How to survive the holidays as a come-from-awayBlog Week 4:
"If we were meant to stay in one place, we'd have roots instead of feet"
Living far away from home can sometimes be difficult, missing familiar faces or those darn delicious double-baked fries. But being too broke to buy plane tickets to go home for the holidays can be an amazing opportunity to spend the cold winter days in the company of warm-hearted Canadians. This year, I am living my first Canadian winter - instantly treated with her coldest one in 100 years - and in this blog post you can read how I got to celebrate my first real Canadian Christmas.
After our three-day ride through the middle of nowhere, it was quite the difference arriving in the big bright-lights city of Toronto. At least we took the snowflakes with us, and when the sharp cold embraced us descending from the train, we realized Mother Nature would always be around us, even in the urban jungle. Fortunately, we could warm up in a beautiful home downtown, where my friend Anna welcomed us!
I met Anna three years ago on exchange in Sweden. Anna Canada, to be precise – even though her golden heart is half Armenian. Quite instantaneously, we became friends and I felt blessed spending so much time with her and her wonderful laughter. I even tried to kidnap her to Belgium after exchange, but her parents managed to steal her away again on the last day of Belgium's favourite festival. Fortunately, it appears to be true what they say: exchange really never ends.
So, when Max and I arrived, we were welcomed by Anna and her family, and it felt like no day had passed by since the last time I saw her. As they were in the middle of their Christmas preparations, two extra pair of helping hands where more than welcome while catching up and chatting away! And that is how we baked cookies deep into the early hours of the next day, when Max had to return to his hometown – I mean he does actually have a real Canadian family he needed to spend Christmas with. So I had to say goodbye to my train travel buddy and settled in to spend the next four days with Anna and her family – which was amazing!
From one Christmas dinner to the other, Anna's relatives and life-long friends welcomed me as a part of their own families. There were even some presents hidden for me under the beautifully, hockey-inspired (of course), decorated Christmas tree! I learnt about Armenian-Canadian culture, traditions and celebrations, and found out that the universal who-hit-who-thirty-years-ago brother-sister quarrels are definitely something universal.
Between the daily family dinners, there was some time to exercise those nightly-cravings pounds off - exploring Toronto at the same time was a nice addition to that. On the last day, me and the fam even went to visit the world famous Niagara Falls, which were spectacularly nearly-frozen! While enjoy the beautiful snowy sceneries at day time, evenings were reserved for being tucked-away in blankets, drinking hot chocolates and dreamingly dozing off during Hallmark movies.
For me, those were definitely some diary-worthy holidays, and celebrating a white Christmas was an extraordinary experience – though it has literally not stopped snowing since the beginning of our trip (SO NICE!). Moreover, it was lovely catching up with old friends and realizing that traveling and living in other places makes the world your home. And while there is of course no place like home-home, you should definitely enjoy the opportunity of immersing yourself in foreign traditions and celebrations as much as you can. And finally, nothing so healing and heart-warming as an overwhelming Skype call with all of your siblings screaming on the other side wishing me a merry Christmas.
And a merry Christmas 't was indeed, spending these holidays in the welcoming company of Anna and her family. With pain in my heart and ten pounds of delicious desserts in my backpack, it was time for me to say 'see you soon' as I was continuing my journey up to Montreal. And holy smokes, was I happy to carry some extra holiday weight in Montreal, where it was honestly freezing cold! All tucked in, my friend Saied and I walked in against the hard winds to admire this beautiful city before warming up inside one of the countless cosy bars the city houses. A couple of days later, I was strolling the cobblestone streets of that other famous city in Quebec, and met Max again who for the occasion took up the role as guide (yes, you know it - fun facts time!). As New Year's Eve approached, we moved up to his hometown a couple of hours north of Quebec City, where his family and friends welcomed me for more holidays dinners, embarrassing stories – en Français this time - and Riguedon celebrations - traditional Quebecois music only played around the changing of the years (which is honestly a shame since it is very entertaining).
So as we said goodbye to 2017, it was time for me to say goodbye to the mainland and make my way back home to our rock. Being grateful for everything that 2017 brought, I am especially grateful this across-Canada trip: for the beautiful popular places and hidden gems we explored, the amazing people welcoming us and warming our heads and hearts in these ice cold temperatures and countless snowflakes, and for all the delicious dinners and home-brewed beers that gave me some extra pounds to survive the rest of Canada's winter.
Time for me to come back home now before I start losing my Newfinese, b'y! Oh my Jesus, will I enjoy a good Jig's dinner with some fresh Killdevil! See you very soon!
Blog Week 3: Travels on the train
Travels on the train
"I like the freedom of
being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for
this moment I know where I am going"
Travelling by train has this captivating charm and old-fashioned enchantment. Besides that however, there are many more advantages that come along with adventuring on the rails. In this blog you can read some tips on how to enjoy the three-day ride on the iconic VIA Rail train to the fullest!
After the conductor had blown his whistle in the Jasper train station, where the only thing that had stopped travelling had been time, it was our call to leave our beloved home-for-eight-days as we settled in for our ride across Canada. Due to an insane Black Friday deal - thanks Canada, we don't get this in Belgium – we managed (read: Max managed and choose your friends wisely) to get a massive discount on a cabin with meals included. This is the first tip I would like to share with you, seasonal traveller or qualified adventurer: keep your eyes open for deals on the VIA Rail website. There are plenty of opportunities to scratch some double-digit percentage of your ticket if you just keep track of their price fluctuations or Tuesday offers. So much that it might sometimes be cheaper than flying in Canada. Of course, the price you pay for it is that it takes some days to travel.
But if you have the time, the journey is absolutely so worth undertaking. Canada is such a vast, immense country with innumerable differing sights and sceneries, each one even more jaw-droppingly beautiful than other. On the ride between Vancouver and Jasper, snow-covered mountains and frozen lakes became familiar landscapes to us, with rare sightings of animals providing some excitement for the lucky attentive ones. And, honestly, watching trees with snow on top of them never ever gets boring, even for a Canadian (right, Max)? Even though people declared me crazy when I told them about my plan to travel across Canada in winter – to be fair, little did I know that Canada was in for her coldest winter in 100 years – there are some advantages of taking the train in winter. First of all, the dome car, displaying spectacular views of the surroundings, is open to all travellers during the off-season. Besides that, the train takes another route than the usual next-to-the-highway route, offering otherwise-never-seen views of Canada. And for personal pleasures, not needing to drive within the unpredictable and stormy weather is more peaceful (and maybe life-saving) for a Belgian - and other passengers.
Leaving Jasper, however, the surroundings change drastically and waking up we felt in the middle of a Cornflakes cereal box. Yup, you've guessed it right, my friend: we had arrived in the stretching and vast prairies. Coming from Belgium, even this part was quite spectacular but taking into account my Canadian friends' facial expression when I talk about these long-stretched grain fields, it might come in handy to share some tips on how to pass time during this part of the train ride. Some passengers will spend their hours knitting a winter scarf that conveniently will be finished right in time for the holidays, others puzzle life out or some just try their hand at real puzzles. Or, if you are like us, you take the time to meet fellow travellers, share stories and more importantly, share beer.
Even though the prairies cover Manitoba, Saskatchewan and a big part of Alberta (okay, this is going to sound very unbelievable now that I write this out), honestly, time flew by and I was kind of happy that the train was delayed for several hours so we got to enjoy the province of Ontario to the fullest (oh, and we got more food too; did I mention already that the food on the train is amazing?). One of the advantages of travelling in the company of a smart Canadian (except the fact that they are courageous enough to sleep in an abandoned hostel), is all the fun facts that you get for free. Yes, I love those (and I guess I kind of need to say this too as there might be a slight chance Max is reading this blog too). So, coming into Ontario I learnt all about the Canadian Shield as my eyes were glued to the window, gazing at the natural beauty of yet another different scene. Which brought us in the end towards the biggest city I have ever seen, yes! Welcome to the urban jungle. Welcome to Toronto!
Blog: Week 2: Winter holiday in the Rockies
Last week we spend an amazing winter holiday week in the Rockies, and I am thrilled to share some updates on the trip, tips on how to get the best out of your time in the Rockies and first-hand stories on our adventures and encounters.
Embarked on the Canadian, the train from Vancouver to Jasper, we were enjoying the views from the dome car, which offered us dramatic scenes of the glorious mountain ranges that form the heart of the Canadian Rockies. This region, covering parts of the provinces of BC and Alberta, is a natural paradise filled with rare wildlife, alpine lakes and snow-covered peaks. All tucked in our blankets, we were even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of its majestic highest point, mister Mount Robson towering 3,954 m above Canadian sea level.
Arriving in Jasper, our Couchsurfing host Adam was already awaiting us. As we both love to learn about life through locals' eyes, we were very excited to spend the next couple of nights in his storage room, for the occasion transformed into a full private room. No time to unpack fully though as we apparently arrived just in time for the weekly karaoke night that was hosted in the downtown bar and we both dared our shot to impress the local superstars before discovering the small-town nightlife Jasper has to offer.
The next days were filled with exploring the trails around town. Being a born tour guide, Adam took us along to discover his favourite gems around Jasper and even shared his treasured hidden spot he liked to call 'the edge of the world.' Preparing for the deadly Corner Brook Marble Mountain ski season, we also brought out our boards to explore the glorious Marmot ski basin in Jasper National Park. Coming from one of the flattest countries in the world, traveling to the highest base elevation in Canada was quite an extraordinary experience. Gazing at the spectacular sceneries the basin offered, it was hard to sometimes stay afoot on the board because I would wipe out just from the beauty surrounding us!
Relieved to be back on the ground safe and sound – only one bruised rib at the checkout, we took on the adventure of hitchhiking from Jasper to Banff. As Canada is on her last month of celebrating her 150th birthday, we tried to visit some of her national parks and enjoy the opportunity of doing so for free. And as we were eager to explore some hotspots along the way, we decided to try our hand at hitchhiking. Turns out it was not hard to fetch some rides, although the fact that there was only one way in the middle of nowhere furthered our fate. Some good souls were just genuinely concerned about us hiking out in a snowstorm and were more than welcome to let us warm up in on the backseat.
In Banff, Canada's oldest national park, we spent some more days being out in nature. As a Belgian it is really unimaginable to ice skate on a lake in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by majestic mountains and greeted by a group of twenty elk grazing on the other side. I absolutely enjoyed just hiking out with a pair of skates on our back and access any of the lakes we encountered, even though having a born and bred Canadian by my side might have helped to overcome the fear of falling through the ice. Again, remember I am a Belgian nature rookie.
On our way back, we stopped by the iconic Lake Louise before hitchhiking back to Jasper. As we met some really interesting people along the way, travelled in a sustainable car-less way, and decided our own route and adventure. I absolutely recommend to travel through the Rockies by hitchhiking and Couchsurfing. On top of that, travelling the adventurous way helps you to stay on a budget and allowed us to take that snowboard day at Marmot. And God, was that one amazing day! As I am writing today, we are again on our beloved train 'the Canadian,' ready to discover the prairies and make our way to civilization, our way to the big city of Toronto.
See you next week to let you know whether we were able to find our way in the urban jungle!
Backpack on Track: Sien across Canada
On the purpose of
travel: the first week.
"We travel initially to lose ourselves, and next, to find ourselves. We
travel to open our hearts and eyes. And we
travel, in essence, to slow down time and get taken in, and fall in love once
My friends back home have to laugh when I am refering to camping trips as 'the
best time ever'. It might be hard indeed to believe that being sleep deprived,
going strong on granola bars and not showering for five days seems like your
ideal holiday, but for me that is the
ultimate adventure and nicest way to travel. I believe that finding that
connection (back) with nature makes you more respectful towards the environment, and the same counts for people, as traveling and
learning about other cultures makes one more understanding and tolerant. We all
share this beautiful Earth we call home, and traveling can help understand why
we should take care of each other and of our home. And so has been my first
week since I departed to the Great West, reconnecting to nature and the people
that call that place home.
Arriving in Victoria, I stayed with my first couchsurfing
host. This online platform connects fellow travelers in need of a place to rest
with a local that is excited to show you around his or her hometown. I consider
it a great opportunity to meet Canadians and learn about their culture and
daily dos and don'ts. And so in Victoria, an environmental officer working for
the federal government shared his stories over a glass of home brewn beer as we
rolled our own sushi.
Though after exploring Victoria for two days, the ocean called me and I decided
to travel to the West coast of Vancouver Island. Thanks to my new friend, I
managed to get a ride with a retired deputy minister of Saskatchewan, again
giving me an interesting view on Canada while being baffled about the
surroundings during the scenic drive. Out West, I enjoyed my time hiking the
Pacific Rim National Park, trying to overcome my tiny fear of being eye to eye
with a wolf or non-hibernating bear. You’ll have to forgive me, I am Belgian remember! But
while singing songs to acknowledge my existence on the trails within the
wildlife, I absolutely enjoyed the amazing views, the enormously tall trees and
the soothing sound of the ocean.
By the end of the week, it was time to explore my first big Canadian city, as I
would meet my friend Sophie in her hometown Vancouver. There I also met my
friend Max from Quebec, who will be joining me for the next two weeks. Thanks
to Sophie, we enjoyed our weekend in the mountains at Garibaldi Provincial
Park, hiking for two days, managing to make a delicious meal on a stove and
sharing blankets in our 'thousand stars hotel' laying outside admiring
the milky way and being grateful for how beautiful the planet is.
Then, today, we rode our bikes in the city, and enjoyed what city life had to
offer. Tip for Vancouver: take in the views of the skyline while walking the bridge at night. Absolutely beautiful! Right now,
as we speak, our bags are packed, our train tickets are at hand but foremost,
our hearts are pumping with excitement to board the iconic VIA Rail train to Jasper!
Hop on and come meet me in the Rockies next blog.
And don't forget to go out and explore because
paradise is everywhere
About Sien Van den broeke
Hello there, happy to meet you! My name is Sien (that is pronounced like 'seen' - the title making more sense now, hey?) and I am thrilled to take you along on my journey across Canada! But let me first introduce myself to those who didn't meet me yet running through campus's corridors, passionately composting in the community garden or hanging out on open mic Thursdays in the Backlot. I am always on the go, and therefore never on time. I adore sushi, (couch)surfing and sentences that contain alliterations. I have always cherished a secret dream of becoming a musical star but in the meantime I'd like to save the planet. Oh, and I can't go a day without listening to some good old '70s rock! But who doesn't love Stevie Nicks, right?
It'll come as no surprise to you that I am indeed currently studying and residing at Grenfell Campus. Growing up on the other side of the ocean, I graduated from the University of Antwerp and spent some time during that degree embracing the cold in Sweden while immersing myself in the world of sustainable development. After finishing a master's in social and economic sciences, I moved to the amazing Mexico to work in an environmental education project (improving my salsa-making skills was a nice side project). All this brings us to last September when, pursuing my lifelong dream of making the world a better place, I took the leap to move to Corner Brook and start a master's program in environmental policy. And God, have I not regretted that decision for the least bit! Corner Brook is such a unique place, its people are incredibly friendly, the Quidi Vidi is always served nice and cold, and the scenery is absolutely breath-taking.
As an endless explorer, I wonder though what else this vast country that I proudly call my second home has in store for me. That is why over the course of the next month, I will be traveling from coast to coast, or island to island if you like, starting in Victoria. As a sustainable traveller, I decided to embark on the iconic VIA Rail train to make my way across Canada. And let's be honest, that's quite adventurous too, right? Along the way, I will be staying with friends I have met here in Newfoundland, or friends I am sure to meet along the way. As I didn't plan much (read: anything) ahead, I am as thrilled as you to find that out what's in store for me! But no need to worry there, growing up with three other attention-seeking siblings, I guess I know how to look after myself by now.
So, where was I… Oh yes, it is time to come to the point. Live life to the fullest, enjoy world's great and small wonders, and give back to the planet as much as you can! That's the motto I live by and I am therefore absolutely stoked to embark on this journey across Canada and see what adventures are awaiting me. I am glad to take you along with me on this ride, and over the next few weeks I will give you insights on life on the train, the people I meet and the stories they carry along, all spiced up with sneak peeks of the marvelous landscapes Canada has to offer. All packed and ready for go? Let's roll then!