Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Run For The Border!

Living in Montreal, I guess I've always taken it for granted that the American border is only a 45 minute drive away and we can pretty much pop down any time we want. I've spoken to a lot of Americans, however, who tell me they've never tried crossing by car because they don't know what to expect and are scared.

Hopefully I can demystify things a bit because the Canadian-American border is actually a very easy border to cross and I assure you it's not scary. You will be asked some questions and if you have nothing to hide, it's not a problem at all.

Keep in mind, this is coming from a woman of colour, who has not always maintained employment, often travels with a white man and sometimes our white child, and has crossed the border at some odd times of day and night. If we can all get through, surely you can!

Here's the breakdown of the sorts of questions you'll probably be asked:
  • What is the purpose of your trip? Where are you going? When are you coming back?
  • How do the people in the car know each other?
  • Do you have anything to declare?
  • Do you have any alcohol or cigarettes?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Are you returning any merchandise to the US/Canada or leaving anything there?
  • Where are you from?
  • What is your occupation?
  • Is this your car?
  • Can you open your trunk? (Border officer will take a quick peak and will often open any coolers or bags. They do this most often in the summer. Check after because they often neglect to close coolers they've opened, which is annoying!)
  • Where will you be staying?
  • Do you have any firearms on you?
  • How much money do you have on you?
They will usually ask a random combination of a few of the above. It's best to answer directly, "yes," or "no," and make eye contact. Don't start making jokes about the small stow-away you've crammed into your modified dashboard. Don't say you don't know or start making strange sudden movements. 

Things that will make your life easier when crossing:
  • Have proper identification - that means a valid passport or enhanced license (Licence Plus)
  • Supporting documents like a visa, permanent resident card, birth certificate, marriage certificate, letter of permission to take a minor out of the country, or car registration, as the case may be
  • Eat or throw out any fruits, vegetables, flowers or plants that are in your car before you cross. They will be confiscated by border agents and thrown out! (Kinder Surprise toys are also not allowed in the US)
  • Have everyone take off their sunglasses and hats
  • Get a Nexus card so you can go through the express lane and answer fewer questions
Border wait times are longest during the summer and in the afternoon. Crossing at odd hours - pretty much anytime after 10pm and before 8am - will get you through the fastest. Also, if you have the choice of more than one border-crossing, pick the one in the smallest town. 

That's pretty much it, so get out there and enjoy the freedom we have here and happy border crossings!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Driving In Montreal

My father was a mechanical engineer. He loved driving. He believed everyone MUST learn to drive (and learn to swim). It was a lifeskill of PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE. He was accident-free until the day he died, after over 35 years of driving. Luckily I inherited a similar love of driving and I believe a similar skill (though I can't claim being 100% accident-free - there was that one time with the food poisoning and a concrete wall....)
I believe I learned from one of the best and I learned here in my hometown of Montreal. I passed my test during a snowstorm. I can drive standard or automatic and I don't lose my cool on the aggressive, falling apart, pothole-ridden chaos that are the roads of Montreal.

However, my advice for visitors who want to drive in Montreal is: DON'T DO IT!

Really, it's probably not worth the headache. We have a web of one-way streets that will make you crazy. Our infrastructure has been deemed worse than most of the Third-World's. Parking can be an expensive nightmare - also once you do find one, you better know how to parallel park and quickly! We are speed demons on the road who will cut you off in a second, from the left or right. Stop signs are taken as suggestions. Yellow lights mean speed up and get through the intersection. It is all a bit wild, but once you understand it, you'll see the chaos actually has a sense of predictability to it. Many people here drive like they don't care if they get killed or kill you. If you're ok to take that chance, by all means, come play Russian Road Roulette with us.

On the plus side, we have an amazing extensive public transport system. The majority of our taxi drivers are decent, non-shady characters. We have wonderful sections of the city reserved purely for pedestrians and of course we have the largest underground city in the world. Who needs a car in the city then?
I'll concede you do probably want a car to get out of the city, though our commuter trains are a very comfortable and affordable way to do that.

All that said, if you really are game to drive, there are a few things you should know:

  • All our road signs are in French. "Arrêt" means stop. "Congestion" means traffic and "bloqué" means the road/exit is blocked. Since we're under almost constant construction, you'll see lots of that, in addition to "detour." A "sortie" is an exit and an "Expy" is an expressway.
  • You can't turn right on a red light on the island of Montreal. Obey any restrictions for right turns on reds when off the island.
  • This tip is useful for all of Canada: even numbered highways run east-west and odd numbered run north-south.
  • Flashing green lights give you priority turn priviledges.
  • You do not need to yield at flashing yellow lights. You need to treat flashing red lights as a stop sign.
  • At a four-point stop, the person on the right has the "right of way." I'll put this loosely though as much of the time, it goes by who got there first.
  • When you see a green arrow, you can go straight but NOT TURN unless it turns to a full green light or a turning arrow.
  • A sign with a black straight arrow means you cannot turn, you MUST continue straight, even if it would be theorectically possible. Don't anger locals or upset the flow of traffic by trying to get away with it.
  • There are some signs that prohibit turns during certain hours, usually during rush hours. They're in 24 hour time, so understand the system before you get on the road.
  • While there are exceptions, most Montreal drivers seem to be extra impatient with outside license plates. Don't take it personally.
  • We have speed cameras, so you'll receive a bill in the mail if caught.
  • The secret to winter driving is to go SLOWLY. Don't stomp on the brakes either. Everything must be done with a light touch. Winter tires are obligatory on all vehicles from December 15th til March 15th, but Communauto is exempt.
  • Children up to 40lbs and 63cm must travel in an appropriate safety seat and never in the front seat. Taxis are exempt from this requirement.
Above all, use common sense,  keep your eyes open and bring a bucket full of nerves and patience with you.
Good luck and happy driving!

Feel free to comment with other tips and experiences!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sometimes You Have to Pay to Be Alone

Ever since the birth of my son, I've been waiting for the day I could have a weekend to sleep alone, undisturbed. It was my birthday this weekend, so I took my first opportunity in two years to be ALL ALONE.

I got a deal for Le St.Sulpice hotel from SniqueAway. Just a note, this is my second time using SniqueAway and I'm really impressed with them so far. Booking has been easy and the hotels have been top notch!

In this case, the name is really apt, as I really felt like I was sneaking away. I told my childless friend about what I was doing and he laughed, "oh yeah, I forgot, when you have kids you have to pay to be alone!" So don't take those moments of quiet for granted, people! Just because you see someone traveling alone, it doesn't mean they're lonely.

                                     Lots of space for me to stretch out, ALONE!

I got a deluxe suite - it had a closed bedroom and a kitchenette. I took a quiet and relaxing bath (forgot to take a picture of it!), read some magazines and did my nails. I was on the second floor and it being a Saturday night in Montreal meant there was quite a bit of street noise coming in, but that didn't bother me. 

I found free parking on the street (otherwise valet would have been $28/night and they warn of a 30 minute wait to retrieve your vehicle, ouch!). It's in a great location in the Vieux-Port though - north of de la Commune (the main street that runs along the St. Lawrence in the Old Port) and just south of the Notre-Dame Basilica

                                          My big empty, but not lonely bed.

My bedroom was totally closed off and away from any windows, so there was hardly any noise and it was pitch black, just the way I like to sleep. I'll admit, I still wondered about how my little guy was doing without me, but in the end, it was totally worth it to pay to get away. I'm a more refreshed mommy and I can't wait til he's a bit older and I can get away by myself for at least a week to do more solo traveling

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Friday Five

Live Journal has a community called Friday Five which posts 5 questions every week. This week was about travel, so I thought it would be a bit of a fun way for you to get to know a bit more about me.

1) What is your favorite way to travel (ship, place, car, train, etc)?

Plane and then car. I like which ever way is fastest.

2) Who is your favorite person to travel with?

My hubby and my best friend. They are both people I seem to be in sync with - we need to pee at the same times, we need to eat at the same times. These things are good when travelling with someone else. Otherwise, I really prefer to just go alone.

3) What is the best vacation you've ever taken?

At the top of my list, other than Europe and Morocco by myself, some of those New England roadtrips with Hubby were pretty darn cool.

4) Where will your next vacation be to?

Probably Florida or the Bahamas again. We're suckers for the ocean.

5) If you had the time and money to go anywhere you wanted, where would you go?

Beijing to see a friend of mine, but mostly more of Europe. Or Hawaii and Thailand. More warm islands!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Passport Privilege

My Canadian and Barbadian passports side by side on TwitpicMy Canadian and Barbadian Passports side by side.

I've had Canadian passports since I was a teenager and thought nothing of it. I accepted it as a given - I'm Canadian, therefore I can have one, it's easy, end of story. I think at the time it was about $80 plus the photograph, which was (and still is) a fair amount of money, but my parents thought it was a needed expense and I got it. It wasn't until I spoke to some friends that I discovered they never got one because their parents couldn't afford it and they never went anywhere anyway.


This winter I applied for my Barbadian passport while I was visiting. I was supposed to get it back during the time I was there, but I ended up leaving early. My uncle had to pick it up and told me a friend of my father's would bring it back to me here in Montreal. He ended up staying longer, so I had to wait for my cousin to visit in May. It was a whole three months of waiting - and I don't really like having my personal identification out of my possession! When I finally got it, it made me feel like I'd won the lottery! Now I can pass through customs in Barbados or any of the CariCom countries much faster!


My discovery of the Passport Party Project last week reminded me what a privilege it is to have one, let alone two. (And yes, I realize I'm very privileged to be a citizen of two countries which allow dual citizenship!)

The fact is, if you're going to dream, you might as well dream big. A journey can start with one small step. So why not start with the passport and see if the rest of the cards start to fall into place? Don't be scared to take the first step.

A passport really is your ticket through the first door. It really does open up the rest of the world. And when you get it in your hands, you'll feel like you just won the lottery.

Picture Post

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Passport Party Project

I just got introduced to The Passport Party Project on my Twitter feed and you can find them on Facebook here.

Not being American, I didn't realize that only 30% Americans actually have a passport! (As of 2009, 56% of Canadians have a passport)

That's shocking to me, but The Passport Party Project aims to fix that and in a demographic close to my heart: young women.

Travel is some of the best education - it's powerful and can kill ignorance and racism. It opens your mind and more people need to do it. I think this is a wonderful initiative and I welcome any of those young ladies space to write a guest post here about their solo woman travels!
Happy Travels, Ladies!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Do It While They're Young!

Last year I wrote some tips on How To Enjoy Solo Travel With an Infant but this year I think the best title for an updated version would be How To Survive Solo Travel With a Toddler. If I can just say one thing, I say travel with your child while they're young. As young as possible! It is just sooooo much easier.

The drawback to travel with an infant is the sheer amount of STUFF they need - tons of diapers, numerous changes of clothes (maybe some extra clothes for you!), car seat, stroller, carrier, diaper bag, etc. However, they are light and easy to carry. They are comparatively quieter when they cry and they don't really move from wherever you set them down. Being small, they can also be put down to sleep on a plane seat or any chair really. Also, depending on the age, you don't even need to carry baby food for them.

There are, in my opinion, more drawbacks to travel with a toddler. One, they never stop moving! Two, they never stop moving. get the picture. That curious mind combined with tiny searching fingers and feet on the go and oh my! The fun never ends.

Now I'm not saying don't travel with your toddler. I think the more you do it and the calmer or more prepared you are for it, the better. I believe I am fortunate to have such a good trooper of a toddler. He doesn't really complain at all in planes, he just gets bored having to stay in such a limited space. In the end, you know your baby best and you both have limited patience. Don't try to do too much in one day. If you can break up a trip into smaller bits, it will probably be easier on you both.

One gadget that made my recent plane trip to Barbados much easier for toddler and me was the CARES harness. The harness requires you to purchase a separate seat for your child on a plane (or train) but it is so much safer for your child than sitting on your lap and in the end, more comfortable for both of you. It also allows you to go use the toilet by yourself and know that your toddler is well-secured and not able to get into trouble. My little guy sat in his seat watching cartoons (thank goodness for cartoons on planes!) as we landed and I didn't have to worry about him bouncing around in my lap.

Using the CARES harness means you don't have to lug around a car seat, so aside from a small stroller, I didn't carry anything bulky with me. However, if you know you will need your car seat at your destination, there are some ingenious ideas out there, from building your own rolling transporter, to straps that attach a car seat to a suitcase. Whatever your needs are, there are some creative solutions.

I also don't bother with commercial baby food; I find most airlines provide something a toddler will accept to eat.

On a positive note, travel time sure passes a whole lot faster when you're occupied making sure your kid doesn't touch or eat something they're not supposed to or harass other passengers!

So in that vein, I wish anyone attempting to travel with a toddler much patience and energy to run around after those little bundles of constant movement and don't forget to have fun. It all passes by so quickly :)