Cuisine for a (Budget) Queen in Victoria, B.C.

The port city of Victoria in British Columbia is a lovely choice for travellers who appreciate a slower pace and smaller size in a capital city. With its pretty harbour, regal legislative buildings, vibrant Chinatown, and charming antique shops, the former gem of the British Empire evokes much character in its comparatively small visage. A gateway to the ocean and offering easy access to hiking territory, Victoria is popular with families priced out of Vancouver, retirees looking for an ocean-side retreat, and youths who come to study at a top Canadian research institution, the University of Victoria.

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Victoria offers a range of dining options that reflect its British heritage, Asian communities and West Coast setting. Pick a street to walk along and you’re guaranteed to find something new and interesting. However just because the city is named after a British monarch doesn’t mean you’ll be eating like a pauper whilst here. If you’re over for a visit, here is a sample of places to try that won’t use up all your travel money.


Wild Coffee 
A good place to grab a small breakfast and read the paper, this coffee house and bistro on Yates Street has a cool interior featuring driftwood decor and comfy sofas. Order one of their yummy thick fruit smoothies served in a glass jar. No website to browse but they sometimes update their Facebook page.

Jam Cafe
This trendy cafe with its brick walls and rustic furnishings is found on Herald Street, slightly sheltered from busier Victoria. The perfect place for weekend brunch, you’ll likely be waiting around 15 minutes to get in as reservations are not accepted, but it’s worth the wait. The menu features ingredients you would never think of combining – think pulled pork pancakes or chicken waffles drizzled in syrup – alongside your classic eggs and French toast options. Have a look at the website and prepare to drool.

John’s Place
While the breakfast menu isn’t quite as experimental as Jam’s, this restaurant on Pandora Avenue adds extra excitement to simple egg dishes and the overall quality of food is excellent. (Tip: the Huevos Rancheros is amazing!) They play great music from a range of decades and you won’t get bored waiting for your food when there are so many photos and  memorabilia plastered all over the walls to keep you entertained. I haven’t been for lunch or dinner yet, but a glance at the varied menu is enough to get your mouth watering.

Sally Bun
A sweet Korean couple run this small cafe on Fort Street serving yummy warm buns stuffed with delicious ingredients, such as Korean BBQ Beef, Feta and Spinach, and Chicken Curry. Finish with a soft and chewy chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. An excellent choice for a fast but filling cheap lunch.

Red Fish Blue Fish
Situated in the harbour on Wharf Street, this is a must for fish-and-chip lovers. The fish is sourced locally and sold out of a renovated cargo container by college-age kids listening to indie West Coast music. Stools are placed near the water for you to admire the boats while you eat ocean-fresh fish in the fresh ocean air for lunch. Please note that it closes between November and mid February. See the website for further details.

Gobind Food Market
You should go to this deli on Quadra Street just to brighten your day with a smile from the kind Indian lady who serves you. The lunch menu is different every day but is always meat-based (Chicken Tikka, Butter Chicken etc) and served with rice and sides (a mix of chickpeas, lentils, aubergine, Bombay potato), naan bread and samosas in a polystyrene box. It’s not gourmet-quality but it’s hearty, good value and you’ll look forward to it after a long day of lectures.

Tacofino
This fast food restaurant on Fort Street sells tacos and burritos stuffed to the max with meat, rice and veggies. A popular eatery in a small venue, it can get pretty crowded so prepare to queue. It’s a great choice for dinner if you’re in a rush to get somewhere. You”ll also find the chain in Tofino and Vancouver. Check here for info on the Victoria venue.

Phonomenal Vietnamese Cafe
Soups and subs in a small and quite characterless dine-in/take-out cafe in Shelbourne Village Square near Tim Hortons. The food won’t be as phenomenal as higher-end Vietnamese restaurants in town but it’s a solid choice if you want to broaden your cultural palette and only have a short time to do it. Sandwiches are around the $7 mark, noodle soups $10. Pay at the counter once you’ve finished. Browse the menu here.

Interactivity Board Game Cafe 
Found on Yale Street, this cafe makes amazing milkshakes with a variety of flavours offered ranging from traditional Vanilla or Strawberry to Cookie Dough, Salted Caramel, and the Hedgehog (chocolate and hazelnut). If you’re getting a takeaway, admire the board games plastered all over the walls as you wait. Otherwise if you’ve got time and are feeling sharp-witted, pay $5, choose a game with your partner, order some fries and take a seat. It’s the perfect place to test the intelligence of a potential life companion… (Glad I didn’t have time for a game!) If you really don’t believe me about the prevalence of board games, check this out.

Sticky Wicket
Situated within the Strathcona Hotel on Douglas Street, this is your standard pub selling burgers and beers while showing NFL and ice hockey matches on screen. On Friday nights it’s lively bar is the place of choice for many local youths and university students. Anglophiles will enjoy the cricket-themed decor, feminists may be put off by the attire of some of the waitresses. A typical ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ pub, it’s one of those places that you should probably still experience at least once. Check the website for your beverage of choice and make up your own mind.

Little Thai Place
A small restaurant with adorable staff, dishes cost around $13.50 and are served quickly with generous portions. The vegetable fried rice and red curry were delicious. Surrounded by other little stores and cafes in Shelbourne Plaza off a busy road, it would be easy not to notice this place in the corner, but make sure to scout it out. Menu here.

Masala Bites
Located on Fort Street, this popular Indian offers some very tasty tandoori and curry dishes with a range of meat and vegetarian options. The staff are very helpful with advising on choices but definitely order the garlic naan as a side and while you wait, learn about Indian culture from your place mat. Prices for a main range from $12 to $18. There’s a bar up front for you to have a drink while you wait for a place. Wet your appetite by browsing the website.

Recommended eateries that I have not been to:

Blue Fox Kitchen – Fort Street (Breakfast and Brunch)
Fig Deli – Cedar Hill Cross Roads (Mediterranean)

 

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Escape to Portugal: Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Few times have I experienced walking around a city in the early hours of the morning with a relaxed sense of security. No need to look over my shoulder with suspicion, to shiver into a jacket with a sudden cold rush, or feel like I was trespassing the silent empty streets at an unsaintly hour. The sun rises sleepily into the soft sky as one ambles down St. Lucia in the Alfama district of Lisbon towards the Rua de Augusta. Here waiters set up tables on the street to get ready to serve breakfast to the many tourists that will swarm this street later on. I walked into Patisserie Brasilieras to buy a cinnamon pastry and ate it on the steps of King Juan I in the Praça de Comércio. It suddenly hit me that it was the 1st of August and I pinch-punched myself to commemorate.

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Today I would be heading west towards the town of Sintra with Virág, the Hungarian girl I met on the bus down from Porto. This plan of travelling with someone else had arisen only the late evening before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What advantages and disadvantages would having company bring?

The statues in the water fountains in Rossio were still dozing in the dawn as I walked towards the train station, which I had heard could be pretty sketchy. A return ticket cost 4.80Euros and as I headed towards the barriers, a man suddenly called for us to hurry – the train was about to depart. Assuming he was correct, I hurried through the barriers with him straight behind, only to realise soon after that he had been using us to get on the train without a ticket…

A 40 minute journey away by train, Sintra is famed for its fairy-tale castles and palaces, many of which are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First however we planned to visit Cabo da Roca which is the westernmost point of continental Europe. Bus 403 will take you the 18km from Sintra station to the cape, with a hop-on-hop-off ticket costing 12Euros.  Prepare for an entertaining journey. The bus driver would navigate up steep roads and around countless hairpin bends whilst occasionally holding his phone to his ear. Every time we ascended a narrow street and an approaching car suddenly came into view, I would suck in my tummy tightly. We wound our way past lush green rainforests and through towns with large fruit markets and elderly residents chatting on café corners before arriving at the windy coast. Here the ‘land ends and the sea begins’,* the vast ocean of blue sending rippling waves crashing against the rocks. (*Luís de Camões – one of Portugal’s most highly-regarded poets)

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I quickly noticed differences between myself and Virág. I descended the sandy, rocky terrain downwards at a quick pace without giving too much thought to where I was putting my feet; she walked with more caution. She was keen to see as many palaces as possible; I was wary of spending too much money on admission fees. I was happy to walk to most places for exercise, but Virág preferred to take the bus. Virág seemed to want us to agree on the tiniest things, such as whether to go left or right, whereas this constant confirmation made things a little too rigid for my liking. She wanted to have a hot meal for lunch; I said I normally snack on cold eats when travelling.

Back in Sintra, we walked towards the town centre, passing a display of crafts laid out on top of the pavement wall with the pillars of the National Palace poking up in the background. There are various bus stops in the centre from where the 12Euro ticket can be used for most routes.

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The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) was built by Muslims in the 8th Century as a base from which to check the Atlantic ocean for incoming invaders, before coming under Christian control in the 12th Century. Hold on tight (especially to your stomach) as the 434 bus zig-zags around more hairpin bends for 3km to reach it. Costing 8Euros to get in, the castle has been reconstructed in the 20th Century, but as you squeeze up narrow stairways before dropping down into little dens, you can easily imagine soldiers crouching down to protect themselves from armed attack. Over its rigid stone walls you’ll see great views of the surrounding countryside (but more so on the right-side.)

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The National Palace of Pena is classed as a 1.5km walk from the castle, but feels like less. Don’t let the uphill gradient put you off, as you’ll likely find that by the time the bus arrives, you would have reached it by foot. Being the most popular of the palaces, this one cost 14Euros to go all the way inside. I found myself in an unfamiliar position where I had to explain my budget to someone else, and with me feeling restricted, we agreed to pay the lower fee of 10.50 for access to the grounds and onto the terrace only, although I soon learned that this was perfectly adequate. Built in 1840 as the holiday destination for the Portuguese monarchy, the palace strikes as quite gaudy with its vibrant mix of bright colours and patterned tiles. But even if it’s too kitschy for your liking, it’s still worth a look and you can’t help but be impressed by the effort that has gone into building and maintaining it.

It was while walking through the park with its various nooks and crannies that I began to realise that actually, Virág and I were more similar than I thought. Just like first impressions of the palace’s exterior might be that it is over-the-top in its appearance, I learned that Virág had more appeal to me than at first believed. We had interesting conversations and seemed to have similar outlooks towards certain issues. It made me smile when, after a moment of silence during which I began to feel grateful for her company, Virág said “I’m glad we met on that bus from Porto.”

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I found during the day that I was rubbing off on Virág, and likewise she was rubbing off on me. At one point she agreed to walk instead of take the bus, and I was persuaded to choose a hot option for lunch. A great place to eat in Sintra is at Xentra. ‘Free buffet – 8.50’ may look deceiving, but you’d be amazed at how great the value is. Drinks are priced separately but for the main, you can choose to have as much as you want of salad, chorizo sausage, chicken, pork in white wine, fried squid and bacalhau (a cake of cod, potato and white sauce), while for dessert there is the traditional treat of Serradura – whipped cream mixed with a ‘sawdust’ of crushed biscuit. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

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Virág was keen to see another palace and feeling content with my stuffed stomach, I was no longer feeling frugal. We took the smaller bus 435 to Monserrate Palace which is situated a twisty 3.5km from the town centre. After paying the 8Euro entry fee and walking along the dusty path towards the entrance, I became mesmerised by the view ahead. The palace evokes an ‘Arabian Nights’ feel alongside hints of a mansion in British India, and when I saw a wedding reception take place outside, I longed to wear a pretty dress instead of my scruffy denim shorts and trainers. Pastel pink marble pillars lined a corridor underneath an intricately decorated ceiling. In the circular music room with a grand piano I could imagine the happy couple waltzing to their first song. The stone terrace looked out over a sprawling lawn that led to a majestic oasis of botanical gardens. We explored this exotic maze hearing only the sounds of trickling water and bird song. I felt even more like I’d entered the Garden of Eden when we encountered a hippy trio singing and banging a soft drum. It almost seemed inappropriate that we were all wearing clothes…

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I envied the little girls in their white bridesmaid dresses because they must have felt like princesses here. This palace was everything one should be – authentic, classy, elegant, pure and sophisticated, but small and subtle at the same time. Everything looked so pretty, catching the late afternoon light so perfectly, that I found myself constantly getting my camera out, no longer caring that the battery was getting very low. We had definitely saved the best till last. But was it not for having company, I might not have seen it.

The day had definitely reminded me to be more open-minded when it comes to sight-seeing with other solo travellers abroad. Listening and taking into consideration the interests of a new companion had been a valuable experience. It had highlighted that two minds can be better than one. With some people, one day of their company travelling around would be sufficient, but I found myself wanting to also spend the next day with Virág too. It was not that I had suddenly lost all desire to travel alone, but I was more inclined towards the idea of giving spontaneous companionship a chance.

I walked back to my hostel from Rossio station with map-less ease, feeling more comforted and confident in the knowledge that I had the option of sharing my experience of Lisbon with a new friend.

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Read the final chapter from Lisbon in Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

 

The Guilty Pleasures of ‘Jammy’ Travel

There’s something immensely satisfying about the tasty sensation of sweet strawberry jam on toasty-warm buttered bread melting in your mouth. Sugar and carbs are a crime to some people, but even if you look back later with regret,  deep down they make you feel great at the time. This leads me onto the term ‘jammy’. For those who aren’t familiar with this word, ‘jammy’ is another way of saying lucky…in a sneaky way. Things jam together favourably when they perhaps shouldn’t have. It’s something that many people experience, and normally relates to the issue of expense, or rather: a lack of it! Whether it’s being under-charged for the grocery shopping, or missing a fine from the parking attendant by seconds, a little part of us might feel bad about it, but a big part of us is also likely to feel chuffed about it.

Something about the travelling context makes jamminess even more of a guilty pleasure, probably because this is often an experience dictated by a strict financial budget. My best day of jamminess came in August 2014 when I was in Yellowstone National Park during a road trip.

The first incident involved the showers at Roosevelt Lodge. Eight days into the trip, washing had consisted of swimming in lakes. A sign at Tower Fall campground said that showers would be available at the lodge. Since there was no mention of price, it was naturally assumed (out of poor-student hopes) that usage would be free. Wash bags at the ready, my chum and I parked up and asked a guy in his early twenties where the showers were. “Are you two staying here?” he asked, looking us up and down uncertainly. Perhaps it was obvious it had been eight days. “We were told we could use the showers here,” I found myself saying confidently. It wasn’t a lie; this is what the sign had said. After his unconvinced nod and subsequent directions led us to a plush washroom, I realised that I had got here from unknowingly giving slightly false information. He was thinking I’d meant a member of staff at the lodge had granted permission, not a vague sign. As I enjoyed a long warm shower complete with free soap, shampoo and conditioner, I felt a little guilty knowing that I shouldn’t really be here. Then I spotted a large stack of sanitary towel disposal bags in the toilet cubicle, and all guilty thoughts evaporated into the surrounding mist from the shower as I stuffed a few of them into my bag before walking out fresh, clean and content with my free find (because when you’re on the road living in a car with a boyfriend, maintaining hygiene during that time can be quite difficult…)

Later that day after exploring the Norris Geysers, we drove down to see Old Faithful. This famous geyser erupts on a random time scale that is on average once every 60-90 minutes, and is so popular with tourists that a highway is in operation to facilitate the large flow of traffic. Managing to quickly find a space in the huge car park, we casually strolled over to the viewing area, unsure what to expect having not researched the estimated eruption time. The walk was interrupted by a bathroom stop. Then we finally made it to the viewing area where we were greeted by the sight of a huge crowd of at least 500 people pinned against the fence. Many had perhaps been sat waiting for 50 minutes. Five minutes after our laid-back arrival, the geyser’s big moment arrived as it shot steaming hot water high into the air, reaching an elevation between 30 and 60 metres. You can get an idea of how long the water keeps spurting out for and how big the crowds were here. As we walked away 10 minutes later and passed people with looks of frustrated disappointment on their face upon realising they had just missed the eruption, I again felt a flash of guilt. Considering we had not checked the predictions and took a risky pit-stop on the way, we were extremely lucky to have made perfect timing.

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Next we had to find a place to sleep for the night. All the campgrounds south of Old Faithful were full, so we drove on into the Grand Teton National Park. While we searched hopelessly for campgrounds with space, dusk started creeping in. We procrastinated from our challenge by admiring the sunset over Jackson Lake.

I said I would drive on to Jackson in Wyoming if necessary, but it was still about 4o miles away and both of us were tired from a hot, busy day. Just as our destination-less driving began to turn increasingly stressful, a sign advertising a lodge came into view, tempting our desperate selves to flick the indicator right. But would we paying to sleep in a room at the lodge? Of course not! We were thinking about the prospect of available parking space. We’d slept in a hotel parking lot before, however it had been situated outside a national park. Sleeping here seemed a little too risky. What if our car’s licence plate was checked against guest records? Maybe we would simply be asked to leave, but maybe we would be fined too. We weren’t sure of the rules, and asking would only arouse suspicion.

Alas, after much debating, we agreed to stay and parked up near other cars so that we didn’t stand out more than we already did (being in a dirty 1986 Land Cruiser in the parking lot of a rather fancy lodge),  before closing the curtains and quietly settling down for the night. I didn’t sleep too well, worried about being caught. Butterflies would creep up my stomach when I heard approaching voices or a car door slam next to us. At one point I heard youths laughing outside our car, clearly recognising what we were doing. I silently pleaded that they would leave us in peace.

Our alarm woke us at 6 a.m for a quick getaway. But having survived the night, we were feeling a little more complacent, so we stepped outside to have a look around. The lodge was right on the edge of Jackson Lake. We followed the path down to the water’s edge, boats sitting silently on the serene surface. Moon still beaming brightly, the warm sky cast a soft pink glow over the Tetons painted with streams of snow. Candyfloss and ice cream. The only sound to hear was the faint bobbing of the boats and gentle lap of the water against the shore. There was a cold snap in the air, but something about this sight made me feel cosy inside. After waking up to this view, I was glad that we had taken the risk of sleeping here. Most people would have to pay a minimum of $269/£179 per night for the view at this time of the morning, but we had got it for free. Soon after, we remembered not to risk our chances too much and left the car park with frost on the windows still clearing, feeling both extremely lucky and extremely sneaky.

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Whilst this was the most jam-packed day of jamminess on the trip, there would be further jammy moments to come, including sleeping in a viewing area inside a national park. Campgrounds were full, and nowhere did we explicitly read or hear that sleeping in cars outside a designated camp area was prohibited. Camping in a tent would of course have been much too extreme, and if the park had contained bears, we wouldn’t have made the decision to sleep there, in case they were able to break into our car for food. We were very careful and respectful towards the environment, leaving no rubbish behind and causing no damage. Our decision was partly influenced by the stormy evening weather and concern about how good our brakes would be descending the wet roads leaving the park. But really there was also the question: “how often am I be able to wake up to a view like this?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime free opportunity. If we hadn’t done it, we’d have definitely lived to regret it. As we left another national park the next day and noticed a ranger taking notes and talking to a sheepish-looking man with a trailer parked in a viewing area (who we had also happened to see settle down in another national park previously), we realised how fortunate we had been to dodge a fine. But the risk had been worth it.

Young and carefree – that’s what the elderly fondly recall being when they were younger. Reading my dad’s memoirs, I’ve been amazed by some of the things he and my mother got away with as young travellers, such as sleeping in a graveyard somewhere in New Zealand, or on someone’s porch steps in the States. Today, such activities would be condemned and they would probably be classed as poor, dangerous vagrants, when in fact they went on to lead successful lives in the medical profession.

Is it wrong to be a jammy traveller?

When you’re young, money is tight. This restriction doesn’t combine too greatly with youthful curiosity, especially since this is realistically the time when you’re in the best shape to explore and take physical risks. Humans have been able to survive and evolve over time by choosing options that enhance their chances of survival without involving significant  physical harm and exertion. Hunters and food-gatherers would happily take berries from a tree in a rival tribe’s territory if their access was not threatened and the food would help prolong their lives. It makes sense that in today’s age of consumerism, the importance of minimising physical harm has adapted into an importance of minimising financial expense. It’s ingrained into our human instinct that we should do anything that makes our life easier and more enjoyable with as little cost involved as possible.

There are certain things I would never do, like not pay the entrance fee to a national park. My moral conscience would be unable to allow that. These parks protect outstanding areas of natural beauty and they should be supported in doing so. Regarding smaller issues though, it is easy to say “I will always abide by the rules”, but when it comes to the moment, you might be surprised by how tempting it is to take an opportunity and run with it. I am of course not encouraging illegal acts, so please don’t rob a bank after reading. But sometimes being a little jammy leads to the most memorable travel moments. In the corny words of Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson, the best things in life are free!

 

My Morning Walk around Geneva: A Mixed Bag of Luxury and Comfort

‘Luxury’ and ‘comfort’ are two words often associated together when discussing travel. Luxury is defined as ‘something that provides pleasure or comfort’. Comfort is defined as being in a ‘state of physical ease with freedom from pain or constraint’. However for me, it came to be that during a morning in Geneva, Switzerland, the two did not fit agreeably in the same bag, and instead made quite an uncomfortable experience.

Having rushed to catch a train to Geneva on a Saturday, I arrived in the city on an empty stomach having not had time to eat breakfast. I studied the station map closely to look for lockers where I could store my backpack, and went wrong twice. When I finally found the area shown on the map, I still couldn’t see them. Commuters were rushing around so it was hard to find anybody to ask, and I couldn’t seem to find any staff. Fed up and not wanting to waste time exploring, I decided to just take the backpack with me. Big mistake.

If you walk down the Rue des Alpes onto the Quai du Mont-Blanc, you can admire the famous Jet d’Eau which shoots seven tonnes of water into the air, towering over the flock of yachts that look up at it in silent awe. Flicked by the sun’s rays,  the water was sometimes painted with rainbow colours. Swans glided over the shimmering water (the blue colour of which was a pleasant change from views of the Thames) which flows in from the River Rhône.

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Crossing the Pont du Mont-Blanc, you reach the (supposedly) English Garden. It’s a pleasant enough place, but unfortunately being located next to a busy road, it’s difficult to escape the noise of traffic. It’s a bit like Russell Square Gardens in London, with joggers and dog-walkers meandering around its paths (albeit without the squirrels). The Doobie Brothers ‘Listen to the Music’ played outside a café as I walked through the garden towards the main town, passing an Asian couple taking a zillion photos posing with their fore-finger ‘on top of’ the Jet d’Eau.

10900222_10155252362780495_84661736624735382_o Geneva’s atmosphere evoked the characteristics almost typical of what one associates with Switzerland as a nation – impersonal and rich. Walking past the likes of Rolex and Louis Vuitton with my grubby backpack, I felt slightly out of place. Nevertheless, I was stopped twice to be asked for directions, so I must have looked like I knew what I was doing! I scanned the sides of Rue du Marché for a supermarket but was unsuccessful, seeing only cafes and bistros instead. All I wanted was something small, quick and cheap! But it seemed my stomach would have to wait.

The sights grew less ostentatious and the atmosphere less snobby as I approached the Old Town. By now I was getting tired from hunger, and my shoulders felt sore as I trudged upwards along narrow streets. A man on a bike rode past with his son sat behind him, the little boy’s open mouth rattling “ahhhh” as they bounced over the bumpy cobble roads. I noticed a Co-Op bag in the dad’s hand, but could only watch helplessly as he cycled away.

My feelings of hunger were temporarily forgotten when I was greeted by the striking sight of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, built in the 12th century. Visitors can climb 157 steps to reach the top of the North Tower for views of the city. With my backpack however, that seemed to be too much of an ask, although looking back I should have checked if there was somewhere to put it.   10841895_10155252360695495_182192141877632288_o

Walking west from the cathedral, the smooth stone on the buildings reminded me of that seen in Bath or Edinburgh. Ahead there was a balcony overlooking the Parc des Bastions, famed for having a giant chessboard and monuments of famous figures from the Reformation. In summer I can imagine it to be a lovely area, with a tree-lined promenade and space for picnics and games. But seeing the muddy grass and dull, leafless trees, I decided not to make the journey down to it today, especially in my state of soreness and hunger. Instead with a sigh of relief, I released my backpack and sank onto a bench. A young mum sat opposite me with a pram, looking depressed. In fact, there weren’t many cheery-looking people around at all! I could probably discount myself as one of them too. By now, my stomach was rumbling loudly with hunger and I could feel two tight knots forming on my shoulders.

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A flashy Range Rover drove down the Rampe de la Treille as I set off back towards the city centre. Private cafes and boutiques lined the quiet Grand Rue. They seemed to say ‘Only enter if you have lots of money’. Reaching the bottom of the hill, the traffic noise vamped up and a tram clanged its horn. I quickly explained to an approaching charity rep that I wasn’t a Swiss citizen and, dodging bikes, crossed the road determined to find a supermarket. I had no idea where to look, choosing to walk up a random street, only to stumble across a Manor shopping mall. Hurrah! I rushed inside like a kid desperate for the toilet. The food court was manic. Two Brazilian men asked for my recommendation of which brand of chocolate to give someone as a gift. I said Lindt. After nearly clearing some shelves and taking a child’s head off with my backpack, I was outside with food in a bag.

My energy rejuvenated from the knowledge that I would soon be able to eat, I strode back over the Pont du Mont-Blanc, back to the Jardin Anglais. Just as I was about to bite into a sandwich, I noticed a scruffy man sat on a bench 20 metres away drinking from a Heineken can staring at me, and stopped myself on the basis that I might have to move away. After deciding that he posed no threat with his drunkenness, I carried on gorging, watching with amusement as more Asian groups posed on the fountains. An old man with ragged clothes and a backpack greeted me with a “bonjour”, dragging a trolley next to him. Glancing at him and the drinking man, I realised that on the first impressions of others in this city, I probably had more in common with these two than the majority.

I still had an hour and a half to kill before I needed to be at the airport, but with my backpack, I felt no desire to wander around anymore. There are many interesting places in Geneva north of the river that I’d love to visit, such as the Palais des Nations (UN), CERN and the International Red Cross museum, but today wouldn’t be the day. Not only was my back cursing, but my bladder was now almost bursting. Instead, I forced myself to heave my backpack on again and walked back alongside the lake, amongst lycra-loving cyclists and tourists ogling at the water fountain.

In summary, I didn’t get a great impression of this small city. Through its display of luxury, it seemed quite uninviting and too money-orientated for my liking. But this impression wasn’t helped by my lack of travel comfort. Without this, I was restricted in my options and my views were tarnished by my self-pitying frustrations.

Lessons learned: 1. Eat breakfast; 2.  Even if it takes a while to do so, find a luggage locker.

In different circumstances I’ll happily give Geneva a second chance and see if I feel the same way!

Sharing Cars with Strangers in Germany

What was one of the first things your parents told you when you went outside to play? I can imagine it was either “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Don’t get into a car with a stranger”. Well, now you’re older, you can be a little more flexible with that advice. If you’re on a trip at home or abroad alone and make a spontaneous decision to travel somewhere else located a few hours away, chances are that you will pay a pricey fee for a last-minute train. Buses may not run regularly and will take a long time, whilst planes can be an expensive hassle. So why not share a lift with someone? A stranger, that is.

I first became introduced to carpooling when I was in Germany. Help-exchanging at the home of a teacher in Hamburg for a week, I then had to make my way to a village in the Rhineland-Palatinate. As I searched for trains on my host’s laptop one evening, she suggested I try ‘Mitfahrgelegenheit’. I looked at her blankly. Advertising lifts was something that I hadn’t even heard of in my own country – hitch-hiking yes, but not organised car share. My host proceeded to show me a website where drivers offered space in their car to travellers heading in the same direction, in return for a contribution towards fuel costs.  Drivers were asked to state details including whether or not they smoked, the make of their car, their mobile number and a copy of ID. I was open-minded about travelling with a man, however my host, perhaps feeling responsible for my welfare, was insistent that I travel with a female. We soon found a lady heading in the same direction as me.

At this time my German was pretty minimal. I began writing an email to this lady, in which essentially only the first and last couple of sentences were written in German. Her reply was written in good English. (It ended with the line: “I’m sorry, I know that my English is not good. I hope you can understand me.”) The lady asked for 27 Euros for this journey – about 50 Euros less than what a train would have cost. She gave me her vehicle registration number and asked to meet outside Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof.

On a rainy Wednesday morning, I made my way to the parking lot outside the main station. I was quite excited for this new experience, but a little nervous too. What if the lady didn’t show up? What if she was a terrible driver? What if her car broke down and we were left stranded somewhere on the autobahn? What I didn’t worry about however was whether she would turn out to be different from her profile. The media will often feature horror stories of women being kidnapped by strangers posing as someone else, but I’ve had enough positive experiences to have faith in the kindness of strangers.

The street was bustling with chanting protesters. Police officers in smart blue uniforms formed barricades as they came closer to the station. I approached one officer to ask him what was going on and was told that it was a protest against a neo-Nazi demonstration.

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I wandered along the pavement, feeling very conspicuous with my big rucksack as I scanned the cars parked along the side of the road. Suddenly I spotted a navy blue Renault Clio with the registration number I was looking for. Beside it watching the protest stood a rather large woman with a pixie haircut and scruffy trainers. I introduced myself and she shook my hand with a shy smile. There was little room in the boot and so I sheepishly squeezed my backpack onto the backseat amongst her own things before sitting down in the back. A few minutes later, I heard a backpack being thrown in the boot behind me and then the passenger door in front of me opened. The smell of thick smoke, body odour (as well as a slight whiff of urine) swept through the vehicle as in jumped a male skinhead dressed in black, looking like he’d just run away from the police monitoring the protest. He turned to shake my hand and say hello with his stale breath. “Ich komme aus England,” I stated, trying not to wrinkle my nose. He nodded with an “Oh” and said no more.

As we set off, I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of what we must have looked like to other drivers – a bizarre combination of a rather butch-looking woman with short hair, an emo-type guy with no hair, and a standard girl with long bright blonde hair. A painfully awkward silence suffocated the car. Eventually the two Germans started to chat briefly whilst I stared out of the window, trying and failing to understand them. However, their conversation soon ran out of steam and as we joined the autobahn, the driver turned on the radio, flicking between radio stations sporadically as if realising that there was unlikely to be one which we would all enjoy. Smelly-skinhead-guy reclined his seat backwards so that his smell lingered closer and I became even more cramped. Desperate to avoid any awkward speech, I remained with my legs jammed tightly together to one side, wishing I could jam my nostrils shut too. Two hours later my driver turned off and I looked up disorientated. “We will stop here for 10 minutes,” she said to me slowly. While the guy lit a cigarette with jittery hands outside the car, I followed her into the service station to use the bathroom. One had to pay 90 cents to use the facilities. “You can use the ticket for food,” she explained again simply, pointing out a sign which showed a 50 cent discount on confectionary.

Smelly-skinhead-guy would leave us at Frankfurt airport, where he was evidently flying to South America. I didn’t probe on his motives, only pitied the passengers who would be sitting near him. I jumped into the front seat and wound the window down with relief to remove his musty smell. I hoped that the driver and I would be able to speak more now. However, as is common with languages, the lady was less confident at speaking English than writing it. Carefully-phrased questions by myself in English would receive stammered and uncertain responses from her, upon which I would attempt the question in German, with no further success as I struggled to make myself clear. It became a rather frustrating process, until eventually the conversation fizzled out helplessly. In defeat, I turned to look out of the window at the wind turbines on the side of the autobahn, before we entered rural land and the views were replaced with fields lined with vines and Church steeples poking up out of small villages. I felt bad, wishing my German was better so that I could make the experience more interesting for both of us. At the same time, my driver said apologetically, “Normally there would be more speaking.” She dropped me off on the street of my next location and I handed her the money, thanking her for the helpful lift. Then she wished me a pleasant stay and I in turn wished her a safe onward journey, before we said goodbye with an awkward wave.

The experience was a reminder of the social restrictions that a language barrier can bring, particularly in such an intimate environment as a car. Now my German is so much better that, had I the opportunity to do it again, I would have got so much more from the journey. Nevertheless, whilst conversation between the three of us was limited, it was rare that I would find myself in that context with such different characters very often. It’s a story that I can look back on and chuckle over. Carpooling in general is something I would highly recommend. It might not be the most comfortable form of travel, but it depends on your priorities; some people want luxury, others just want to get from A to B for as cheap as possible. By choosing the latter option, one has more money to spend on the more important things! One is essentially taking the same journey as one would on a train or bus, albeit for less money and with fewer people, in a more close-knit setting. Perhaps it’s because participants are more expected to talk with other unfamiliar people that they might be put off by this travel option…

Whilst I didn’t have much luck with this myself on this occasion, ride-sharing provides an opportunity to make interesting contacts, and the act of doing a favour for a stranger is a nice, refreshing prospect. As much as I like to joke about how suspicious the guy in the car seemed, carpooling is an experience which reinforces that strangers are not to be fundamentally suspected or feared. I also wanted to mention the neo-Nazi demonstrations to highlight the importance of not letting hate fuel hate, and not letting the actions of a few people influence your opinion about an entire nation collectively.

Bensheim – my final destination

I would definitely consider using carpooling on future travels around Europe, and I’d hope other travellers would too. Something that can be regarded in this technological age as the modern version of hitch-hiking, carpooling is cheap, convenient and certified. Maybe just bring an air freshener with you as an advance gesture of gratitude…

Would you ever consider car-pooling? Have you any weird and wonderful carpooling experiences to share?

10 Reasons to do a Help-Exchange

When planning a trip, I tend to split it into two sections – part of it involves true hostel-loving backpacking, the other a help-exchange. We’re living in a day and age where students and ‘gap yah’ kids will spend huge amounts of money to volunteer in an orphanage in a developing country for two weeks, in an attempt to boost their CV with extra credentials. Personally, I’m not a fan of this organised travel; partly for the reason that I believe it does little to encourage independence and travelling skills; partly because I’m not convinced that continuously passing young children onto different groups to be ‘cooed’ over and have photos taken with is beneficial for their mental well-being and social development. (This article sums it up brilliantly). Students may also be lured into paying extortionate amounts of money for holiday package tours, where they only mingle with fellow tourists and essentially see the country for five minutes.

If you do a help-exchange in contrast, you’ll spend so much less money, yet probably get so much more out of the experience. The system is simple – you register with a website, pay an £18-£20 membership fee that’s valid for two years, and create a profile for yourself. You can then scout the website’s host listing, or hosts can contact you. The idea is that you do four-six hours of work a day for your host in return for free meals and accommodation, so that you’re both doing each other a favour. In your free time you’re free to go off exploring on your own. A help-exchange can be done in any country on any continent, with an incredible range of options on offer – from helping an Eco camp in Africa build a school for six weeks, to looking after huskies in Norway for one week. Below are ten extensive reasons why you should consider doing one yourself!

1. Develop social skills & independence
The process of organising a help-exchange requires the sole effort of the applicant: you yourself have to find an appropriate host decisively but considerately, noting their requirements whilst taking into account your relevant skills and other travel plans. Instead of filling out an application form, you have to contact the host directly either by phone or email, ensuring you come across as friendly, coherent and suitable in a few sentences without referring to your ‘exceptional’ A level results. You have to organise how you get to your host – sometimes you might be asked to turn up at the door – in which case you need to plan travel arrangements. And finally, you have to introduce yourself to your host using communication skills that convey your genuine personality rather than the one you might use to impress someone in a job interview, and conduct yourself aptly for a guest. The process is like a less formal version of applying for a job – there are fewer competitors, no strict deadlines and no daunting interviews. Help-exchanges are also a great way to boost one’s confidence at meeting new people.

 2.  Save money & recuperate
A help-exchange is budget travel at its best. Even staying in hostels that only cost £17 per night starts to add up if you’re on a long trip. The particularly great thing about a help-exchange is how spontaneous it can be – you can contact somebody even when you’re in the country having commenced your travels – ideal if you’ve suddenly found yourself short of funds or there’s been a problem with your current accommodation. Staying in one place for a while also allows the weary traveller to rest their body and mind – it’s nice to have some time off lugging a backpack around everyday, or constantly thinking about public transport timetables and hostel bookings for the day ahead. Saving money on the practicalities of food and accommodation also means your pennies can be put towards more exciting activities in your free time. Plus, being given free meals in return for your help makes a nice change from a cheap ‘on-the-road’ diet of cheese-sandwiches, bananas and biscuits…

3. Develop new practical skills
The wide range of jobs that hosts advertise for help with means that you can guarantee learning a new skill, ranging from knitting to carpentry. Sometimes I’ve not contacted a host whose description sounded perfect in so many ways, just because I had no experience of the specific work they needed help with. But one occasion where I didn’t let this feeling of inadequacy put me off was with a family on Vancouver Island. They owned a vineyard, and as much my mum might have tried to encourage me over the years, I had no experience of pruning. As I was shown what to do on my first day thoughts of: ‘Oh crap, I’m totally going to ruin this guy’s vines, he’s going to be annoyed with me!’ filled my head. Then I remembered that it wasn’t a test, and I wouldn’t be judged for asking questions, but was actually more likely to be respected for trying to ensure I did a decent job.

Even when you’re not working, you can still learn new skills in your free time from family members. The first time I went fishing was during a help-exchange in southern BC (I wasn’t very successful). On another exchangeI learned the basics of lacrosse and after a few attempts (and one fall) had (almost) mastered the art of longboarding. It’s unlikely I would have accessed such activities so easily when travelling around alone.

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4. Inspire youth
Being the youngest of five children, I’ve never had much of an opportunity to be a ‘big sister’ to anyone, but taking part in help-exchanges has changed that, as I’ve been able to become a confidante to those a few years younger than me. Being trusted by an adult you’ve never met to take a position of responsibility over their children is a humbling gesture, and as a result makes you determined to live up to the duty and set an example. In my case this has mainly involved listening to problems, sometimes of an everyday form and sometimes more serious, and using my experience to give advice for the short or long term. With young teenage girls I think, being female myself, that it’s a particularly rewarding process. They’re going through a stage when older authority can be resented, and being a good role model without alienating them can be quite challenging. But if you get the balance right, you’re likely to see reserved body language become more confident and bored facial expressions develop into expressions of curiosity and familiarity, as they realise that the new girl in their house is actually not that bad, even though she travels by herself/is single/wearing scruffy clothes and no make-up/into running/a bit of a geek. I hope that as a result of this, most of the girls I’ve stayed with have decided that they too would like to embark on their own independent travel adventure one day. Help-exchanges demonstrate that you don’t have to be in a less-developed country (or pay lots of money) to have a strong impact on someone’s life.

5. Expand human knowledge
Taking part in help-exchanges has made me become a better reader of both individual people and families, reminding me in the process that despite any cultural differences, certain human emotional dilemmas occur universally. As a result I feel like I’ve gained greater maturity and sensitivity, which can be applied to everyday life. It’s something that can’t be taught, only obtained through observational experience. An example is from Canada, where I lived with a 15 year old girl whose life, at the insistence of her mother, revolved around horse-riding and ice hockey. Most of the time she was reserved around the household. Then at the end of the week the two of us went to the cinema and I saw an excitement in her that I hadn’t seen before, realising that it was simply because she wasn’t used to going out for social events. Away from her normal routine and slightly domineering mother, she felt freer and more open. Meanwhile on an exchange in Germany, the 18 year old daughter started tearing up as she said goodbye to her parents before they left for their holiday. She wouldn’t see them when they got back as she would be on holiday herself. “I just feel bad because by going away and doing my own things I see them less, and they’re only getting older,” she explained to me after they’d gone. I could completely empathise with her, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in relation to my own parents. It was an irrational feeling that I hadn’t considered might be felt by others. Doing a help exchange can make a ‘foreigner’ seem more familiar, while also giving you something to take back to your own family; be that a greater appreciation of or the inspiration to change its dynamic!

6. Practise a language
The best way to learn a language is through immersion – visit the relevant country and spend time with native-speakers, listening to their conversations and attempting to initiate ones yourself. Even if you’re not planning to learn the language (mastering Icelandic in two weeks would have been asking a bit too much), it’s nice to simply listen to the different sounds and watch people interact through it, sometimes being able to guess what they’re talking about from their actions. While staying with a small family in Germany, I would carry a notepad around with me, at times randomly asking the daughter, “How would I say this?” or “What does that word you keep saying mean?” She would also ask for clarification that her English was okay too, so that both of us were benefitting. I was then able to use what I’d learned after I moved on from the family. It makes a nice change from hostels and charity volunteering camps where, on the whole, English is the international language. And even better: the tuition is free.

7. Learn about other cultures
Living in a family’s home creates an intimate environment where you can witness the everyday native lifestyle – it’s the best way to learn about the values and norms of the country, either through conversations or general observation. Whilst on my Icelandic help-exchange I was told about Christmas traditions (including a detailed description, involving a picture book, of the 13 different Santas), as well as the less obvious and random traits of the country’s culture. For example: when trying to establish ages, an Icelander will always ask for year of birth over the actual number; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s surname – instead it is always the father’s name, ending with the prefix ‘dottir’ for girls and ‘son’ for boys; names of all residents are written underneath the house number next to the door; dried haddock is a popular snack, and so forth… Staying with locals gives one a greater awareness of and access to the signature brands and dishes of that country, such as ‘Tim Hortons’ in Canada and Skyr yoghurt in Iceland.

Doing a few help-exchanges in different areas is even better, as you get to witness the variety of the country for yourself, just like someone travelling to England would notice changes between London and Yorkshire. For example, I could sense varying attitudes towards immigration, marriage and careers in different areas of BC which, as a History student, I found really interesting. What’s more, if there are other foreign helpers staying at the house, you can learn more about their culture too. The first time I had a proper conversation with someone from China was during a help-exchange in Canada, while meeting a few Germans there partly inspired my decision to travel there the next summer.

8. Integrate into a family and community
In previous posts I’ve written about the overwhelming effect of being welcomed into a host’s life so warmly. Sometimes the ‘click’ won’t happen, either inevitably from significant differences in outlook, or as a result of events during the exchange. But when it does, especially in such a short period, it’s a very touching experience. This, combined with getting to know the local area well, can make you really feel ‘at home’. Doing errands for a host in Germany such as going to the post office and doing the shopping required me to familiarise myself with the area, making me feel like part of the community by the end of the exchange. By the end of my week with a family in Reykjavík, I was on greeting terms with an old man who walked his pug at the same time as I walked my host’s border collie. At family dinners or parties, I’ve been involved in the conversation almost, at times, like a member of the family. Such moments can lead to a bond with a family – a long-term bond that hasn’t been formed through the influence of alcohol and consolidated by the desire for a companion to provide temporary convenience and security, as is quite often the case with volunteer-travel friendships.

For me having no younger siblings, forming a bond with a child or young teenager is particularly special. At first introduction they are often quite shy and making conversation isn’t so easy. My Icelandic help-exchange also involved babysitting an eight year old. His English was exceptional, but there still seemed to be a barrier as we sat eating breakfast on my first morning. After getting a shrug in response to “What’s your favourite subject at school?” I asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me: “Nahhh”; or go swimming: “No thanks.” Hmmm. ‘It’s going to be a long week,’ I though despairingly. “Maybe you’d like to play a game?” I asked hopefully. The boy said nothing. Then suddenly his eyes lit up: “Do you like Star Wars?” Ermm… “Yeahhhhh!” I replied enthusiastically. I know nothing about Star Wars. The next two hours was spent playing a game with no idea what I was doing. But it was worth it, because by the end of it the boy was interacting with me more. Within the next few days I was making him laugh as we played toy soldiers or football, and chatting animatedly with him. Then came the day when he asked “Will you be here this time next week?” followed by a sad “N’owhh” when I said no, and upon hearing that I welled up.

One might say that the same emotion can be experienced after looking after an orphan as part of a charity project, but I would disagree. A charity scheme essentially requires a bond to be formed, by expecting volunteers to devote complete attention to a child who is not already emotionally attached to a regularly-present biological relative. In contrast, children from a host family are less likely to require or crave a new bond, simply because they already have a strong and satisfying connection with their family.  The process of forming a bond is therefore more contingent on both characters involved, which subsequently makes it feel more treasurable.

9. See incredible places & do amazing activities for free
They say that guide books shouldn’t be relied on as source for travel ideas, and help-exchanges prove it. A key reason I’m such a big fan of them is because of their potential to help one discover a phenomenal area of the world, or be given a rare opportunity to do something wonderful. For example, one of my help-exchanges in BC involved working on an Andalusian horse farm, where I helped care for and exercise the horses. Being allowed to ride such beautiful animals as ‘work’ made me feel so lucky, as I thought about what some people would give to be in my position. Another family took me tubing down the Similkameen River, and on my final night with them we drank beers and ate ‘smors’ around a campfire in the Okanogan forest, giving me a true rural Canadian experience. This was an area that I would probably not have considered visiting had I been touring the area independently, because of both the lack of tourist accommodation and lack of attention given to it in my guide book. On Vancouver Island, my hosts lived five minutes from the beach, from where I could admire some of the most enchanting sunsets I’ve ever seen. I was given a tour of Victoria and taken out on the family’s boat for an evening cruise. Meanwhile in Germany I was taken on an afternoon sight-seeing tour of Frankfurt with all the benefits of local knowledge, and in Iceland I got to experience the brilliant Culture Night celebrations with native company. For just a few hours work a day, you can receive something back in return that no salary, no matter how big, could buy.

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10. Form special memories & valuable contacts
The sense of accomplishment after discovering or arriving at a stunning place completely on my own is what makes me love travelling alone…but I’d be lying if I said that some of my favourite and strongest memories from trips haven’t come from help-exchange experiences. Some of them are from the examples stated in #9, while some weren’t necessarily so treasured at the time but in hindsight have provided extraordinary tales of great humour that, without a help-exchange, I probably wouldn’t have experienced. Take the time I went to a house party in Canada, only to find myself constructing a sling out of a tea towel for a guy who broke his collarbone after falling off his quad-bike whilst riding under a very very large influence; or the time a host asked me to give her daughter a lift to a bonfire party in her car (as if having to quickly adjust to driving in an opposite way to what I was used to without damaging her car wasn’t enough, I then had to reverse half a mile along a dyke in the dark after we took a wrong turn); and last but not least was the time one family’s 12 year old daughter jokingly drove a lawnmower towards where I was sunbathing on a downhill slope before parking up, only for someone to start screaming at me to move (she’d forgotten to put the handbrake on…)

Then of course, there are the friends that can be made from a help-exchange, either host’s children or fellow helpers, who themselves account for many of the memories formed. I’m still in regular contact with many of those people I’ve been fortunate to stay with, one of whom I visited in Germany after meeting her in Canada, and one of whom I travelled around the USA with three years after first meeting. These people provide a travel contact either for at the time of the exchange or in future, and meeting them has inspired me to become a host one day myself, in the hope of meeting even more special people and creating even more special memories.

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Being involved in a help-exchange is beneficial for a range of reasons: the potential to help a person develop for the better whilst allowing them to have an impact on someone else; the potential for new knowledge, exciting opportunities and significant experiences; the potential to form strong friendships; and simply for the potential to produce a fulfilling sense of knowing you’ve done someone a favour, whilst also feeling extremely grateful for what they’ve done for you. And the best thing about it is that these elements can be attained without having to spend thousands of pounds.

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Been convinced? Check out some of the websites below and get your own help-exchange adventure started!

http://www.workaway.info/
http://www.helpx.net/
http://www.wwoof.net/