Go travelling, obviously. I find it really odd that so many exchange students travelled for maybe two weeks before flying home to get a job for the summer as usual. Canada is a freaking awesome country – enormous, and with such a variety of landscapes and cultures, you should definitely try and see as much of it as you can. And the USA is so close, and is also awesome! So if you are thinking about going home right away to see your friends and get a job, I recommend that you immediately revise your plans and save during the year instead. Using only my student loan, my overdraft and my CoGro wages, I've managed to stay out here for four months travelling and I'm still not coming home for two weeks. I am having such an awesome time that I am going to tell you about it immediately!
Term ends at the end of April. I left my suitcases in co–op and went out east to the maritimes with my backpack.
Halifax is a really nice city, very laid back and has beautiful gardens and lots of boats to look at. I also went to Campbellton in New Brunswick, which is a really small town but does have a salmon festival (as a vegetarian this was USELESS to me) and a mountain to climb, and the hostel there is a lighthouse! I really wanted to go to PEI – but I did not have time. I shall have to come back. Anne of Green Gables was conceived of there, and apparantly that is their biggest tourist attraction.
Then I went back to Ontario to stay with a friend from Queen's in Ottawa, which was awesome fun! Although, if you are staying in hostels, Ottawa has a converted jail hostel that looks fun! Then I took the train all the way to Winnipeg in Manitoba. Winnipeg is a funny city; the prairies get made fun of for being boring, but I think they have a certain charm. The Winnipeg Art Gallery is pretty good, I spent a whole day in there, and there was a free day at the museum, which was also pretty okay! A few days definitely suffices, though.
Then I went to Edmonton in Alberta, which I really really liked. The West Edmonton Mall is famous for being so friggin' huge, and I thought I wouldn't have so much fun at a giant mall, but it is actually amazing. It has a theme park, a really great wave pool with massive slides, a shooting range, performing seals, a pirate ship, a submarine ride, a flock of flamingos… the HI hostel in Edmonton is in a really good place too – Whyte Av is the fun area in Edmonton, and the hostel is just one street over. It has lots of fun shops and cafes to hang out in with the pretty people. Also, the Stanley Cup games were going on during this time (ice hockey), and the Edmonton Oilers won the series while I was there, so there was some pretty intense partying!
From Edmonton I went to Calgary, which wasn't really my favourite place ever. I know people who like it a lot, but I just didn't get it. Mostly I went there because I could get picked up for a trip to the mountains, which was the best thing ever. Seriously. Go to the mountains! I cannot express this enough! I spent the first month travelling solo, and I was a little reluctant to go too far into wilderness by myself in case I got eaten by a bear, so I went with a company called True North Tours, which was a really good decision. You see, I found out that there are lots of bus companies that do regular pick ups and drop offs at the major hostels and resorts in the Rockies, so travelling alone isn't really a problem since there's loads of people doing it (Moose is one such bus company which is really popular). But with True North, you get a guide and a van so you get to see the awesome places that are sometimes a bit off the beaten tourist track. I stayed in the Rockies for six days, and it was just so beautiful. I really, really want to go back. There's mountains to hike up, and really beautiful lakes, and glaciers and waterfalls and really good hiking trails. I'd never seen anything like it before. And the animals! There are bears, and elk, and moose, and deer, and bighorn sheep, and caribou, and they're all just wandering around! I'm not sure what else to say except DO IT.
After the mountains, I got the train back to Toronto and stayed with another Queen's friend for five days, which was super fun. I'd visited Toronto quite a few times by then, but it's a great city and there's lots of nice districts to wander around (the Annex is fun, and Chinatown, and walking down Queen St West you find lots of awesome shops and stuff).
All this took a month (I had to hurry to get back to meet a friend at the airport). I got a train pass (called a CanRail pass) which was an awesome deal – you get to use the trains for 12 days out of 30 (or something like that) and it is valid across the whole of Canada. Trains aren't as common as they are in the UK; there is basically one long line across the country, with a couple of different routes east of Ontario to serve the maritimes and northern Quebec. The ride across the country is famous and beautiful – it takes a few days, but it's a nice way to have a rest and see a bit more of the country. It'd be good to ride it all the way to Vancouver, because it goes through Jasper, my favourite of the national parks (mountains!), but I didn't have time, and had been to Vancouver already (and got mugged, which taints my view of it a little – but don't let that put you off, everyone I told that story too was shocked that I got mugged in Vancouver because it is just so lovely, apparantly). The CanRail pass is maybe $500 CDN – a bit less, I think. That was for an off–peak ticket – I was literally a day inside the boundaries, and it goes up quite a lot during peak season. So if you want to get one, do it in May, and early on.
Travelling alone in Canada was awesome. If you're hostelling, it isn't very solitary because you meet people in every place you go to. Travelling on trains and buses is also fun, because people are generally friendly and genuinely interested in you for being a funny foreigner going to see their country. But it is pretty liberating to just take off with your backpack and yourself for company. I only travelled alone for about six weeks – for the rest, my best friend from the UK was here travelling with me! I don't know whether I prefer travelling alone or with people – it is very different, and I liked having time to do both. Because while it is great and boosts your self esteem and is more scary and liberating to travel alone, after a while you start really craving a proper conversation. By the end of those weeks, I was really sick of small talk in hostels (people always ask the same questions – where are you from, where have you been, where are you going) and it gets really tedious. But when I was by myself, I found that I tended to be a little more active in doing stuff – because you are entirely responsible for having fun, you make more of an effort to see stuff because you wake up in the morning and think "what shall I do today" instead of just hanging out. But then you start to miss hanging out, as it is one of the best things to do.
So! Kate arrived, and we went to see the USA! I shall write more about these adventures soon…