Home in a Canadian Suburb

My mom used to say that her best friend lived in the middle of nowhere but that nowhere was about a 40-minute drive from Montreal. So of course, when I landed in Montreal on a bright late summer day, I was fooled by what I’d seen out the airplane window.

Having been so used to European cities that lack proper skylines, especially Berlin that lacks a CBD, I thought 40 minutes away would not be so bad. How wrong I was. Currently I’m in a place called Harwood – a couple of minutes drive from the terminus of Greater Montreal region’s rail system. There are sizeable towns in all directions, but we live in the middle of nowhere, in just one of the many houses along a main road. The supermarket is a 10-minute drive away.

I’m stuck at home, nice and warm with a cup of coffee, watching the greyness of autumn creep in, and waiting for the laundry to dry. The dog has taken my spot after I stood up for a minute. I’ve lots of things to do – and I’m so relieved the internet connection has become more reliable the past two days. I’m still trying to come to terms with the decreased mobility of suburban life.

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Suburban life is wasting so much time on public transport, and spending so much on cab fares when no car is at hand. It’s having a huge house and an even larger land because you can. It’s having to drive 20 minutes to a dog park so the hyperactive dog gets to socialise.

It is knowing the people working at your local supermarket- a 10-minute drive away because it also happens to be the mini local expat community. It’s the long days that drag on slowly. It’s knowing the neighbours and trying to maintain a good relationship with them. Even people here have time to drop by and visit their parents on their way to work. Meals provide the daily warmth of people gathered, and dinner is a place for conversations.

I’ve been wandering around for the last two years, understanding that home can be anywhere. It’s in the familiar lands of my childhood. It’s where an impromptu feast is prepared when the family gathers. It’s in the arms of the man I love. It’s in my mother’s company. It’s the flat covered with cat hair in Hamburg. It’s up in Denmark in the Christmas season. It’s in Canada, where so many people who were part of my childhood have ended up living.

Some things worth noting:

  1. Within these two weeks, I have probably spoken my native tongue more than in the past two years. And damn does it feel good! I’m a completely different person when I speak Cebuano. I enjoyed the sounds so much that I avoided speaking English at all costs or mixing up English words in my sentences.
  2. I affirmed that rice should always go with meat.
  3. It’s so easy to bond over shared memories. We try to include as little gossip as possible, but that’s unavoidable…
  4. I am lucky to have a friend I’ve known since we first got up on our feet. We had so many petty disagreements and stupid fights growing up. We hadn’t seen each other for 4 years and barely chatted, but once we met, it was just like the 4 years never dragged on separately for the both of us.
  5. A dog gives so much life to a house.
  6. I am a proud Cebuano. I belong to a large ethnic group predominantly found in the central islands and southern Philippines. Up until 2012, my native tongue, Cebuano, was never formally taught in schools. Even so, with about 20 million speakers, it has the most number of native speakers among the Philippine languages!
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How To: Travel Cheap

It’s easy to get tricked by the glamour of photographs that we find on the internet. They’re the glossed over versions of everyday things.

Like a lot of people out there, I’m very selective of the images I post, and a lot of people see beauty in them without knowing the circumstances behind them.

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I have received a lot of ‘you’re so lucky’ or ‘rich girl’ comments, sometimes even the degrading, ‘it’s nice to have a rich boyfriend’. I have paid for all of my trips since I got my first job when I was 18. I work for them, make do with missing out on a few luxuries, and save up for them. Traveling is much cheaper if you know your way around things. As I’ve been dealing with budgeting for trips and planning for trips since I was 16, I’ve picked up on skills to stretch every buck.

So for those of you trying to fit a trip on a budget, here are just a few useful tips.

  1. CouchSurf

Way back in 1999, some guy found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland but did not have a place to stay…so he hacked into the database for the University of Iceland and randomly e-mailed 1,500 of its students. He eventually received over 50 offers to accommodate him. On his return flight to Boston, he conceived the idea of Couchsurfing: to ‘surf’ on couches as a guest in somebody’s home, host travellers, meet members, or join events.

It’s a huge community and a great opportunity to meet locals and fellow travellers while saving on accommodation and I have met some great people on it. But it is not without its faults. There have been instances where people have used it as a hook-up site, and the web has quite a collection of couchsurfing horror stories, and I have had some bad experiences myself (but that’s for a different post).

2. Google Flights is your best friend.

Searching for airfares has been a lot easier ever since google launched Flights. You can opt for alerts on when the prices for a specific flight drops or starts increasing, see which airport has cheaper flights to your destination (if the distance is not huge, then sometimes it’s cheaper to take a train or bus to that airport and fly from there).

3. Rethink the single journey ticket and the Sightseeing Bus.

Almost all metros in the world will offer day tickets, multi-journey/multi-day tickets, weekend tickets and group tickets. Some already pay off after the second journey, so if you plan to explore the city on your own, consider opting for the multi-journey ones. Most cities also offer City Passes which can be a good deal if you want to visit a lot of museums and sights with entrance fees. They also have the option of including transport in it.

Ditch the Sightseeing Bus. The hop-on/hop-off at major tourist sites may be a lure, but do you really just want to sightsee? You can get a day pass for public transit and get to the same sights for less. Berlin’s bus 100 and 200 for instance, pass through almost all the major tourist points of interest in the city for less than €8,00 – all forms of public transport within zones AB included! They also depart more frequently!

4. Choose where you eat.

Avoid restaurants right at/close to major tourist sights, or restaurants with ‘tourist menus’ a.k.a. those flashy pictures of the dishes served plastered outside their walls. They are almost always tourist traps – absurdly overpriced and won’t really give you the ‘local’ flavours. Walk a few blocks away, and you’re more likely to find a good meal at a lesser price.

The rule of thumb is to eat where the locals eat.

5. Ditch the hotel.

Hotels are great for hassle-free stays but when your budget’s tight, you could still end up in a bad one.

If you’re young and looking to meet people, opt for a hostel. You can still go for a single room if you need a place to cocoon, but the atmosphere will be more social. Most hostels also organise activities or tours that cater to young travellers.

Also, for the uninitiated: AirBnb is awesome. Take my word on this one. It’s an online platform for renting holiday homes – rooms, flats, or entire houses. A lot of the listings have flexible check-in and check-out. Accommodations range from basic to luxurious, and they have the added bonus of a kitchen. Sure the site’s really being used to make money now, but you can still come across hosts who will really make you feel like a guest in their home.

If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s €27 off your first booking. You’re welcome!

6. Exploit your discounts.

Airlines, trains, and buses sometimes offer ‘youth discounts’ or discounted fares to travellers between the ages of 18-25. If you’re in possession of an ISIC (International Student ID Card), you’ll also get reduced admission on a lot of tourist attractions and be eligible for reduced fares. For a minimal yearly fee, becoming a Hostelling International (HI) or Youth Hostel Association (YHA) member will also give you discounts on accommodation and fares.

7. Find the right data pack. 

Try not to rely on mobile data when you are charged more for roaming. There are plenty of hotspots around. If you are staying over a week and think you will need a constant connection, check out what data packs they offer for tourists – they might cost you less than your home network’s roaming tariff.

My Vodafone gives me the same tariff anywhere in the EU for just €15/month.

8. Buy water from the supermarket.

The 500mL water that cost €2,70 at Starbucks might sell for €1,20 in the supermarket. The 1,5L might cost as low as €0,30.

9. Timing is key.

Prices can be much lower when you book just at the right time – not too early nor too late. Accommodation websites such as agoda.com and Booking.com will have early bird deals that offer free or flexible cancellations or discounted rates.

Airlines, especially budget ones, provide real bargains if you know when to book. Airfares are most likely to drop real low on Wednesday nights. Weekend flights are usually more expensive, the earliest ones and the latest ones are usually the cheapest. Clearing your search history might sometimes get your search engine to reveal lower prices.

Rail passes go on sale. Trains also sell discount fares if you book early enough.

An overnight bus means you don’t need accommodation for that night. You can find a locker to leave your stuff so you can explore a place while waiting for check-in time.

If you’re not too bothered by the weather, you might also want to consider traveling off-season.

10. Join the free walking tour.

In a number of cities, you’ll find non-profit companies organising free walking tours. These tours are on a donation basis, and you’re absolutely free to give whatever you want. I usually find myself giving more than I thought I’d be saving – but that’s because most tour guides I’ve met had so much passion that it was hard not to fall in love with a place.

La Tomatina: The World’s Biggest Food Fight

Picture yourself standing on a narrow street lined with white-walled houses, in a small Spanish town in the middle of nowhere. Now add 45,000 people from all around the world, high-pressure hoses shooting out water at random intervals, and over 145,000kg of tomato. The product is an enormous mess called La Tomatina.

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On the last Wednesday of August every year, the small town of Buñol, 40km from Valencia, becomes overrun with tourists seeking to partake in its enormous tomato fight.

No one is really sure how this Buñol tradition started- a popular theory is that in 1944 or 1945, angry townspeople rioted and threw tomatoes at members of the city council during a town celebration. Whatever did happen, people enjoyed it so much that it was repeated yearly after that.

As word of La Tomatina came out (thanks especially to the Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), the event got bigger and bigger that in 2013, the city council decided to charge entrance fees and to limit the number of participants.

Who wouldn’t put participating in a massive tomato fight in their bucket list? 

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Traditionally, the tomato fight officially starts when someone retrieves the chunk of ham at the top of a greased pole. While this is happening, they’ll start prepping you up and hosing the crowd with cold water.

The La Tomatina crowd is a wild bunch from all around the world and you’ll find people in the quirkiest outifits. There are men dressed in religious habits, a whole Just Married entourage, crossdressers complete with blonde wigs, #DicksOutForHarambe, and of course the crazy Japanese bunch.

We all know Japanese people don’t go for ‘moderate’. As far as these folks are concerned, it is either all out or none at all. There were men dressed in sumo clothes, a man with a lab gown get-up that was completely tomato-proof, ladies in tomato mascots, a group in karate outfits, and people in wetsuits.

As fun as it sounds, the absence of teamwork and strategy and the presence of drunk people mean that the chances of someone retrieving the ham are next to none. So, whether or not the ham is retrieved, the tomato fight officially starts at 11am on the dot with a canon fired to signal the coming of the first of six delivery trucks carrying the tomatoes.

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The mayhem begins when people submerged in waste-deep tomatoes start throwing them out to the crowd. The trucks then stop a minute or two at its designated unloading point to dump its entire load on the street. Caught too close to the water hoses as I was, the tomato fight ensued in a blur of plops and poofs and desperate attempts to hide behind the palm and avoid the water. My goggles came in handy after all.

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The fight lasts exactly an hour and another canon is fired to mark its end. It was only at the end, when the crowd had loosened a little that I realised the full extent of La Tomatina. There are some events look exactly like in the photo, and post tomato-fight La Tomatina is one of them.

With a little more space and no more risk of getting hit on the nose by a tomato projectile, the cameras start coming out to capture the tomato sauce lake the people are all on. I have never seen that much tomato in my life and I doubt anyone ever will. In some areas, it was ankle-deep flowing rivers of tomato sauce! The locals had installed tarpaulins up to the third storey of their homes for easier cleanup, and looking up, you’d find yourself wondering how the tomatoes managed to end up so high.

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Feeling like a pasta.

I got an awful tan line, got dirty, stinky, and spent. The march back up from the town plaza to the parking lot felt like a mass exodus of zombies covered in tomatoes, and with the sun shining- we became sundried tomatoes desperately trying to somewhat clean ourselves up. It’s a smell I will never forget. At one point, I wanted to cry because I just wanted to shower and be clean, and with thousands of people wanting a shower, there were not enough hoses around.

It was an exhilarating experience that would awaken the inner child in anyone.

I was so exhausted that when I got back in the bus, I quickly fell asleep and didn’t even realise when the bus left and only woke up when we were already in Valencia. It was certainly one heck of a day and an experience for me and so many others.

And to those worried about food waste: the tomatoes for La Tomatina are actually grown for the purpose of the festival- they are of inferior taste and come extremely cheap from Extremadura.