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Even those without jet lag begin feeling queasy. Dong flew in with her husband from Vancouver the night before. A gaunt woman with glasses that slip down her nose, she clutches her stomach. "My wei is no good," she says, using the Chinese word for stomach, but referring to her entire digestive system. She skips the Big Mac and fries. Cui, a quiet gentleman and chain smoker who grabs a cigarette every time the bus lets him out, buys her sugar cookies at the nearby IGA.
Back on the bus, Guide Cheng gives us a brisk Canadian history lesson. The 401, she explains, is properly called the M-C Freeway. "M stands for Macdonald, the same place we had hamburgers," she says. "Many people think Sir John A. Macdonald is related to Ronald McDonald. That's not true."
She asks everyone to guess what the "C" stands for. Silence. She points to her watch. More silence. "An expensive watch," she hints, arching her tattooed eyebrows. "Cartier. George Cartier was a leader in Quebec," she says impatiently. She doesn't say whether Sir George-Étienne Cartier is related to the luxury watchmaker.
Cheng also says the Hudson's Bay Company was set up as a tax dodge. "French fur traders decided to sell their furs to Charles II, king of England," she explains. "This way, they could evade taxes."
Saturday, Gananoque, 11:50 a.m.
Our bus pulls up behind its twin in Gananoque as the Thousand Islander disgorges another mass of Chinese tourists. Normally, cruises shut down by mid-October, but a crew member says they'd already done two that morning. All Chinese? "Pretty much," he says, laughing. It's freezing on deck. Only a hardy few venture outside to snap photos. The rest of us huddle inside listening to the recorded tour in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese. One lone Chinese tourist, bundled in a parka, stays on the prow for most of the cruise to take photos. When a wave hits him right in the face, everyone laughs. He comes back inside.
Remembering Guide Cheng's admonition against using the bus toilet, my seatmate, Chen, stylish with mauve sparkly nail polish and a snakeskin jacket, lines up to use the washrooms on the boat. "Very stinky," she reports on her return.
By now, I realize our group includes a Filipino-Canadian family from Toronto and at least six Japanese. None speak Chinese, so Guide Cheng occasionally gives out snippets of information in English.
Saturday, Ottawa, 3 p.m.
My tour mates take in a seven-minute tour at the Royal Canadian Mint, line up to lift a solid gold bar, then storm the gift shop. This is, after all, a store selling money. Ignoring the mugs and T-shirts, they snap up gold coins, silver dollars and sets of commemorative coins as fast as the four clerks can sell them. Chen thinks the coin sets are a bargain at $15.95. She buys one for her teenaged son, another for a friend with a newborn baby.
"It's pretty booked up with Chinese tours," said Christiane, our Mint guide, hurrying to help her beleaguered colleagues. "You should give me a commission!" yells one Chinese tourist who speaks English and has been helping his countrymen shop.
We drop into the Canadian Museum of Civilization for an hour. The Chinese pose in front of totem poles. Then we drive to Parliament for more photos. The tourists pick red maple leaves off the ground. They spot a squirrel. "Looks like a rat!" someone exclaims. Everyone grabs their cameras. We drive by 24 Sussex Dr., Rideau Hall and the Chinese embassy. "I can't see anything," a woman behind me says.
Meals and admissions aren't included in our package. Guide Cheng passes out worn brochures of the sights we will see. She extols the culinary delights ahead. In Quebec City, she promises an authentic French meal. The Chinese buffet restaurant in Ottawa where we will dine shortly is patronized, she says, by the Chinese ambassador himself.