(Published in Daily Times, 18 April 2012. This is the 6th installment in this series. For the first four installments, go to “Across America & Canada by Road, Part-1″)
Our next stop was Regina, the capital of Canada’s Saskatchewan province. I was absolutely thrilled to be in a place in the middle of the prairie, far from everywhere, with an exotic name to boot.
We found Regina cool even in summer. Tell-tale power outlets on the sidewalks next to parking spaces and extendable power plugs protruding from the front of cars gave us an indication of what winter means in these parts. Left in the cold, the car would simply freeze – battery, oil and all.
As I took a few steps after parking my car in front of the provincial parliament building, my wife frantically called me to remove the car. She had noticed that all the cars parked alongside ours did not have number plates, which made her think they might be stolen cars or that someone was stealing number plates from the cars parked there. I walked to the back of the cars and noted that they all had number plates at the back. Since they did not have number plates at the front, I concluded that this must be permissible under provincial law, a fact confirmed by two young Canadians who were nearby.
Even more surprisingly, when I later mentioned this to my American friend in Kansas, he said that some American states, including Kansas, had the same rule, requiring number plates only at the back of the car. But in Kansas most cars have the front number plates anyway, so I had not noticed.
Heading west from Regina, we passed two towns with interesting names: Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat. Moose Jaw is self-explanatory, but Medicine Hat remains a mystery. Canada has many bizarre place names, such as Blow Me Down, Dildo, Ecum Secum, Crotch Lake, Mosquito, Come By Chance, Czar, Yellowknife, Old Wives and Poor Man.
Weird names are even more numerous in the USA: Owingsville, Salt Lick, Frenchburg, Lizard Lick, Chicken, Spot, Peculiar, Embarrass, Monkey’s Eyebrow, Satan’s Kingdom, Gnaw Bone, Naked City, Burnt Corn, Intercourse, Muck City, Greasy Corner, Grubbs, Hooker, Okay, Yellville, Frying Pan, Hellhole Palms, Last Chance, No Name, Parachute, Purgatory, Climax, Two Egg, Between, Enigma, Good Grief, French Lick, Loogootee, Diagonal, Gravity, Accident, Boring and Idiotville.
Then there are the tongue-twisters of native Indian origin: Chickasawhatchee (USA) and Ochiichagwebabigoining (Canada).
Perhaps every place anywhere in the world has at least one American suburb, if not town, named after it. Thus, somewhere in the US, one will find a London, Munich, Paris, Rome, Palestine, Alhambra, Delhi or Lahore, to mention a few. The most common American town/suburb name has to be Springfield, a name also made famous by the cartoon series “Simpsons” – there must be hundreds of Springfields in the US.
About 250 kilometres west of Sydney in Australia, there is a small township called Lucknow. Some say it was named as such by a white man who had survived the siege of Lucknow during the Indian uprising of 1857. Others think the name merely commemorates the discovery of gold in the area with words of joy: “Luck Now”.
In Pakistan, like most things (with the exception of human life and dignity), we take names too seriously. Half the new neighbourhoods of Karachi are called Bagh, Gulshan or Gulistan (all three words mean garden). The word “society” is seen to confer status, hence every housing complex is a society. It was not always so, otherwise we wouldn’t have Golimar, Lalukhet, Korangi, Landhi, Orangi, Qasba, Malir, Gora Qabrastan (“White Graveyard”, meaning Christian cemetery), and, most interestingly, Gharibabad (“Poor Town”).
Medicine Hat in Alberta province is also called Gas City for its large gas fields. It is a surprisingly large town with a visible “new” south Asian immigrant population, as was the case also in Winnipeg. I found this to be the result of an immigration policy which allows residents of these climatically “inhospitable” provinces to sponsor relatives, even friends, as immigrants. I say “new” because there is a substantial “old” Sikh presence in western Canada. They were drawn here many decades ago to work in the logging industry and the gas and oil fields.
After a very long day’s drive, certainly much longer than I had anticipated or planned, we arrived in Calgary very late at night, exhausted but excited to be so near the Rocky Mountains.
I hoped to wake up in the morning and be able to see soaring ice-clad mountain peaks from the balcony of my niece’s flat. But no! In Calgary, one has no idea of being so close to some of the most majestic landscapes in the world – indeed the mountains are not at all visible from anywhere in the city, although Banff, nestled in the Rockies, is a mere 130 km away. Perhaps it’s a good thing, for when one drives west from Calgary, the mountains gradually come into view, making it all the more exciting.
But we headed first to Edmonton, capital of Alberta province, a two- hour drive north from Calgary. West Edmonton Mall, the pride of Edmontonians, is the largest shopping mall in North America and the fifth largest in the world. Founded by the Ghermezian brothers who emigrated from Iran in 1959 (the name suggests they might be Armenian), the Mall has over 800 stores and services, parking for more than 20,000 vehicles and employs over 23,000 people. It attracts between 60,000 and 150,000 shoppers daily, depending on the day and season.
Like Toronto and Montreal, New York and Chicago, and Sydney and Melbourne, Calgary and Edmonton have been locked in a fierce competition with each other, a competition which Calgary seems to have won thanks to oil and proximity to both Vancouver and the US. Detractors of Edmonton like to call it “Deadmonton”. I suspect most Calgarians number among them, although they like to take their families and guests to the West Edmonton Mall.
We headed west from Edmonton to Jasper and then southeast, returning to Calgary via Banff. This stretch of the Rocky Mountains, about 300 kilometres long, is a sight to behold – magnificent mountain scenery replete with glaciers, forests, waterfalls, streams and lakes. In the middle of it, Lake Louise is such a gem that the cameras keep clicking and superlatives don’t suffice.