Most of my big world adventures, and certainly my love for travel, have developed during my years as an undergraduate student at The University of British Columbia. I don’t know if it’s a personally trait I sort of grew into or the perfect destiny of inspiration and opportunity, but over the last 3-ish years I’ve been to four never-before-visited continents and taken a scary number of plane rides for a person who hates to fly.
One hell of a commute: Toronto -> Vancouver
Starting at the most basic level, I “travel” every time I go from home to school or vice versa. Toronto is about five hours away by plane and I am lucky enough to fly home at least two or three times a year. This doesn’t count my first year at UBC when I was a flight attendant friend’s buddy (aka free flights!). But the free flights were not always as glorious as they appeared: because I wasn’t technically related to this friend, my buddy status was relatively low. And since the YYZ-YVR route is exceptionally popular, I often spent hours and hours waiting in airports and took many interesting routes home (e.g. Van -> LA -> New Jersey -> Toronto aka 26 horrible hours). But flying stand-by definitely helped me get over my fear of flying (it’s now a moderate dislike); after moving from gate to gate waiting for my name to be called, getting on any flight was bliss.
Adding another continent to my list
In May 2011, after my first year at university, I found an organization I could volunteer with in Peru. I knew after volunteering in The DR the summer before, I definitely wanted to do something that would shock my system by reminding me of global realities and give me a chance to do some good. In all honesty, Peru was chosen mainly because it was one of the cheaper volunteer programs and since I was still a stand-by buddy, I could fly direct from Toronto for free. So I spent three weeks living with a homestay in Peru (my first homestay experience) with up to 14 other volunteers (plus the family!). I worked at a few different orphanages, schools, daycares and shelters. I really enjoyed my time in Peru. I fell in love with the beautiful language and adorable babies I was taking care of and I made awesome memories with the other volunteers. Looking back, I wish I had put a bit more planning into that trip. We managed to do a bit of local sightseeing but I didn’t know what else I was missing (like the short flight up to Cusco to see Machu Picchu).
Last minute to Europe
After my second year, the restless feelings that lead to this blog’s creation really started to eat away at me. I came back to Toronto without really having a plan. I had worked at restaurants the summer before and didn’t really want to do that again. But my prayers were answered in the form of a very good last-minute deal to Europe. It was one of those things I would usually click on, sigh to myself wishing I could do it and then move on. But this time, I did it. I booked the flights, the trains, the buses, the hostels and a week later I was in London, alone, for my first ever trip to Europe. Those three weeks through London, Paris, Nice, Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon are still some of my favourite travel memories. Every day was filled with discovering new parks, foods, statues, exhibits, etc. and realizing the photos I had been lusting over were now right in front of me. Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace, Monte Carlo… I was pretty much walking around each city with a big grin. That trip was also a huge learning experience. I had never travelled by myself. I had never planned my own itinerary. And at times it was really scary, really lonely and really exhausting. And it was only three weeks! But it showed me what I was capable of. I can navigate in a brand new city where I don’t speak the language. I can eat at a restaurant and go to a movie by myself. I can figure out what to do when I miss my night train to Lisbon and the ticket office is closed. I overcame a lot of challenges and learned a lot about what makes a trip meaningful for me. Am I doing this just for the photo opp? If I skip this, will I feel guilty because it’s something I want to do or something I’m expected to do? Two years later, and I still struggle with these questions and with feelings of loneliness, exhaustion and fear, but I know it’s not enough to keep me at home.
This time for Africa
Africa was kind of like my Nirvana. I’ve been volunteering and passionate about human rights issues since grade school. My first big volunteer trip, a month building schools/homes in the Dominican Republic in 2010, was the first time I got to see all of my fundraising and awareness raising come to life. But my dream was always to go to Africa. I wanted to go to Kenya with Free The Children but I couldn’t afford it. The DR, and then Peru, were much more economical options and I knew help was still needed there. But the chance to go to Africa? Impossible to pass up.
My trip to Africa happened through UBC’s Go Global department of International Service Learning. Students apply, interview and hopefully get into a program. My program was a psychology course focusing on psychological applications in developing communities (basically my dream academic course). So for the month of May, I attended twice-weekly lectures with about twenty other students. At the end of the month, we all shipped off for different placements in Africa. Alejandra and I headed to Mbabane, Swaziland for three months with the SOS Children’s Village. This was the first time I got to see long term development work on the ground. Overall, I would say the experience was definitely rewarding and I absolutely am glad I decided to pursue this opportunity. But, it was really challenging! It opened my eyes to a lot of problems that come with working and living in a developing community and it shed a bit of reality on a field I was certain I wanted to work in.
The land down under
After Swaziland, I spent a quick two weeks in Toronto and then jetted off to Sydney, Australia. I’m about two and a half weeks into this adventure, and so far it has been pretty amazing. I spent two very relaxing weeks in Yamba dog/house sitting. It was nice to kind of have that time to decompress after a very exhausting summer and then two weeks of non-stop family and friends. But by the end of it, I was itching for a city. Next stop: Sydney! I’ve just spent my first full day in Sydney and it is exactly what I was looking for. It’s beautiful, as evidenced by the fact that I spent most of my day walking around the Harbour gawking at the Harbour Bridge and Opera House (photos & details to come). I’ve got the rest of the week in Sydney, a week in Melbourne, then I’m off to Vancouver for 5 days for a conference and then back to Toronto. While in Australia, I’m still technically a UBC student – I’m doing four courses online (plus work for this upcoming conference and the psych class I went to Swaziland with). I had planned to get ahead with all of my work in Yamba, which was do-able, but I can see that it is going to be a lot harder in Sydney and Melbourne. After spending all day walking around and exploring the city, it’s very hard to come back to my room and do an assignment or some readings. And since I only have so much time in each city, I’m desperately trying to fit in as much as I can into each day. I have to keep reminding myself that I am student first, and need to dedicate the time to it (but it’s hard!).
The next undergraduate adventure is happening in February, when I will be heading to the University of Amsterdam for a semester abroad (as long as all of my paperwork goes through!). I’m really excited to be able to have a big chunk of time (at least five months) to really settle in and call Amsterdam home. But I’m equally as excited to leave that home whenever time (and money) permit to see as much of Europe as I can. I know I will face a similar challenge to my current online course work, since I’m technically going to Amsterdam to study, but hopefully I’ll be able to find a good balance by then.
How does it all add up? $$
I’m not rich. My parents don’t pay for my trips and I don’t have a trust fund. In fact, I have student loans. And the majority of my belongings were on sale when I bought them. So how is any of this possible?
Flying home: This one I have been pretty lucky with. As I said, during my first year of uni I essential flew for free. Since then, the costs of each flight ($500-800 roundtrip) has usually been split between me and my parents. I’ve been the recipient of some airline miles and generous Christmas flights home.
Peru: Again, as I said, the flight to Peru was free. The weekly costs (homestay, volunteer placement, program fee, etc.) were pretty reasonable considering the other locations and volunteer organizations available. I actually paid for this one myself, with money I had saved from jobs during high school.
Europe: I lucked out with a really amazing flight deal, which helped keep costs down. Besides that, I’m a fairly budget-conscious traveller and was able to not completely break the bank. I rarely ate at sit down restaurants (preferring take-away café sandwiches) and a lot of the attractions I visited were free (e.g. service at Westminster Abbey, reading in front of the Eiffel Tower). While I did splurge on one or two hotel rooms, I tried really hard to cut costs where I could. My parents gave me a little and I had some money saved from hostess-ing and working in residence at UBC.
Swaziland: Thankfully, I was eligible for award funding from my school which really helped with the costs. After that, my mom and I sourced a reasonable flight and I used money I had made during a co-op semester and another year working in residence.
Australia: Probably the luckiest thing of all: I won a free flight! I entered an Air Canada travel story contest on a whim and a little while later I was staring at a free flight to Sydney! Unfortunately, the ticket expires at the end of 2013, hence my decision to do courses online and head down here now. My first two weeks in Yamba were fairly cheap since I received free accommodation in exchange for my dog/house sitting services. There wasn’t much to do, so my only real cost was food. Here in Sydney, I’m staying with a homestay family and in Melbourne I’ll be renting a room from a local family; both options are much cheaper than hotels and allow me to do my course work without threat of lousy internet, noise or theft that might accompany a hostel.
Amsterdam: Currently, this one is a little up in the air. I believe I am receiving another financial award through my school that will cover the flight. And my regular student loans should cover tuition. But the cost of living is higher in Amsterdam and with all the cross-Europe adventures I’m planning…I could use a little money in the bank. Right now, I’m really hoping to be able to get a job when I get back to Toronto in three weeks. Hopefully that will help make long weekend trips to Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Italy (just to name a few) possible!
And that, is a fairly comprehensive explanation of where, why and how I’ve travelled over the last three years! Note: this summary doesn’t include a few mini trips like work trips to Seattle, reading break 2011 in San Francisco with my mom or a family trip to Atlantis in The Bahamas last summer.