Montreal, Canada – March 2000

As I write this, the air outside my apartment is breaking a record for warmth, despite the fact that this was also close to the snowiest February on record, and a mere week-and-a-half ago one couldn’t even walk the unplowed streets without snow shoes.

Three snowstorms in short succession had buried the city, and it took almost ten days to clean up the mess and get things moving again, at a cost to the city of several million dollars. The Montreal method of snow removal is ingenious, and is the envy of many northern cities, some of whom, like Moscow, have sent delegations here to study it. It’s also bloody expensive.

The process is basically this: half a day before a street is to be plowed, signs go up giving people a 12-hour window during which they cannot park on one side of the street (the side that will be plowed). When the time comes, a convoy moves down the street lead by a tow truck, who blares a distinctive horn if it encounters a car parked on the side that is about to be plowed. If no bathrobe-clad resident comes slipping out of their house within a minute or two, the car is towed away.

Next comes a small sidewalk plow or two, which buzz around like worker bees, pushing the snow from the sidewalk onto the street. Then a larger plow comes and shoves the whole thing into a huge mountain of snow that runs the length of the street, right in the middle, like some long Himalayan mountain range.

Finally, the most remarkable thing appears – a monster size snow blower creeps along the street scooping up the mountain range and blowing it into a huge truck that’s creeping alongside it. When the truck is full, the snowblower pauses while the truck drives away and is replaced by an empty truck. After a good snowfall, a truck will fill up every couple of blocks.

Full trucks drive to one of many snow dumps around the periphery of the city. Some snow is dumped into abandonned quarries, and some is dumped into special sewer grates where the snow melts and is sent through the city’s water treatment system.

You can just imagine how much an operation like that costs, but at least it gets rid of the snow, instead of just piling it up like they used to in the old days, when ten and fifteen foot snowbanks were the norm.

So here we are, a week-and-a-half after the worst snow dump in years, and it’s 12° C out there! There’s maybe two shovel-fuls of snow on my whole block! Everything not trucked away has melted in the mild temperatures, just days after spending millions of dollars on the snow clearing operation.

Perhaps it would be cheaper to just subsidize trips to Cuba for city residents, instead of removing the snow that’s destined to melt soon anyway. Hey, I’d go for that! Package deals to resorts in Cuba are cheap in February, often as low as CAN$600, all included (even the plane ticket). Strike out on your own and it can be even cheaper.

Which leads me to this month’s theme…. How to be a true Montrealer in March: Go to Cuba!

Montreal in March – Hit the Beaches!

This month’s dispatch is directed mainly at our American neighbours to the south, those unfortunate souls who do not have access to the wonderful Island of Cuba because of some silly political events that have lead to what President Clinton himself has referred to as the stupidest embargo in history.

As if an old fart with a beard presents any threat to the USA. Yeah right. The only reason why Castro became a “communist” in the first place was because the Americans were being rude after his revolution turfed them out, so he needed somebody to align with, and the Soviets were more than happy to throw money at the little island, in return for access to such a strategically important location.

It’s a bit like when you start pushing your kid brother around, and next thing you know he’s hanging around with those tough kids down the block who have been eyeing your new bike. Well duh! What did you expect him to do?

Unfortunately, the US political system is largely run by pre-Cambrian dinosaurs, most of whom are still trying to get over the civil war. The younger ones are busy trying to figure out what that Kruschev fella is up to, and to them, Gorbachev is a cheap brand of Vodka.

Don’t believe me? Even that young whippersnapper George D. (Dubya) Bush, who wants to be the next President, is befuddled that people are complaining about his alma mater, Bob Jones University, which has a rule against inter-racial dating among students. Exactly which new century are we starting?

OK, politics aside, this is your guide to being an American in Havana (or anywhere else in Cuba). I won’t go into details about accomodation or food or getting around, you’ll have to do all that research yourself. This is just about how to get there and how to get back.

Montreal: Gateway to Cuba

There are no commercial flights between the USA and Cuba, due to the embargo. For the rest of the world, going to Cuba is no different than going to Jamaica or Puerto Rico or any other Caribbean destination, aside from it being far less expensive – there’s nothing political about it. If you’re under the impression that the rest of the world is against Cuba, get over it.

You may be surprised to hear that it is not illegal for Americans to visit Cuba. It is illegal to trade with Cuba, and strictly speaking it is illegal to spend any money there, but simply going there is not against any provisions of the embargo.

More than 60,000 Americans visited Cuba in 1995. About 20% visited “legitimately” through a few organized educational tours or as journalists or researchers, but most visited by entering through another country, usually Mexico or Canada.

From Canada, either Toronto or Montreal are the cities of departure. I suggest Montreal, because that way I have a reason for writing this dispatch. Plus you might take a few days on either side of your sunny holiday to get to know this city as well.

Cubans love American visitors. Specifically, they love your American greenbacks. Cuban authorities will not stamp your passport – they want you to come back! And don’t worry about leaving a paper trail of credit card transactions, because credit cards issued from an American bank are worthless in Cuba anyway.

Most transactions in Cuba are done in cash, preferably American. Most large hotels and restaurants (and major services) accept credit cards, but only if they are not issued from an American bank. You may want to use traveller’s cheques, in which case do not use American Express. Thomas Cook works well. Whatever type you use, you should wait until you get to Canada before you buy your traveller’s cheques, although you should get them in American currency.

If you plan to visit Cuba by way of Canada, you shouldn’t tell the people at customs that this is your plan. As you enter Canada, just say you’re visiting Montreal for a week or two. When you go home at the end of your trip, tell American customs that you spent the whole time in Montreal. You can easily get away with this if you follow a few basic guidelines:

  • Don’t wear flashy beach clothes as you pass into or out of Canada in the middle of March.

  • Don’t bring any goods back from Cuba so you don’t have to lie when you say “nothing to declare”.

  • Be careful in the sun, so you don’t have an obvious new “Montreal tan”. If you do have a tan, tell customs you spent the week before you came to Montreal in Florida.

  • Above all, keep in mind that my reliable source indicates that there are no known cases of anyone being prosecuted for merely visiting Cuba – the authorities are more concerned with smugglers and big-time illegal trade than they are with a couple of people who just wanted to lay on a cheap beach.

    If you just want to lay on a beach and play tennis and go snorkelling, it’s a no-brainer. Show up in Montreal and tour around the travel agents and within a few days you’ll bag a last-minute “all inclusive” for anywhere from $600-$900 for a week (remember, that’s Canadian dollars, and that price includes everything, even the flight). You can save some time if you can find a copy of the Saturday Montreal Gazette in your town. It’s chock full o’ ads for cheap trips to Cuba.

    If you’re inclined to travel independantly, there are loads of places to stay in Cuba, from hotels to campsites to the booming industry of tourist accomodations in private homes. The best thing to do is pick up a copy of the Cuba Handbook by Moon Travel Handbooks. The Cuba Handbook will tell you just about everything you need to know about independant travel in Cuba.

    Cuba can be a lovely place to visit for a sunny holiday, and if you do it right, you can do it with a clear conscience. You can even upgrade your conscience by bringing along a few things to leave behind.

    Because of the economic situation (brought on by the lovely embargo), Cubans are very poor. They have the highest literacy and the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the Caribbean, but they are painfully low on supplies. A few boxes of pens or pencils would be welcome gifts at any school, and a shirt or two would be very much appreciated by any families you might stay with. Also, art supplies and other such materials would make you the most welcome person in the neighbourhood.

    Bon voyage!

    ed’s Cheap Eats Pick o’ The Month

    In the rapidly-becoming-hip neighbourhood high up on the Main called “Mile End” is a funky little Chilean joint called Barros Luco, named after its flagship sandwich, the classic Chilean barros luco. A barros luco is basically a fried strip of beefsteak (sort of a minute steak only thinner), that has cheese added just before it’s finished, and is served on a bun with avocado and tomato.

    The restaruant Barros Luco serves other Chilean fare too, such as lomitos sopaipillas, churrascos, and empanadas, and has inexpensive Chilean wine and beer available, as well as tropical juices. It’s nothing fancy – essentially an over-the-counter place with a few melamine tables, but it’s cheap and good, and you get to watch them prepare your order.

    Unfortunately it’s not a late-night place.

    In summer there is the added bonus of a small outdoor terrace, although it’s right in traffic so it’s a bit noisy.

    Location: 5201 St. Urbain (corner Fairmount)

    Phone: 514.270-7369

    (No advertising fee was paid for this Cheap Eats blurb.)

    Questions?

    If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.

    General Info On Montreal

    I could write a book just to fill this section, but here are the basics. Check this section every month for new info.

    Quirky Facts

    Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city on Earth (after Paris). People from Montreal are called “Montrealais”.

    Geography

    Montreal is actually an island. The main water frontage is the St. Lawrence River, which wraps around the west/south/east sides of the island, with a smaller river along the north shore. Montreal is about 65 km (40 miles) from the U.S. border, where the northern-most part of New York state and Vermont meet. Here’s a MapBlast! map of Montreal.

    Note that when Montrealais indicate “north” they are really pointing north-west.

    Accommodation

    Montreal has a wide variety of hotels, from the boxy downtown “business” hotels to smaller European-style hotels. There is also a nice selection of B&B’s all over the city, most of which are charming and cozy. B&B’s tend to be in the $40-$80 price range.

    Montreal also has a few interesting youth hostels, including:

    The Montreal Youth Hostel (Downtown) and the really cool and eco-friendly

    Alternative Backpacker’s Hostel of Montreal (Old Montreal)

    Transport

    You can get in from the airport using the local transit system (STCUM), but there are just enough quirks that I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, grab an airport/downtown shuttle bus for about $10 (one way) or take a taxi, which will cost about $25.

    Most international and domestic flights land at Dorval airport. Some charters land at Mirabel airport, which is a really bad idea. Avoid Mirabel, as it is more than twice as far as Dorval.

    Montreal has a pretty good subway (Metro) and bus system. A single ride is $1.85 (bus drivers carry no change), but you can save a bit by buying a pack of six tickets for $8.25 (at Metro stations and some stores). You can also buy 1 and 3 day passes, or a weekly pass (around $12).

    Note that daily and weekly passes can only be bought at the Berri/UQAM or McGill Metro stations, or at the downtown Info Tourism office.

    Transfers on tickets are good for 90 minutes. Get your transfer as you get on the bus (or at the automatic dispenser at Metro stations). Check the STCUM website for details.

    Alternatively, rent a bicycle at JR’s on the Plateau (151 Rachel, corner du Bullion). (514)843-6989. Full-day rental is about $18 (second day for $12).

    Money

    Canadian money comes in basically the same format as American money (dollars, divided into cents), but the Canadian dollar is worth less – roughly two-thirds of an American dollar.

    Canadian money is colourful, which makes it easy to spot what a bill is worth from far away, or when it’s dark (unlike American bills, which are strangely all the same colour).

    We also have $1 and $2 coins, instead of bills. The $1 coin is unofficially (but ubiquitously) called a “loonie” because of the picture of a loon on it. The $2 coin is called a “two-nie”.

    All dollar values mentioned in this Montreal guide are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise indicated.

    If you stay in a hostel, and eat over-the-counter food and self-cater, you can scrape by on about $25/day. Montreal, is, however, a joyous and happy place to be (particularly in summer), with loads of great pubs and bars and inexpensive restaurants, so a more realistic budget would be about $40-$50.

    That assumes a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of transit rides, a cheap slice-of-pizza type lunch, a modest dinner ($20) in a restaurant, and two pints of local microbrew in a pub. “Civilized” travellers should budget at least $100/day (B&B, moderate restaurants, etc).

    Watch out for the nasty taxes we have here. Most items do not have taxes included on the sticker price, so be prepared to pay an additional 15% at the cash register. That applies to hotels, restaurant meals, and any goods you buy in a store. It does not apply to most grocery items. Beer and wine you buy in a corner or grocery store is taxable. Oddly, beer and wine you buy in the government-run “SAQ” liquor stores does include the taxes in the sticker price.

    Automatic tellers (cash machines) are everywhere and are very well networked (Canada was miles ahead of the rest of the world in automatic teller banking). Most “Bureau du change” places are downtown, on rue Ste. Catherine.

    Night Life

    Can be cheap or expensive, depending on where you go. Imported draught beer runs in the $6/pint range. Local microbrews go for about $4.75/pint but are hard to find downtown.

    On the Plateau and Quartier Latin, go for microbrew by the (60oz) pitcher if you’re with a group. Chic places will charge you about $14 a pitcher, but the truly hip places have non-stop specials in the $8-$10 range.

    The markup on wine in restaurants is high, so keep an eye out for bring your own wine restaurants, particularly on the Plateau. Note that such places do not carry their own wine, so if you show up empty-handed you’re out of luck (although you can usually dash across the street for a bottle of not-bad Chilean wine from a corner store for about $10).

    Tipping in Montreal is basically as follows: 15-20% on restaurant tabs. 50 cents to $1 on drinks in bars. About $1 on short taxi rides ($5 range) and about $2 on longer ones ($10 range).

    Note that the legal drinking age in Quebec is 18.

    Internet Cafes

    Galerie Fokus, 68 Duluth east, has a small internet service.

    Cyberground, 3672 St. Laurent Blvd. is an internet cafe on “the Main”, right in the middle of the action.

    Centre d’affaires Montréal is farther up the Main at 4117A St. Laurent Blvd. It’s basically a business centre that has web access.

    A few words about ed

    Originally from the east coast of Canada, I’ve been living in Montreal for 12 years, and frankly, I think it’s the best place in Canada to live.

    Despite the fact that I lose almost half of my income to taxes, the low rents and the lifestyle keep me here. Montreal is culturally diverse, hip, easy-going, affordable, politically frustrating, informed, and very much alive.

    It’s the kind of place that allows me the annoying affectation of dropping the initial cap on my name (“That’s ed, not Ed”) without too many people rolling their eyes. I’m still shopping for the perfect boot.

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