The Apocalypse, and then Christmas.

What were you doing when the world ended?

I was at the end of my first full week of work since leaving for my travels, looking out at the rain, attempting to nurse a hangover that for once, didn’t belong to me.  And then the world didn’t end.  I kind of had an idea that this would be the case, due to having some people on the inside (i.e. Australia) who assured me that, as the one of the first countries to see the dawn of 12-21-12, there was no sign of impending doom on the horizon.

ImageIndeed.  Not that I wanted the world to end, of course not!  I just managed to get my ass out of Scotland after ten years of trying – it would be incredibly annoying if the whole world went away two months later.  No – I just expected more pre-apocolypotic craziness…stores selling out of candles and Spam, cardboard signs written in ketchup and maybe a nice string quartet like off of Titanic.  With Vancouver’s abundant supply of crazy people, I have to say I expected more.

A Very Merry Vancouver Christmas

My first Christmas away from home!  Something that I wasn’t all that excited about, but wanted to experience at some point.  And a very good experience it was.  Most of this was down to my uncanny luck with finding my current housemates.  Christmas Eve was spend showing our lovely new house guest, Glenda (Jay’s mum), around Vancouver.  Some local beer samples at the Granville Island Brewery, a trip around the Christmas Market finished off with an unexpected piss up courtesy of Captain Morgan

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Christmas Day we had a proper Christmas dinner, with a few variations on the traditional ingredients (i.e. pigs in blankets had to be replaced by pigs in duvets!).  We had all arranged a Secret Santa, which I totally lucked out on with my new super-cool snowboarding helmet, thanks Mark!  The obligatory Skype call back home was made, with my mum ducking behind the sofa in the background despite me insisting that she looked exactly the same on Skype as in real life.  A round of the new Michael McIntyre and Kevin Bridges (little bit of home), and then more drinking to see the night away.

You can’t really beat Christmas at home, but I did not too badly in Vancouver.

Going solo!

Having recently found myself pining for that adventurous feeling of arriving in a new city, knowing nothing and no one, I realised that it may actually be worth sharing my thoughts on this subject.  It’s the ultimate adventure, but at the same time solo travel can seem pretty scary.  It was something that I had always wanted to do, disappear into the horizon on my way to meet some great adventure (in a very poetic manner of course!).  But when my plane landed in Toronto with no one to meet me at the other side of immigration, shit got real!  What if I don’t meet anyone?  How will have fun at night?  I can’t go to a bar on my own, can I? What if I leave my passport somewhere and there is no one by my side to run through the obligatory what-has-Caroline-forgotten check list?  And the ultimate scary scenario, what if I have to dine alone??

Thankfully my experience was completely positive and I have now found myself planning some more solo trips.  I have a sketched out plan of traveling back to Glasgow in May for a visit, but passing through Banff, Edmonton and Calgary on the way.  I’m also keen to spend a couple of months in South and Central America at the end of 2013 when my visa expires, nip home for Christmas, and then come back into Canada in January 2014 to activate my new visa. All just plans in my head for now, who knows where life will take me in the next few months, but there are definitely some more adventures on the cards!

Of course my solo traveling experience so far has been limited to the relatively safe towns and cities of the USA and Canada, so I can’t offer much advice on the likes of trekking alone through the Amazon, the Nepalese mountains or surviving Mexico City (yet!), nevertheless I will share some nuggets of advice I found to be useful along the way:

  • Hostels:  Use hostels and make the most of them!  They are the perfect environment for meeting new people just like you – regardless of who ‘you’ are.  During my time hosteling I met a girl and her mum who were backpacking together, a 30-something year old local woman who wanted to see what hostel life was like, a guy on release from the army, a 72 year old political activist, a French guy who only started learning English two weeks before, a girl who was a performer for Disney, a 22 year old who was traveling on her own for six months and lots of other fun and interesting people in between.  You get the idea.  Hosteling isn’t just 18-30 year olds looking for a party (that scene is there though, worry not!) or pretentious Rastafarian wannabes looking to compare travel resumes.
  • Tours and Activities:  This ties in with the hostel thing…get out there…participate!  You are traveling alone to push yourself out of your comfort zone, no?  Well that’s not going to happen if you spend every night in your hostel watching Netflix (I’ve seen in done!).  Most hostels will run tours and activities around the local area, Hosteling International Hostels are pretty good for it.  Daytime tours are a good way of meeting people as you immediately have something to talk about.  On the Freedom Trail tour in Boston, I met a group of people who by later that night, I felt like I had known forever!  If you are in a hostel over the weekend, it is very likely that there will be a bar crawl..and there is no social lubricant quite like alcohol!  Just don’t get too carried away, remember that you are in a strange city with people you don’t know, keep your wits about you.
  • Dorm Living:  If you have some extra travel money, it may be tempting to book a private room at your hostels.  I would recommend against it.  I almost did it for my Seattle stay, as I thought that after sharing for so long (only child here!) and traveling across the US I would want some private space.  When I went to book, the price was more than expected so I just went for a smaller dorm.  I’m so glad I did, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have met, Claire, my travel buddy for the next few days!  General dorm etiquette is to introduce yourself when you arrive in a new dorm, or someone new arrives in yours.  You will no doubt get chatting about your travels, it’s a very easy way to meet people.
  • Find a more confident you:  If you are an introvert (and let’s face it, no matter how confident we are able to act, most of us are), then striking up a conversation with a stranger can seem intimidating.  You just need to bite the bullet, and once you have done it once, it becomes much easier.  If you see a group of people chatting over lunch/dinner at the hostel, ask if you can join them.  If you are cooking in the hostel kitchen, rather than squishing past everyone awkwardly, start a conversation about food, cooking, whatever.
  • Social meetup websites:  Since being in Vancouver, I have used the Meetup.com website a couple of times, and I have met some great people.  It is very popular here for reasons detailed in this post.  It’s basically groups of people with similar interests, or who just want to meet new people, who arrange it through the website.  Also, although I haven’t used it, I have heard good things about arranged meetups on the Couchsurfing website – usually this is where you would find yourself a couch to crash on for the  night but they also have a massive international community of travelers just looking to meet new people.
  • Eating alone:  The situation will probably crop up when it’s time for food, but you haven’t met anyone yet to grab something with.  There are a few options to get around this if you’re not so comfortable with ‘table for one, please!’.  Most hostels will have a food prep area where you can cook your own food and just hang out in the hostel.  However if you’re not hanging around for very long this may not be so cost effective, you don’t want to be buying a full bag of pasta just for one or two nights.  Also, when you’re in a new place, part of the adventure is sampling the local cuisine!  When I was on my own, I would usually just make do with casual dining i.e. coffee shops, cafes, street food etc.  This way you can sample some local food, get out of the hostel and just take a book or something to keep you entertained.  Or just people watch, which is always fun when you’re somewhere new.  One girl I met in Seattle was perfectly happy dining in the city’s finest restaurants on her own, which is great, and if you’re happy doing that then you’re onto a winner!  However you will probably find that most of the time you wont have the option, as you’ll be inundated with people to share a meal with!

All in all, traveling solo is a great experience and if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do…but..forget the ‘but’.  You wont regret it!

Canada: The good, the bad and ‘culture shock’.

There are various schools of thought out there that describe the various stages of culture shock.  Now, the idea of culture shock may seem a little melodramatic when talking about relocating from the UK to Canada, are they really that different?  Not in a bigger picture sense, no not really, however there is always some adjusting to be done when you find yourself a long way from home and living somewhere where things work slightly differently.

To keep things simple, I’m going to refer to four stages of culture shock that I have read up on:

Stage 1 – Wonder

Often referred to as the “honeymoon period”, and is overwhelmingly positive.  The traveler is filled with excitement and can’t wait to see the sights, meet the locals…the general sense of adventure that travelers tend to get hooked on!

Stage 2 – Frustration

This usually occurs when the traveler begins to settle into his or her new country/city.  Some of those local quirks which seemed endearing at first can start to become frustrating i.e. language barriers, different accents, weather etc.  At this stage the traveler will often refer back to their home country and remember all of the aspects that are better than this new, foreign land.

Stage 3 – Feeling down about the experience

At this stage the traveler will often call into question their entire reason for embarking on the adventure, longing for the “honeymoon period” to return.  This can often lead to depression or thoughts of homesickness, which become difficult to rationalise when in this state.

Stage 4 – Acceptance

After potential weeks or months of struggling on the roller coaster of thought and emotion, and lots of looking inwards, acceptance and a maybe even a feeling of love for your new country/city will embrace you like a long awaited hug!

I would probably see myself as leaving Stage 2 and entering Stage 3 right now.  Having said that, in no way I am I depressed, and I make sure to count by blessings every day that I have ended up in such an amazing city.  I wouldn’t even say I’m homesick, however being able to relate to some of these feelings has placed me in unique place in my adventure where I can look back at Scotland, look at Canada, and point out some differences…some which suit me, and some that really don’t…

The Good

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  • Bar and restaurant service: This may be a result of the very generous tipping system in this country, but when servers offer you free samples from the menu, split bills and outstanding service in general all I can say is…the system works!
  • Transport:  This may be Vancouver specific, I didn’t use public transport very excessively anywhere else in Canada so can’t really comment.  However transport here is fast, efficient and reasonably priced, definitely more so than back home.
  • Energy prices: Right now petrol in Vancouver is sitting at around £1 per liter. When I left Scotland, it was £1.47!  In Scotland the average monthly winter energy bill for the flat I was living in was  £150, my bills are included with my rent but I’ve spoken to people to pay around £50 each month for a house or condo.
  • Bi-weekly pay cheques: This is standard in Canada, and it’s an amazing system.  Get paid weekly?  Money goes too quickly. Get paid monthly?  No money at the end of the month. Bi-weekly – it works!
  • The people: Canadians are generally great people.  Of course it’s difficult to generalise an entire nationality, every barrel has it’s share of weird, rude and smelly apples, but the general mood here is a positive one which I like.

The Bad

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  • The Cheese! Seriously, why is it so difficult to come across just bog standard cheddar here?  Most of the mass produced stuff is very much like plastic, and most uncheese like!
  • The tipping culture: I like to tip good service, but it doesn’t sit so well with me that service charge is expected regardless of the level of service.  At bars, the general rule is $1 tip per drink.  Why not just charge an extra dollar for a drink? This can however work in your favor…if you are a good tipper say goodbye to bar queues!
  • Bank charges:  This is a big one amongst new comers to Canada.  In the UK, the banks will look after your money for the interest they receive from it.  In Canada, usually you have to pay a monthly charge and your number of ATM and debit transactions are limited.  And you need to withdraw from your bank’s own ATM or you are charged. Crazy!
  • Buying alcohol: I’ll never take Tesco Express or Scotmid for granted again, where you  can buy your dinner and a bottle of wine all under one roof!  In BC, and in Ontario when I was there, you need to buy your booze/liquor from allocated government liquor stores.  There are a few private chains starting to pop up around Vancouver, but still the inconvenience applies!
  • Cell phone charges: Right now I have a SIM only deal from Fido…200 local minutes (unlimited after 6pm and at weekends), unlimited texts, 200MB of data and international texts all for $42 each month.  Then I bought the ‘extras’ package which includes free incoming calls, caller ID and voice mail…totaling $62 after tax. So that’s around £50 each month for a deal I used to sell in Orange for £15 or £20 a month.  Oh and because I signed up to a longer plan, they waived the ‘activation fee’ and SIM card charges.  Sorry, the what fee and you charge for SIM cards??

I’m sure that when Stage 4 kicks in all of the bad will seem like long forgotten, insignificant details.  But probably not the cheese thing.

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes” – Oscar Wilde

So curse me already!

So, a little like the rain situation, I decided that all of those tales of good jobs being hard to come by when you first arrive in Canada was just rumour and hearsay.  I will arrive in Vancouver to glorious sunshine and employers begging me to work for them.  There’s nothing wrong with a little optimism, right?

Okay so it’s not been all that bad. I have been in Vancouver just over 5 weeks and so far I have had five interviews, three job offers and two actual jobs – but it seems that quantity is overtaking quality in this department.  Here is a breakdown:

1st Encounter

  • Organisation: Swatch Retail, Metrotown
  • Job Title: Assistant Manager
  • Interview? Yes
  • Job Offer: No
  • Outcome: I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of getting back into retail anyway.

2nd Encounter:

  • Organisation: Public Outreach
  • Job Title: Door to Door Canvasser
  • Interview? Yes
  • Job Offer: Yes
  • Outcome: Job declined.  I don’t quite have the stones or the inclination for door to door fundraisng

3rd Encounter:

  • Organisation: Donorworx
  • Job Title: World Vision Fundraiser, Capilano Mall
  • Interview? Yes
  • Job Offer: Yes
  • Outcome: Job accepted.  Seemed like a cool organisation, but I wasn’t too keen on the job which was asking mall patrons to sponsor children.  Quit when agency work started coming in.

4th Encounter:

  • Organisation: Vancouver Chinese Gardens
  • Job Title: Volunteer and Event Coordinator
  • Interview? Yes
  • Job Offer: No
  • Outcome: Really disappointed that I didn’t get this, they told me that I was in the final 3 and that I was a really strong candidate, but the person they hired had more Vancouver experience.  Not much I could have done about that I guess.

Encounter 5

  • Organisation: Expert Recruiters – Recruitment Agency
  • Job Title: N/A
  • Interview? Yes
  • Job Offer: Yes
  • Outcome: Now doing temp work whenever these guys can offer it.  Work is usually fun but inconsistent.

So considering that most people I have spoken to spent at least a month looking for work and at least three months before anything career related came along, I’m not doing too badly.

I’ll just need to keep drinking, and according to Mr Wilde, my curse will soon arrive 😉

Just grab your hat, come travel light, that’s hobo style…

So the hostel thing is cool for a while, and as an only child I think that I did pretty well spending a month in communal living spaces…but eventually a fixed la bode becomes necessary for mental and financial well being.

I viewed a few places before I found somewhere.  The first place I viewed in Kits I really liked, $380 a month rent, an okay sized room and some decent roommates.  But these guys spent ages getting back to me, and it turns out that they had a friend who hadn’t decided if he was taking the room or not, and he eventually decided that he would.  The next place was also in trendy Kits.  I had heard people talking about the ridiculous set ups that landlords will impose to squeeze as many people into a house as possible, and now I got to see a great example!  The ‘bedroom’ for rent was actually a tiny attic space.  You had to climb up some ladders and then crawl though a tiny Borrowers style door to enter a room that was no more than 2.5 foot/50cm high!  And they wanted $650 a month for it.

The last place I almost didn’t go and see because it was quite far away from downtown, about 35 minutes on public transport.  However the place sounded amazing and the rent was really good.  My first attempt to get there almost ended in complete failure as I had typed the wrong address into my iPhone, woops!  But I got there eventually, and it was such a nice place…roomy, underfloor heating, hardwood floors, back yard…and the roommate seemed really cool.  Like all of the good places, they had viewings all week and then they would choose the tenant.  And I’m now very happy to say they chose me! 🙂

The first day of being able to unpack all of my stuff and sleep in a room all to myself was amazing!  I’ve been here a month now and I’m still loving it, it turns out that the distance from Downtown means that I don’t go to the SevenEleven every day and accidentally spend $20.  We are also very close to Little India/Punjabi Market so there is always loads of good food nearby!

Room hunt, success!Image

The first few days as a sort of immigrant…

Thursday

I had a strange first few days in Vancouver.  My first night I went out to a Battle of the Bands night with the guys from the hostel – we got lost in the rain on the way there which wasn’t super fun, but the amazing night and musical talent made up for it.  Conclusion for the evening: Vancouver is wet, a good night out and contains many attractive men.  Two out of three I can live with!

Friday

I sorted out all of the boring stuff today, bank account, SIN number, cell phone…not because I am usually this organised but because I wanted to clear my weekend up for things of a fun nature!  I also met my old Cali classmate Ashish, who lives in Vancouver,  for drinks and some food which was cool.  I also fired off a few replies to roommate ads on Craigslist.  One got back to me, I have my first viewing tomorrow, yay!

Saturday

I went on an organised walk around Chinatown and East Hastings with the hostel.  I has heard a lot of not fun things about Downtown Eastside, so I thought it would be great to get the perspective of someone in the know.  There is a lot of really cool street art down there, and some interesting gentrification going on with slightly pretentious art galleries popping up in the most unlikely places.   We were taken to The City Bakery in Chinatown for some amazing steamed buns, then along to the Chinese Gardens and finishing off with a local ale at the renowned Alibi Rooms.

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I had to dash off for my viewing in Kitsilano (the place to be in Vancouver, apparently) which went well but a few more people still have to view the place.

This was then followed by a rather odd evening…I am on a couple of Facebook groups designed for people who are on the same visa in Canada.  A few meet ups have been arranged through these groups, and one girl had gotten in touch with me asking me to let her know when I arrive so we can hang out.  So as I had nothing to do tonight, I messaged her and she told me that she was meeting a crowd from the Meetup.com website (very popular here in Vancouver, for various reasons relating to general widespread lack of socializing) if I wanted to come along.  I agreed, we met in a bar and the girls from the meetup.com group were great, I was having an awesome time.  After ordering another round of drinks, said girl (we shall call her Lady X from here on in) told us that she was cold, but her apartment was only a few blocks away so she would run home and get a jacket. Thirty minutes later, Lady X still wasn’t back.  We were moving on and still had to settle the tab, so I text/called/vm’ed here – nothing.  So we had to pay for her drinks!  Thanks for that Lady X – although I had a great night with the rest of the group.

Sunday

The plan was to go to Stanley Park, hire bikes and have a good old time cycling around the sea wall.  But the pesky water falling from the sky on the way there meant that we got very wet and were forced to go to Vancouver Aquarium instead.  After watching The Cove, I swore that I would never pass through the threshold of another live dolphin show sporting aquarium again.  However I managed to justify it to myself by reading lots on their ongoing research in protecting wild Orcas…so with yin and yang set right for now, we went in.  They actually have a really cool set up and it was good fun, although my conscience did have to turn a blind eye to the crocodile in a tank forced to endure a ‘tropical storm’ every half hour and the Beluga whale show.  On the way back, the skies miraculously cleared and I had my view of the snow tipped mountains for the very first time – amazing!  Just when I thought lady luck had finished with me for the day, I won $5 in penny poker back at the hostel in the evening!Image

Beautiful British Columbia

You can’t really argue with a province whose tagline is ‘The best place in the world’, now can you?

Thursday

‘Those Americans will give you a tough time at the border’ they said.  ‘The Canadians are great, you’ll have no problem going the other way’ they said.  They said wrong.  I was supposed to cross the border back into Canada on the train, but there was some sort of problem so they put us on a bus (I still need to complain about that…), and I was the only one who had my bag emptied and swabbed for narcotics.  If it had been anyone but an armed immigration officer with my passport and visa in his hand, I would have told him to bugger off and did he realise how bloody difficult it is to pack a rucksack?  But I didn’t.  Because he was.

It turns out that the day before, an immigration officer had been shot at that exact same border crossing, so I forgave his paranoia a little.

People told me that it rained a lot in Vancouver.  “Puh, I’m from Glasgow”, I scoffed. “You don’t know rain until you’ve been there for a summer”.  It turns out that they do.  In fact if Vancouverites were to compete against Glaswegians in a rain-athon, my money would be on Vancouver.

This view may be slightly tainted by the fact that it rained for 24 solid hours when I arrived here, thus dashing all of my hopes that this talk of rain was just a vicious rumour.  I has booked into the Hosteling International Downtown hostel – I had realised a few hostels ago that the Planet Traveler in Toronto was a gem unto its own and so had stopped expecting such a standard, but even with this in mind, I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed by the retro-but-not-in-a-cool-way feel of the place.  Regardless of this, I was happy with my room and new roommates – Sinead and Ursula.  The girls were from Ireland and had arrived in Vancouver on a working visa ten days before me, it was a reminder that the care free traveler part of my adventure was over, and it was time to start looking for gainful employment…and a fixed address.