In July 2006, I set off on my very first independent travelling mission – a tour around Eastern Canada with a company called the Moose Travel Network. It was somewhat of a personal milestone for several reasons, not only was it the first time I’d ever been out of Europe, it was also my first long-haul flight, and the first time I’d gone abroad by myself. Canada was a destination that had been screaming at me for a couple of years. My music-collection back then was dominated by representatives from the then still somewhat underground Montreal music scene. I would sit and listen to the album Funeral by Arcade Fire and think about the kind of landscape from where such beautiful music must have been conceived. Quebec, with it’s French influences and snowy landscapes, became my goal and dream to get to. I envisaged it to be a place into which the aeroplane would tumble through the clouds and land amongst a crescendo of accordions and violins, a place where men and women would walk around in tweed and trilbies, tapping their feet to said music.
I jetted out of Heathrow on Monday 17th July 2006. The main thing I remember from the journey was a small girl behind me who spent the entire seven hours kicking my seat and screaming. She asked me why I was watching The Simpsons, “a kid’s programme”, and offered me the remains of a cookie she had been busy munching on.
I arrived at my hostel at around 6pm and couldn’t for the life of me work out what I’d done. The dormitory room was cramped, and the mattresses were made out of that horrible plastic-y stuff that you usually find to be stained with the urine of an assortment of backpackers from the past few decades. Not only that, but it was dark and the only other people in my room were middle-aged women. I went to the hostel lobby and sat there looking at a few maps before a guy came over and made conversation. He was Japanese and we played pool. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this random man, about whom I didn’t know many details, represented what would become one of the main reasons I love travelling: the people you get to meet. Indeed, the people you meet when you’re travelling can become your temporary best friend within minutes. The fact that you have both travelled from different places around the world, and are both sitting here right now, both cursing the slowness of the internet, or thumbing your way through a guidebook – is enough to ignite a friendship that no matter how brief will manage to account for a significant proportion of your travel photos, and a similar proportion of your memories. But I never saw him after that night.
Does anyone know this guy?
The next morning I joined a small congregation in the hostel lobby – they were my ‘bus-buddies’ – those people who had signed up for the same tour as I. Most – in fact, perhaps all, were British, apart from Steven – an Australian guy who over time I would become particularly friendly with. Our first destination was Quebec City, via a quick stop-off at the Montmorency Falls:
The main thing I have to stress about Quebec City is that for a place which I’ve only ever spent one night of my life, it really made a lasting impression on me. You need only to have momentarily cast an eye upon the ancient fortifications before you are ahhh-ing and wow-ing and various other exclamations of awe-ing. It’s a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – 1920’s France meets Big Mac America, and blends together in the most charming of ways. Everybody you see in Quebec City looks like they keep a leather-bound journal in their satchel, in which they scribe poetry in peacock-blue ink with the use of a quill. Some people there even take the look one step further, and you can almost see the cannabis leaf behind their eyeballs. This such guy – who we asked to translate a poem for us – was exactly that kind of person.
In the evening, we went out for dinner at a fast-food restaurant where we were all introduced to the Canadian speciality, poutine. Quebec – we came to discover – was the home of this random ensemble of food – french fries and cheese curds decorated in gravy (or what folk from the North of England, where you can find a similar dish, might just call ‘cheeseh chips oon grairveh‘) I never tried any poutine, but I did look at it. And that alone was enough to tell me I shouldn’t put any of it anywhere near the hungry orifice beneath my nose. Instead, I just opted for some fried chicken and contemplated how anybody on the planet could ever think it was okay to consider eating a cheese curd.
The next morning, we set off for Tadoussac – a French settlement town on the bay of the St Lawrence river. Population 900. Along the way we, we had the great fortune to see a marmot, looking very happy against it’s mountainous surroundings. Our French bus-driver was named Paul, a long-haired crazeball with very tanned skin and a voice which was unmistakably his. “The Montagnais people call this place ‘Totouskak’… in reference to those two sandy hills you can see over there. To the Montagnais, these hills look like…. berrryoutiful big breasts!” Our hostel in Tadoussac was immense, a small ranch in the middle of nowhere outside which sat a group of long-bearded hippies who happily plucked their guitars against a backdrop of scenic beauty. No sooner had we checked-in our baggage, we took a walk around the town and set off whale-watching – one of the most common activities to do in this part of the world. The whale-watching was surprisingly successful – we got up close with some of the ocean’s biggest mammals, and as the sun set over Tadoussac’s beautiful big boobs, I was feeling incredibly at peace. That evening the group of us had a lovely evening at the hostel, listening to some live folk music around a bonfire drinking Lowenbrau. A lovely, relaxed evening… apart maybe from when Scots-girl Jen – who was on the trip with her boyfriend Christopher – informed me of a buzzing pest in our dorm. “There’s a bih buzzin aroond in our room, it wouldn’t fly oot the windoo, boot ah’ve managed to capture it in yr carrier bag, the one with yr bif thing in it.” She was referring to some beef-jerky which I’d purchased at the Kwik-e-Mart type thing we’d passed earlier. Indeed, when I took myself to witness the carnage first-hand, there was a bee buzzing around enjoying the strips of processed beef which I had been looking forward to sharpening my teeth on later that night. Ahhh well!
Breakfast the following day was crepes, which we had to make ourselves. Unfortunately for me this resulted in a big thick stodge akin to something you might be tempted to use as mortar. C’est la vie, as they say in the French language that is so widely used in this part of the world. On this day, Thursday 20th July, we were heading back to Montreal. On the way we stopped at a lovely little place called Baie-St-Paul, where we took some photos and had a coffee before picnic-ing besides a stunning construction otherwise known as the Sainte Anne de Beaupre Basilica. The vision of this building was enough to draw a tear to my eye. I went inside and lit a candle in memory of my Nana and Grandad. Afterall, it was only from the sale of their sweet little bungalow following their deaths that I’d come into this money. And in that moment, I wished more than anything else that they could be there with me to enjoy it too.
During the continuation of our journey in the mini-bus, I switched on my mobile. I hadn’t had any reason to use it so far, but thought I’d check whether or not I’d received any messages from home. I hadn’t, but whilst fiddling around with it I managed to drop it down a small hole next to the door-handle. Kerplunk. My phone had fallen into the deepest parts of the vehicle’s interior and there would be no way of unearthing it again without the aid of a mechanic. Fortunately the van was due for servicing a few days later, and I got the phone back in the end… but… I was beside myself with panic once I’d dropped it and – ashamed as I am to admit to this – even shed a tear. “What if people are trying to contact me! What if my mum needs to tell me something! What if! What if!” I told the story of my woe to everybody we encountered that day, including the guy at the check-in desk back at the hostel in Montreal. He just took a look at me, gave a slight frown, and said, “Hey, there’s more to life? What’s the big deal?” This was my first introduction to another of the things that I would grow to love about travelling… that mindset which you develop which turns around from any stressful situation and says,
“Fuck it, what’s the big deal? I’ve got legs to walk around the globe with, hands to touch the great number of things before me, and eyes to see them with. I need nothing more than this.”
His words got me thinking, and I instantly relaxed. The relaxed mindset of the traveler was weaving it’s way slowly into my life and I was grateful for this alternative way of looking at life. Such a contrast to the materialistic hustle and bustle of North London life.
It was during this second stint at the Hostel International that I met Dutch Moose-r Jackie. She was crackers, absolutely crackers – one of those people who you only know for a short time, but can never quite forget. We spent lots of time together, owing very much to that unwritten obligation that whilst you’re not on the bus, you should still spend time with your fellow Moosers. Jackie and I were lumped together in the same dormitory and had a friendship which was characterised by an apparent ability for both of us to completely irritate the other, yet laugh about it over a glass of Sangria in the evening. Jackie came out with random nuggets of intriguing information all the time: “Wow! I just hhhlooove the wer-hite wooden panelling on this warlll over heree” her Dutch accent would drool, before running her forefinger excitedly along the said-feature.
CrackerJackie was vocal in her appreciation of the plain white panelling
The next day was free for us to journey around Montreal, and our aim was to reach the Old Town. Jackie proved to be a bit of a dictator, albeit in an amiable way. My desire to use a map to help us find our way around the city irritated her no end. “Put that map away!… We don’t wanna hhhlook hhhlike a touris’!”
An hour later we were completely lost, wandering aimlessly around what appeared to be the city’s financial district like some kind of contemporary incarnation of Steptoe and Son. “Well, the good thing is that we don’t look like tourists”, I noted aloud, thinking about how the map that had been shoved back into my bag by a pair of Dutch hands could have probably saved us a huge deal of time. Unfortunately, Jackie hadn’t detected my sarcasm, and agreed that yes, at least we didn’t look like tourists. I will never know anything of Jackie ever again, but I do sometimes wonder what she’s doing now, and whether or not she still has the same aversion to maps.
It was all change again the next day. The second time to leave Montreal – this time with a new bus-driver – Jen. Jen was awesome – one of those people that just loves life. Having somebody like that driving the bus meant that there was a constant flow of natural exuberance permeating around the seats. “I want you all to know about Canadian music. Some of the best music comes from Canada, but so many people mistake our artists for being American”. She reeled off a list of names of musicians who are commonly attributed to the U.S – Alanis Morrisette, Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne…. and with that, she put on a c.d consisting purely of Canadian acts. The c.d, consisting of around 15 songs, was to be played on loop over the next ten days – over which we could cover thousands of miles of highway. By the end of the trip – Stompin Tom Connors’ ‘The Good ol’ Hockey Game’ was of second nature to my mind. Amusing, yet ever so slightly infuriating too.
Our first stop with our new tour-guide was Mont Tremblant – a beautiful ski resort outside of Montreal. This is one of the only towns in the world where you have to take a ski-lift to reach the centre, and not far away from here was our hostel – a beautiful wooden hut next to Lac Moore. At dusk, we borrowed some kayaks and paddled around on the water. The Mont-Tremblant racing circuit was on the other side of some bushes and I had to fight the urge to climb over the fence and run around on the track. Lac Moore left a mark on me, and I left a mark on the place in return… somewhere, at the bottom of the lake, are a pair of navy goggles which belonged to me, but became an unfortunate casualty of a capsize. That evening – after dinner when it was dark – crazy Aussie Steven and I went for a swim – au naturel. Generally speaking, my travels have enabled me to experience some wonderful moments, and I have to say that skinny-dipping underneath the moonlight in Lac Moore on Saturday 22nd July 2006 was one of them.
Before leaving Lac Moore, we had an opportunity to enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast (also known as, ‘one sole croissant’). My appetite now sated for the rest of the week, we set off to Ottawa. Along the way we went around a drive-through safari in which we saw many moose, and a deer tried to board the bus and join our tour.
I’m not sure there are many people who would disagree with me saying that Ottawa is not the most vibrant or interesting of places. Seven years later, and the main thing I can remember about the town itself is that there was a river, and a building which vaguely resembled the British Houses of Parliament. At least our hostel was interesting however – a converted prison – dormitories which had formerly been cells belonging to criminals who had probably been convicted of horrendously heinous crimes, such as expressing a negative opinion about the local ice-cream, or sneezing into the pure Ottawan air without first putting one’s hand over one’s mouth. In the evening, a large group of us went for a night out. Everybody was drunk – particularly BusDriver Jen. It took me a while to catch-up – in fact for the first few hours I was relatively sober. That’s why it was such a surprise when the poe-faced girl behind the bar in whichever club we were in refused to serve me a drink, “I’ve been watching you dancing ma’am and I have reason to believe you are drunk.” No more alcohol for me that night, then.
We left Ottawa the next morning and made our way to Fort Coulange via a place that looked like a bunch of space-rock, where one of our group did a bungee jump. The rest of us spent an hour or so in the nearby village of Wakefield. I’ve never even been to Wakefield in the UK, but its small Canadian namesake was a pleasant enough place to spend a bit of time.
Our ultimate destination that day – Fort Coulange – was a lakeside campsite where groups from a number of tours would congregate and do water-sports. A very ‘happy-clappy woo woo place’, it was to be the setting for some white-water rafting. It was also the location of the only ever All You Can Eat Barbeque where the only unlimited foodstuff is the salad. We used our next day to take the waters of the Ottawa River, and I had put my name down for river-boarding. Only a few of us had taken this option – which is basically body-boarding, but on the same route as a white-water raft. We had a rather dishy instructor named Brook guide us along the various lively rapids and meanders. It took me a while to get used to the activity – at one point I became a little frustrated at just how often I was submerging beneath the water and coming to the surface painfully spluttering for air, but when I eventually got the hang of it, it was great fun – easily one of the most frightening and extreme experiences I had ever had, and the kind of thing you do once and then long to do again.
Tuesday 25th July – another day and another destination – this time the Ontarian township of Madawaska – near to the large national park – Algonquin. Remote locations tend to be the most likely source – in my experience – of special and memorable moments. Another remote location, another sweet little campfire. By this point, the group had expanded in number, and in our dormitory was Jo – an Australian lady, Atsuko from Japan, and Dorothy from Germany. We spent a while drinking in the room before joining the others around the campfire. I love those moments when the outside air is so warm and the landscape so silent, except for the crackling of a campfire, the puckering of crickets, and the bottle-opener extracting the lid from a bottle of beer.
We spent our next day touring Algonquin Park – a huge province dedicated to nature. Despite the various gradients, we managed to complete a 3.5km hike and saw some beautiful scenery along the way. The weather was wet and windy that day, but somehow it fit in nicely with the environment around us. Algonquin – a hidden yet beautiful Canadian gem.
The following day we set off for Toronto. En-route we stopped off at a small village called Dorset, where we clambered up a lookout tower which gave us beautiful views of the Algonquin park before eating a picnic lunch at a table overlooking the Lake of Bays. This was the first time I’d ever eaten a blueberry – at BusDriverJen’s recommendation. Now, whenever I eat a blueberry, my mind transports me back to the Lake of Bays and that lovely lunch we had before our final evening as a group. That day marked the end of our stint with BusDriverJen – and in the evening, to thank her for her generosity to us, we all went to the Pickle Barrel in Toronto for a delicious dinner and the most delicious Margheritas I’ve ever consumed. I got back to the hostel at around midnight and stirred sleeping room-mates by fannying around with my alarm clock. Not the most popular person in the room that night.
Friday 28th July 2006 – Niagara Calling! On the way we did some wine-tasting. A cropped-haired old lady explained to us the correct way of sniffing, sipping and swallowing a fine wine. She also introduced us to ice-wine, possibly one of the most delectable things to ever make its way down my windpipe. Super-sweet and super-smooth, ice-wine is made from frozen grapes, and you can only purchase it in a few places in the world. Thankfully, Niagara is one of them, and I was happy to shell-out on such a rewarding product. This wasn’t to be the only taste sensation of the day – a short while later, as we made our way around the sweet streets of the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, I ate a blue ice-cream which contained yellow and orange sweets. To this day, that remains the best ice-cream I’ve ever had in my life.
Finally, we reached the Falls themselves, and took part in what every tourist does – the Maid of the Mist boat-trip – a typically over-expensive tourist trap in which one adorns bright-blue plastic ponchos that resemble a form of birth-control, to protect from the heavy spray that emanates from the Falls. Possibly more exciting to me than the Falls themselves was the fact that this was the first time my naked eye had ever set sight on the United States of America – the state of New York just a few hundred yards away from me. I was also in awe at some of the stories we were hearing on our boat trip – stories of people who had attempted to travel down the Horseshoe Falls in the past – many of whom had been unsuccessful in retaining their livelihood throughout, but some of whom who had – like Annie Taylor, the first ever person to conquer the Falls in the safety shell of a barrel back in 1901. Though she had been successful, many hadn’t, like Charles G. Stephens who attempted to repeat the feat in 1920. As his barrel bobbed around in the water after his plunge, the only item still inside was his right arm. To this day, there are still people who attempt to cascade down the Falls and come out alive on the other side. Whilst I can’t quite understand this mentality to want to skirt so close to the clutches of death, I can’t help but feel in awe of the determination and bravery.
Close to Niagara Falls sits the area of Clifton Hill – an extremely tacky part of town decorated with the neon lights of fried-chicken restaurants and casinos. Steven, Dorothy and I made our way around the city. “How do people get soooo FAT” – Dorothy screwed her nose up as we passed a rather large lady balanced against a wall, shortly before we entered a KFC to feast up on the grease and oil which would provide fuel for our trip to the casino, a rather fruitless couple of hours in which my ‘let’s just put some money into the machine and press a button here and there’ failed to reap any reward.
The next couple of days were spent roaming around Toronto, much to our own accord. One night, Aussies Jo, Steven and I went to the harbour to watch The Waking Eyes and The Weakerthans in concert. The rain pitter-pattered down around us as the night set in and I couldn’t help but think about how wonderful a way this was to draw an end to our Canadian adventure. The following day, both Jo and Steven left and I was on my own. I took an aimless walk around the city – saw the CN Tower and ate a grotty Chinese meal in the Eaton Centre. The hardest point of travelling is when you find yourself completely alone moments after the last of so many hours of amazing moments have taken place. I didn’t have any friends in Toronto anymore, and companionship came only in the form a of hairy man who kept following me around. I took myself back to the hostel and went to a ‘jamming session’ that was taking place on the rooftop but felt exhausted and didn’t know what to say to any of these strangers. So to bed I went, already feeling the onset of the post-holiday blues.
I overslept that night, and was awoken only once ANOTHER new bus-driver – BusDriverSteph – rapped at the dormitory door and told me to get up. “You must be Sophie… Sophie we’re all waiting for you downstairs, c’mon girl!” I hurriedly got dressed and packed all my belongings before making my way down the stairs to greet a sea of disapproving faces. New Moosers. I hadn’t set a very good first impression, but by this point I was too tired and apathetic to care. We were to make our way back to Montreal via a small town called Ganonoque, which we were to use as our Gateway to what’s known as the Thousand Islands – a cluster of thousands of islands ranging in size near to the mouth of Lake Ontario. Upon many of the islands stood houses – and as the area itself straddled both Canada and the USA, some of the houses boasted Canadian flags and the others paraded the Stars and Stripes. With my Canadian adventure drawing to a close, this moment was somewhat poignant. Canada – now partially done. The USA – somewhere to which I’ve come so close, but have yet to explore properly. Three years later, I would find the means to do exactly that…