Jun 29, 2013

Canada: Wonderland

There was nothing particularly Canadian about Canada's Wonderland, but it was a lot of fun! Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

Ideally every day of a good class trip is a fun day.  Whatever the students are learning or experiencing is memorable, exciting, and enjoyable.  But whether it's Dream World in Thailand, Lotte World in South Korea, Disney World in Orlando, or a day on a cruise ship en route from the Bahamas sometimes it's nice to have a day that is just for fun.  Most, though not all, of our class trips have included a "just for fun day."  This year we chose to spend that day, Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at Canada's Wonderland, an amusement park, not coincidentally similar to Cedar Point or Kings Island.

It was the perfect day at a theme park.  If you want to get the most of your visit to Canada's Wonderland (or any amusement park for that matter) here's what you do.  Choose a weekday early in the season when school is still in session.  Sure you'll get the field trip crowd, but there will still be far fewer people than there would be on a weekend, the height of summer, or on a national holiday.  Next make sure that the forecast is for rain.  If you get lucky (as we did), it won't actually rain but you may get some cloud cover that keeps it from getting too hot.  The forecast will likely keep away a lot of visitors who might otherwise have come to the park.

The result will be free run of the park with no waiting at even the most popular rides.  The Fast Pass would have been a waste of money the day we went. You could get on a flagship ride like the Leviathan or the Behemoth with no waiting, take the ride, run around to the entrance and get right back on again.  Needless to say the kids had a blast.  I'm pretty sure they rode close to every ride in the park.

A coaster car on the Leviathan reaches the pinnacle of the first--and steepest--drop.  Perhaps some of my unease is the sense of utter loss of control on the ride, particularly when you plunge down those drops.  One my students, foolishly (and against the rules of the ride) had his camera out hoping to catch some snaps during the ride.  All throughout the ride I could hear him behind me gasping "Oh my, oh my, oh my".  It wasn't till several minutes after we got off the ride that he realized his camera was gone.  The best we can guess is that it flew out of his hand during the ride.  I felt really bad for him because he had such an open-hearted enthusiasm for everything we did on the trip.  His endearing sense of wonder was especially evident in his zealous picture-taking.  He, of all people, least deserved to lose his camera this way.
As for me, it was a pretty low key day.  I rode the aforementioned Leviathan right at the start of the day, and hopped on a few other smaller coasters, but for the most part I was content to just watch the kids have fun.
I've never been much for roller coasters.  When I was a kid, I tended to get sick on even the most pedestrian rides (and even today I have no interest in spinning rides), and as an adult, I find that I just don't enjoy roller coasters very much.  It's not that I'm terrified to the point of paralysis or that I'm screaming in terror the entire time.  I got on the Leviathan without hesitation, and I would describe my feelings on the ride itself as closer to unpleasantness than to fear. But I just found that the ride was something I was willing to do but not something that I anticipated doing before I got on; something that I endured rather than enjoyed while on the ride; and something about which I felt little sense of accomplishment when it was over. I certainly didn't feel a need to go another round, though I would have.

Perhaps, I just needed to give it more time.  I did find that near the end of the Leviathan I was sort of half-way looking forward to what would be the next drop or loop, and I was surprised to find the ride was already over.  It's possible if I'd taken a few more turns, I might have begun to really enjoy the experience.  And on the Backlot Stunt Coaster, which was given the same thrill rating as the Leviathan but felt
a lot lower on the thrill meter, I did go on multiple rides with a couple of my students and that was fun enough.  Still, if one's motto in life is to enjoy the ride, then it seems sensible that the ride should be enjoyable to begin with.  If it's not, I figure life is too short to spend on something that isn't all that fun.

You probably can't make them out, but my students are on this ride, a short coaster called "The Bat" that slings the riders forward through a loop and backwards the way they came.

Anyway, the important thing is my students had a great day.  The clouds that had threatened rain all day finally unleashed a downpour on us right as we were leaving.  After supper at mall near our hotel in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, caught a popcorn flick, Iron Man III at a nearby cineplex.  It was a fittingly fun ending to a fun-filled day.

A Word on the Hotels

We stayed at a pair of really nice properties during our Canadian adventure.  The Embassy Suites Niagara Falls and the Homewood Suites Toronto Airport Corporate Centre in Toronto.  Both hotels provided roomy suites, hot breakfast buffets, and swimming pools.  The Homewood Suites was particularly sumptuous.  We were able to get massive two bedroom, two-bathroom suites with full kitchens and living room areas for around $250 a night.  The service was outstanding throughout our stay, and the amenities including free parking were plentiful.  In addition to the free breakfast they offered complimentary dinners for free as well (though we never got to take advantage of those as we never got back early enough in the evening for the meal).  I highly recommend both properties and would definitely stay there again.

Jun 22, 2013

Canada: Casa Loma, A Riches to Rags Story

Nothing in life is certain.  A meteoric rise to the top can be followed by a sudden plunge to the bottom.  Life is a journey and no stop along the way can safely be called an arrival.  This truth is particularly evident in the riches to rags story of Casa Loma and the man who built it, Sir Henry Pellatt.

Casa Loma is one of Toronto's top tourists attractions and it was on our must-see list for our Canada trip.  I'd heard it billed as the only real castle in all of North America, but this turned out to be false.  Casa Loma is  not an actual castle despite it's castle-like outward appearance.  It is a massive, 98-room mega-mansion.  At one time it was the largest private residence in Canada.  Today it is a museum, open to the public, and towering cautionary tale about the vagaries of life.

We arrived at Casa Loma early Monday afternoon, on Monday, May 20, 2013 after a subway ride into the city from a train station not far from our hotel.  Despite having our own transportation in the form of the church bus we'd used to drive from Columbus to Canada, we opted for public transportation that day.  It was Victoria Day, a major national holiday in Canada, and the whole group could ride all of Torontos public transportation all day on a pair of family passes that cost us about $25.  I figured this would be easier and cheaper than navigating our shuttle bus all over downtown Toronto and finding parking that would accommodate us. (It was a wise move; on Wednesday we returned downtown for some shopping and sightseeing and I spent a good hour or more looking for a parking lot that could take our oversized vehicle).

A couple of our boys riding the rails into town
Casa Loma was our requisite history stop on the class trip itinerary.  Each of the students were given an audio tour guide and an hour and half to explore the sprawling Casa Loma ground and learn what they could about the castle and it's founder.

I began my trek around the castle with a visit to the unfinished indoor pool in the basement and then through a long underground tunnel to the stables and potting shed located across the street. Immediately I sensed that this was not your typical story of opulent wealth.  I quickly learned that the palatial Casa Loma was never completed, and that Sir Henry Pellatt and his wife had moved out after only living there a short time.  I wondered what had happened, and as I continued my tour back at the main building the sad tale of the evaporation of Pellatt's fortune slowly unfolded.

The house was truly a wonder from the awe-inspiring great room and main hall to the gorgeous solarium to the imposing library to the richly decorated smoking room.  The master suites were incredible (Mr. and Mrs. Pellatt each had their own massive bedroom suite, which was typical among those who could afford it at the time).  Sir Henry's bathroom was luxurious even by today's standards and included a marble lined shower with multiple shower heads that massaged the bather from head to toe.
"Sun room" seems too plain a name for this grand space on the main floor

The massive domed stained glass skylight is the centerpiece of the Casa Loma solarium

 As I took in these majestic trappings, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to go from living like this to eking out your final days penniless in the cramped quarters of your chauffeur's house.  That was how things  turned out for Pellatt.  I won't tell the whole story (you can read that here), but the short version is that due to some unwise real estate ventures, the wholesale government appropriation of some his key businesses, and a brutal uptick in taxes (he went from paying $600 a year in taxes to $1000 a month!), Pellatt was forced to leave Casa Loma and auction off his exquisite treasures for a fraction of their value.  He lived to see his property fall into disrepair, barely avoid demolition, and finally be turned over to the Kiwanis Club of Toronto to be turned into museum.   With no apparent bitterness, he declared that he was pleased to see his former home used in this way, to bring joy to others for years to come.

A snapshot of the Pellatts' "backyard."

For a time at least, Sir Henry Pellatt's home literally was his castle.

Pellatt seemed to me to be a decent enough guy--rich folks often get a bad rap, but from all I gathered, he seemed to be a generous, humble man.  There was no morality tale where the evil baron gets his just deserts--just a series of unfortunate events.  I left Casa Loma feeling thankful for the blessings in my life, resolving to appreciate them more and envy others less.

I took this panoramic shot of the Toronto skyline (you can make out the CN Tower rising above the other buildings) from the highest turret of Casa Loma.  It's a quite a hike up a series of increasingly narrow and steep stairs, but worth it for the view.

Our principal Mrs. Arthurs had met us at Casa Loma.  She was unable to leave Columbus with us on Sabbath afternoon due to a conference-wide constituency meeting on Sunday, so she traveled by train and rental car to meet us early Monday afternoon.  Now our group split up as we headed for our next adventure, another Toronto icon, the CN Tower.  Mrs. Arthurs took half the kids with her in her rental car, while Mrs. Wimberly and I took the remaining group with us on the subway downtown. After a late afternoon lunch at a nearby Chipotle, we struck out on foot for the Tower.

Canada's National (or CN Tower).  It was the tallest tower in the world until a structure recently built in Dubai took that title.

The class poses with a moose dressed like a member of the Canadian Mounted Police (or the Mounties) inside the base of the CN Tower.

Three of my students at the tower's main viewing area with the city of Toronto stretching below them.  There is actually a slightly higher viewing area called the Skypod that you can pay extra to go up to, and visitors also have the opportunity to go on the EdgeWalk in which they are strapped into harnesses and walk around the outside ledge of the tower.  I didn't have the funds for either of these extras, and the latter activity would likely have been a waste of money even if I'd had it (and even if the students' parents had gone for it, which I'm certain they wouldn't) as I think most of the kids would likely have chickened out at the last minute (and really, who could blame them).  After all this little number below was scary enough:

The Glass Floor, is a section of the tower with a glass floor that enables you to look straight down to the ground below.  It's quite an experience, I must say.  I physically felt my body recoiling at standing on the glass in the form of a tingling sensation in my legs and feet whenever I looked down.  It took a few of the students awhile before they were brave enough to edge out on to the class.

Hanging out on the glass

Like The Empire State building, the CN Tower features an outdoor viewing area as well.  It's smaller than the Empire State building (which really doesn't have much of an indoor viewing area), and completely enclosed in sturdy wire mesh.

Jun 10, 2013

Canada: Falls View

Niagara Falls.  I took this photo Sunday, May 19, 2013 from Horseshoe Falls, looking back towards American Falls.  You can see part of Horseshoe Falls as well on the right.

I believe every great class trip needs a couple of key elements.  You've got to have some experience with culture and history of the place you're visiting.  You want to visit the landmarks, the iconic symbols of the city  or nation, if possible. You'll want to have an experience with the natural world, something outdoors. It's great to have a little time for shopping.  I like to have a day "just for fun" too, though I've had many trips where we skipped the "amusement park" day for equally fun activities that fell into one of the other categories.

This year's trip to Ontario, Canada contained all the ingredients for another satisfying class trip, and it began with one of the wonders of the natural world, Niagara Falls.

The view from our hotel room. Sunday morning, May 19, 2013
 I had hoped we'd arrive in time to see the illumination of the Falls which ends each evening at midnight.  But we got off to a late start, and didn't arrive at the Embassy Suites Fallsview just over the border in Canada until around 1:30 A.M. Sunday morning, May 19. Still, the hotel lived up to it's name and the view from our rooms was spectacular when we awoke later that morning.
Another view from our hotel room, looking towards American Falls, appropriately named as they are on the American side of the border.  That's Buffalo, New York across the river.

Two students check out American Falls on the walk to the Maid of the Mist

 After a hot breakfast and worship together, we headed out to view the Falls.  Our first stop was the Maid of the Mist, the longest running tour in the Americas.  The Maid fleet has been taking visitors up close to the falls since 1846!
Looking back at Horseshoe Falls on the way to the Maid of the Mist

American Falls up close.  Neither words or pictures come close to describing the awesome power of these falls.  You have to experience it.

Some of my students wrapped up for the mist as we approach Horseshoe Falls.  Once we  got closer I had to put away my phone so it wouldn't be damaged by moisture.  It was very intense close to the falls.  The boat was seemingly lost in the foggy spray for several meintues, the roar of falling water was deafening, and the water below us churned violently.  It was a truly thrilling experience.
 After the Maid of the Mist tour, which was intense but short, we hoofed back up to the welcome center.  One thing I will say is that as the America's oldest tourist destination, Niagara Falls has monetizing of the falls locked down.  Every experience with the Falls will cost you, even walking around the falls.  Beyond the free river walk, all other opportunities to the walk near Niagara--the White Water Walk, the Journey Behind the Falls etc--come with a charge.  I was interested in walking behind the falls, but the kids were walked out and opted for a 4-D movie experience called "Niagara's Fury" instead.  I decided to let the kids do that with Angela Wimberly, the mother of one of our 8th graders and a chaperone on the trip, while I explored a little bit on my own.  I kind of regretted that decision once I found out more about the spectacular effects including real snowfall and rain during the show.  Our group get more wet indoors during this attraction than they did on the Maid of the Mist!

After "Niagara's Fury" the movie, we took one more pass at the real thing,  from the very edge of Horseshoe Falls just outside the Welcome Center.

At the very edge.  You can see one of the Maid of the Mist boats bobbing in the water below.

Truthfully, we could probably have spent the entire class trip right there at Niagara Falls.  There were certainly enough activities in the area to take up three or four days, from jet boat rides to helicopter tours to amusement parks and Marineland.  But I don't like a trip that sounds only one note.  It's one of the reasons I've never had much interest in taking the quintessential class trip to Washington D.C.  There are so many must-see museums and monuments to see in our nation's capital, there's little room for anything else.

So, we completed our Niagara adventures by late afternoon, had a late lunch/early supper at an Applebees near our hotel and then drove on to Toronto, and the next stop on our Canadian adventure.

Jun 8, 2013

The Hiatus

Oh, did I mention I finished my masters degree in education?  I really have been gone a long time! (Though I actually finished last August.  Still I missed my commencement ceremony at Ohio Dominican University in December, and didn't get to officially celebrate my achievement until the annual Education Day "commencement" ceremony last weekend at our home church, Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbus).

Incredibly it's been over two months since my last post.  I don't think I've ever had such a gap between postings.  It's been long enough that I think I can officially declare my time a way a hiatus from Here in America.

It turns out blogging has become exponentially harder with two kids.  I now have a very narrow window each week in which I can blog--at least during the school year.  Friday night after the kids are in bed is the Golden Opportunity.  However all kinds of things conspire to take that time away:  If the boys go to bed late, then Blog Time may not begin until 9:00 P.M. or later. And if I'm exhausted from having not gotten enough sleep during the week, I'll either turn in early myself, or more likely, I'll stay up late browsing Facebook or bouncing around the web, because I'm too tired to write but apparently not tired enough to go to bed.  I will then end up sleeping late Sabbath morning and also need a Sabbath afternoon nap, thus using up the two possible remaining blog spots   And of course even if I don't need a nap (and really, even if I do), I often end up watching Ezra who is often awake while Elijah is napping on Sabbath afternoons.

All this adds up an unintended hiatus.  With summer vacation having finally arrived, I feel that I can at long last get back on the horse and start posting regularly again.   We'll see how it goes.

A lot has happened in the past two months.  A major highlight was the 8th grade class trip toNiagara Falls and Canada.  Another highlight that has yet to be chronicled was the third annual Heroes Reception and the accompanying visit by our good friend Mai, which took place in February.  I hadn't blogged about it because I was waiting to get some good photos of the event.  I think I'm about ready to move forward with that belated post now though.

  On a sadder note, there were two deaths: Barbara's aunt Betty, and Rose Pickering, the woman who cared for Elijah for the first year and a half after we moved to Columbus.

I also have unfinished posts from the past ten months covering a wide range of topics.  Titles include "The Easy Job", "What Money Can't Buy and Fame Can't Change", and "Trust and Obey."  I'm looking forward to finishing these posts and sharing my thoughts with you.

All of this and more will be covered in upcoming posts. It's exciting to be back, and I can't wait to get started.  In the meantime, it looks like Ezra may be getting restless in his bouncer, so if you'll excuse me, I've got to run. . ..