK is. Gatwick Airport is very well-connected to the rest of the country with frequent train service to both London and Brighton.

Travel Tips: I would highly recommend taking the train over other modes of transport because of its reliability, frequency, and price. In fact, if you plan your trips in advance and book online, you can benefit from incredible discounted fares. I traveled twice on the London-Brighton route for just £5 ($8) each way by booking just a few days in advance, whereas a regular ticket can cost as much as £20 ($32) each way. Discounted travel passes for local bus services at the origin and destination cities can also be added to your train ticket, and http://www.daysoutguide.co.uk offers 2-for-1 specials to practically every London attraction if you travel by train.Visit nationalrail.co.uk for online bookings!
Enjoying the beaches of Brighton!

I spent the better part of my first day exploring The City of  Brighton. Overall, it really exceeded my expectations, and was glad I visited. Brighton is a coastal town, and has a long pebble beach spanning the city shore. One of the main attractions is the Brighton Pier: a classic amusement park built on a giant platform over the sea. Another oddity is the Royal Pavilion, due to its unusual architecture, which to me, resembles a futuristic lunar base conceived at some point in the 1950s.

Brighton is also well-known for its seafood, which is great if you’re craving a good fish & chips. The more you travel, the more you will develop a sixth sense, which enables you to recognize good, local restaurants and bars and avoid pricey and inferior tourist traps. It also never hurts to ask a local for a recommendation, and they’re usually more than happy to offer a suggestion. When asking for a good seafood restaurant a number of people suggested one called “The Regency”, which is located on the seafront road about where the ruins of the old Brighton Pier stand. We ordered Fish & Chips and were extremely satisfied. The restaurant also offers a great variety of seafood options including swordfish and shellfish.

The next day, we headed off to London, which still today remains the culturally rich and industrially advanced city it has always been. On our first day, we saw the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, and explored the districts of Westminster, Soho, and Covent Garden. While rather touristic, Soho and Covent Garden remain a great place to eat and drink if you’re in central London. Whether you fancy pub grub, Indian, Chinese, Italian, or British cuisine, you’ll find it here. The main reason this area is so popular for dining and drinking can be attributed to the vast number of theaters in these regions. One disappointment is that many London pubs are now being bought and managed by a number of chains. While each pub retains its character, the menus are the same at almost every pub! Despite this change, however, the quality of pub food has certainly not diminished, and is far superior than any pub you will encounter in North America.

The parliament buildings at Westminster.

We capped the night off with a ride on the London Eye, which is rather pricey (£18.60 per person, although we used a 2-for-1 coupon along with our rail ticket). In general, most London attractions are quite expensive, and the London Eye is no exception. Is it worth it? Well, if you have to do it once, the Eye will give you a stellar view of London which can only be matched by mounting St. Paul’s dome. The Eye, however, does offer you the best view of Westminster, which is equally stunning during the day as it is at night. If you can time your visit to coincide with sunset, you’ll be able to see a remarkable transformation as the city lights up; it is also the most romantic time to take a ride, if you don’t mind the other 20 people who you’re sharing a “pod” with.

The next day, we had a great breakfast at “Flat White”, a cozy little café in Soho on Berwick St. They serve a good cup of coffee and pastries as well as poached eggs. We then took a Thames river cruise from Westminster all the way to Greenwich. It was a worthwhile experience, and the tour guide pointed out many points of interest that I would certainly not have picked up on by myself. The river cruise also offers you a chance to see the transformation of London’s docklands from one of the worlds largest industrial hubs to a chique residential area. Many of the river-front accommodations now sell for millions of pounds. You’ll also get to see Canary Wharf, which is to London as “La Defense” is to Paris or “Pudong” is to Shanghai: essentially a newer second downtown area with many high-rise buildings inhabited by the world’s largest international corporations. Once you arrive in Greenwich, you can visit the Royal Naval Museum and the Royal Observatory. I didn’t actually venture into either of these attractions, but instead visited the Prime Meridian, which is marked just outside the observatory.

Rushing to catch a train to Hogwarts at Kings Cross Station.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the Tower of London, which is full of history and intrigue. Serving as the royal monarchy’s stronghold and refuge time and time again, it is practically a walled city with a number of towers where a great number of traitors lost their heads, heirs to the throne mysteriously disappeared, and the Queen keeps a nice collection of jewels and crowns. For dinner, we headed to Finsbury Park to meet up with my cousin Robert. On the way, we stopped at King’s Cross Station to try to find Platform 9 and 3/4. After a bit of searching, I managed to find it, and even tried my luck at taking a sprint towards the wall whilst pushing a trolley!Just outside of central London, Finsbury Park is a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are a number of good restaurants in this area, most notably a Turkish restaurant called Gokyuzu, which is where we dined, and where I can say I had the best Turkish food of my life. I was also told by my cousin that this restaurant is on par with the best restaurants in Istanbul (as he has been there and can attest to this).

To start off the next day on a good note, I headed to the Nespresso Boutique in Knightsbridge for my customary purchase of coffee (which is roughly half the price in Europe than it is in Canada) and to enjoy a complimentary espresso. I then went for breakfast in Convent Garden at Monmouth Coffee, now my favourite café in London! The coffee is amazing, and there are bowls of ground cane sugar on each table which give it a rich nutty flavour that is not as sweet as traditional white sugar. After visiting the incredibly large flagship Apple Store in Convent Garden I took a stroll through Hyde Park and visited the Princess Diana memorial fountain. I continued on to Paddington Station where I boarded a train bound for Windsor Castle. I’ve visited a few castles in Europe, and Windsor was quite impressive! On a good day, you can tour both St. George’s Chapel, where you can see the banners of the Garter Knights (a tradition dating back to Sir Arthur and the knights of the round table), as well as the State Rooms, where your jaw will drop a little further with each successive room that you visit. What makes the castle all the more interesting is the fact that it is still in active use by the royal family, and houses approximately 150 staff in service to the Queen.

A view of the Occupy London protests, like many of its kind all around the world.

On my final day in London, I had breakfast in Islington, a rather nice area of the city that is a little off the beaten-track. We found a cool place for breakfast called “The Breakfast Club”, which serves great coffee, a delicious “Full Monty” fry-up, and fresh orange juice by the pitcher. In this area, you can also explore London’s vast network of canals and locks which are great for a Sunday stroll. I then hopped on a double-decker bus, which took me to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where I was faced with a truly bizarre sight! Just like many other major cities in the world, there was a shanty town of tents and youth who are occupying spaces in downtown areas to peacefully protest Capitalism and to attempt to rebuild our society. To me, it just looks like an excuse to camp out and party rather than actually accomplish anything tangible. St. Paul’s Cathedral is quite impressive and is quite central to the Church of England. It’s dome is visible from almost anywhere in the city, and is in fact, Europe’s second-largest unsupported dome after St. Peter’s in the Vatican. In the crypt, you can find many tombs of famous Britons, including Admiral Lord Nelson, honored for his victory against the franco-spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can also climb up to the top of the dome, where you can get an awesome 360-degree view of London from a height of around 350 feet. After crossing the Thames on the infamous Millennium Bridge, I allowed myself to be baffled by the many oddities of Tate Gallery of Modern Art.

All-in-all, it was a very enjoyable visit, and I’m glad I had a few days to look around the city. It is such a rich city, that even a week would not be enough to truly enjoy all that London has to offer. Check out my full slide show below!

Is 99.9% good enough?

I’ve been working in the construction industry for a grand total of two weeks, and while this may not seem like much, it has already taught me a valuable lesson that can be applied to almost any situation: the concept of doing everything 100%.

As children growing up, we are bombarded with reminders to finish what we started and to see our chores all the way through before starting something else, and yet it is always so hard to finish things in their entirety! It seems to be so difficult to keep a room perfectly clean because there will always be a stray sock somewhere and so we conclude that having our room mostly clean, maybe even 99.9% clean, is the best we can humanly achieve because perfection is simply an unattainable goal.

In school, we strive for 100%, but are ecstatic with anything over 90% (in university, I was frequently ecstatic just to get a passing grade)! Besides, unless it’s math, marking is subjective and it is humanly impossible to achieve a 100% score! Even if it is math, it’s so easy to have a careless mistake somewhere in the midst of your calculations, that we are willing to settle for a 95%. We often joke about some students’ parents who, in response to their child receiving a 95% would demand to know why they couldn’t achieve 100%! And yet, despite the seeming impossibility of achieving 100%, is there something we’re missing and is it possible that anything less than 100% is simply not acceptable?

For many years in the construction industry, injuries and fatalities were considered an inevitable risk and therefore, such tragedies were most unfortunately accepted by society. While there are strict rules and regulations in place (enforced by organizations like OSHA in the United States and the WSIB in Canada), to hold a company accountable for injuries and deaths is accepted by law so long as they are compliant with all applicable rules. So, if a company has a 99.9% safety record, is it acceptable? While many would argue that 99.9% is extremely good, in my company of just over 2000 people, it would mean that at least 2 people would be killed or seriously injured every year. The same record applied to the automobile industry would imply that it would be acceptable if over 5,000 cars sold in the United States every year could have life-threatening problems. Applied to the aviation industry, it would imply that it would be acceptable if at least one plane crashed every day when landing or taking off at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. In medicine, it would mean that over 300 million prescriptions in the United States (roughly equal to the American population) would be incorrectly fulfilled every single year.

Clearly, in many different industries, 99.9%, no matter how impressive it is, is simply not good enough. So, as a field supervisor with Mortenson Construction, I take my responsibility to perform quality control and assurance very seriously. When I test to make sure that each and every one of the bolts holding a rotor in place is correctly tensioned, 100% is the only acceptable standard, and the same should apply to everything else that we do when the safety of other people is at stake. Furthermore, to ensure our 100% commitment to quality, most work is often checked and re-checked by at least two different people to ensure proper scrutiny.

Working in construction, for me, has caused a paradigm shift in my thinking, whereby I now stand by my commitment to do a good job because failure is simply not an option. If we can apply this same principle to everything we do in life, than we cannot fail. Every catastrophe can be avoided if we are diligent, if we take the time before we act to consider possible consequences of our actions, and if we take the proper steps to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Here’s a great clip that really exemplifies what it means to be the best you can be and to give it your 100%:

New things for RaphSammut.ca

Although you may not have noticed, I’ve migrated RaphSammut.ca to new servers. Thanks to Dave Cachia, owner of DavesNetwork.ca and a fellow member of the RedFlagDeals.com forums, I now enjoy free, secure, and stable hosting on his servers, which means that you’ll never see ads on this website (not that you ever have in the past)!

Other than that, I’ve finally got around to updating the “About” page, which was not only out-of-date, but didn’t really tell you a whole lot about me and my blog. I’ll be working on new developments in the next few days to make things a little cleaner around here. This work will also include centralizing my pictures in one location (the “Gallery” page is in a bit of a mess right now, and photos.raphsammut.ca no longer exists). With the advent of Google+, I’ve decided that the best thing for me in the long term is to switch over to using Picasa Web Albums. It is really the best solution since it comes with its own desktop photo organizer, includes free or cheap hosting, and works seamlessly with Google+ Albums. If you know of something better, feel free to comment and let me know!

On the topic of Google+, I’d love to hear your input on the new social media site!

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Life in the field

Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and as they also say, the end is just a new beginning (could my opening line be any more cliché?). My life as a student is over, and so is my 4-month post-graduation vacation! Is it weird not being back in school? A little.. but overall, I’m glad to be moving on with my life and starting something anew.

This past week, I’ve started my new job as a Field Supervisor with Mortenson Construction. It’s a field position, which means that I travel a lot, work in rugged environments, and live a nomadic lifestyle. It’s also a supervisory role, which means that I don’t actually do the work, but observe, question, and inspect it. Mortenson Construction is a well-known general contractor with an incredible reputation in the construction industry. Their growth is impressive, and they have recently ranked #19 on ENR’s Top 400 Contractors List. While they are based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota, they have initiated their expansion into the Canadian market by opening an office in Toronto and taking on a number of renewable energy projects.

First day on the job site. My smurf boots help prevent mud from getting inside the parts I'm inspecting 😉

My first assignment is the Comber Wind Project, located in Comber, Ontario. While the project is nearing completion, there’s still a lot of work to be done as we complete the erection of the towers, and mount a nacelle (a fancy word for ‘enclosure’) and rotor on each one. So far, I’m enjoying field work immensely. Not only is it a break from being inside all the time, but it is my first opportunity to do some real-world engineering and see some incredible structures being built before my very eyes. I get a good balance in my work between office and field so that I don’t have to brave the elements all the time, and can go outdoors for a bit when I start to get stir-crazy in the office. I also have the benefit of not being too remote on this job so that I can still enjoy the comforts of civilization (like grocery stores, tim hortons, etc.). I found a nice house by Lake St. Clair to stay while I’m there and my home in Oakville is just under a 3 hour drive away.

People at work are generally quite social since they are all away from home, and this has made my time off from work quite fun! Every night there’s usually something happening, typically dinner and drinks. I’ve also found my co-workers to be really great people: a testament to Mortenson’s ability to attract great people to work with them!

Stay tuned for more updates and you can check out more pictures on my Picasa album below:


Some pictures of my new job and the house that I’m renting.

Malta launches a new public transit system

Arriva Malta
A new bus, operated by Arriva Malta boards passengers at the new terminal in Valletta (Originally published by the Times of Malta).

While Malta was famous for its old fleet of yellow-and-orange buses servicing the public transport needs of the entire island by operating out of a central node in Malta’s capital city, I wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement of a new system with a modern fleet of buses. Nostalgia aside, Malta’s old buses were in need of replacement; they had no air conditioning, were heavy polluters, and were independently owned and operated by their drivers. Many Maltese would cringe at the thought of riding one of the old buses during the hot summer months when the buses were stuffed with sweaty passengers, let alone driving behind one of the dilapitated buses as they would expel a rather deadly concoction of fumes and smoke as they lumbered up a hill.

Malta’s new transit system was delivered in collaboration with Transport Malta, the local infrastructure planning and maintenance body, along with Arriva, a British public transit operator that runs public transit systems across Europe, which has recently been acquired by DeutschBahn (DB).

Malta was very well informed leading up to the launch of Arriva Malta’s service on July 3, 2011, and the general public was hopeful of new changes, better service, and air conditioned buses, however the actual turn of events no doubt sent a chill up the spines of upper management and became the largest front-page news item for the subsequent three weeks.

A classic Maltese bus (xarabank).

At 5:15am on July 3, 2011, Arriva Malta’s first buses were scheduled to roll out of Arriva’s bus yard, however that was made difficult by the fact that approximately 180 bus drivers, most of whom were drivers from the previous system, did not show up for work. It was touted as an act of sabotage by Malta’s former bus drivers who were unhappy with their new working conditions, and on Arriva’s first day of service, it instigated a complete disaster. Hundreds of unhappy passengers were seen stranded at bus stops and under the strong Maltese sun, tempers flew as passengers fought their way onto the reduced fleet of operational buses. The second day of service was no different from the first as around 60 bus  drivers still refused to show up for work, however Arriva was able to leverage their size by importing over 100 bus drivers from the UK to take over and get their buses on the road. For the drivers that did show up to work, they still managed to help sabotage the system by making unauthorized breaks mid-route, and even going out of service and parking their buses at home when they were supposed to be on duty.

When I arrived on the island on July 9, the buses were out, but not without problems:

  • Operating frequencies were not consistent, and buses operating on the same route were bunching up, to the point where I once saw seven buses servicing the same route running one after the other.
  • Bus capacity was not sufficient on most bus routes. It was quite often that buses would begin skipping stops as they were full of passengers, often stranding passengers for over an hour.
  • Some mainline bus routes are too long and make loops around every village that they pass which make certain routes unnecessarily long.
  • Some routes utilize roads that are simply not feasible for buses, either because of their poor condition or because they’re too narrow to accomodate the turning radius of a bus: this is especially true for some of the smaller villages like Gharghur.

By the time I was leaving, however, the operations had improved significantly. Buses were arriving more regularly, electronic display signs were in use with audio alerts for stops along the route, and revisions had already been made to several of the routes based on passenger feedback and analysis. Another major revision is scheduled for the beginning of September, which will hopefully resolve any major issues before the start of school. While most Maltese still grumble about the change, I am optimistic that the system will serve the island well and will continue to improve as time goes on.

For more updates on Arriva Malta’s service, visit their website.

China: Parting Thoughts

Beijing was the largest city I’ve ever visited with a population around 12.2 million (including the suburban areas which sprawl quite far it is probably as much as 20 million). It was truly fascinating to be there, knowing that it was where many historic events have taken place and where decisions are made today that affect China’s burgeoning populace of over 1.3 billion, which accounts for more than a sixth of our global population. The task to rule a country this large and maintain its unity is certainly no easy task. While it was the Qing dynasty that united China for the first time, it was Chairman Mao who truly unified China and paved the way for the modern development of the country.

As a Canadian, having been raised in a democratic and capitalist society, I was expecting shocking changes. The truth is that, nowadays, the big cities of China really aren’t all that different from the rest of the world. The only noticeable change is that everything is a lot cheaper. On the whole, Beijing is a very clean city, cleaner in fact than most European cities I have visited. Beijing is also a lot safer than most other cities I’ve visited. There was never a moment that I felt threatened, and aside from curious glances from the locals (partly because I’m white, and partly because my companion was a stunningly beautiful chinese girl), I never once felt uncomfortable. This was a pleasant contrast to say, Paris, which was not as clean as Beijing and a place where I often felt uncomfortable and tense due to the incredible racial tension that exists there (see me previous post about this). Aside from not being able to use Facebook and Twitter (which are currently blocked by the Great Firewall of China), I felt right at home.

Also, Chinese food in China is about 10x better than eating it abroad because all the ingredients used are fresh, whereas many restaurants in other places of the world use imported goods that are pumped with preservatives to give them a longer shelf life. It is well worth a visit to Beijing, even if just to experience the food!

I thank the many Chinese friends I made while I was there for their hospitality, and I truly hope to visit again soon!