Picture Perfect


Welcome to YMCA Wanakita! We had a bit of snow overnight
Our bunkhouse The main dining hall
Alex, goalkeeping in Broomball Donna trying Nordic Skiing
Me and Boy My little snow angel!
Gotta love those icicles! Donna looking quite the snow bunny
Snowshoes! Walking on frozen Lake Koshlong
The dogsled teams Beautiful Huskys

I don’t know about you, but I have a number of mental images – clichés if you like – of how I expect certain places will be when I actually see them. It’s like when you see all those images of Outback Australia and you see photos of how red the earth is or how spectacular the sunrises are, and although you know that these places are probably real, its not until you go out there and see them for yourself that you realise they are not just touched-up photos in a travel brochure… that these places really do exist, and they really do look exactly the way you imagined they would.

I had a similar mental image about Canada in Winter. I pictured beautiful snow-covered frozen lakes fringed with fur trees, log cabins covered with several feet of untouched snow, and bright blue skies shining through heavily snow-laden branches. I pictured trails through the woods, powdery crisp snow making clean crunching noises underfoot, or groups of cross-country skiers gliding elegantly along the trails, or burly blokes with big beards and lumberjack coats riding around on snowmobiles. Or even teams of Husky dogs pulling traditional sleds through the woods. I imagined these things, but just assumed they were just clichés built up from watching years of TV and movies.

And then I went to Wanakita.

Wanakita is a YMCA camp about 3 hours out of Toronto. The good folk at CLEE organised a weekend visit for all the Ontario exchangees, and it lived up to every one of my Canadian expectations and was pretty much exactly the way I had imagined “the real Canada” to be.

We arrived at Wanakita about 9:00pm on Friday night after a long drive… I can never figure out why Toronto – a city with approximately the same population as Sydney, but with infinitely better road infrastructure – still seems to suffer from the most outrageous traffic congestion. How can you still have traffic congestion on a 12 lane highway!?

Anyway, we arrived at Wanakita, checked into our bunkroom and went for a walk to the main lodge centre. Because we arrived in the dark, we had no real idea of what the surrounding countryside looked like, although the walk through the camp’s grounds was obviously going to reveal a very pretty spot in the daylight. We socialised for a while with some of the other exchangees, mostly Aussies, before getting to bed.

Next morning we awoke to see the full beauty of the spot. The whole camp was covered with a blanket of fresh snow over a very thick existing base, and the trees looked quite spectacular with a layer of pure white outlining their branch structure. There was a fine, light snow falling but there was no breeze, so it was very pretty to watch and not at all unpleasant and it kept up for most of the day.

We had breakfast and got organised for the days activities before heading off for a game of broomball. Broomball is a bit like ice hockey (in Canada of course its just called hockey), except its played only with rubber-tipped sticks, and you don’t wear skates. You run around on the ice, slipping and sliding, trying to whack a ball into the goals at either end of the field of play. It sounds a bit dangerous, and it was. Craig, one of the other Aussie exchangees, slipped over and hurt his shoulder, and had to pay a visit to the local hospital to have it seen to.

Next on the agenda for us was to learn to cross-country ski. I’ve always wanted to try Nordic skiing, and got the hang of it pretty quickly, although when we went for an actual ski trek along some of the wooded trails after the lunchbreak, it was bloody hard work! All the fresh snow made it very tiring to work through, although there was a certain magic about gliding through the fresh powder with just the tips of the skis cutting two clean swathes through the surface. Donna and I skied with the group, doing a circuit around the woods before heading back to the camp.
In the afternoon we got to try snowshoeing. Snowshoes are a traditional method for crossing soft snow, and look a lot like wearing big tennis rackets on your feet. They make it a lot easier to trudge through deep snow because you don’t sink into, but are still quite hard work to walk in. We geared up, then all walked on to the snow-covered Lake Koshlong, walking quite a long way out into the centre of the lake. The water was well and truly frozen, apparently about 18 inches thick, so it was quite safe but still kind of weird to be standing on this vast white expanse surrounded by what was obviously the edge of the lake and dotted with beautiful rustic cottages.

Saturday night we stayed in the lodge and had a fun game of Family Feud, run by the YMCA staff, who did a fantastic job keeping us all entertained. We even had a campfire sing-along (indoors), and did a rousing rendition of Waltzing Matilda. A few people got up to perform some items and even Kate got up and sang in front of the group. Walking back to the bunkhouse I noticed that the skies had cleared and I got my first real glimpse of the northern hemisphere stars, seeing the Big Dipper for the first time.

On Sunday, we arose to bright blue skies and sunshine. Breakfast was had and the kids headed off for some tobogganing – another dangerous activity if you ask me!

The highlight of the day was getting to go dogsledding. The good folk from CLEE had organised a local Haliburton dogsledding group to bring their dog teams out and let us experience what it was about. The dogs were beautiful… all purebred Huskys, they were in teams of 5 or 6, each pulling a wooden sled with two people on it. There were about 7 teams, and the sound of the dogs all yelping and barking, eager to get going, had to be heard to be believed. We eventually got our ride, and even though it seemed too short, it was a great experience and with the white snow, the blue skies, the cold air rushing past our faces and the sounds of the amazing Husky dogs pulling us through the woods, it was not an experience to be missed.

After lunch we packed the car and drove back to Oakville. Despite the snowy roads, it was an easy three hour drive and we arrived back home, exhausted but satisfied after a great weekend. I felt like we really did get to see a bit of “the real Canada” this weekend, and those mental pictures I had are now real memories.

Global Reach


They say it's a small world, and while that may be true, I still wouldn't like to have to paint it. Regardless, it's small enough that you can still find many things that are common to our two countries even though we are 15,000kms away from home.

When Kate heard that we were coming to Canada, she was excited about the fact that she could get involved in the Girl Guides here. Katey has been involved in Guiding in Australia for many years, starting with Gumnuts, working her way through Brownies, and graduating to Guides just before we left Australia. She was really keen to join Guides here too, and experience Guiding on two continents.

So Kate has joined the 35th Oakville Guides Group. They meet at a local school every Thursday night, and she is absolutely loving it. Tonight they had a First Nations guest speaker who spoke about life as an aboriginal Canadian native. They looked at handicrafts and other traditional items and got to see yet another side of Canadian life.

But what a great experience for her... making lots of new friends and getting to see that bigger picture of a global organisation like the Guides, and to realise just how big this thing she is involved with back in her little Guide hall in Sydney really is.

It will give her a whole new perspective on the world I'm sure.

Contributing Factors


Observant people may have noticed that there are in fact FOUR possible contributors to this blog... Chris, Donna, Alex and Kate. Furthermore, the truly observant amongst you would have also noticed that out of these four possible contributors, there is only one who has actually contributed anything to this blog, and that's me.

This was never my intention of course. I set these other laggards up as contributing writers with the intention that we would all add our two-bobs worth to it. I'm sure there are many who would love to hear Donna's dazzling dialogs, Alex's amazing archives from Alex, or Kate's Krazy Kapers.

SO, might I suggest that you write to Donna, Alex and Kate, and tell them that you are sick of hearing from me. Just click on their names to send them an email and tell them its about time they made a contribution! :-)

Lots of Nice People


Dinner with Peggy and Doug Me and Dave.  It was bloody cold
Kate getting into the backyard hockey action Alex as goalie
Helping Lukey to skate.  They start 'em young! Kate and Luke
The Coulter's backyard rink Alex on the defensive

You know, Canadians are really nice folk. Seriously, everyone we've met so far have been really, really nice people. Everywhere we've been, we've been made to feel really welcome. The people in the neighbourhood where we live, at the kids' school, at the school where I work... In fact, almost every Australian I've ever spoken to has expressed a positive opinion of the folk from Canada, so no big surprise, it's what we expected, and I'm sure it's a big part of the reason why teaching exchanges to Canada are so popular with us Aussies. In the entire time we've been here, we've actually only met one grumpy, miserable, rude Canadian and there were probably two reasons he was like that... One, he was clearly born elsewhere and has migrated here and so I can't really count him as a Canadian; and Two, he worked in the local post office. If Australian post office workers are any indication, it would appear that being grumpy miserable and rude is a globally recognised requirement for that position.

Anyway, as I was saying, the rest of the non-postal working Canadians we've met have been just delightful. We had a dinner invitation on Sunday night to Peggy and Doug's place across the road, where we shared a very pleasant evening chatting, laughing and enjoying a delicious roast beef dinner and a few glasses of wine. They were further proof of the "all Canadians are nice people" theory.

Meanwhile, Kate and Alex have been enjoying the opportunity to learn to ice skate on our next door neighbour's backyard skating rink. Dave and Claudia, and their kids Mark, Emma and Lukey have been just so helpful to us since we got here. They have lent us fax machines, baking trays, skating rinks... even their car a few times while we were trying to oragnise our own. They are also further proof to the theory.

We've been wondering what to do and where to go for March break, and yesterday we were chuffed to get an invitation to join our new friends Kim and Sean for a few days of skiing up at Mont Tremblant in Quebec. Kim spent her day researching places to stay and finding good deals, and when she suggested we tag along with them it took very little arm-twisting for us to say yes. Tremblant is a very nice looking resort - run by the same group who own Whistler - with great skiing and a lovely European atmosphere in the village. We are staying at a place called Château Beauvallon on the first night, and then three nights right in the heart of the village's pedestrian precinct at The Carlson. Follow the links to check them out. We'll write more when we get back after the trip, but we are really looking forward to it.

Thanks to those nice Canadians, I guess I can cross "skiing in Canada" off the dream list.

The Real Deal


The great thing about coming to another country on an exchange program, as opposed to just visiting as a tourist, is that you get the opportunity to really get to know the people who live here... and we are getting to know some really lovely people during our time here in Canada. We had a dinner invitation tonight to Wendy and Todd's place, and they also invited Beth and Grant, and Jennifer and Peter (although Peter was unable to make it unfortunately). We had an absolutely delightful night, with great food, great wine and great conversation. Donna even told the minitramp story! :-)

Plans were hatched for the boys to get away to Buffalo one weekend for a bit of skiing, while I suspect the girls are making plans for a bit of retail therapy. I don't think I want to know the details!

The kids also had a good time playing in the basement. Canadian basements are just fantastic. I know they are primarily a place for the furnace to live, but they are such a good idea we are wondering why Australian houses don't all have basements too! I think I may have to grab a shovel and start digging when we get home.

Thanks again Todd and Wendy for a lovely night!

Nice Weather eh!


Canadians, I've noticed, are fascinated by the weather. You can count on it coming up in nearly every conversation. Not surprising I suppose, as the weather does seem to have a fairly profound effect on life here. In winter here, the weather can sometimes make a big difference to what you are able to do or not do.

This winter has been a bit unusual though. It has been unseasonably warm ... well, perhaps I should say it has been unseasonably not cold, as it's still hardly what you'd call warm. But we have had lots of days where the temperature have been in the range of zero degrees and upwards, sometimes getting as warm as +10C or so. That might not sound very warm, but you have to remember that for February in southern Ontario we are told that it is not uncommon to get temps in the -20C to -30C range. In fact, I heard on TV that this is officially the warmest Toronto winter on record. The Weather Channel has been predicting some chilly times and lots of snow of late, but so far it hasn't amounted to much. We had a snowfall the other night and it covered the place with a lovely blanket of white, but it quickly melted again or was washed away by the rain that followed. Oh, and when it rains, and then the temperatures drop again... that causes some very interesting patches of ice!

Reports are predicting a cold snap this weekend, and they keep saying that snow is coming, but I'll wait and see. A lot of the locals are commenting on how fortunate we've been to strike this good weather, but to be honest, I'd be quite happy to get at least one big blizzard and a massive snow dump! I mean, c'mon! We're here to experience a Canadian winter, so bring it on baby!



The Oak Park Community Centre ice rink Kate getting some help with her technique
By George, I think she's got it! Kate and Laura shovelling the snow off the backyard rink

Kate got to go ice skating for school sport last week, something that never happened back home. She felt a bit sheepish about it because the kids got put into groups of experts, intermediates, beginners and non-skaters, and of course she was the only one in the non-skating group. Our Katey doesn't like not being good at things, but with a bit of help from other people she did really well and quickly got the hang of it.

We have a small ice rink in the back yard, which Dave built for us before he left. It's quite a common practise over here to build these backyard rinks in winter... you build a frame out of timber, line it with a huge tarp, fill it with water and wait for it to freeze. Trouble is, this winter is the warmest winter on record, and there has not really been enough days of constantly sub-zero temperatures to get a serious freeze happening. It's a shame that the kids haven't been able to get out into the backyard to practise their skating. I thought we were in for some cold weather last week so I tried to fill it up a bit in anticipation, but the hose was frozen solid...

By the way, the reason that backyard ice rinks are so common here is that ice skating - or more particularly, ice hockey - is like a national religion. Everywhere you look, you see evidence that hockey is the dominant sport. Every kid at school seems to play on a hockey team, and there alway seems to be a game showing on the TV. You see kids out in their driveways after school playing street hockey.

I'm still waiting for the big cold snap.

Poetic Licence


There was a great deal of conjecture and confusion regarding the legal requirement for driving in Ontario. Some people told us we needed to get an Ontario licence, and others told us we would be OK to drive on an International licence. The problem was that people told us that “you should be right with an International licence”, or “I think you may need an Ontario licence”. I wasn’t interested in the “should be” and “I think” stuff… I like to know the truth about these things, and not just what others may have gotten away with. So I tried to get the definitive answer. Ha!

I rang the Ministry of Transport Ontario (MTO) from Sydney and spoke to a very helpful young lady who was only to pleased to be of assistance. Problem was, nearly everything she told me was incorrect. Her story explicitly told me that I should expect to pay around $5000 for insurance, that I was legally required to get an Ontario Licence, and that I could not drive at all on an Australian licence. Wrong on every count. You can hear a recording I made of that conversation in a previous post. So I arrived here expecting that I would have to get an Ontario licence. We got a rental car for a few days when we first got here using my International licence and had no problems with that. Then I went to the MTO and tried to sort it out properly, and was told that I did indeed have to get an Ontario licence. Not having the necessary documentation with me at the time, I went home, but just to double check I rang the MTO’s info line and spoke to a guy who told me I was definitely OK to drive on an International licence all year! I asked him to double check that for me, so he came back after speking to his supervisor and the story had changed to me definitely needing an Ontario licence again!

This was giving me the shits by now, so I asked where I could read the actual regulation for myself and was told it was Section 15(i) of the Highway Traffic Act of Ontario. He was unable to supply a copy of the HTA, so I Googled for it and found a copy online and bugger me if I could see how it required me to get an Ontario licence, so I now had serious doubts that anybody at the MTO had a clue what they were actually talking about. So, I went back to the MTO’s DriveTest centre the next day and was told, no, you CAN drive on your International licence! This time I stayed and asked lots of questions to nail down the fact that I was in fact getting the truth, and it became clear that YES, you CAN drive all year on your International licence. The rules say that if you are moving to Ontario you can only drive for 60 days before needing to get a local licence, but the thing is that it only applies to people permanently moving to Ontario. As an exchange teacher, you are not moving here, but when they find out you’re here for a year they try to assume that you are. Bottom line, you DO NOT need a local licence.

Word of advice for future exchangees, bring a letter from the exchange board stating that you are on an official exchange, and that you will be returning to Australia at the end of the 12 months. You are entitled to drive on your International Permit, and don’t any crap from anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Also, get your International Permit as close as possible to your departure date as it is only valid for a year, and will probably expire before you leave anyway. They can be renewed and extended, but I haven’t had to do that yet. Better yet, it seems you can drive on just an Australian licence for up to 60 days, so it may even be better to get your International permit postdated to start 60 days after you arrive in Canada, so you can then drive for the first 60 days on your Australian licence, then after 60 days your International permit kicks in and takes you to the end of your exchange period and beyond.

In amongst all this nonsense, I did actually start the process of getting my local licence… something I apparently didn’t really need to do. But that’s a whole other story...

Didn't see that coming!


So, yeah, I'm on exchange in another country, and I'm prepared for anything right? Expect the unexpected. Embrace change. Savour it all. Right? But some things are just not what you expected...

I was teaching the other afternoon. I have a really nice group of Grade 10s, and one of them asked if he could take the roll to the office for me. He'd finished his work so I let him go. He returned a short time later with the vice principal, who apologised for keeping him.

Then about 10 minutes later there was a knock at the door, and it was the vice principal again and a policeman. They asked if that same student could be excused from class, I said sure, he collected his books and walked towards the door. The police officer grabbed the kid by the arm and led him out of the room, loudly saying "You are under arrest, you have the right to remain silent, etc, etc..."

The rest of the class sat there for a moment in stunned silence, till I eventually said "Well, that was unexpected." I've never had a kid arrested in my class before. Teaching exchanges really are full of surprises!

Ski Hounds


Donna and Alex in the Carpark of Horse Valley Looking up the main valley of Horseshoe
Donna and Kate, ready for action! Kate was a speed demon and picked it up really quickly
Alex, heading up to the top of the double chair Donna and Kim
Donna, Alex and Chris taking in the scenery Sean and Kim Smith
Kate helping Laura on the snowboard Kim and Donna... a couple of ski bunnies!

We had a great day today! Our new Canadian friends the Smiths offered to take us skiing up to Horseshoe Valley, just north of Barrie. Sean, Kim and their two girls Laura and Megan are very keen skiers and try to ski every few weeks during winter. Donna, myself and the kids really enjoy our skiing too, so of course we jumped at the chance to join them for a day of sliding around in the cold white stuff.

For some reason I never really expected to do any skiing while we here in Canada, I guess because Australians only ever hear about the skiing on Canada's west coast. Obviously, the skiing to the north of Toronto is on a much smaller scale than places like Whistler, but then it's only about an hour and a half away and the lift prices are really reasonable. The terrain was just fantastic for the kids, and they were really skiing quite well by the end of the day, as well as a few more interesting runs to keep Donna and I amused. The runs were not all that long, but the lift queues were pretty quick and it was easy to get a lot of runs in. Temps were around -10c, so the snow was crisp and dry, and to top it off the weather was spectacular with clear blue skies and not a cloud in the sky! We plan to go back there a few more times before the end of the season.

Meet the Parents


The Betchers meet the Farmers

We had a lovely night last night visiting the parents of a girl that Donna works with in Sydney. Dons works with a delightful Canadian girl called Melissa, and when Melissa found out that we were going to Oakville she suggested we contact her parents in Mississauga, the city next to Oakville. Donna made contact with Melissa’s mum Carmella a few days ago and they went out for a coffee together, and Donna had a lovely day.

Then Carmella and Doug invited us all over for dinner last night and they went to so much trouble… we had a lamb roast (with Australian lamb!) and some really delicious deserts, then the kids went down to the basement to watch TV while Donna and I sat around chatting with Carmella and Doug for an hour or so. I even got to have a blow of Carmella’s didgeridoo, after fixing the wax mouthpiece which got damaged in transit back from Australia.

This is one of the best things about being on exchange, and not just visiting as a tourist… you get to meet real people and get to know them, find out about how people live, and share a bit about ourselves and Australia.

Nobody reads blogs


It's pretty funny. When we started planning this exchange way back in June 2005, I gave some thought to how I might document it, both for my own selfish reasons (I wanted a record of events to look back over in coming years) and also for altruistic reasons (I thought it might be nice to provide some detailed info for other exchangees in following years).

A weblog, better known as a Blog, seemed like a good idea. I'd been hearing about the use of blogs in education circles for a while now, and although I'd dabbled with blogs way back in the early days I had never really kept one on a serious, ongoing basis. As a form of online diary, it seemd a good way to share our experiences, so I went over to Blogger, signed up for a free blog and started writing.

I kept mentioning it to Donna as we went through the preparation process in the next few months. " I'll add that to the blog", I'd say. "I'll upload those pictures to the blog", I'd say.

Donna would generally just roll her eyes and ignore me. Eventually she said "Do you seriously think anybody will give a rip about any of this stuff? Nobody will ever actually read it!" And although she never really complained about me keeping a blog, she never really took it seriously either. But the blog kept growing anyway.

Then people started to say things to us. People who we hadn't ever told things to, saying things they normally wouldn't have known about. "That insurance sure sounds expensive", they'd say. Or "Hope Kate is feeling better". Or "Bet you're glad to finally have a car". And Donna would glance at me with a look of "How on earth did they know about that?" People started asking about things and commenting about things from the blogosphere, and it was becoming apparent that there were actually quite a few people regularly reading this thing.

So to all of you who check this thing out every so often, I want to say thank you. It's not often I get to say to my wife "I told you so". :-)

A whole lot of Water


Getting out of the car at Niagara on the Lake Alex and Kate acting like they like each other!
Niagara on the Lake... full of charm In the backstreets of Niagara on the Lake
At the Falls Still at the Falls
So much water... they are quite amazing! A romantic moment for Chris and Donna
Al and Kate at the Falls The whole family

Now that we are finally mobile with our own car, we decided to head down to Niagara Falls for the day. Niagara is not far from Oakville (78km according to the sign on the QEW), so popping down for a day is no problem at all. We left about 11:00am and jumped onto the QEW, or Queen Elizabeth Way if you weren't sure, and hit the cruise control. Sitting on the freeway at 110km/h was an easy drive, but instead of going directly to Niagara Falls we took a detour out to the delightful little village of Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is one of those delightfully quaint little places that sort of looks like it just decided not to participate in progress like the rest of the world. There were a lot of craft shops and eateries, and we stopped at a place in the main street to have lunch.

We then took the back roads to Niagara Falls, following the river which flowed through the bottom of a deep gorge with Canada on one side and the USA on the other. Arriving in Niagara Falls we cruised around to get our bearings then parked the car and walked over. Kate summed it up for all of us with her first reaction... "Wow! That's awesome!"

And they were. It was mindboggling to see that much water flowing over those massive cliffs. We walked along the edge, took lots of photos and video, and generally just soaked it up. It was pretty cold and it snowed lightly a couple of times while we were there.

Afterwards, we drove up the main street. What a sight! It was like a really tacky mini Las Vegas, with casinos, cheap motels, wax museums, Ripley's Believe it or Not, and tons of cheap amusement places. I thought it was quite garish and tacky and completely over-the-top, but hey, whatever... I'm sure its probably lots of fun and we'll go back for a better look when the weather warms up I'm sure... it was just kind of weird to stand there looking out over these awesome, amazing, natural falls thundering away and pouring millions of litres of water on a scale that's hard to comprehend, and then literally turn around and behind you is this street overladen with the most bizarre excesses of human overcommerciality. Weird.

We drove across the bridge into the USA just to have a look - immigration was straightforward, and took only a minute or two - and we drove over to Goat Island, did a lap of the town and then headed back over to Canadian soil. We jumped back on the QEW and we were home in well under an hour.

Email: chris@betcher.org
Skype: betchaboy

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