Thursday, 15 March 2007

Cheese Steaks and Cream Cheese

My first adventure south of the border, and using my Canadian Permanent Resident (PR) card...

My company has an office in Horsham (about 30kms north of Philadelphia), where most of our senior management are. I went out there for a short 2-day trip last week (8-9 March). The trip there was more eventful than the trip itself.

I was booked on a flight leaving at 7h20 on Wednesday morning, and being the paranoid South African passport-holder, I arrived promptly at the airport at 5h15. The way things work when you fly out to the US from Toronto's Pearson International Airport, is that you clear US Customs and Immigration before you board the plane. Canadians have no idea how privileged they are when entering the US - they have their own separate line and they basically get waved through with minimal questions and hassle. Thankfully I was not asked too many questions, having secured a 10-year US B1/B2 visa (visa for business/pleasure) and having only a small carry-on suitcase didn't raise any flags.

We were herded on to the plane at about 7h00, only to be told that we would be delayed till about 8h15 as our plane needed to be de-iced before takeoff. We were in a really small plane (something like 12 rows of 4 people!) with no screens, so the flight attendant has to demonstrate the safety procedures - which he did with much aplomb and gusto. At least he had a sense of humour. De-icing done, we went out to the runway... and then were told that Philly had closed their airport due to poor visibility in the snowstorm, and that our flight had been cancelled.
It was quite amusing, as the passenger in the seat next to me had put on his mp3 player and earphones, and dozed off. We were in the first tow, so when the door opened to let us off, he woke up startled and asked, 'What happened?' Oh, I was so tempted to just tell him we had landed at Philly....

Anyway, all 38 of us were then given the option of being pushed on to the next flight leaving at 11h30, or trying to make other arrangements. I opted to take the next flight and spent the next three hours wandering around the airport and then dozing in the waiting area at the gate.
We boarded at about 11h15 and were then told that the snowstorm was continuing and Philly Airport (PHL) had asked that we delay slightly and aim for 'wheels up' at 12h30. And then... our flight was cancelled yet again! We had the same flight attendant and he was very apologetic - I had to wonder if the final decision to cancel the flight was PHL's or Air Canada's.

We were then told that we had to go back through Canada Immigration to 'repatriate' ourselves, since we were officially in the US, having passed through their immigration. What a pain - it was really busy, with long queues - almost an hour long wait. When the Canada Immigration officer asked where I was arriving from, I said... "The runway." And then she asked if I had bought anything to declare! (Yes... a magazine.) I realised afterwards that Canadian residents are only given a duty-free allowance for a minimum 24 hours absence from Canada. So my first use of my Canadian PR card was a non-event really.

So all-in-all I spent a grand 8 hours (one whole business day) at the airport. Grr. On arriving back at my office, I spoke with our Horsham office - apparently it was not a heavy snowstorm at all, but just constant snow. Sigh - the sissies at PHL closed their airport for 2-3 cms of snow! So the next morning I once again trekked out to the airport (with a strange feeling of dejavu), for the 7h20 flight from Toronto Pearson International... No hitches this time, and we landed on time. Whew.

Anyway... Philadelphia... seemed like a quiet city, didn't get to see much of it though :( I had a rental car to drive up to the office, and took the scenic route through the city centre, mostly avoiding highways. This was a bit painful, as the roads are set out very much like Pretoria, with a grid of one-way streets. Luckily it was just after rush hour, but traffic was busy nonetheless. I found it strange and confusing that, in streets with traffic in both directions, cars were parked in the median between the lanes - this means that you have pedestrians running around all the time, and you need to be so much more aware of a car door suddenly opening in front of you. Brave people.

Our office is in a sleepy suburb, where there's not much to see or do. So I drove back out to Philadelphia the Thursday night, as there's an outlet mall there ;) I must say, it was interesting in that the demographics are similar to SA - this being a bit of a shock to me, having been in Toronto now for so many months. I am now used to seeing many Asian and Oriental faces everywhere.

I arrived back in Toronto on Friday evening, and it felt like coming home. This time, clearing Canadian Immigration was a breeze - no lines, a stamp in my passport and a wave of the hand.

Next trip, I will have to make a point to stay a bit longer, perhaps have Brendon tag along and stay for the weekend. I would love to make a trip out to King of Prussia Mall ... the second largest mall in the US, and the largest on the East Coast. Another side trip would be out to Lancaster to see the Amish way of life.

And no, despite the heading, I resisted the urge to buy a Philly Cheese Steak. And I can get Philadelphia Cream Cheese any time here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Better in SA

So I've come to the conclusion that all is not that great in Canada... here are some of the minor irritations I've encountered so far (and I write some of this with tongue-in-cheek):

GSM (Cellular)
GSM coverage here can only be described as adequate, and nowhere near as extensive as in SA. Go one level underground or inside some buildings, and you lose your signal! One of the networks here even has a TV ad that boasts it's a great thing that your cell call doesn't get dropped when you go in to an elevator. Radio interference is very common - when changing cell towers, you can hear the annoying feedback on your radio (remember when that used to happen in SA... *years* ago!) In fact, only two service providers in Canada actually use GSM technology (like in SA and the majority of the world) - the others use CDMA (analogue) networks.

A talk radio station was recently discussing the low use of cellphones in Canada - a national wireless penetration rate of approximately 58%. The high costs were cited as part of the problem. Something completely foreign to me is that you pay for incoming calls and incoming SMS's above a certain limit. This does seem to be falling away though - many of the providers are now offering packages with "free unlimited incoming calls." There's hope yet.

An interesting thing is that Number Portability was only implemented here on March 14 - granted, it's much more comprehensive than SA's MNP. Here, landline and cellphone numbers are interchangeable/ portable, and not just between service providers.

Another interesting comment I read on another blog (on Apple's announcement of the iphone, says "If there’s one thing Canada lacks it’s a good ol’ battle between Telecommunications providers." So take heart those of you in SA, you're not alone and at least the cell coverage is world-class!

Public Health Care
Not all is well with Canada's much touted public healthcare system - there are no "medical aid" companies and "private" doctors and hospitals. All doctors and hospitals essentially are paid for by the government and you don't pay for services that are "medically necessary".
Essentially, you need to find a family doctor, or go to a walk-in clinic... but there is a known problem of shortage of family doctors, with about 15% of Canadians not having or being able to find a family doctor. Most doctors are simply not accepting new patients, so you have no choice but to go to a walk-in clinic.

Going to a walk-in clinic means long waiting times to see a doctor, and not seeing the same doctor every time. In January, I had to wait three hours to see a doctor to get a simple prescription, and this after three attempts at the walk-in clinic (I was turned away twice as there were just too many people). When you're actually quite sick, this wait time is just ridiculous. And if you're not ill, you're more likely to get sick from sitting in the waiting room! I felt so very sorry for a mother with her sniffling and coughing toddler - the wait must have felt like forever.

A documentary called "Global Currents" aired end of last year highlighted the problem of immigrant doctors - many of whom are unable to get residencies and thus certified to work in Canada. There is a set amount of money allocated for health care, so more doctors means less money per doctor. There are few residencies made available each year, compared to the number of doctors available. This sounds like such a mess, but I guess at least all Canadians have decent health coverage one way or another.

Parking and Parking Fines
Parking... what parking. Unlike SA, parking downtown in general is not free nor freely available. Parking by-laws are actually enforced here - there are dedicated police "Parking Enforcement" vehicles that cruise around. Don't even think about parking where you shouldn't - you will get a ticket.

The cost of parking is insane. Downtown underground or covered parking is $8 (R48) per hour during business hours!!! Metered street parking (if you're lucky or early enough) costs from $1.50 (R9.50) per hour. Add that to the cost of driving, and public transit is all that more amenable, and of course, environmentally friendly ;)

Gas (Petrol) Price
The price of petrol is not regulated here as in SA. This means that you spend a bit of time driving around trying to find the "best" price before you fill up. To me, this is just a meaningless, pointless exercise. What this also means, is that you are even more so at the mercy of fluctuations in the price of oil and other external factors, with immediate price increases instead of the once-a-month adjustments in SA. Particularly, there is speculation of collusion as the price jumps up during schools' March break and at the start of summer, when people travel more by car. In fact, the price of petrol in Ontario has gone up 30c (about R2) a litre since we started driving - in December, we paid on average 73c per litre, in March we are now paying 102c per litre.

Then of course, there's different prices depending on whether or not you're willing to pump your own petrol ("self serve"), or pay a few cents extra *per litre* to have someone do so for you ("full serve"). Now is when you appreciate those pump attendants :)

As a side note: Ontario recently had a major petrol shortage - you would have to drive around to a couple of stations just to find one that has petrol, and even then, you were limited to the amount that you could pump. There is still a problem, as some gas stations display their price as "00.0c" which does not mean free petrol ;), but that there is none.

Need I say more. The weather has extremes here. However, on the up side, you really do appreciate the warmer weather and I can now really justify having a "Winter wardrobe" and a "Summer wardrobe."

The weather is usually the top story of the day. The Weather Network's self-proclamation is that it's "devoted to Canada’s favourite topic of conversation -- the weather!"

Internet Banking
South African online banking is so much easier and efficient. I can pretty much transfer money from my SA account to any other SA account, given the bank name, account number and branch code. However, Canadian internet banking has limited functionality - adding beneficiaries (payees) is a mission, to say the least. You cannot do this online, but have to call in - even if the person is at the same bank! Perhaps this is only true of my Canadian bank, but it's annoying nonetheless.

Another great SA banking feature I truly miss, is SMS notification of transactions - I guess this also relates to the lower use of cellphones (see above).

In Conclusion

This being said, I am loving it here in Toronto - these are minor annoyances compared to the convenience of 24-hour grocery stores, shops open until 9pm in the week, clean and safe streets to walk on, public transit that almost eliminates the need to drive, affordable high-speed internet connectivity ...