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My 2011

Before ringing in the new year tonight, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and do a quick summary of how my year looked like on the travel front.

– Countries

Although some of my original plans fell through this year, I still managed to visit my 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th countries in 2011. 3 out of those 4 countries, namely Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, had been in my plans since my non-trip in 2008 so I was more than happy to finally visit them. I also spent a quick week in Panama, which was, to date, my favorite experience in Central/South America.

I also roamed around Canada a fair amount and got a few more U.S. stamps in my passport but the “new countries” are definitely the highlight of my year.

I didn’t quite make it to my 5th continent but that will happen in 2012 and I’m more than satisfied with the experiences I’ve had while traveling this year.

– Bucket List

Do I keep a bucket list? Yes, ,I do. Do I plan my trips around it? No, I don’t. That being said, I still managed to cross a whopping 3 items off of it this year and also did some work on a fourth item, making 2011 a very successful year in terms of shortening the proverbial “list”.

I flew first class for the first time on my way to Belgium, which was a rather uncharacteristic splurge for me and although the flight wasn’t overly long (just over 7 hours), I absolutely enjoyed the experience. For the comfort alone, I would be more than willing to replicate the experience in the future and let’s be honest, the food and booze aren’t half bad either!

Although my visit to the Netherlands was a little short for my tastes, I managed to see Ann Frank’s house, which was definitely one of the things I didn’t want to miss out on while in Amsterdam. I had heard horror stories about the never ending lines in front of the museum but I lucked out and although pictures aren’t allowed inside the house (one of my biggest pet peeves about museums in Europe!), I was happy with the experience and glad to have included the visit in my itinerary.

In Germany, I finally managed to visit a concentration camp (I actually visited 2, considering they are plentiful in Germany), after failing to do so in 2008 and coming so close while in Belgium a few months before. While Auschwitz remains a place I desperately want to visit in the future, getting to spend a few hours in Dachau and Sachsenhausen was the highlight of my trip to Germany.

One of the long-lasting items on my bucket list is to visit 100 countries, which is obviously a work in progress but adding 4 countries in a year is a step in the right direction.

– The Road

I rarely travel with other people, both by choice and because I don’t always pick the destinations my friends are thinking of when they have time to travel, so when a friend of mine said he would like to visit the Gaspé peninsula and see Percé Rock, I was more than happy to tag along for a quick road trip. The tip of the peninsula is located at the far end of the province of Quebec and although the drive was rather dull at times, it was definitely a cool way to spend a long weekend. I had been meaning to visit the region for a long time but never quite got around to it so getting to explore that little corner of my province was something I was glad to finally do.

– Business

Although Ontario is the neighboring province, I somewhat ironically visited it more for business purposes than as part of an actual trip (layovers at Pearson excluded, of course). I had planned a few things to do while in Toronto but the schedule got a little hectic and it turned out to be all business. On the bright side, I got to see Suzie McNeil and the Barenaked Ladies perform, the Staal brothers being interviewed by TSN’s James Duthie and hear a speech by Bell Canada’s president George Cope, which made the whole event fairly cool to attend.

– So Many Ways

Blame it on my habit to travel solo or on some weird quirkiness but every once in a while, I tend to start counting random things involving travel. How many nights slept in a hotel/hostel, how many flights I was on or how many means of transportation I used are among the things I usually work with as they are somewhat easy to recall and count. Obviously, those are totally random facts and don’t have much of an impact on anything but the fact that I don’t spend months traveling each year makes it more than doable to simply sit and add up those things. They’re also a good way to pass the time when flying; which is usually the moment I choose to count those little stats.

For the record, in 2011 I;

Was on 10 flights
Used 8 different means of transportation
Spent 30 nights in a hotel or hostel

That’s it; a short (and sweet?) post about my travels in 2011.

Happy New Year & safe travels!

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Alright, so I found this title to be somewhat fitting with the whole traveling concept of my blog and it also follows a trend of me naming stuff after song titles or popular quotes. Not only that, but this particular title was summarizing the topic of my entry quite well; after all, traveling is about being somewhere else or at least about the journey to reach that place. I think it’s been more than established, or at least blogged about, that the journey can be either physical or metaphorical; isn’t it all the same in the end? Whether you physically traveled somewhere or went through your own personal journey without leaving the comfort of your daily life, a part of you went through a journey of sort in the hope of gaining something in the process. When you physically leave all the material behind to go and discover some foreign land isn’t it about the same feeling as someone who realizes that maybe he isn’t in the right field at school and needs to change so that he won’t have to do any classes uselessly? In both cases, you enter some completely unfamiliar ground and you leave your comfort zone to explore your surroundings, or a far-away land. While the journey to discover ancient remains of an old civilization using come to an end at some relatively precise point in time, coming to the realization that you aren’t exactly in the place you want to be in your life is a whole lot different.

That’s exactly where I feel like I’ve been this past week and I have to say that I hate it; it’s like being thrown in the dark without a flashlight. I love change and I’m all for it but not under these circumstances, not when I don’t have any control over what’s going to happen. This isn’t the same as consciously realizing that something isn’t to your liking and that you should consider changing it, it’s about coming to the conclusion that maybe you made a mistake. And it’s hard to admit. It’s definitely tough to admit when you realize that you aren’t perfect and that, like everyone else, you make mistakes. Oops.

I realized that I end up, for one reason or the other, in the same place almost at the same time every year. A sort of winter blues? I wish I knew.

Ugh, I think I need a vacation and bad


Banning the Hand That Feeds You

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, the old saying goes, but say it ain’t so according to new legislations by the Dutch government. The Dutch, it turns out, are moving forward with a plan to restrict access to their famous “coffee shops” as part of a movement to tighten the rules surrounding what is often known as “drug tourism”.

Although very liberal on their policies involving “soft” drugs such as marijuana, Dutch politicians brought up the idea of limiting access to the coffee shops to locals and even bringing forward a registration program that would be mandatory for those seeking membership to one of the Netherlands’ many coffee shops. The plans are part of a nationwide program targeting crime and promoting health; those particular restrictions aiming to reduce the risks of avoidable criminality surrounding the country’s current policies.

While the introduction of restrictions isn’t unexpected due to the country, and particularly its Capital’s desire to revamp themselves and appeal to tourists for reasons other than the Netherlands’ infamously open soft drugs policies, the complete exclusion of any and all tourists is the true head-scratcher.

The parallel between acceptance and legality seems to be behind these changes as it comes down to what the Dutch government tolerates for their people as opposed to what they wish to offer tourists visiting the Netherlands. This brings up an ethical concern though as it creates a double standard which could easily get out of hand in the future. After all, would a lot of people go to Vegas if casinos were illegal to anyone who didn’t live in Nevada? There’s no real difference between gambling in Nevada and the liberal policies surrounding soft drugs in the Netherlands; either these things are illegal or not, but they cannot be both.

As a rule of thumb, anyone who travels must obey any and all local laws and will be prosecuted accordingly if those laws are broken. For example, the legal drinking age in Quebec is 18 while our neighbors in Ontario cannot legally drink until they are 19. That being said, the law goes both ways and an 18 year old Quebecer cannot purchase liquor in Ontario while an 18 year old Ontarian can drink in Quebec.

It all comes down to the fact that those liberal views are very attractive to some tourists and it’s hard to pretend that tourism won’t be impacted when we know that over 90% of the customer base of those coffee shops is foreign. Coffee shops are valuable tax-paying businesses and denying service to tourists is discriminatory, in a way, as it labels tourists as careless idiots who have no idea how to act decently if put in contact with products sold in coffee shops. On a financial standpoint, the loss of tourism looming over the Netherlands because of those changes should definitely not be ignored as a percentage of the current 20-something backpackers, travelers and general people who will “try it once” visiting Amsterdam will probably end up spending less as a direct result of these changes.

Socially, while the idea behind the new policies makes sense and follows the rest of the world’s views on the use or purchase of soft drugs, it remains to be seen if the double standard used in this situation will impact the way other countries view area-specific situations and create a precedent. Will tourists all of the sudden be unwelcomed from Mass at the Vatican? Will the Great Wall of China be limited to Chinese people only? Is it fair to look at tourists as being different and “unworthy” of being part of specific situations?

ETA; How timely; the Associated Press just posted something about how Thailand doesn’t want tourists getting ‘Bouddha’ tattoos when in Thailand.


New Zealand For Free!

Heading Down Under? Odds are you probably just bought the most expensive plane ticket you’ll ever buy in your life. The good thing is; there are SO many amazing things to do in New Zealand and best of all, a lot of them are free! Here are 10 of the free things you can do in NZ.

1. National parks

There are more than a dozen national parks in New Zealand and that’s not even counting the 2 dozen marine reserves! Odds are you’ll always be near at least one of those locations; especially if you’re spending time on the South Island so make sure you plan some time to go back to nature when you’re in the world’s youngest country!

2. Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers

Why would you miss the opportunity? You have nature, wildlife and the chance to see glaciers that can easily compete with Iceland’s world-renowned glaciers. Not only that, but they are so easily accessible, it would almost be a shame to miss out on the experience if you spend any time on NZ’s South Island.

3. Southern Scenic Route

That South Island sounds pretty insane for nature lovers, right? It only gets better if you head towards the bottom of the Island to drive the Southern Scenic Route. If rainforests and beaches aren’t enough to make you want to take the drive, the wildlife should do you in. Oh and did I mention the Petrified Forest of Curio Bay?

4. St-Paul’s Church(es)

A “free places to see” list is rarely complete without at least one church but Wellington does it better; it offers a striking contrast in architecture with both Old St Paul’s church, a typical Gothic-style church and the more modern St Paul’s Cathedral. While the names may be similar, the churches themselves could hardly be more different from one another and a stop to both of them helps highlight the architectural differences time brought upon churches.

5. City to Sea Bridge

Both a regular pedestrian bridge and an untraditional public-displayed work of art, the City to Sea Bridge gives you a unique view of the famous harbour of Wellington while you cross from Queens Wharf to Oriental Bay.

6. Downtown Wellington

Granted, you will probably find yourself tempted by one of the many stores, cafés or restaurants but simply walking around the downtown area of Wellington or sitting on a bench to watch people, read a book or take a quick break is sure to give you a boost of positive energy. Not only is the area beautiful, it also remains somewhat quiet and relaxing, even though it becomes busy during business hours.

7. Mt. Eden & One Tree Hill

2 more volcanoes to see on the North Island of NZ. Extinct volcanoes, of course, and the best part is from Auckland, they are really just a short drive away. Not only that but you can actually drive up both of them, which means if you aren’t a fan of climbing or walking up the side of a volcano, you can still enjoy the breathtaking views of the city and its harbours.

8. Mt. Maunganui

If walking to the top of Mauao, a dormant volcano of the North Island, isn’t reason enough, the fact that Mount Maunganui overlooks beaches of white sand and offers climbers a unique view of Tauranga Harbour should convince nature lovers to make the 232 meters climb.

9. Mt Cook

Another Mount, but this one offers a completely different experience than the others. While the icy valleys can be walked for free, Mount Cook offers excursions that are sure to raise your pulse and with kayaks, helicopters, 4WDs and ski planes to choose from, it’s safe to say that there’s a little something for everyone.

10. Surfing in Tauranga

While Australia is famous for its great surfing spots, Tauranga is definitely New Zealand’s answer to the land of OZ. The calm, laid-back atmosphere is sure to help you relax, if the beaches of white sand and a paradise-like beauty that rivals the French Riviera hadn’t already worked their magic. As if it needed to be any more inviting; North Island’s Tauranga is located in the Bay of Plenty region and with a name like that and its sheltered location which offers a perfect climate for anyone who wishes to head down to the beach.


The People of NZ

For a long time, my feelings for New Zealand were of the love-hate kind due to what happened when I was “down under”. That being said, I decided to take part in #blog4NZ because the more I thought about it, the more I realized I could really only think about positive things when it comes to NZ. Unfortunate circumstances will sometimes happen, no matter where you are, but New Zealanders made me realize one thing; they are the reason New Zealand is such a popular destination.

Kiwis’ reputation as the nicest and friendliest people on earth hardly comes as a surprise if you’ve ever been to New Zealand but the level of kindness and genuine good nature is absolutely impressive for anyone who has traveled before.

I spent roughly 48 hours in New Zealand after the unfortunately little kink in my travel plans and my time revolved mostly around the embassy, airports, planes and various stores. Hardly the common stops of a regular trip but it certainly helped solidify my respect for New Zealanders.

The thing that impressed me the most is the amount of people who apologized to me once I told them what had happened to me in Auckland. I’m talking about people who didn’t know me, people who didn’t have anything to do with the situation and generally people who I wouldn’t expect to care.

The head of customer service at the Wellington airport helped me with my visa issue and while the replacement process took maybe 20 minutes altogether, he took it upon himself to make sure I left New Zealand with a positive opinion. While my visa was getting processed, he asked me about what happened and seemed genuinely sad about my experience, going as far as to make a “promise” to me that if I came back to New Zealand, he was sure my experience would be much better. Going through customs at the Wellington airport, I was of course selected for a “random search”, which really wasn’t that surprising for a Canadian traveling solo in Australia and New Zealand without any luggage. Through the process, the gentleman used about 6 different forms of apology while he explained to me that “not all the people in New Zealand were like that” and that he was “so sorry my experience in New Zealand hadn’t been positive”. My temporary passport triggered some more questions at the Christchurch airport but the reaction was the same; airport staff seemed to take it quite personally and seemed to make every effort to make sure I knew that Kiwis in general were very nice people.

In all honesty, my feelings for New Zealand weren’t the best at the time, considering the situation, but looking back, I genuinely feel lucky that what happened to me happened in New Zealand. It’s no secret that Kiwis are known to be nice but what is surprising is how nice they actually are.


Did technology kill the essence of travel?

By default, traveling is often nothing more than a hobby for a lot of people. Aside from those who work in that field, it’s often something we do when we have time off work. A couple of weeks of is just long enough to go and relax somewhere. The possibilities are almost endless and range from a quick weekend camping trip to a luxury cruise around the world. Adventure travel, all-inclusive resorts, group travel, backpacking, hostels are just some of the many different ways people define what makes a “trip”.

The one common denominator though is to get away; to put your “real life” on hold for as long as you want to or for however long your wallet will allow. What does that make technology though? We can ‘check-in’ to Foursquare from the North Pole, tweet from the jungle, Skype from the middle of nowhere and blog from villages that didn’t have electricity 10 years ago. Smartphones allow us to do all these things and more while laptops are smaller and smaller, literally making technology so portable that we have no reason to even think about going offline while we travel.

Some people do need to stay connected, of course, but that doesn’t make for the majority of us. Not all of us are professional bloggers, freelancers or journalists and we could survive without Twitter for a week.

At a time where travel becomes more and more accessible, it really is a non-sense to add ‘Blackberry, iPhone & netbook’ at the top of a list of things to pack and making room for those “essentials” is the 2011 equivalent of insisting to be the one who raises the anchor so that a boat can set sail; it’s unnecessary weight that hold us back and keep us from the freedom we seek when traveling.


Alone

February 14th – Valentine’s Day

There are days like this when alone doesn’t even begin to cover it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m used to being alone and it takes a lot to make me feel lonely.

Roughly 2 dozen Valentine’s Days. Alone.

That same amount of Christmases and New Years.

England at 19, alone.

Lost in downtown New York at 2 in the morning. Alone.

On the road to New Hampshire. Alone.

On trains and buses and planes. Driving cars, walking, roaming empty streets, pushing through crowds to find my way. Alone.

Nothing compares to this, though.

Being away from home on Valentine’s Day, in a country that isn’t my own and surrounded by strangers. I never felt so out of place and so desperately lonely. I felt bad and wrong and it didn’t seem like there was a place for me.

Why? Because I wasn’t with family or a girlfriend/wife?

Because there was only me?

Because I was alone?