Monday, June 28, 2010

One-Day Walking Tour of Montreal's Old Port and ChinaTown

With a population of only four million, Montreal is by no means a huge city, but it is the largest in Quebec, Canada.

Its small size makes it a safe and easy city to navigate by foot. The subway system only has four lines that criss-cross the city and you can get from one end of the island to the other in less than an hour.

To really enjoy the city, don't waste money on taxis or even bother renting a car - Montreal drivers have their own rules for the road, and the endless one-way streets can frustrate even the most experienced drivers. Parking is also difficult and expensive. So grab a good pair of shoes, hope the weather is great and take a walk!

This one-day walking tour starts just outside Place-d'Armes metro station. Head west on St. Urbain street, towards Viger Avenue. If you walk a block over to St. Laurent, you should be able to see a large pagoda with two lion statues. This is the entrance to Montreal's Chinatown. If you are there on a weekday morning, it will be much less crowded. Sunday is the most popular day to go to Chinatown, but keep in mind, the crowds are never so large as to make navigation difficult. Chinatown is spread out over a few blocks between St. Urbain and St. Laurent and Viger and René-Levesque.

Take the time to browse in all the little shops along St. Laurent. Each shop has an interesting mix of food items, novelties, souvenirs, ornaments and dishes. In grocery stores, you'll find Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese foods and candies. Be adventurous and pick up something you've never tried before! This is also a great place to get fresh, cheap fruits in season. Buy a bunch to bring back to your hotel room or give to your host.

If you stroll along de la Gauchetière, you'll find more restaurants and delectable bakeries. Stop by the Dragon's beard stall - you can't miss it! Dragon's beard is a candy made with long strands of sugar (the "dragon's beard") and peanuts, coconut and sesame seeds inside. It's made fresh on the spot. You can also find Bubble tea - flavoured teas with giant balls of sweetened tapioca (the "bubbles") that you suck up with an extra large straw.

You can easily make a quick and cheap lunch out of the fresh sausage rolls or red bean balls of the bakeries, or sit down at one of the restaurants or buffets along the strip. The food is authentic and good - though service can sometimes be slow.

After that, head south down St. Laurent and head towards the Old Port (Vieux-Port) of Montreal. You'll have to walk uphill for this part and you'll pass by the Palais de Justice (courthouse). If you need to use the bathroom, you can hop in there, but there's nothing particularly special about the building. If you wander upstairs, you may be able to catch a glimpse of a wedding party, fresh from exchanging their vows.

Take a right on Notre-Dame and visit the Notre-Dame Basilica. It was modelled after Notre-Dame in Paris, but is much smaller. Still, it is worth the small entrance fee to take a look inside. You'll find a wonderful organ, beautiful stained glass windows and the back chapel where Céline Dion got married!

From there, head south on St. Sulpice street towards St. Paul street. St. Paul is the oldest street in Montreal and mostly cobblestone - which is why it's important to wear good shoes for this tour. Don't try walking in heels on cobblestone! You can browse through the shops on this street that is closed to traffic all summer, or stop in for some gelato or maple treats. There are tons of souvenir shops to be found here, if that's what you're looking for.

Go south one more block and walk back along de la Commune, which follows the St. Lawrence river. In the summer you'll see private yachts in the habour and giant freight ships. If you're peckish, try a quèue de castor (beaver tail). It's not a real animal part, don't worry! It's a sort of fried flat bread covered in sugar and cinnamon, or chocolate - whatever topping you wish!

When evening falls, make sure you are around the Place Jacques-Cartier area. Performers and artists come out at night and all the restaurant terraces are open. This will be a more expensive dinner, but take the time to check the menus posted outside and find something you really like. If you walk back up Place Jacques-Cartier, there's a beautiful fountain lit up at night. If you're in town for the summer International Fireworks Competition, the Old Port is a good place to watch them for free. Go down the steps behind the fountain at Place Jacques-Cartier and you'll be back at Place d'Armes metro, where you started your day.

Time to head home, rest your feet and recharge your camera battery for tomorrow!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Banish the Naysayers: How to Convince People You Can Travel Alone

You've bought the guide book, set aside the money and time and decided on your dream solo vacation, but when you share your dream with others, they tell you you're crazy.

It happens to men also, but women get a lot of flack for trying to run off on their own. A lot of negative comments are a result of ignorance and fear, so here are some tips to help work around that and get people supporting your dreams, not bashing them!

-"It's not you, it's me..."
A lot of the time, you'll get a negative reaction because the person giving it is quite simply jealous. They may have also dreamed of travelling alone, but never worked up the courage. They don't want you to have the fun they never got to, so they'll try to convince you not to go. You can tell these people apart from the others by the way they make excuses for themselves, "Oh well, *I* was going to travel to Indonesia alone after university, BUT I got this job and...."
You can simply ignore these people. There's no reason to waste time convincing them.

-Just the facts, ma'am
Every Tom, Dick and Harry has "heard from a friend of a friend" that someone went to the same place you're planning to go and died/got injured/kidnapped or what have you. Fact is, you can die crossing the street in your home town, so that shouldn't stop you from travelling! Nevertheless, brush up on your current affairs, travel advisories and history of the place before talking to people about it. If there has been any political unrest in the past few years, people will remember and remind you of it. It's important to know exactly what is happening when you plan to go, as well as the likelihood of future issues, so that you can counter these comments calmly and effectively.

-Where am I again?
One comment I heard from people when I spoke about solo travel was, "you might get lost." Yes, I might. Actually, knowing myself, a person who can get lost in a sweater on a sunny day, it's highly likely I'll get lost at least once per any given trip. Getting lost, however, is really not the end of the world! In fact, it can be tons of fun in a foreign city and lead to interesting sites and stops you didn't expect to see. Providing you're not lost in Antarctica or a desert, I don't see getting lost as being particularly life-threatening. Maps can be bought, a lot of cell phones have a built-in GPS and locals can usually give directions.

-But what if...?
Oh, the "what if?" people! They can go on forever and usually come up with completely ridiculous hypothetical situations that are so statistically outrageous, you just need to laugh. "But what if a stranger who has the Ebola virus jumps in front of you and starts bleeding all over you, while trying to poke you with a knife and steal your camera?" Ummmmm? That just sounds like a bad day.

-But you might get hurt
Along with the crazy hypothetical situations and concern for your navigational abilities are those who worry about the more mundane and real issues: you might get sick or hurt. Yes, you might get sick or hurt. You can also hurt yourself just walking from your kitchen to your bathroom or get sick on your way to work. That doesn't mean you shouldn't leave your house! Unfortunately, these things can happen anywhere, whether you're with someone or not. All you can do is tell people you are as prepared as you can possibly be - know local hospital or emergency numbers, have medical insurance coverage, carry a first aid kit - do all the obvious and reasonable things you can do within your control, but don't let the fear of the unknown stop you.

-Women as property
One comment my husband got when he mentioned to people I was taking off for a trip on my own was, "you let your wife go alone?!"
Tied into that comment was, "is everything ok in your relationship?"

Well, in my case, I didn't come with a property deed. It was never an issue of anyone "letting" me go. Though married, I'm still my own person, and I think most people in healthy relationships manage to keep a little of themselves to themselves. You need to work within the confines of your own relationship rules and do what makes you both happy. Sometimes some time alone is good for a relationship. If you trust each other, communicate and compromise, I don't see why one of you can't go off alone for a trip. Besides, they say "absence makes the heart grow fonder"! And if I don't mind saying, two of my pregnancies occurred right after getting back from a solo trip, so there's something to be said for a little time apart to freshen up a relationship!

Also, wanting or needing some time alone should not be seen as a threat to a relationship. In some cases, it can indicate problems, but I think it shouldn't be seen immediately as an issue. You have to love yourself and take care of yourself first if you want to be loved, so some time alone to nurture yourself should not be taken personally by your partner or cause fear in your partner if you have a good relationship.

Please don't let anyone hold you back from your dreams. Anyone who tries to is probably not the best match for you.

-People who love you will worry no matter what
Remember that the people who love you most will worry regardless of your location. I advocate coming up with a plan before you go on how and when you will contact key people during your trip to let them know you are still alive and well.

The key is to be secure in yourself about what you want to accomplish and be prepared to hit some brick walls along the way. Randy Pausch said, "brick walls are only there to make us prove how much we want something." If you really want to travel alone and know you'll get some negativity, do your research and work hard towards your goal. On the other hand, you might also be surprised to learn who your biggest supporters are and you won't know until you take the plunge. Happy solo travels!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Montreal - City of Festivals

Montrealers celebrate EVERYTHING from construction (yes, we have a construction festival!) to snow during La Fête des Neiges.
We don't let wide variations in heat and cold stop us from getting out and having fun. There is always a festival happening year-round in Montreal, so whenever you plan to visit, you'll be able to take part in the celebrations.

As the summer starts to heat up, so do the array of great festivals.
Piknic Electronik runs from May to October and is held each Sunday in a family-friendly park where you can listen to electronic music. Bring a picnic, enjoy the warm weather and dance to the music. With a $10 entrance fee, you can't go wrong.

Similar to the Picnik Electronik, but for only one week in June is MUTEK, an international festival of digital creativity and electronic music.

If you're a beer drinker and connaisseur, the best can be sampled at the International Beer Festival. Coupons can be bought and exchanged for samples and you can even get a special souvenir tasting mug.

Not a festival, though the atmosphere makes it feel like one - don't forget Montreal hosts Formula 1. Crescent street downtown gets closed off for free concerts and to show off the cars. You may even be able to get your picture taken in one.

Just before the school year ends, you can find the Eureka festival in the Old Port. It celebrates all aspects of science and is especially geared to children and education.

The summer seems to make the city come alive after a long hibernation, but we'll still duck in for some movies at Image+Nation, an LGBT cinema festival. But we head mostly back outside for Les Francofolies, which celebrates French music from around the world with more than 1000 acts.

You never know what you're going to get when you take in a show at the Fringe festival. Anyone can submit an idea for a show and they're choosen by random lottery, so you can get anything from high-quality entertainment to something just a little zany. It's worth the risk!
Or if you're looking for something even more original, if that's even possible, there's the Infringement Festival which runs right after.

Fireworks light up the night sky during the International Fireworks Competition. This is one of my favorite free activities to enjoy all summer. I go to the Old Port to watch them and take a stroll by the river - it's a very romantic outing. You can buy tickets and get a front row seat at La Ronde if you really want to get up close and personal.

One of our most well-known fests, Just For Laughs, brings together the best in international comedy acts. I take in a show every year and always leave with my cheeks and belly hurting from laughing so much. Loads of fun and silliness!

Our biggest fest of all is probably the Jazz festival. This is one fantastic festival. If you're not a big fan of jazz, don't worry, there are tons of extra acts with different styles to please everyone. Just taking a walk and enjoying the free shows in the evening is a great way to enjoy the city.

Right on the tails of the Jazz festival is Les Nuits d'Afrique or African Nights in English. It's a celebration of African music and dance, with performances also including artists from the Caribbean, Central and South America. The influences of African music are far-reaching and this fest brings them all together again.

If you're a fan of films from Asia or anime, look no further than
Fantasia. Hugely popular, you need to buy tickets well in advance to catch a screening.

A relative newcommer on the festival scene is Osheaga, a festival of music and art, held outdoors at Parc Jean-Drapeau.

There is even something for the little ones at La Fête des Enfants, or Children's Festival. It's in August and totally free for families with children under 12 years of age. There's music and dance shows and everything one can think of to entertain children.

Autumn brings POP Montreal, yet another great international festival of music and the arts! Activities related to POP Montreal go on in the city year round; from a craft fair to stuff for kids, so check back on the site often to see what's going on.

Now we're back into winter, but that doesn't keep us hiding inside. We have the Montreal Highlights Festival. This is a celebration of the finest music and food. You can sample dishes from internationally acclaimed chefs. The lights stay on all night for Nuit Blanche, where everything stays open for everyone to enjoy for free. Free public transportation is provided and you can do anything from go to a museum, skate outside under the stars or take a tango lesson. There's always a brunch or pancake breakfast provided in the morning if you've managed to stay up all night.

In conjunction with the Highlights Festival are the Montreal International Music Initiative or MIMI awards, given to talented emerging artists in Montreal.

Oh my, are we done yet? Did I miss anything? I probably did, but that's ok, I'll catch it next year. That's the beauty of Montreal's famous festivals.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Traveling Alone in Morocco

Don't be scared to travel alone in Morocco if you're a female!

No doubt, you will be approached/hassled to buy a tacky souvenir, eat at a certain restaurant or asked for money just about every minute while walking through a busy market, but walk quickly and with confidence and you can still get by.

Moroccans are very welcoming people and in my experience, take a firm "no!" for an answer when you don't want to be bothered. I spent a week traveling solo from Agadir, to Marrakesh, to Essaouira and the Ourika Valley and never feared for my safety.

Yes, it is very easy to get lost in those windy roads of the markets and the crowds and chaos can be bewildering, but you can find sanctuary and beauty to escape to easily.

Some men will ask to talk to you and ask you out for a coffee. If you are not interested, just say "no" and keep walking. I also found they left me alone quicker if I said I was married (which I am) and showed my wedding ring. You also have the option of covering your hair with a hijab. I found I was bothered less when I did that, however during one afternoon prayer, someone tried to pull me into a mosque (and I regret not going in to see).

If you are already shopping at a stall and the owner invites you to sit and have mint tea, it's hard to resist and can be fun. In my experience, they were happy to show me pictures of their family and country, as well as ask me about my home life. Though I'll admit, I had so much mint tea while I was there, I started to get a heartburn just thinking about another glass!

Similarily, if you are invited to their home for a meal, I think you can feel safe doing so. Even when they do not have a lot to offer, they are very giving and love to ask questions about your life and travels. I always carry small souvenirs and postcards from my city to give to people as thank you gifts. Don't be shy to give a little bit of money to pay for your meal, or there may be an item you have and take for granted that they may want or need. For example, I gave a shopkeeper's wife who made me lunch my sunglasses. She liked them and almost cried with joy when I gave them to her.

I don't know too many other countries where you can get such insight into the daily life of the people in such an intimate way. They are genuinely curious to learn more about you, especially fellow women.

On the more negative side, I did have my arm grabbed once by an over-zealous shopkeeper trying to get me to look in his store. I turned around and loudly told him to let me go. When he did not, I raised my fist, threatening to punch him and he ran away. Do not be scared to cause a scene if you need to. He was the most annoying heckler I got, so he is not representative of the people. That was also in Marrakesh, which is a bit more busy and wild than the smaller cities, like Essaouira.

It helps and gives you better service and respect if you can speak French - and I'm sure you'll get even better deals if you can speak Arabic. Even without those skills, I have no qualms advising ladies to go ahead and enjoy the country alone. Dress like the locals and keep an open mind. Take the time to talk to and get to know the locals. I did not sense any danger taking buses, taxis or traveling at night alone. A visit to Morocco is well worth it!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How To Prevent Jet Lag

I've never been truly jet lagged.

I'm not boasting, it is a fact. A little tired, yes, but never to the point where my body was physically in one place and thinking it was still in another time zone. Call me lucky, or take my tips which were handed down to me from my best friend's dad, who is a pilot.

For this to work, you *must* stick to it immediately. Don't try to do this the second or third day you arrive. It will already be too late!

From North America to Europe:

1) Sleep, eat and drink (water!) well in the days before you leave for your trip.

2) If possible, take an evening flight. If you haven't eaten supper before take off, eat supper on the plane (I know, it's not always appealing), maybe watch a movie, brush your teeth and get ready for "bed" as if you were at home.

3) Go to "bed" on the plane at a reasonable hour, around 10pm local time.

4) You may need a sleeping pill or melatonin pill to help this along. I highly recommend earplugs, a blanket, an eye mask and if you're lucky, lie down on any empty seats around you. If you are lucky enough to lie down, put your seatbelt on loosely around your waist so the stewards/esses won't bother you. You can even stick a "Do Not Disturb" sign to yourself. Trust me.

5) They always serve breakfast too early, but if you're hungry, eat it. If not, keep sleeping. I've often woken up smelling the end of service and discovered I've missed it (because of the Do Not Disturb sign, no one woke me up, HA!). No worries, you can eat something when you land.

6) When you land, it will be morning at your European destination. Have a healthy light snack (fruit, cheese, bagel) and don't forget to stay hydrated. I'll usually have some toast, fruit and a tea (especially if I've just landed in England. Gotta have my first decent cuppa!) and get right to bed.

7) Yes, that's right. Get to a bed and sleep! If you can't sleep, just close your eyes and relax for a few hours.

8) If you're like me, you'll wake up at around lunch time. I'll shower and have lunch and be totally fine for the rest of the trip. Seriously.

9) Go to bed that night at a reasonable hour again and you should wake up in the morning at the correct time for your location.

I'll admit, there could be some glitches with you waking up at 1am local time and confused, but STAY IN BED! Even if you don't sleep, relaxing in bed will help your body recharge and get the point that it needs to sleep now, at this new time. If you stick to this the first night, I promise there will be no more headaches the rest of your trip. Promise!

As you continue east, you'll have to repeat this procedure each time you go over a significant number of time zones. Stick to it! Don't give in to the temptation to run off immediately and see sights. Train your body first so that you can enjoy the rest of your time at your destination.

On the way back, from Europe to North America, it's pretty much the same thing, but I start "living" in the new time on the way back ie. if it's sleeping time in North America, I sleep on the plane. If it's awake time in North America, I stay awake.

-Once landed, eat or sleep based on the local schedule.
-This may mean you have to fight to stay awake until it's a reasonable bed time. If that's the case, go out and get fresh air, walk around. Do not head to bed too early!
-If you go to bed at a reasonable hour, you should get up just fine and rested the next morning.
Admittedly, I often get up a little earlier than I normally would that first morning back, but after that glitch, I'm totally back into my regular routine.

So essentially it's sleep more heading east and stay awake more heading west.

I hope this works for you, too! (Actually, I'm pretty confident it will :)
But if not, comment with your tips/criticisms.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I Will Never Stop Traveling

Before I had a baby, people told me to get all my traveling done because I wouldn't be able to do it afterwards. I was always of the firm belief that my life should not stop because I'm a mom. After all, if I want to be a happy mom, I still need to be a happy person and part of what makes me happy is travel. I also believe (and now know for sure!) that babies are portable and washable.

So no, I will not stop traveling. I simply have a new travel companion now and when he is old enough to stay with someone else (he's still nursing and won't take a bottle) then I'll go off by myself if I want. Does it mean I won't miss him? Of course I will! But sometimes a mommy needs to go off and recharge her batteries. Then she can come home with stories and pictures and be a more happy mom.

It shows your child a wonderful independent side of you. Not only does it show that women can go off on their own, but that mommy can go away and come back and the world is ok - not just ok, but fun and there is so much to explore, to learn about, and be curious about!

Besides, as long as he still fits in my lap, I don't pay a thing (or very little) to have him come with me, so really, it's the best time to travel! He won't remember these trips, but we'll have pictures to look at and all those stamps in his passport.

I can only hope that I inspire him to grow up with the same curiosity about the world that I have and a zest for travel. But he has to promise to always write or call and come back to see his mommy regularly :)

How To Enjoy Solo Travel With an Infant

I guess this isn't strictly a solo-travel experience, but close since it was just me and my little guy.
I recently took my four month old baby with me to Barbados. We drove two hours to the States and took a jetBlue flight from Burlington to JFK, then switched planes to get to Barbados. Once landed, it's an hour's drive to my house in the north of Barbados. So it comes to about ten hours of transit time in total.

It was slightly more complicated on the way back because jetBlue made us change terminals at JFK and transfer my luggage myself, so that made me feel like I walked ten miles, along with taking the monorail and numerous elevators. Anyways, enough about those details. Here are my tips!

I should have remembered my own advice and halved the amount of clothing I brought for him. After all, we were able to do laundry there. I'm an expert packer for myself, but it seems when it comes to son, no luxury was spared. My luggage was overweight both ways, even though I left stuff behind (clothes that no longer fit were donated to victims of the earthquake in Haiti, along with the unused diapers).

Before leaving, I'd read many a message board about travel with young ones and there was a divide over whether to bring two carry-on bags (one for me and one diaper bag for baby) or not. I ended up bringing two and don't regret it. One was our regular diaper bag with the regular essentials and a few added items. The other was both our changes of clothes (we changed from winter clothes into summer stuff before landing in sunny Barbados). I stowed the one with the extra clothes in the overhead and kept the regular diaper one at my feet. I only carried that one to the bathroom for diaper changes and didn't fuss with two bags.

Of course, that brings me to my next point, which was carrying my baby. With jetBlue, I was able to gate check both a stroller and car seat, but did not get them back right outside the plane (unlike Air Canada - all airlines are different). I carried him to and from the plane in an Ergobaby carrier and by then he was usually asleep, so I just plopped my carry-on bags into the stroller and pushed it. When he was awake, I was still able to fit him in the stroller along with my bags, so I didn't have an issue with carrying bags, which was the argument many had for only taking one with them. It's not much fun to carry bags AND a baby. And in light of new rules, it looks like it may be getting harder to carry ANYTHING on board!
Your individual needs are most important, but my opinion is don't be shy to take advantage of whatever the airline you're flying with has to offer - if they allow a separate piece of luggage for the baby, by all means, use it!

When traveling alone with my baby by both plane and train, I found train and plane employees to be exceptionally accommodating and helpful. Listen to their tips and let them take your baby when you need to use the bathroom - they are trained in CPR if anything goes wrong and it's better than asking a complete stranger.

As with any time I use public transit, it's really touch and go if I get any help from strangers. Sometimes I'm surprised how people can watch a mother struggle with a stroller trying to get through a door or up stairs, but in general, there are more good people than bad.

When it comes to your baby crying, so be it. I make no apologies. Babies cry and parents do whatever they can to try and stop it, but babies have little minds of their own, so everyone just has to deal. It was most horrible for my baby when we were on the runway (or in a bus, car or train) and not moving. Once the vehicle starts moving, he's fine, but while waiting on the runway, he had a good long scream. Yes, I got looks from other passengers and I look right back with the same look they give me. If the seatbelt light is on and I cannot stand up to walk around and soothe him, unfortunately he will wail. C'est la vie. Looking at me will not help.

My last bit of advice is to arrive early (I missed a train being late, thinking I could run as fast with a baby as without) and take your time. If you start to get stressed, so will baby. Give yourself plenty of time to get around and try to plan your day while sticking as much to your baby's schedule as possible.

Happy travels and feel free to comment with more tips or questions!