Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Visiting Cuba for the First Time


Everyone in Canada needs a break from our (seemingly) never ending winter.

I was of the type who takes vacations to sight-see and discover new cities, but this winter my family decided to take a sunny vacation.

We were not alone; Canadians do it by the hundreds of thousands. After debating for some time, we decided on Cuba.

Why Cuba? a) it was cheaper than other sun vacations b) it was a short flight away c) it had all inclusive so we didn't need to worry about restaurants etc.


People had warned me about the food in Cuba but our resort had really great food. My family eats zabiha halal only so we stuck to seafood and veggies, and there were LOTS of options.

 

None of the food was labelled, however, and for vegetarians there is always risk of cross contamination with meat as same spoons/ladles were sometimes used at the buffet line for meat / non meat items. Even the guy making eggs during breakfast used the same dish for bacon and meat omelettes as for veg omelettes.

 

 

Seafood was fresh and really tasty, and often grilled right in front of you. For the very strict observant folks, there will always be issues of cross contamination, but you have to overlook that.

The beach was really good.


White sands, blue water.

 

The sun shone brightly. People at the resort (mostly Canadians, many of them returnees) told us this year it was colder in Cuba than it usually is - but we got lucky.


Every day we had 26 degrees in the day. We went out on a couple of excursions and it was really comfortable.


At night time after sunset it got low (20c) so you may need a light windbreaker for the kids. I was in my T-shirt and shorts all day.


We were also told that Cuban standards for hotels were really low. This was true - we booked a 5 star and it is really a 3 star anywhere else.


So if you want Western standards of hotels, Cuba may not be for you, but if you want an affordable sun destination close by, Cuba fits the bill. 53% of tourism in Cuba comes from Canadians. Overall we had a good stay, but I felt Cuba must improve certain things for a much better experience if they want to get a larger share of the tourism market.


For example, on our first night the toilet didn't work from the very beginning and we had to call the plumber three times (the last time he finally came with proper tools and did an OK job). After that the rest of the stay there were no toilet issues. It wasn't a good check in experience after a flight to be honest. Moreover, the light circuits malfunctioned throughout our stay (there were some loose circuitry). It didn't bother us much but it is definitely something you don't want in a hotel on a holiday. Daily room cleaning was light, at best.

 

Where do YOU go for your sun destinations?


PS. Some people have asked me what to take to Cuba (due to it being a poorer country, and things being less available due to embargo etc.). Here is the list I used.

Cuba THINGS TO TAKE (PACKING LIST)

Toiletries
- toothpaste
- toothbrush
- mouthwash
- shaving kit
- lotion
- shampoo & conditioner
- kleenex (small box)
- toilet roll (1 roll, for emergencies)
- sunscreen (kids and adult)
- small first aid (band aid)
- small bath gel/body wash
- ladies sanitary products
- hand sanitizer
- baby powder

Medicine
- Tylenol
- Advil
- Motrin
- Peptobismol
- Octavin
- MultiVitamins

Clothes
 - Socks & Underwear (if you plan on wearing either!).
- Sandals.
- Sea Socks (good for Catamaran Trips and exploring the island).
- Baseball Caps.
- T-Shirts (Fast-Dry Type).
- Shorts (Fast-Dry Type).
- Sweater (for cooler nights...hopefully you will never need it!).
- Jeans / Khakis etc...
- Rain Jacket (hopefully you will never need it!).
- Dress Shirt, Pants and Shoes (for A La Carte Restaurants and local Disco clubs...Cubans always dress their very best when going out in the evenings).

Electronics
- Power adapter / converter
- multiplug
- camera battery charger
- cellphone charger
- cell phone
- camera

Extras
- Pen
- Duct tape
- Face cloth
- Scissor
- Copy of ALL paperwork
- Get Hepatitis shots prior to arriving in Cuba (see Health).
- Beach Towel
- Lemon (will have to see food regulations)
- Ziplock bags
- Lifestraw water filter?
- Torch

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Inflated Desi Weddings

I was reading an article on cheap weddings and how a couple managed to get married on $4000 in a city where the average wedding cost was $27,000. That led me to think about our own desi weddings and how and why the costs are so inflated, and what we can do to lower the cost of a wedding so it is easier for everyone.

GUEST LIST

I think this is the no. 1 reason for a desi wedding to cost so much. I have seen a growing trend, particularly among second generation Canadian Bangladeshis, to have a smaller wedding. You simply don't have to invite your father's office colleagues whom you don't know, and whose kids don't for sure know you.

I personally feel you should invite only your close friends and relatives to your wedding. Relatives always should get priority, simply because they have a right over you, followed by close family friends. A typical wedding guest list for the average couple shouldn't really cross 100 people (at most).

This also has to involve a change of mindset of everyone, particularly the elderly.

"Oh, did you hear so-and-so is getting married, and didn't even invite us! How dare they?"

Well, if they are not close relatives of yours, they don't really owe you a wedding invitation (and even then, it depends on how close a relative). If I hear so-and-so is getting married, I simply wish them well, even if they didn't invite me. I love to give the example of a close Companion in Medinah getting married, and not inviting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He didn't take it to heart and in fact gave him some valuable wedding advice that is passed on to this day. If the Prophet was living in a Bengali community, I always joke, he would be attending a wedding every day.

"Oh, how can you NOT invite the Prophet?"

This is a big lesson for us. It shows us that none of us should expect a wedding invitation and it also lessens the pressure on the wedding couple to have a big feast.

ACCESSORIES

Some of us who got married ten years ago, or more, now like to say we were lucky we got married before the Instagram age (aren't we old!) and Facebook was in its infancy when we got married. So much of weddings that we attend now seem to have, for lack of a better word, accessories, that make for a good Instagram picture.

Any wedding cake will not do. It has to be seven layered with two of the layers as separate cakes. Dessert is not some desi sweets - you MUST have a chocolate fountain so people can say WOW. A wedding car is not just any car - a limo or Hummer will not do any more - now you must get a super car. I have attended weddings where the car was a Rolls Royce or a Ferrari.

You MUST have a Photo Booth now - it's a standard. AND a wedding hashtag. After all, we have to check the social media after to see everyone getting 'tagged'. #XwedsY2018 There's no risk you will offend anyone you haven't invited because of course you have invited EVERYBODY.

I mean it's all nice if you can AFFORD it. And that's the key word. AFFORDABILITY. Your wedding should not be a burden on you.

What are some of the ways YOU think a wedding cost is inflated in our communities? 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Moving to Canada - Part 2 - Weather

 
See also:
Part 1 - School and Housing

Let's talk about the weather. All Canadians love to talk about the weather.

This is a cold country. It is cold for almost 6 months of the year. And that is in the good places. In the best of times. Take a look at all brochures of Canada, or Canadian universities, or Canadian tourism, or even our citizenship book. They all show glorious pictures of Canada, but in the summer.


Take a look at the "Canadian" television shows. They all show summer. And why not? Summer in Canada is gorgeous. It is amazing. It is spectacular. It is a wonder of nature.

It is also short.

In Toronto, summer can be June and July. And usually August. That's it. It's cold till almost May, and starts getting cold again at the end of September. Snow is usually from end of November to end of March. In other places, it can be worse. Only in British Columbia (and Vancouver as well as Victoria) is the weather much better.

Otherwise, it's a deep chill. Take a look at some Snow Day pictures.

All of this takes a toll on your health. There is the psychological and depressing effect (also known as "winter blues") at the reduced sunshine half the year. There is also the flu.

Every year in October the government of Canada offers free flu shots to everyone. And why not? The flu season officially gets underway with the onset of winter, and lasts till spring. So better get used to these names.

 
Tylenol.
Motrin.
Advil.
Buckleys.

And the children's versions.

This winter (2017 - 2018) the flu season has been really bad and virulent. And there's only so much you can do against viral attacks.

How does winter affect you other ways?

Think about groceries. If you are a new immigrant, you probably don't have access to a car yet. It's winter, it's snowing and you need groceries. So you have to bundle up and wait outside in the cold weather for a bus that's probably late. And if you are driving, good luck with the terrible weather conditions.


Also, there are Canadians for whom this is perfect biking weather.

Think also about the children. In the Spring, Fall or Summer you can take them outside for activities. In the winter, you are stuck indoors.

So how DO Canadians deal with the winter?

First, by NOT being here.



From November, you start seeing ads of what is called "sun destinations".

Cuba, Mexico, Aruba, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, the whole of Caribbean, etc.

These vacations, in particular Punta Cana and Cuba, are very popular. Almost everyone goes for their "sun escape" at least once, if not twice a year.

Second, bundle up and take it on the chin.

Canadians are very resilient people. We take our flu shots. We always listen to the weather forecast so we can make (or cancel) our plans accordingly. We make sure we are properly attired for the weather. We make sure we have proper winter tires. We enroll our kids in winter activities such as karate or crafts. We make sure they know skating and skiing so they can take advantage of living in a winter country.

And above all, chin up and be optimistic.

After all, whether it's snowing outside or not, you still have to go to work.

My point in writing all of this?

So that immigrants to Canada immigrate for the right reasons. Don't be fooled by glossy brochures and TV images. Be prepared for the True North.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Moving to Canada - Part 1 - School and Housing

 
I have a lot of friends who are moving to Canada from the Middle East, so I have noticed the questions they ask sometimes follow a common thread. I thought I would pen this note down on some of the usual things to consider when uprooting your whole family from one place to Canada. This is specifically for moving to Toronto, but with a little change can apply anywhere in Canada.

This is probably part 1 of a multi part series.

Schools

Public education is free for all legal residents of the country and is funded by the province, and handled at the municipal level.

Schools in Canada are from September - June. During March, there is a week's break called March Break (also known as Spring Break). The exact dates of the breaks vary from school board to school board.  This is the Toronto school board calendar for 2017-2018.

Almost all public schools are of a similar standard.

In Toronto, the schools in North York are a bit better as the area is a bit more posh (and expensive). There are some schools that should be avoided as they are in areas commonly inhabited by refugees from poor countries and other people who are economically disadvantaged, so they have some issues (such as drugs, gangs). Although with time, those issues are being tackled, but you should be aware.

In Ontario, you can take a look at some rankings here.

http://ontario.compareschoolrankings.org/elementary/SchoolsByRankLocationName.aspx

Don't rely too much on them. Anything 5 and up is ok. You should always be dealing with a reputable real estate person (a realtor) who will be knowledgeable about these things, which brings me to my next point.

Areas in Toronto

Toronto is divided into boroughs - Scarborough is generally affordable and ethnically very diverse. Downtown is very expensive. North York is good and expensive. I have no idea what's there in Etobicoke (sorry). If it were up to me, I would see North York and then Scarborough as an option to reside in.

Avoid, AVOID, renting or living near an area called Jane and Finch (the intersection of Jane St and Finch St). Never go there. Also avoid Kennedy and Eglinton. Also avoid Westhill.

If you go out of Toronto, then you can look in Mississauga (west of Toronto) or Pickering (east of Toronto). I would go with Mississauga as it's a hip and happening place.

Regarding availability of housing, May and June is when most people move or change residences in Toronto. So you will get lots of vacancies around that time, but also lots of people are looking so things get snapped up very quickly. So, for example, if you move to Canada in March, there should be less listings (less choice) but the landlord is more likely to negotiate the rent down.

You can rent an apartment, a condo or a house. An apartment is a flat in a building - the whole of which has been made to rent to renters. It's cheaper than a condo, which is also an apartment, but the building it's in is mostly owned by individual people, and not one corporation. Condos are more upscale than apartments, and expensive, and have facilities such as pools and gym.

All rent estimates I am giving below are by area, so better area = higher rent. Also, this is as of late 2017.

Rent:
Condo 2 bedroom is $2000+,
1 bedroom is $1800+ (per month).
Apartments may be 100-200$ cheaper in the area.

Utilities (if not included in rent):
Water - $100
Gas+Heating - $100
Electricity - $100

Other costs:
Internet - $60
Transit (bus) - avg 1$20 / person/month (kids are free)
Each ride on bus is $3.5, monthly pass is 145$
Grocery (family of 4) $500-$800
School - free
General Health Doctor - free
Medicine for kids - free

As I said, this is likely to be a many part series. In some other (future) parts, insha Allah I will talk about cultural factors, children, society etc. when you move in.

Check also my Dubai vs. Toronto series.