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We arrive in a downpour after a glance out the window at the Plains of Abraham. Guide Cheng takes us on a 20-minute walk through the Lower Town, which mainly consists of pointing out washrooms and where people can buy disposable raincoats. Then we have two hours free time for shopping. Cheng finally reveals the name of the French restaurant where we'd be dining that night: La Maison du Spaghetti.
We have a choice of steak, chicken, fish or for $5 more, we can upgrade to lobster. "This is French food?" says Chen, puzzled. She has ordered fish, which comes with frozen carrots and peas and parboiled rice. I gently break the news. The wine, something called Caribou, is screw top. The bread is pallid, the soup bitter. My liver pâté comes garnished with a stray hair, which I notice only after I've eaten half (the pâté, not the hair.)
All around us, others leave their rice uneaten. "Chinese love rice," says Chen, shaking her head. "You know it's really bad if the Chinese won't eat it."
Monday, Quebec City, 6:30 a.m.
Another unsolicited predawn wake-up call, followed by a call from Guide Cheng herself, just in case. At 7:30, Chen tries to buy some breakfast in the food court under the Hilton and gets completely, utterly lost. The bus starts to pull away. I report my seatmate is missing. Guide Cheng is not happy. Chen arrives breathless and sweating, clutching a box of fried eggs. She is 10 minutes late.
After driving all morning, we pause for our third Chinese buffet in three days in Lasalle, Que. It is also called Le Buffet Chinois Mandarin. Guide Cheng assures us the ownership is different from Le Buffet Chinois Mandarin where we ate the day before. We eat in silence. We have spent more time at Chinese buffets than sightseeing in either Montreal or Ottawa. Back on the bus, two young Japanese women behind me rip open a bag of Doritos. "They won't eat the buffet," explains Chen, who has lived in Japan for 16 years and speaks fluent Japanese.!
Monday, Kingston, 3:40 p.m.
Our Kingston city tour consists of 22 minutes at the waterfront for photos, then it's all aboard for Toronto. No one has used the onboard toilet. But one of us has been late. Guide Cheng makes Chen sing a song as a penalty. Soon the whole bus is singing along. Now that no one is dozing, Guide Cheng takes back the microphone. The travel company pays her only $40 a day, she informs us.
Last year, during SARS, she got nothing. Everyone should pay a daily tip of $7 for her to share with the driver. Then she walks down the aisle, stuffing cash into a manila envelope. I figure the take, for three days and 55 passengers, is $1,155. I'm sure it's a total coincidence that she pointed out Revenue Canada's headquarters in Ottawa and the women's prison in Kingston during the tour.
"What city we see the Biodome?" says Chen, the three days of sightseeing blurring, as she rummages through her wallet for exactly $21. "And where was the church with the heart?"