With love, TO

Cultured and cosmopolitan yet relaxed and liveable, the New York City of Canada is a vibrant sprawling city.

Two decades ago, Canadians might have laughed at the idea of visiting the provincial capital for fun, but these days, with a population of almost 3 million in the city alone, with more than half born outside of Canada, it is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

With a visit limited to 10 days, I travelled Canada on the fast lane. My first day was already endless bus rides in suburban Montreal, my second – endless food and endless drinking in the city, that by the time we got to our hotel room at 3am, we all passed out knowing we had to be up by 5am.

And so the alarm went off and we dashed through the dawn. We arrived in Downtown Toronto at noon and made our way along Dundas Street, hungry and desperately craving a root beer shake (uh-huh). Most places were packed and since I do occasionally live the hipster lifestyle, we opted for Bare Burger: free-range, grass-fed, organic.

A vegan, a carnivore, a dietitian and a glutton sit at a table.

My Toronto trip was just one of the many moments I found myself somewhere with not even a skeleton of a plan. The only comfort was I dragged my best friend with me and we had a place to squat. It’s amazing how many people I went to school with in Philippines have immigrated to Canada.

So what would stereotypical Asians do when they reunite after so many years?

Go karaoke and get drunk. Then realize you skipped dinner.

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View of Downtown Toronto from Centre Island

Toronto is crowded, dense, and spread out. With a little research and proper planning, it’s easy to spend a couple of days just exploring the city. There is something for everyone. Here are my highlights for a short trip in Ontario’s capital:

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The CN Tower  and the Entertainment District

An icon of the Toronto skyline, the CN Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world from 1975-2007, and though it no longer is, it still relieves tourists of as much cash as possible. On a clear day, it’ll give you a good bearing of the city’s layout and its neighbourhoods, and you may even see as far as Niagara.

The CN Tower is located in the Entertainment District which is also home to Ripley’s (Canada’s largest indoor aquarium), Rogers Centre (for baseball and NFL fans), theatres, performing arts centres, and nightclubs.

A Visit to the Royal Ontario Museum & Art Gallery of Ontario

The main entrance of the ROM (Daniel Libeskind’s The Crystal) might be a hot topic for debate, but Canada’s largest museum of world cultures and natural history is somewhere you can easily spend 3 hours in. From dinosaurs to the birth of present-day Canada, the exhibits are well-organised and there are plenty of helpful guides to assist you.

Another one of the city’s cultural highlights is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). It is one of the largest art galleries in North America. There are five floors, two for art and the other three for exhibits.

Tip: The AGO is free on Wednesdays from 18:00-20:30. 

A Trip to the Toronto Islands

When the sun is up, Torontonians set sail for a small chain of islands on Lake Ontario that can easily be reached by City of Toronto ferries operating at Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at the foot of Bay St. The islands are home to parkland, yacht clubs, an airport, a children’s amusement park, car-free residential areas, swimming beaches (including a clothing optional one). There are plenty of picnic spots and quiet nooks to escape the bustle of urban life.

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A Stop at Nathan Phillips Square

You just can’t miss this square when in Toronto. Located in front of Toronto City Hall, this is where the now-iconic 3D Toronto sign is. The square is the site of a weekly farmer’s market, art displays, concerts, and public demos. In the winter, the reflecting pool is converted into an ice rink.

Chilling at the City Parks

Toronto has a lot of parks. Even when in Downtown Toronto, you’re only a couple of minutes away from the many parks along Lake Ontario. HTO Park has a beach by the boardwalk. Toronto Music Garden is a waterfront garden co-designed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma that hosts summertime concerts. Its landscape is areflection of Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. It’s perfect for chilling on mild afternoons to try to get your mind off the frentic city life.

Though drinking in public is illegal in Toronto, they’re reversing this law starting July 1. Yay to Toronto!

Walking the Busy Streets

What better way to explore a city than on foot?

The city’s multi-ethnic identity is reflected in its neighbourhoods. From busy city center to historic Old Town to trendy West Side and hippy East Side, to the Boho charm of West Queen West, Kensington Market, and cheap Chinatown – it’s a city for everyone.

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Into the Sunset

 

The Colours of Spring

While many other European cities started blooming at the beginning of March, Warsaw slept under its grey blanket a little longer, and it wasn’t until 2 weeks ago that it finally grew out of the dull winter mood.

Warsaw is an ugly city. It’s a mess of stark contrasting communist blocks and modern steel and glass high-rises. The center is the place to be, and at times it seems like it’s the only place where anything is happening. Despite the sizeable expat community, it is still very homogeneous, and generally, you will get the impression that service is foreign to the Poles.

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Under the Bridge, Służew

But come spring, and suddenly the city is so much better. The first greens remind you that it isn’t such a dreary city – there are plenty of green areas – it just really sucks in winter (which is half the year), when all is bare and the communist era buildings stick out of the cityscape. When Warsaw finally wakes up from a winter-induced dullness, it’s beautiful.

April began with the Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit cheekily called “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest”. It’s set on its new pavilion by the Vistula and managed to lure me there because it’s free. It’s a small exhibit and rather lacklustre. It deals with the origins of the siren in Warsaw’s crest (already in use in the 1400s), the mythology surrounding it, sexuality, and the siren’s relevance to the city.

A highlight of the exhibit is “Him” by Danish duet Elmgreen & Dragset which depicts the Copenhagen Little Mermaid as a man. The exhibit runs until June 18 if you are interested. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it, but if you’re at the Copernicus Science Center or the Warsaw University Library which are right across, it’s worth a stop. The museum cafe is decent and there’s an outdoor platform where you can sit on beach chairs and chill.

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Promenade along the Vistula

With the warm days coming up, it’s worth noting that Warsaw is really embracing the Vistula (Wisła in Polish). They’re building hang out spots on the promenade along the river, and by the looks of it, it should be completely ready by summer. If you prefer a wilder side, the untamed beaches of the Praga side of the banks of the Vistula is the perfect place to relax, and it comes with a view of the Royal Castle and the Old Town.

To celebrate the colours of spring, a Holi event took place at Castle Square in the Old Town and being the kid that I am, I eagerly dragged my friend along. It was a small crowd but it was fun, colourful, and messy – a perfect way to enjoy a sunny day.

Warmer days also mean eating out and lazing around in the park which means – food truck season!

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April’s first weekend was a busy and awesome one. And look, it’s already the weekend…

 

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Of course all happy days must have a dash of sadness… mine was because I learned the random palm in the middle of an intersection in Warsaw is not real. And I was so impressed by it.

Reflections on a Year Past

I started 2016 with so much energy and the impulsiveness I’ve always had. As a response, Berlin gave us a ball of light in an entirely overcast sky for a sunrise on January 1.

It was at the beginning of 2016 that I finally made the change I was always planning on but was always afraid to do. It was painful then, but the pain stayed there. I was free. It was the year that proved what I always say: I’m too many people at once, sometimes I don’t know who I am.

IMG_017211111.jpgI spent so much time, money, and energy traveling. There were times when I felt physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. I met all sorts of people, engaged in countless conversations that impacted me so much, and collected so many stories. I realised I can talk and that there are people who want to listen, and that the quieter you are, the more you can hear.

I worked on rediscovering what it meant to be ‘family’ –as Jonathan Safran Foer puts it, “One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what means to be family.” I spent my entire Christmas break traveling to meet family. It was a bit of a challenge that they were scattered all over the place.

I learned to do weekend breaks– having spent the previous year with barely any weekend free from work. I traveled to places I’d never heard of before, and learned to make do with whatever was at hand.

I woke one February morning to the news of the Brussels Bombings. I breakfasted in silence with the strangest feeling. By some stroke of fate, my extremely delayed flight left the airport 6 hours before that attack.

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World Pillow Fight Day in Berlin

In a fit of jealousy, stubbornness, and possessiveness, I started running again. Every initial step was a battle against the voices in my head, against memories of the darkest summer I spent. I signed up for my first half marathon: the Isle of Skye Half Marathon.

I met the dreaded ToiToi – Germany’s portable public toilets, enjoyed work and the diversity of the people I was with. When summer was in full heat, I had my first swim in a Berlin lake, did the Rostock Half Marathon, and enjoyed the outdoors and the endless events that made up Berlin’s summer spirit.

One Sunday I visited a Gurdwara for the first time and received insights on something I knew very little about. I learned that Sikhism is more tradition, a way of life, than religion.

 

I remembered my roots, realised how much two and a half years can change a person, and caught up on old relations. It was a pleasant surprise that although we all go through so many different experiences and we are constantly changing, some things are fundamentally the same.

I moved to a new city in a new country, made new friends, and lived a new life. I had my fair share of grief and tears, faced my selfishness and learned that I didn’t have to explain all my actions. I shuddered at the indifference I discovered– at how cold and cruel the human heart can be. There are people in your life who are worthy of an explanation– and among them, people who don’t listen. As the saying goes, there are people who can’t see the forest for the trees.

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Rolling with the times

It was the year I first smoked weed, shisha, drank a little too much a few times too many, yet it was the year I was fittest. I felt young. I regressed and did things I had missed out on in my strange childhood.

It was life on the fast lane that on the day I typed the words, it was true.

You know the girl you once thought you knew? Well, she’s not here anymore. 

 

 

That Midpoint on the Map: Cuenca

Who would have known that a random place you find on a map and are determined to explore could lead to a short fairytale?

I went to Spain with three major cities pinned on my map: Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid. The journey from Valencia to Madrid seemed best to break somewhere in between so I started looking for more places to visit, almost setting the unexceptional town of Minglanilla as a destination out of curiosity, having lived in a town named after it in Cebu for the first 17 years of my life.

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The vast fields of interior Spain

Eventually, I found the sizeable city of Cuenca on the map. It was almost equidistant from Valencia and Spain, and once I saw the images of the gorge, I was determined to go. There was no way I would not find a cheap way to get to Madrid from Valencia without involving a stop at Cuenca.

Leaving Valencia early in the morning, the train made its way through rugged landscapes and vast empty lands I would not have known existed in Spain if I had only spent my time in its densely populated cities. It was a beautiful ride that kept me wondering just why there were stops in the middle of nowhere, where for miles upon miles, even the sight of a single house was a rarity.

Walking out of the bus station, I headed for the tourist information center, and received a map marked with the next tourist information point as she didn’t speak English. After quite a short walk through the lower town – the dull new part of the city, I tried to learn as much as I could at the English info point before continuing along the riverbank.

Founded by the Arabs in the 8th century, Cuenca, then known as Kunka, was built to defend a strategic hilltop between two gorges dug by the Júcar and Huécar rivers. The Old City of Cuenca sprawls along the ridge, forming a formidable, uneven wall with small windows and occasional archways.

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Cuenca, Spain

A little further along the river, the scenery changes dramatically. The gentle slope turns into a dramatic gorge spanned by the 40-meter high wood and iron Puente de San Pablo.

St. Paul’s Bridge was built to connect the Convent of St. Paul with the Old Town. (The convent was abandoned in 1975 and turned into a state-run luxury hotel.)

The original 16th century bridge collapsed and a new bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and supported upon the remains of the old bridge was built at the turn of the 20th century. The Puente de San Pablo is undoubtedly the best way to approach to the Old Town.

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Entering the Old Town via the Puente de San Pablo

It’s a beautiful view, overlooking the gorge and the Hanging Houses (Casas Colgadas). In the past, the eastern border of the Old City was full of these houses. Today however, only a few remain, the most well-known  of which is a group of 3 houses with wooden balconies. These 3 houses are the icons of Cuenca and the lure for tourists. Their exact origins cannot be determined but there is proof of their existence as early as the 15th century. Surprisingly, they currently house a museum for abstract art.

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The iconic Casas Colgadas (Hanging Houses) of Cuenca

Though the hanging houses are not as awe-inspiring as the brochures would like you to think, Cuenca is a definitely worth a visit. It is the classic Spanish town that travellers search for – historical, colourful, and beautiful.

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The medieval architecture is amazing, and walking along the deserted and narrow streets of the Old Town, gazing up at old ‘high-rises’, and having a spontaneous siesta under the shade of a tree on a summer afternoon in Spain, looking down at the quiet of little-known Cuenca, I could only contemplate how much I had happened in such a short time.

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With the weather changing fast and dark clouds looming ominously behind me, I decided I had seen enough and headed down the other side of the city. The houses along this gorge seemed taller, and I found myself wondering what it must have been like to live on the top floors, and if they had installed lifts by now.

I got back to Plaza Mayor in the middle of the Old Town. It is wide at the top and tapers down to the Town Hall but has no arcades to protect people from sun or rain. Apart from that, it is your typical Spanish plaza complete with a cathedral, colourful houses, cafés, and a fountain. I walked over to the fountain and splashed my face with cold water. It had been a hot and humid day.

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Cuenca’s Plaza Mayor with the Cathedral (left)

Refreshed and with renewed energy, I slowly made my way down the maze of narrow streets back to the lower town, until the rain chased me and I had to stand under someone’s doorway to wait it out, but it didn’t stop, and I had to walk under the rain to make it in time for the bus to Madrid. It was hard to imagine it had just been such a fine day in Cuenca. Even harder to imagine, it was only my 3rd day in Spain.

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.

 

 

The Dwarves of Wrocław

Poland’s 4th largest city has just started popping up on tourist radars, and with its designation as European Capital of Culture this year, the tourism figures are rising.

What few non-locals know is that Wrocław is home to a sizeable population of gnomes. That’s right, the city is home to hundreds of dwarves. They first appeared in 2005 and the population has been continuously increasing that people lost track of their exact numbers some years ago. Back in 2014, there were over 300 of them spread out across the city. Some are begging for attention while others are inconspicuously hidden. Each one is unique, has its own name, profession, and story.

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The start-up guy

It seems like a tourist gimmick but it in fact started out as a commemoration to the Orange Alternative movement in the 80’s. The Orange Alternative was a Polish anti-communist underground movement that opposed the totalitarian government through peaceful protests, some of which were painting graffiti of dwarves over anti-government slogans, and running around the city dressed as dwarves.

The movement culminated in ‘The Revolution of Dwarves’ on June 1, 1988, when more than 10,000 people wearing orange dwarf hats marched through the center of Wrocław.

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Dwarves outside the Philharmonic
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Birthday dwarf-spotting

 

Today, the dwarves have become such a quintessential part of Wrocław that they’ve made an app for pinpointing them. Dwarf spotting is a fun alternative to traditional tourist sightseeing, and since there are always more dwarves arriving, you’ll find even locals smile and welcome another one they didn’t know before.