Archive

April 2018

Browsing

Buses, buses, buses!

It’s always fantastic when people can work together for the greater good, especially when it involves top decision-makers  and a faster commute for transit users.

Today It was announced that the City of Toronto and the Federal Government are pooling resources and investing in public infrastructure –buses, new routes and cycling infrastructure – in Toronto. The funds will support efficient and affordable services. The total investment is $934 million. The Federal Government is providing over $442 million and the City of Toronto is  Matching and adding a bit more with an investment of $492 million.

The funds will ensure buses are maintained and will meet the demand of commuters. Improved accessibility and lower greenhouse gas emissions are an added perk.

Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi, Ontario Minister of Transportation Kathryn McGarry,  Mayor John Tory and Chair of the TTC, Councillor Josh Colle announced the purchase of 1,043 new buses and the revitalization of 695 current buses as a part of the TTC’s Bus Purchase and Bus Rebuild project. The fleet will include 729 clean diesel buses, 254 second generation hybrid electric buses, and 60 battery electric buses.

Funding was also announced for 15 new public transit projects across Ontario. $20 million will go towards new transportation routes and cycling infrastructure. Mayor John Tory spoke about the initiative:

“Every day, the lives and livelihoods of Toronto residents depend on being able to move around our city quickly, safely and reliably. Maintaining our existing bus fleet and adding more buses on our roads will bring transit into every neighbourhood of our city. There is no area where collaboration and cooperation is more essential than in keeping our residents moving. Together, we will make Toronto’s transit system faster, stronger, safer and more accessible to everyone in every part of our city.”

The project is much-needed in Toronto and across the GTA. The extra buses and repaired fleets will cut down those end-of-day wait times, and will lessen the number of breakdowns which add extra minutes, or even hours on transit routes.

GTA Electric buses set for 2019 launch

Everyday I see the signs of global warming and climate change. The extended cold weather this season, and the record breaking hurricanes last fall  have me wanting to do my part to try to reverse these effects. In the day-to -day hustle it’s easy to ignore the environment and forget to conserve water and electricity. It’s easy to leave the car idling in frigid weather or forget to recycle a coffee cup- believe me, I am guilty of all of the above.

The Ontario government is planning to do more to reduce greenhouse emissions produced by municipal transit systems in the GTA.  A new pilot program will be launched to test electric battery-powered buses in Brampton and the York Region.

The program is part of the Ontario Climate Change Action Plan, and is funded by proceeds from the cap on pollution and carbon market.

Steven Del Duca, minister of Economic Development and Growth, was in Newmarket earlier this week, to make the announcement:

“Our investment in York Region and Brampton demonstrates how we are helping our municipal transit systems reduce their carbon footprint. Reducing greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles is one of the most important actions we can take to fight climate change.”

The province is investing $13 million and purchasing 14 electric buses and four charging stations for the York and Brampton transit systems. The projects will be coordinated by the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortum – a green transportation group.

Chris Ballard, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, spoke about the benefits of the new initiative:

“Investing in municipal electric buses will help us significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution from transportation, a sector that contributes more than one-third of the province’s emissions. Buses are an energy efficient way to move a large number of people. Making them an even cleaner option is a great example of how our carbon market and Climate Change Action Plan are investing in innovative actions to move us towards a healthier, low-carbon future.”

Service of the new electric buses will begin in 2019. It’s wonderful that the Liberals are determined to cut greenhouse gas pollution by 37% as of 2030 and 80% before 2050. The commitment to improving  quality of life and the health of the planet must be made by everyone.

Traveling to Egypt? What to know

This past month, my husband and I went to Egypt for a quick getaway. It was a beautiful experience. The desert sand between my toes, the beaming sun on my face after a long, treacherous Canadian winter, and the beautiful landmarks visible from almost anywhere on the streets are just a few of the things that have me yearning to go back. In the middle of the trip were a few other moments I wish we were prepared for. Its not easy to anticipate everything in a foreign country but hopefully this post can help  others when planning.

Expect to tip

Unfortunately, political turmoil and a national revolution has a way of taking a toll on a country’s tourism industry. Despite everyone’s concern, it is safe! But locals have become increasingly more aggressive towards foreigners. They will open a door for you and ask for a tip in return. It’s important to be extra wary of locals when visiting popular tourist destinations such as the Pyramids of Giza. Whether it’s camel owners looking for riders or tour guides waiting in front of the gates for solo travelers– everyone is unfortunately out to get what’s in your wallet.  

Everything is dirt cheap

Otherwise, don’t worry about running out of money while in Egypt. Food, souvenirs, and even tourist destinations such as the entrance into the Pyramids of Giza, are low in expense- the cost of visiting Egypt is significantly cheaper than anywhere else in the world. My husband and I very comfortably feasted for less than $10, sometimes eating falafels for a mere 25 cents!

Be careful though. Its easy to lose track of  money when casually throwing Egyptian pounds at everyone and everything. Little things like water bottles, a key chain here, a perfume there can leave travelers without notes in a blink of an eye. Exchange more money than needed, because ATM fees are expensive, and currency exchanges  can be rather shady. If you find yourself with money left at the end of your trip – donate it! It is not difficult to find someone who is in need of money in a developing country.

Value for money 

Just because things are cheap, doesn’t mean paying full price. I love the smell of essence and using oil -based perfumes so when I walked into the ‘Perfume Palace’, I knew I was about to do some damage to my bank account. Unfortunately, locals see foreigners as an opportunity to make significant profit. They will ask double the price for something shoppers are interested in buying. So even if it sounds ridiculous, if an item is 100 EGP, start bargaining at 50 EGP. Be firm – even if  it’s not half the price,  a discount will be given.

Make time for an authentic experience

One thing my husband and I strive for during vacations is authenticity. The last thing I want to do in a country like Egypt is go to an Italian restaurant. It just doesn’t make sense.  Each day try to do something unconventional and out of the norm from the average tourist. Although it is daunting to venture out independently in a foreign country, it is important to do so in order to get the full experience.  

Be wary of culture

Egypt is an Arab country with a Muslim majority population. Do some research before a trip! It is easy to stand out if wearing anything revealing. Although headscarves and long skirts are not mandatory like they are in other Arab countries, do try to cover shoulders and avoid wearing anything too short. Planning is also difficult. Egyptians go with the flow and maintaining a schedule is not part of their norm. This may also be due to the fact that traffic makes it almost impossible to get somewhere on time. Expect a 10 minute taxi ride to take up to half an hour. The roads are all one way but patience is key when in Egypt – speed limits and traffic lights do not exist here!  

Befriend an Egyptian

Feeling overwhelmed? Make a friend! Having someone during your outings who knows the language and culture can be a lot more comforting than venturing out alone. My husband and I were happy to meet a tour guide who ended up showing us around Cairo for two days and quickly became a friend. . Whether it was blasting Arabic music during the car ride, or stopping for sugar cane juice on the way to the museum, Halla was an amazing part of a great trip.

Research and be safe, but happy Egyptian travels! It’s a remarkable country.

Port St. Charles Barbados

I travel quite often to Barbados as I’m building an arts and cultural centre there.  I’m planning on moving with my family to the island in the fall. So I know the island quite well, and one of my favourite areas on the island is the north west coast. The beaches are less crowded than the south coast; the hotels and houses are luxuriant, and restaurants in Speighstown and Holetown are fantastic.

I believe the island of Barbados is one of the best in the Caribbean. It is below the hurricane belt, and after the devastating hurricanes in 2017, this is a very important issue – especially for those looking to buy a retirement property! But the island also has a long British history, the people are gentle, well educated – but in a relaxed way. The island has a high education standard, has a public library system, and is one of the safest destinations in the Caribbean.

One of my favourite places to stay is at Port St. Charles – a collection of luxury condos on the north end of Speighstown. With a beautiful white sand beach that connects all the way into Speightstown, a marina (with the largest boats I have ever seen), two pools and a yacht club offering some of the islands best dining the resort feels like a second home. It is as safe place – and while their are security guards that walk the grounds I’m not sure if they are truly needed. I like to sleep with my windows open and listen to the whistling frogs at night. And I’ve never felt any worry over doing it.  Most of the staff have worked there for years, and they all genuinely care about the place.

I’ve stayed in a number of different suites on the property, but find that the units facing west are best as they catch the afternoon sun on the deck, making it quick to dry out wet bathing suits.

I should declare that I’m a bit biased as I have a friend who owns one of the better units. It is  close to the yacht club – north end of the property. It has a private dipping pool and a great outdoor dining area. Three large bedrooms, two of them have views of the marina and a full kitchen and laundry. I can imagine myself there now having breakfast on the deck, coffee in hand and watching a sea turtle poke it’s head out of the water. 

If you don’t feel like cooking dinner in the condo, the Yacht club is a two minute walk, and a great place to relax in the afternoon. There is a pool next to the cocktail bar and a deck with ladder if you prefer swimming in the ocean. Sir Richard Branson was there one afternoon (alas I missed meeting him), but you never know who you’ll meet at the cocktail bar! 

Or if you feel like listening to live calypso and watching the sun set, drop into the Beach Shack in Speightstown it is just a 10 minute walk (along the beach).

In the morning between 10:30 and 11:00am the turtles swim up the coast and go into the channel that flows into the Marina. If walk up to the north end of the beach, take goggles and you can swim with them.

I’d also recommend heading over to meet the Warren family at St. Nicholas Abbey – Simon Warren is a gracious host who often leads the tours.  I met Simon and his family at Port St Charles Yacht club during a Sunday brunch (not to be missed) and had a nice chat with Simon’s mother Anna, she is a beautiful and interesting woman. I left thinking she was someone I’d like to know better.   The Warrens did a beautiful restoration of the old rum plantation. The guided tour of the Great House is definitely worth doing, and if you can get there when the distillery and sugar mill are running do take that tour as well. You can spend 2-3 hours there and have lunch at their outdoor cafe – the view of the jungle is gorgeous. And don’t forget to take your camera – from the red footed tortoise, to their Guinea fowl there is something to see around every corner!

If you are looking to take in Barbados, the north west coast is the place to go, and Port St. Charles will not disappoint!

Facebook: a politician’s best friend

Gone are the days when Facebook was simply used to reconnect with old pals and to stay updated.  I’ll admit that sometimes I do still get sidetracked scrolling through old photos , but the platform functions have certainly changed.

The social platform is about far more than staying in touch with friends and creeping on old flames. Many businesses use it to promote their products and services. When poll time rolls around, politicians turn to Facebook to build their following.

Ontario residents are preparing to cast ballots in  the provincial election this year, and as June 7th approaches, many politicians are relying on Facebook, by posting ads that cater to individual interests of voters.

The platform now allows campaigns to micro-target voters based on age, location, interests, gender and political positions. This tactic is helpful to  parties because it targets a more widespread audience.

Facebook stores such a massive amount of data that outlines users’ interests and the new techniques used by politicians to capitalize on it. It’s for this reason that one person might see an ad from a political party about slashing taxes, and someone else, might see an ad from the same party focusing on health care.

Although political ads on Facebook were used by Canadian parties for a number of years, it is the variation and intricate targeting that has now reached a new level. The ads are much more sophisticated.

They are not only far-reaching, but are also extremely low in cost, which makes it an even more effective campaigning tool for politicians.

 I do find the pooling of information worrisome, especially after the Cambridge Analytica issue that brought Zuckerberg to a formal inquiry. The Cambridge firm had access to  private information of more than 600,000 Canadians, and over 80 million Facebook users globally while execs of the social media platform sat on the information knowingly until outed by a whistleblower.

I  am not a fan of the platform currently, because the ads and sponsored posts that are meant to target my interests, seem to have taken over my homepage. I miss the days when Facebook was for catching up and daydreaming over my friends’ travel photos and becoming nostalgic over relatives’ family photos. But the business and entrepreneurial  side of me gets it.

TTC walks from union negotiations

TTC is a part of my every day journey  and it would definitely mess up  my mornings if workers were to strike. Fortunately for transit-users of Toronto, that won’t happen because TTC is considered an essential service and striking isn’t possible.

This past week TTC union and management were in negotiations over a new collective agreement. As usual, the union has called out management for “walking away” from talks. TTC has responded assuring that its commitment to an agreement has not wavered. The game of union negotiations is riddled with one side blaming the other publicly in a dance that is growing stale.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 released a statement this week slamming TTC for halting contract negotiations to wait for the Ontario Ministry of Labour to “appoint a conciliator.”

The statement reads:

“The union will continue its fight to protect pensions and benefits, while saving Toronto’s public transit system from privatization, which cost taxpayers more money in the end,” the release states. “Toronto’s transit union invites the TTC to return to negotiations and bargain in good faith.”

If a collective agreement is not reached, the issue will go to arbitration. But TTC says this is still possible and that negotiations can still happen:

“The TTC believes a conciliator can help reach a negotiated agreement with Local 113 and remains committed to productive good faith bargaining, The TTC negotiated contracts in 2014 with all of its unions, without arbitration. The TTC remains committed to doing the same in 2018.”

In a continued statement, TTC said that it has negotiated contracts with other unions which represent machinists-AMW Lodge 235 and CUPE Local 5089.

The collective agreement that existed between the union and TTC expired last month.

But let’s make no mistake- a provincial election is about to be called and both TTC management and the union know the public will be revved up about taxes and public spending especially given Doug Ford’s agenda to align himself with a “cut the fat” mentality. Politically the union isn’t in a good position if it has to fight public opinion and TTC management knows it. Waiting for a conciliator will allow the “cut the waste” propaganda that Doug Ford is spreading to take hold making it  publicly much harder for a union to ask for more. It is a clever tactic on behalf of TTC management, and the union can’t do much about it

Transit is an essential service. But what is fair? The TTC is bringing n a conciliator to make that decision because they don’t agree with the union and they know that they can’t make it either.

My Nan: Reflection and Appreciation

This past weekend I boarded a Via train to Ottawa looking forward to a bit of relaxation and rejuvenation in my hometown. The Toronto grind makes me feel like I need to getaway quite regularly. I used to be critical  but as I get older I find the city more and more inviting. I remember being bored after a day in Canada’s capital, and my longing to get back to the excitement of Toronto. But now every time I visit, I think about extending my stay and this time around I turned to my boyfriend and asked “Should we just move in here?” He didn’t object, but my parents might have.

Visits home also mean seeing friends and extended family. My top reason to visit is always my nan. Now nearing 89, she is frail and suffers from dementia. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to get to Ottawa, so I haven’t seen her since Christmas.

On the way to visit Nan, my mom prepared me because my grandma’s condition and state of mind has become worse. Mom told me Nan might not remember my name seeing as she had forgotten my oldest brother’s name a number of times. I walked in worried she wouldn’t know me, kind of hovering behind my mother. I peaked out from behind her, like I used to do as a child feeling vulnerable in a strange situation. You can imagine my happiness when Nan immediately exclaimed “Hello Jessica! When did you get to town? Good to see you dear.” I wanted to cry but instead went in quickly for a hug and a kiss, blessed that I had one more day with this remarkable woman.

Moments like that are those that make you hug your loved ones a little tighter and appreciate everything a little more.

Royal wedding news: Here’s the scoop

It seems like I can’t turn on the television or browse the magazine rack  without seeing images of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, The couple are certainly captivating and have everyone antsy to learn the details of their upcoming May wedding. I have to admit, I’m giddy with anticipation for the big day.
It wasn’t quite a rags to riches fairy tale for Markle, who spent years as a Toronto resident.  The former Suits star was  far from the household name she is at this point, prior to starting her romance with Harry. Now the couple are set to marry in mid-May while royal enthusiasts and Markle fans sit on edge anticipating images and information about the dress, the guest list, the honeymoon and everything in between. Here are the few, vague details that are known at this point:
 The venue
 The wedding between Meghan and Harry will take place on May 19, 2018 in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. After their vows at 1 pm, the married pair will  take a carriage ride through the town of Windsor,
U.K.
The dress
Anyone who thinks the dress designer will be shared ahead of the big day, is off their rocker. It’s now confirmed that Meghan has selected and her Canadian pal, Jessica Mulroney- stylist and wedding consultant- was in London assisting Meghan with the process. Only a handful of people actually know who the dress designer is. Judging by Markle’s fashion selections lately, the dress is sure to be a showstopper.
The wedding party
The only confirmed members of the wedding party are Prince William and Duchess Kate’s two little ones, Prince George and Princess Charlotte. It’s also being rumored that Jessica Mulroney’s daughter Ivy may be the flower girl.
The guest list
 It was announced that  2,640 members of the public were invited to the wedding. Aside from that, little is known about celebrities and other members of the royal family who will attend. It is likely that Prince William and Duchess Kate will be there, along with William and Harry’s immediate family. Markle’s own relatives -including her half sister and half brother- have caused a bit of drama.
Meghan’s half brother,Thomas Markle, was involved in a drunken New Year’s brawl which apparently embarrassed the future royal. Her half sister,  Samantha Grant, has been threatening to release a tell-all book revealing supposed negative details about Meghan. It’s unlikely that the two will be invited. Meghan’s mother and father are reported to be attending, seeing as they are close with the actress. Oh, and the Spice Girls may also make an appearance!

From small screen starlet to British royalty, Meghan Markle has certainly put her name on the map, while also carrying on with humanitarian endeavors- much like Harry- benefiting young girls and women in impoverished nations.
She and Prince Harry were once considered an odd couple and unlikely match, but the two are now one of the most adored couples around the globe. Their wedding is sure to be one spectacular event.

Portugal travel tips: consider camping

From the stunning coastlines to the lush vineyards of the north, Portugal’s allure is one of a kind. I remember the overwhelming feeling when two of my best gal pals and I decided on this destination for a three-week trip in 2016- there was so much to see in so little time.

I wanted to visit the rolling hills of Sintra, the vibrant city of Lisbon and the cliff-lined Algarve coast, but there was plenty of natural beauty between the nation’s major hubs, and it was calling to me. An agreement was made to skip the headache of booking hostels and the group opted for a more rugged experience. Sleeping bags, cooking supplies and a three-person tent were packed  and plans were set to jump from campsite to campsite along the Alentejo Coast.

To this day,  adventures camping through Portugal are some of my fondest travel memories. Those looking for a journey on a budget, or merely for the chance to get outside and indulge in nature, consider camping along this country’s coast for the perfect cure to onset of wanderlust.

Cost

Camping is a much cheaper alternative to staying in hotels, Airbnbs and even backpacker hostels. On average, I spent about €5 ($7.75 CAD) per night, with some sites costing as little as €2 ($3.10 CAD). Sometimes, this charge was applied to each person, but more commonly, it was applied to each tent, and because the group decided to snuggle up in one, the overall accommodation costs were extremely low.

Most campsites along the Alentejo Coast are located in small towns, so food and alcohol were generally cheaper as well. I remember one night sitting around a picnic bench, listening to the ocean, and sipping on a €0.50 glass of local wine that was filled to the brim- and this was a common occurrence.

It’s worthwhile to dig through travel forums to find campsites and wild spots in an area of interest, or check out iOverlander and FurgoVW for mapped areas throughout Western Europe. In Algarve territory, be aware that wild camping is officially banned.

Environment

Coming from Canada, where there are  some of the most lush campsites in the world, setting up a tent in the often sparse landscapes of Portugal was a bit of an adjustment. But, where Portugal’s coast lacks in trees, it makes up for in ocean.

The Alentejo Coast is a string of sandy coves woven through steep and rocky ocean-side ridges. This stunning scenery is usually only a short walk from  campsites, or, if wild camping,  the ocean is right at your tent door! There’s nothing better than waking up to the soundtrack of the sea.

Some of the Alentejo Coast  is populated with oak, olive and other native plant species- Over 100 kilometres of the coast is part of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, a preserved slice of land that’s home to plenty of unique animal and plant species. Unlike Canada there are no black bears or big cats roaming around these parts. There are very few dangerous animals in Portugal, especially along the coast, which is yet another reason why camping here has such a draw.

Site Quality

Campground quality can be a hit or a miss, and the group definitely experienced some rougher plots of land. However, more often than not, all were pleasantly surprised with the location and perks that the accommodations had to offer.

Most campgrounds along the coast are equipped with amenities that are suited for a resort- clean showers, outdoor pools, laundry rooms, on-site restaurants, grocery stores, barbecue stations and even widespread WiFi access. Some of the grounds are so clean and comfortable, that it’s not uncommon for families to park their camper vans or trailers and stay for months at a time. The parks can get quite full in peak season, but luckily, our group was travelling at the end of September and missed the summer rush.

A few coastal spots  are world renowned for their waves and are popular with surf camps and retreats. The grounds stayed on in Sagres, for example, had a surf camp on site and offered lessons to interested visitors.

People

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of camping through Portugal was the many faces  that I met along the way. As most small-town campgrounds are frequented by Portuguese families, I had the opportunity to spend time with the locals and learn about their culture firsthand. Friendly residents and fellow campers brought the group to their favourite beach spots, as well as to local gatherings. They cooked the meanest salted cod (or baccalau) I’ve ever tasted in my life!

There’s something about being in the great outdoors, especially in a country as beautiful as Portugal, that sparks the most basic instinct to bask in the joy of company. The intimate, yet open spirit of camping is one that brings people closer together and it’s an experience that the hostel-jumping trend of travelling often seems to miss. So, on the next trip to Portugal, (or anywhere for that matter) plan  a different kind of adventure- one that allows travelers to see a destination in its purest state.

Why drinking natural wine is worth it

When I lived in Europe I was introduced to natural wine and this changed my palate forever. Although it is a little harder to come by when I am in Canada, the situation seems to be changing. The LCBO magazine Food and Drink published an article in its winter 2018 edition about the top trends in wine, and natural wine was # 2. It also now carries a few organic wines. But does organic necessarily entail natural? What, is the difference and does it matter?

Although there is no board that will certify a wine as ‘natural’, unlike organic or biodynamic wines, I understand natural wine to be altered as little as possible throughout its making process. This means the vines are not  sprayed with pesticides, the grapes are harvested by hand, often in a biodynamic manner, no artificial yeasts  are added, it may be unfiltered and, most of all, little to no sulfites are added. In short, all the additives found in conventional wines are removed so that instead, the ‘natural’ microbiological process of wine making takes place.

This is why most natural wines are also organic and biodynamic, but the reverse may not be true. Unlike natural wine, conventional wine makers add chemical agents, such as sulfur dioxide, to create a uniform product from year to year. These additives are the reason why after drinking a couple of glasses I might get a headache the next day. And most of all, they alter the taste of wine—drastically!

The first time my husband and I brought home a bottle of natural wine  I wondered why it was so fizzy, and why some even taste a little ‘funky’. But with trial and error I learned that to appreciate a natural wine it has to decant for at least an hour—minimum. Countless times I have opened a bottle, tried a few sips, thought it was a bad choice, only to try it a few hours later and discover an amazing new wine. And what a difference in taste! Natural wine really tastes like fruit, and it is not tainted by the vinegary, acerbic taste sulfites bring.

Although natural wine only accounts for 1% of total wine production worldwide, there is a whole array of natural wines that vary in quality, taste, and prices. The bottom line is that the quality of wine does not have to be lesser when drinking natural wine.