An Ode to Hostels: Featuring Montenegro

There’s a reason that a lot of backpackers (including myself) start to dream about opening a hostel of their own. The magic of a good hostel transcends the destination, creating family and community. It can be a particularly beautiful setting, or a serendipitous group of people coming together. It can be the staff, or it can be a dog.

The hostel garden

Actually, that last one might just be me. But in any case, I love hostels that stick in my memory for years after, their atmosphere giving you your own little piece of paradise to look back on. And the Grove Hostel in Stari Bar, Montenegro, will always have a special place in my heart.

When we left Albania, we knew we wanted to spend just a couple days in one spot in Montenegro. We had moved around a lot, so we just wanted to stay put and didn’t really want to be in the top tourist spots during the heat of July. Some random backpacker in Saranda told us about an amazing hostel with double beds in Montenegro, so we embarked on one last exhausting Albanian bus journey to make our way there. Our first impression of Montenegrins was a bit odd: our cab driver from the bus station to the hostel kept badgering us about how old we were, what we were doing, etc – fairly normal, except then he referred to us as ‘beautiful little babies’, which was creepy and weird.Regardless, once he got us to the hostel we knew we had found something special. We were welcomed with a free beer, which is always an excellent start. We claimed our very own double beds, started chatting to everyone around us, and felt right at home. Highlights included the stunning garden, with a little plunge pool, a meandering creek, and mountain views.

One of the best things this hostel does is the family dinners. For 5 Euros, you get to eat the amazing food that the hostel volunteers whip up nightly. When I was there they did a pizza night with the traditional wood-fired pizza oven out back, they did a curry night, and…something else that I can’t remember, but I know distinctly was delectable. They accommodate dietary needs easily and happily, but it’s not just the awesome food that makes these dinners memorable. They make it so easy to bond with everyone that you don’t even need to try. The first night I was a bit nervous, as always, about sitting down and chatting to so many new people, but by the end of the night we felt like we had a new family and were participating in a rousing game of Uno!

The roomy kitchen

They don’t pack people in – they could fit tons more beds, but they specifically limit the number of guests that can stay there. By sacrificing increased revenue, they allow more of a community feel, because it’s just the right number of people so that you can get to know them all by name.

The other main draw of the hostel was the fact that every day, a volunteer runs a free day trip for guests. We were there on a Sunday, when there isn’t one, but the next day we partook in a lovely beach trip. They have a old minibus they use to shuttle you around, so we piled in and went to spend a few hours on the coast. It wasn’t the most amazing beach I’ve ever been to in my life, but it was a nice respite from the heat and hey – it was free.

This is a drone shot from the hostel – the beach was NOT this empty when we went, nor am I 100% certain it was the same beach!! It looks similar.

And….that is pretty much all I can say about Montenegro. We walked up into charming Stari Bar, the town nearby, a few times for groceries and iced coffee. I can’t say I learned a single thing about Montenegrin history or culture, so I will certainly be back to do so.

The real message of this rambling is to communicate my love for a good hostel. Sometimes it’s the people that make a place, and it’s easiest to meet those people when you’re staying at a hostel specifically designed to do that. I have two other posts on some of my favourite hostels in the world – one in Europe and one outside of Europe but here are some others that I’ve stayed at since those posts were published three years ago!

Florentine Backpackers Hostel – Tel Aviv, Israel

Honestly, I loved this one for the same reasons as above. They do family dinners, everyone hangs out on the rooftop terrace, and it’s easy to walk in and find a family.

The view from the rooftop terrace

Joey’s Hostel – Agra, India

I was in Agra for one reason – to see the Taj Mahal. I was sick of crowds and sick of heat, so I booked a stay at a hostel 400m from the World Wonder, specifically so I could get there at sunrise. The hostel was lovely – air conditioning in the rooms (very important in 47 degree heat), super helpful staff, and of course, the location. If I had been there any other time of year, I would have spent all my time on the rooftop terrace, overlooking the Taj Mahal, but with the heat I could genuinely only stay up there for five minutes at a time. Regardless, this is the view:

Tagalong Backpackers – Gangtok, India

India’s hostel scene is really just starting up, and particularly in more remote regions it is almost non-existing. In the north-east area of Sikkim, up by Bhutan and China, there is basically one hostel. Luckily, it is absolutely fantastic. It had its quirks, certainly. The food menu in the ground floor cafe is extensive and diverse, but almost everything I ordered was unavailable and it usually took about an hour to get my food. But that’s just part of Sikkim’s charm. The beds are quite comfortable, and I slept well despite having the loudest snorer of all time bunking below me.

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It’s just nice to see a place that cultivates the backpacker atmosphere in such an out of the way town, with a book exchange, espresso machines, and comfortable sofas.

North Shore Backpackers – Hawaii

I wrote a whole post about my time on the North Shore of Oahu, but this was one of those beach hostels you could very easily stay at forever. I got into bed every night with sandy feet, salty hair and couldn’t wait to get to one of the nearby beaches every morning. I had a very hard time emotionally here, but in hindsight it’s a magical place and I must go back immediately.

This beach was right across the street!

Now I want to open a hostel. Probably not the best economic climate to do so in, but Haley and I talk about everything we’d want in a hostel and who knows – maybe one day we will.

A Love Letter to Travel

Watching my entire industry be torn to pieces by the COVID-19 outbreak has been absolutely devastating. This pandemic is wreaking havoc throughout the world, of course, but all I can speak to is my own experience. I’ve been trying to figure out how to express all of my emotions, but it’s all tangled up. I work in travel, travel is my greatest passion, all my hobbies revolve around travel. It’s completely wrapped up with my identity, and the grounding of flights, closing of borders, worldwide travel warnings – that identity has been pretty much torn away. I am SO lucky that I still have a job, I still have my income, my health, my family, my friends, my boyfriend. While my heart breaks for the people who aren’t as lucky, I’m still upset about how it has affected my life and I just needed to get my feelings out on ‘paper’ so to speak.

A few times, before I left on a trip, family or friends asked, “What’s the rush? The world will still be there in a few years.”

I never felt like I agreed with that – you never know what is going to happen. If you don’t go to that country you really want to see, who knows what could happen – a war could start, a pandemic could spread, a border could close. And look who was right!!!

In all seriousness, though, I am so lucky to have been able to travel to 57 countries, and see some of the most beautiful places in the world. That makes it a bit easier to put this all on pause, so I know that I made the right choice to follow my dreams right away. Because you really just never know.

My hope for the next few months are that we beat this quickly – that the world gets back to normal, people get well, borders open, industries come back to life. It’s bigger than me, but selfishly I can’t WAIT to get on that next plane. I’ve been thinking a lot about who I would be if I hadn’t found my passion of travelling. Certain countries have taught me specific lessons, certain journeys have shown me different ways to look at the world, and the essence of it all is that travel is one of the best things to ever happen to me.

China taught me that the whole wide world could be mine, if I was brave enough.

I grew up travelling with my family, but at 18 I still hadn’t really connected the dots that if I wanted to keep travelling, I just could. I kind of waited for trips to fall into my lap courtesy of my parents. Then, I spent a summer working at an accounting firm, which I thought was going to be my job for the rest of my life. I was mind-numbingly bored, and had LOTS of time to browse the internet. I discovered a world of girls not too much older than me, travelling the world alone and making it happen for themselves.

With that I booked a ticket to China, and I flew to the other side of the world. It’s so normal to me to get on a plane myself now, but then, it was scary and exhilarating. The whole trip showed me that if I wanted to see somewhere, there may be obstacles and it may be hard (see this article), but I can do it all by myself.

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Little baby Bethany in China

Morocco taught me that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and it was all up to me. 

After China, I didn’t stop. Several short trips later and I was off for 4 months on the road. The first few weeks were pretty comfortable, either with my sister, or a friend. Then, I got on a ferry all by myself to Africa. I had no idea what I was doing, nothing booked, and when I got off the ferry to my first experience of touts hassling me and realized I didn’t have any directions, I almost broke down and left. Then I realized – it was all up to me. Nobody knew me, or anything about me. I could spend this month being exactly who I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be scared to be alone, or shy around strangers. I could be the girl who lit up a room, who picked up new languages, who lived spontaneously.

So I was. It wasn’t perfect, and I still cried a lot (wouldn’t be Bethany without some tears), and sometimes I still felt frustrated by my own limitations. But I was only 19, and I realized something that would serve me so well for the rest of my life: you are in charge of your own self. If I want to live my dreams, the only person who is going to make that happen is me. If I want to be kinder, be more fun, be happier, I know exactly what I need to do to get there – it’s just a matter of doing it.

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As I wandered across Morocco with my new friends, I stopped looking at mirrors to pick apart my appearance. I stopped toning myself down to make friends, just being exactly who I was. And I never let that go, even at home.

Zanzibar taught me that I can conquer the things that scare me most, even if I’m alone across the world.

A year later, I took off again for a post-graduation trip. I was thrilled to be getting back on the road but nervous about what awaited me in ‘real life’. I had a lot of fears about the future, so I decided why not get over some of my lifelong fears to prove that I could.

I used to be afraid of everything, and some of those things still terrify me – birds and snakes, mostly. And yes, I sometimes still sprint to my bedroom from the bathroom in the middle of the night because I’m scared of the dark, but I’ve basically gotten past that one.

But even when I was afraid of everything, water was the worst. I never really learned to properly swim because deep water freaked me out so much, and the panic I felt every time I snorkelled was second to none. I still went on snorkelling trips, and swam at the lake in the summer with my friends, but the whole time I had to choke back this all-encompassing fear of the unknown at the bottom of the water.

On Zanzibar, a blissful week of sleeping steps from the Indian Ocean finally taught me how to fall in love with the water. Even swimming alone in the daytime was scary for me at first, because what if something grabbed me and my dad wasn’t there to pull me back?

But I built up my confidence, and one day gave myself the ultimate test by scuba diving. I learned that the only frightening thing about the bottom of the ocean was how beautiful it was, and that freed me from my panic. The rest of the trip, I barely left the water, from pre-breakfast morning swims to sprinting into the ocean with new friends,  This was one of the best weeks of my life, and my memories of it will always be entwined with the feeling of salt on my skin, tangles in my hair, and a smile on my face.

I went home feeling ready to conquer whatever the world threw at me – and this gave me the confidence to quit that shitty corporate job 10 months later, for a life of travel and living my dreams.

Turkey taught me that home is people and attitude, not about where you are.

Many trips and many tumultous life changes later, I headed on another odyssey, this time for a literal round the world trip. I headed back to Turkey for the third time, this time with my best friend Haley. Walking back into Cheers Hostel, somewhere I had visited with my sister at age 19, genuinely felt like coming home. The golden retriever was as cute as ever, the surroundings were familiar down to the intonation of the call to prayer, and the owners recognized me and made me feel so welcome.We headed up to the bar for one drink after an overnight train ride, and ended up meeting a group of friends who we spent the next few days with. We found a local restaurant where we felt like regulars, we basically made the top floor bar our home, and everything just fell into place. I have never wanted to leave a place less – I was heading to some huge bucket list destinations in the Middle East but all I wanted was to stay in this little bubble of home, friendship, and ‘family’.

The way you look at a place really influences how your time there is. I went into Istanbul excited to return somewhere I knew and loved, and this turned the entire experience into pure joy. And of course, we really lucked out with some cool roommates.

It’s fitting that this was the last country I decided to write about, because this lesson was the most important thing I brought home with me. I had several trips coming up that will likely be cancelled, and about 50% of the time I feel absolutely panicked about the fact that I am ‘stuck’ here at home for the foreseeable future. But the other 50% of the time, I remind myself of what I learned in Istanbul. My attitude is what matters, and I am using this time to write blog posts, learn languages, read books, do puzzles, learn to cook, and spend time with my boyfriend. And as for people, I am so grateful that if I’m gonna be inside for weeks on end, I am stuck inside with my amazing boyfriend who is the OTHER greatest thing that has ever happened to me.

Learning to be at home is hard, but being at home with someone I love is making that easier. Watching my industry collapse is hard, but working for a company who values us and is doing everything they can to help us is making that easier. Living with uncertainty is hard, but getting all my feelings out in this mammoth blog post is making that easier.

Best of 2019

Every year, I write these massive recap posts with my favorite highlights of the year, even when I have been terrible about blogging for the rest of the year. I’ve done 2016, 2017, and 2018, and now it is time to recap the best of 2019 – one of the craziest years of my life. I am never quite sure if these are interesting to anyone else, but I look back at them SO much myself, so here you go!!

In 2018, I moved home to Nova Scotia. At the very end of the year, I met a boy – and I can’t make that a highlight because it technically happened in 2018 but it was definitely one of the most important parts of my year. However, I also went on a 4.5 month trip so I have a LOT of travel highlights. I could make this a list of 50 things, but for everyone’s sake I will try to condense slightly. These are in chronological order, and a strange number of them are specifically about hostels. Also, I  made this cool map of my round the world trip so for reference – here is my route!

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Continuing to explore Nova Scotia

100% the best part of having a boyfriend has been having someone to drag on weekend trips with me – especially someone who can drive. A side perk is that we also have a blast together on these weekend trips! In February we stayed at the most charming little farm Airbnb in rural Nova Scotia and despite the freezing temperatures it was so cozy in the cabin with a woodstove. This is where we decided we were officially dating, so it will always have such cute little memories for me 🙂

We also went to my cottage for his birthday weekend right before I left on my trip, which holds a few more mixed emotions..but I LOVE my family cottage and I loved showing it to him.

When I got back, I dragged him on another weekend trip to make sure he still liked me! We drove up to Cape Breton and stayed in a YURT which I have been wanting to do ever since I learned what a yurt was. We hiked, got hit by a car at a gas station (super fun), and I even had a few driving lessons. It was lovely and a great way to end summer.

Biking around the North Shore of Oahu

The beginning of my trip was REALLY fricking hard, and I wrote about it here, but one evening was where I remembered how much I loved travel and almost cried because I was so happy. When my friends and I biked back from an evening of drinking on Sunset Beach, it was pitch black and we kept going down the wrong path and one of our bikes didn’t work, and it was absolutely pouring down. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I knew that everything was going to be okay.

Snorkelling in the Gilis, Indonesia

During my 3 nights on Gili Trawangan, I didn’t do much except eat and drink. One day, however, I went out on a full-day snorkelling tour for the crazy good price of $10!! It certainly wasn’t the best snorkelling tour I’ve ever been on – the boat was old, lunch wasn’t included, and every single boat went to the same spots at the same time, but….$10. I jumped off the top of the boat, got stung by jellyfish, made amazing new friends and started to fall completely in love with this corner of the world and its amazingly affordable adventures.

Hearing the Dalai Lama Speak

I already wrote about this in my Best of India post. It wasn’t a perfect day, and it ended with some severe illness, BUT I saw the real life Dalai Lama in person and heard him speak and I will never forget it!

Wandering off the Beaten Path in Sikkim, India

Sikkim left the best impression of India, and made me yearn to explore the areas nearby – Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal.

I felt like a really intrepid explorer, wandering through a place that had very little written about it on the internet, and entering a province where you needed a permit. This was a bit of a hindrance, because as a solo traveler you need other foreigners to travel the most beautiful areas with, but it was still worth every long Jeep ride and I met a few really amazing people.

Exploring Athens with my parents

Athens is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I LOVE when I get to meet up with my parents on my travels. I flew to Athens, so thrilled to be leaving India, and so excited to be reunited with my parents in the beautiful Airbnb they booked. We had a great time exploring in the heat, eating yummy food and I’m sure they were glad to see me alive!!

My precious backpacker parents!!!!!

Exploring the Greek Islands by Yacht (again)

Honestly, the best thing in the world is living on a yacht. My hair is always full of salt, the beers are never cold, and trying to sleep in a tiny unventilated cabin is a challenge, but man, it is blissful. Add that to the fact that I was reunited with my best little travel buddy Haley, and I get a bit teary when I think about this week.

The islands and sea caves that we moored at were breathtaking and I really couldn’t process that I was there – but that might have been the hangover. Time seemed to slow down and speed up simultaneously, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Hiking in Albania from Theth to Valbona

In the remote northern mountains of Albania, we took one of the most scenic ferry rides in the world and then stayed at a warm and cozy homestay where meals were served lovingly by the matriarch, teaching our new friends cribbage and falling asleep to the sound of pounding rain on the peaks. The next day, we hiked for almost 12 hours through a mountain pass, the views getting more beautiful every second. We passed locals who waved gleefully, including one particular character who was dressed in a full suit and seemingly just doing this hike with no effort while we panted up every incline. The summit was freezing cold and the patches of sun were burning hot, and we snapped at eachother as we got more and more tired, but even our crankiness couldn’t mar our awe. At the end of the hike, we sat at the first restaurant we saw and ordered beers and french fries, and both of them were the most amazing things we had ever tasted. We managed to lug ourselves to a guesthouse, checked into the first room they showed us, and slept for hours and hours after a delectable 7 course dinner. In the morning, a worker introduced us to FOUR PUPPIES and bought us coffee before we headed off back to the nearest city, blissful and relaxed despite our aching muscles.

Really, just all of Albania

The above anecdote pretty accurately sums up our time in Albania. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Every single local we met went out of their way to befriend us and help us and give us countless free beers and shots of raki. The hostels were never more than 10 Euros a night and they were some of the most beautiful boutique hostels I have ever seen. The food is incredible, the beer is less than a Euro, the scenery changes as you travel the country from top to bottom but it is unfailingly beautiful. I can’t wait to share more about my new favourite country, but go now, before everyone else discovers it – as long as you are comfortable with a little bit of chaos any time you try to get anywhere!

I was this happy the whole time I was in Albania

Paradise at the Grove Hostel in Montenegro

There are some hostels that just feel like home. When we arrived at the Grove, we knew this was going to be one of them. We had just endured a very long journey from northern Albania on a very intense hangover, and it was a million degrees. We arrived to a family dinner and a free beer, before we were each given our OWN DOUBLE BED in a dorm. For 10 Euros, you get this bed, you get access to family dinners (5 Eur a night for absolutely incredible food), 1 Eur beers, and get this – the hostel staff rounds up a group to drive off for an activity every day. We went to a beautiful local beach, and I wish we had stayed longer to experience more of the surroundings. As it was, we didn’t need to leave except to walk up to nearby Stari Bar for an iced coffee or groceries. If I ever open a hostel, I want it to be just like this one.

I have three photos from Montenegro. Here is one.

Celebrating my Best Friend’s Birthday in Serbia

Haley and I had been travelling together for about a month before we got to Belgrade, arriving just in time for her 25th birthday. Basically I can sum up our time in Belgrade with the following:

  1. We got tattoos from a guy who….didn’t speak very good English
  2. We bought the cheapest bottle of vodka in the store, which we literally had to open with a knife because it didn’t have a CAP
  3. There was no cap, so we drank all of the vodka (sharing some, of course, with our new friends) and had a truly ridiculous night out.

….this is the only photo I have from Belgrade. And possibly the worst photo of myself ever. So I am putting it on the internet.

10/10, Serbia rocks.

Returning to Cheers Hostel

I stayed at Cheers Hostel in Istanbul four years ago and I literally have not shut up about it since. I dragged Haley here and she was immediately sold when she heard about the golden retriever. The hostel owner remembered me and my sister, asked how she was doing, and was thrilled to hear she was getting married in the fall. The view from the bar upstairs was even more stunning than I remembered, and the rooms just as cozy. And of course, Zaman the dog is still a sweet pure angel from heaven.

I did have a very different time here – we went out a LOT. It was our last 3 nights together and again, we immediately made some amazing friends.

Pretending I Lived in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv was my first intro to the real Middle East, after a few days in Istanbul. I stayed at Hostel Florentine, and I had a few nights before my friends arrived to join me for our Middle Eastern leg. I was exhausted from our last night in Istanbul, where I literally went from a nightclub to the airport (that’s another story) and I really thought I was going to get a good night’s sleep in Tel Aviv. However, I forced myself to socialize so I headed up to the communal rooftop. I inserted myself into a group of chatting travelers, we started playing drinking games, and the next thing I knew we had a little family. This hostel was another place where you immediately feel at home, and if Israel wasn’t so expensive I would have loved indulging in all of the nearby restaurants and bars – I mean I still loved it, but I also had a pang every time I handed over my shekels.

Tel Aviv’s beach is amazing, and I love how open Israelis are – random groups of friends would come over us to chat, and not in a weird hitting-on-us way, they literally just wanted to chat. I knew I would like Tel Aviv, and what do you know – I was right.

A New Best Friend in Egypt

On my G Adventures tour in Egypt, I got paired with a roommate who I immediately disliked. I have no idea why, because 5 minutes into the next day we were giggling in the souks and buying eachother friendship necklaces. We had an absolute blast ditching our tour to do activities on our own to save money, finding the nearest pool and grabbing a beer, gossiping on the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor (I love overnight trains SO MUCH), jumping off the top of our traditional felucca boat into the Nile, and having Instagram photoshoots at every temple we visited. Andrea was so there for me during a week that I was very emotionally overwrought, and I am so thankful that we were roomed together!

One Last Hurrah in Dublin

I arrived in Dublin sick, tired from several long layovers and redeye flights, and to be honest, I was excited to get home. I had one last night at a hostel before I went back to my family, my dog, my home and the boy I was pretty sure I was in love with. I could have just slept for 16 hours, but I decided I needed to have one last big night: and thus I did. As had become so natural to me after 4.5 months, I met a friend in the common area and Hannah and I teamed up for the hostel pub crawl and headed over as it started to rain. We drank many Guinnesses (I don’t even like Guinnesses), did many free shots, and stumbled home around 5AM – I had to be up at 8AM for a VERY important flight. I made it, passed out for the duration, and disembarked in Halifax to power-walk through the airport and cry in my parents’ arms.

The one photo I took in Dublin. LOL.

My Sister’s Wedding

My older sister Anna got married in October!!!! She lives in Winnipeg, but the wedding was at a beautiful oceanside resort near Halifax. It was literally the perfect day, and I cried a LOT, especially at my parents’ speeches. It was amazing to meet my new brother-in-law’s entire family and we had a lovely few days of celebrations.

My wonderful family!!!

Coming Home

I never would have thought that moving back to Nova Scotia would feel like this much of a highlight, but I am so happy to be back. I returned to a promotion, so I now run my very own travel agency. I also returned to the previously discussed boy, and at the beginning of December I moved into his house. We have a Christmas tree, a chore schedule, and I have never felt so domestic, or so happy.

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I felt ALL the feelings this year, saw some of the most iconic places in the world and literally circumnavigated the globe. But the biggest lesson that I learned is how to be happy in one place. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll stop travelling…very much the opposite! In the next 6 months I have a work trip to Southeast Asia, and I’m introducing my boyfriend to the backpacker life with 2 weeks in Peru. I can’t wait to see what 2020 holds.

The Worst Things I did in India

On my worst day in India, I cried six times. It was 42 degrees and the air conditioning in my Varanasi hostel was broken, and I just physically could not sleep, no matter what I did. I wrapped myself in wet towels, I was wearing practically nothing, I kept wetting my hair and face – but everything would dry immediately, and I couldn’t stop crying out of frustration.

My face literally all the timeOn my way to try to find coffee after the worst sleep of my life, a man on the streets groped me, and I screamed at him in Hindi and then cried. Next I got stuck in a traffic jam and fell into a gutter, soaking my only clean skirt in mud and god knows what. I desperately needed to find cash, so I had to keep wandering the clogged and raucous streets caked in dirt and borderline sobbing.

I tried seven ATM’s, my anxiety skyrocketing with each one that told me it couldn’t give me money. My mind raced through the possibilities: if I couldn’t get money, I couldn’t pay for my hostel and I’d have to sleep on the streets and I’d get sold into the sex trade and then my life would be ruined. Logical steps? In my mind, yes. Eventually, I found some money and decided to sort my life out, thinking it was all up from here.

Smoke from the dead bodies burning on Varanasi's ghats

Guess what! Nope. I went to a travel agent I had visited earlier in the week to buy a train ticket up to Sikkim, where I needed to catch my flight to Dubai. He had to buy the ticket through an Indian reservation system called Tatkal, so I wouldn’t actually get the ticket until 2 days before the train. I walked in, finally some hope in my eyes, only to hear that he failed, and I needed to figure out another route. This, naturally, made me cry. 

I have no pictures of crying, so I am posting pictures of the ghats

Anyway, the point is that on this day I felt like shit and I treated everyone else like shit. Starving children asked me for money and all I could think about was how much I didn’t want to be bothered on this particular day. I snapped incessantly at the innocent hostel workers who were just trying to fix the AC and even gave me a refund for an unused night when I checked out. For god’s sake, I have been a vegetarian for 16 years and I deeply love animals, but when a street cow got in my way I screamed in my head “I will kill that cow if it doesn’t get out of my way RIGHT NOW.”

This angel Great Dane was a bright spot

That sort of behaviour and attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It’s a vicious cycle – the meaner you are to the world around you, the meaner the world will be to you.

My magical days in India were the ones where I woke up and decided that despite the oppressive heat and challenging travel, I would appreciate everything that was happening to me. When I let things roll off my back and just shrugged my shoulders at the chaos of India, good things found me – a sweet puppy would climb into my lap or a precious child would ask my name and where I was from and then not ask me for money. Or I would turn a corner and see a sadhu, long white beard and bright orange robes, smile gently at me as he walked past a temple beaming with light rays from the beating midday sun. 

A glorious day in Jaipur

But this post is not about those days! This post is about the days where I really thought that I might die from crying, or the days I seriously considered booking a flight out of India.

You’ve already heard about my worst day, but there were others. These aren’t necessarily places I regret going (in some cases) but I wanted to write honestly about my experiences in India, because it was quite clearly not all sunshine and roses. If you feel depressed after reading this, please go check out my post on the BEST things I did in India; it’s a lot more positive.

GETTING SICK

I mean, I knew it was going to happen – I just didn’t think it was going to be quite so bad. I was being pretty careful with food in India, but I wasn’t accounting for the lower standards of hygiene (in general) and to be honest, I was petting too many stray dogs. They’re just so cute 🙁

The aforementioned dogs (also what is happening with my hair?)

After seeing the Dalai Lama speak and having one of the most amazing experiences of my summer, I went back to my friends’ hostel for a drink and some games. The six of us sat on the rooftop hanging out, and then I started to feel a pain in my stomach. I went to one of their rooms to lie down for a minute, and I’m pretty sure they regretted that offer because for the next 12 hours I spent my time sprinting back and forth between the bed and the bathroom. It was truly reminiscent of the time I got norovirus in Prague, except markedly worse. My lovely new friends came to check on me and stroked my hair and tried to convince me to drink water, which I could absolutely not hold down.

The last meal I ate before getting sick – but I don’t blame it because nobody else got sick.

Anyway, enough said. It sucked. In the morning my friend drove me back to my hostel on their motorbike, and I slept for approximately 3 days before I felt like I could be a human.

STUCK IN DARJEELING WITH NOWHERE TO SLEEP

Darjeeling was kind of a similar experience to Varanasi in that it basically sucked except for a few bright moments where I appreciated how beautiful it was. One particular low point was another wild goose chase for an ATM that worked, but we already talked about that particular breed of hell. At least in Darjeeling it wasn’t hot, but it was almost constantly raining.

The view from my homestay

However, Darjeeling was quite expensive and almost all of the hotels and hostels were sold out. I booked somewhere without realizing quite how far down the hill it was – to the tune of a 90 minute walk on very dangerous roads. It was usually quite easy to get in a shared jeep up or down, and actually made me feel quite accomplished whenever I managed to do it successfully.

Fake smile!!

One night, though, I stayed at a cafe with a beer for longer than I realized because there was live music. I’m not talking crazy late – it was literally 9:15PM – but the share jeeps apparently stop at exactly 9PM. I wandered around, lost and a bit scared, trying to find someone, even a private taxi, to take me home. Nothing. I stumbled upon a hostel literally as they were closing the metal shutters and tried to get them to help me, but the only way they could do so was to give me a room. Luckily they had a private room so I could cry in peace.

Always cloudy

It all worked out fine, but I was quite shaken by my lapse in judgment and frustrated that I had to pay for two hostel rooms. I slept poorly and woke up the next morning to start crying again! I made it back to my original hostel and a lovely Tibetan lady who worked there said a kind hello. Of course, this set me off and I burst into tears without being able to explain to her why. Even if she had spoken English, it made no sense. Luckily, I pulled myself together and booked the Airbnb in Kalimpong that became one of the highlights of my trip.

MY LAST DAY IN INDIA

On the way back from Sikkim in the far northeast of India, I finally felt at peace with the country. I hadn’t had a perfect week, but I was finally happy. AND THEN my rickshaw driver tried to rip me off on the way to the airport hotel I booked for the night before my flight to Dubai. When I finally got to the hotel, I spent 30 minutes trying to find someone to check me in and then was told that they couldn’t check me in. The guy refused to explain why, and at first I reverted back to my Canadian self and politely walked away. Then I realized how ridiculous that was, and went back to the desk to give him a piece of my mind. He treated me like total garbage and of course I started crying, really invalidating my badass attitude.

This puppy was a great companion on my Jeep ride

Basically, the reason he wasn’t letting me check in is that the app I had used to book (goibibo) had been displaying inaccurate rates. NOBODY would help me  – the hotel guy was probably 19 and clearly didn’t give a shit, and when I called the booking company to try to get them to cover it, they transferred my call endlessly until I gave up. MOST irritatingly, the guy wouldn’t even let me check in if I paid the actual price. I just wanted air conditioning and a good long sleep before my flight, but instead I was in a lobby crying.

Leaving India

Leaving India

I finally threw my hands up and took a rickshaw to another place that was double the price, but not before I spoke to 5 rickshaw drivers who were trying to rip off the sobbing foreign girl, alone and drenched in sweat. Someone eventually took pity on me and the hotel I eventually checked into was fine. I left India MAD but trying to still appreciate all I had learned and seen in the past 6 weeks.

The view from my Yuksom homestay, the night before this disaster

The Best Things I did in India

INDIA. Where to even begin? I spent almost six weeks in the north of India this summer and man did a lot happen. I spent more money then I meant to, got groped several times, had three seemingly days-long panic attacks and got very very ill. But I also had some of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I have to say it’s much easier to appreciate India in hindsight.

I am so glad I went, but next time – I am NOT going in the summer. There’s a full post coming on the worst things that happened in India, but for now – let’s focus on the positive! Here are the best things I did in India.

HEARING THE DALAI LAMA SPEAK

The first amazing thing that happened to me in India was such a crazy once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was out for lunch with some German backpackers in Amritsar when they started talking about the Dalai Lama and how sometimes, you could go see him speak in McLeod Ganj. I had booked a bus ticket to McLeod Ganj for the next night, and serendipitously I learned that I was arriving just in time for his public speech!!!

In McLeod Ganj I paid the equivalent of 10 cents to register for the event and bought a radio so I could tune in to the translator station.

It was hectic and crowded, and I didn’t get to hear most of the speech because the radio was garbage, but I befriended a Kiwi girl who shared her radio and her seat. I stood ten feet from him as he entered the complex, peering through shoulders and legs and cameras as dozens of reporters tried to get the perfect picture. I couldn’t believe I was there.

Twelve hours later I was contemplating death on a bathroom floor while my entire body exploded, but that’s a story for another time.

HIKING OVERNIGHT TO TRIUND

Two days later, my friend flew in to join me for two weeks – and honestly, thank god, because I might have fled the country if not for her. Despite the fact that I was still very weak and had a horrible cough, we decided to embark on an overnight trek.

On the way up the mountain it went from 35 degrees to literal hail. We clambered past goats, got stared at by Indian hikers, and paused a lot. The pauses were totally to admire the views….not because we were out of breath. I swear.

We slept in a freezing and rain-pummeled tent, but we could get chai delivered to us anytime we yelled out the tent, and the views……you really can’t beat waking up to this, even if you don’t have a jacket and it’s so cold you want to die.

Aside from the beauty, I felt mentally clear here for the first time in weeks. I journalled furiously about how I felt, who I wanted to be, everything – it was great to feel alive again, as depressing as that sounds.

A RANDOM RIVER ACTIVITY IN MANALI

After our hike, we took some time to recover and then headed to Manali, another Himalayan town famous with backpackers. We didn’t really DO a lot here – our guesthouse was adorable (highly recommend staying at Apple View) and the views all around the town are amazing. Every time it rained it seemed like new waterfalls appeared around us.

Aside from deep life chats and intense journalling, we ate a lot of Western food in town (oops) and visited probably every cafe we could find. The one ‘activity’ we did was so random and I don’t even know what it was called – at the river right next to our guesthouse, people would get slid out onto these zipline type things and then they just bounce you up and down. It’s SO weird and we couldn’t figure out why it was a thing, but then we did it and it was honestly really fun. They gave us a really good deal for some reason and let us go for longer, and we couldn’t stop laughing for about half an hour afterwards.

SEEING THE TAJ MAHAL AT SUNRISE

It is very rare that I will wake up before 9AM voluntarily. However, I made a friend in Jaipur and he encouraged me to do so, and because it was way easier to walk around with a guy than alone, I said yes. He woke up my cranky self at 4:30AM with coffee and we headed out. We stayed at Joey’s Hostel in Agra, which was really great – the common area didn’t have air conditioning, but the rooms did (blessedly) and the vibe was really great. The staff were super helpful when I needed to get a rickshaw to the bus station, AND best of all, the view from the terrace was absolutely stunning. It was too hot to hang out on the terrace for longer than 3 minutes, unfortunately, but still – for $10 a night, you get THIS VIEW.

The hostel is so close to the Taj Mahal that you can very easily be the first people there. When we arrived, only three others were there – and randomly, they happened to be three German girls that I had met in Shimla weeks earlier! Unbelievably, I ran into them again the next week at the Varanasi airport. Anyway, we made time for some photoshoots and I got some of my favourite photos of all time, and as the complex got more crowded we found quiet areas to sit and admire one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This was one of those places that I worried would be underwhelming, but it is just stunning, and the early morning light and quiet truly elevated the experience.

A RICKSHAW RIDE HOME IN VARANASI

Varanasi and Darjeeling were probably my two least favorite places in India – not because they weren’t beautiful, but just because I had a crap time. However, there was one lovely little interlude in Varanasi where I was NOT sobbing. I had just finished a sunset boat tour, and then managed to navigate myself through some twisted alleys without any mishaps. I flagged down a shared rickshaw to take me home for the equivalent of 20 cents, and communicated with the driver in Hindi perfectly. I talked to my fellow passengers, and one of them even made sure I was paying the local price and not getting ripped off. I got back to my hotel, they greeted me by name, and I went to bed feeling fulfilled, confident, and happy – which was a truly delightful change. Simple – but lovely!

SPLURGING ON AN AIRBNB IN KALIMPONG

When I arrived at my Airbnb in this town near Darjeeling, everybody was so kind to me that as soon as I was alone I had a nice little happy cry in my room. Man, I cry a lot. Anyway, as mentioned I had a horrible time in Darjeeling and decided I needed to rest and ‘recuperate’. I felt like I really splurged on a night at an amazing Airbnb, when in reality I just checked and it cost me $35.

 

Main benefit of this place? All the DOGS. They were so clean and nice and friendly and it was a great change to actually be able to pet and snugle with the dogs. The host’s mom cooked amazing meals based on my preferences at every meal time, and they helped me get a bus to my next destination and even helped me figure out a permit for Sikkim. Sanjay spoke perfect English, had books for me to read, and the views were incredible. Next time, I’m staying here for a week and I’ll even do some sightseeing.

EXPLORING THE REMOTE REGION OF SIKKIM

If I hadn’t gone to Sikkim as the last stop of my trip, I would have left India absolutely hating everything and regretting my time there. Luckily, I did go to Sikkim! If you don’t know what or where this is, it’s tucked in right between Bhutan, Nepal and China.

Image result for sikkim on a map

This means the culture feels TOTALLY different from the rest of India (which is obviously a very diverse country), and it was a very refreshing change. The food is more my speed, the cities are calmer, and there are mountains everywhere! I want to write a whole post about the trip, because there is almost no information on the internet and it’s very restricted in terms of solo travel, but highlights included making some great friends in the cutest homestay ever in Yuksom, some sweet Jeep rides, and seeing the third tallest mountain in the world!

Bali Really is the Best

I had the best intentions of planning out my ten days on Bali to really maximize my time. I thought I’d make a list of all the places I wanted to see, prioritize it, pre-book some cool accommodation, etc. Instead, I arrived on the island with my first night booked at a hostel in Seminyak and a vague idea of some places that sounded nice.

My first day in Seminyak

Despite my lack of organisation, my ten days on Bali were amazing. I was trepidatious considering I had just spent an amazing 10 days in Australia with friends – how would I feel about being thrown back into solo travel? Turns out, I felt great. Bali is absolutely one of the best places on earth for solo female travel. It’s easy to get around while still feeling like a challenge, it’s safe (you just have to watch out for traffic) and there are SO many other backpackers wandering around looking for friends.

I spent two nights in Seminyak, four nights in Ubud and three nights on Gili Trawangan, a nearby island.

TOP TIPS FOR BALI

1. Don’t be afraid to hire a driver

To me, hiring a driver sounds like the height of decadence. However, once I got to Bali, I realized public transport was not really a thing, and even if I had a driver’s license I would never personally feel comfortable driving on Bali’s tiny, chaotic roads. I arranged a driver for two things: a ride from my Seminyak hostel to my Ubud hostel, and then for a full day of touring around Ubud before being dropped at the airport for my flight to Singapore. The first drive was really out of necessity, as I don’t even know what my other route to Ubud would have been – and it certainly wouldn’t have been as pleasant and convenient. But I’m so glad I ‘splurged’ on the second day of driving and got to see a TON of sights around Ubud.

Now, splurging is a relative term on Bali. For my FULL day, I paid $56 Canadian, and for the drive to Ubud I paid $23. Can you believe that a private driver (AND photographer) all day is only $56? I can’t. And imagine if I had been traveling with someone – we would have been able to split the costs and pay basically nothing for such a fantastic day.

I may have been able to find these rides slightly cheaper, but my driver was so delightful that I don’t regret a single penny. Listya messaged me through a female travel Facebook group we are both part of, and I was a lot more comfortable with having a female driver. Her husband was the one who took me on my touring day, and he was great as well and ALSO a great photographer. He took all of the photos of me in this section!

2. Mix it up with hostels and Airbnbs

Next time I go back to Bali, I will hopefully be with friends (or at least one friend!) and I will definitely book more Airbnbs. There are some absolutely insane villas you can get for a total steal. I could only splurge once, but man was it worth it. I stayed at a $2.50 hostel my first night in Ubud, and it was so horrible that I slept for approximately 2 hours: I felt like bugs were crawling all over me, the noise from the street was deafening, and it was so hot. I woke up, left immediately and booked a gorgeous Airbnb. I paid $21 a night for a top floor room with private bathroom, made-to-order breakfast in the mornings, and the host even booked all my tours/transport for me without ripping me off.

The view from my shitty hostel was nice at least!

Better accommodation and a great view at my Airbnb

I stayed in some other fairly decent hostels, including Gili Mansion on Gili Trawangan (super fun and made some great friends, but the three bed dorms are REALLY awkward if you get stuck with a couple) and Padi Backpacker’s House for a short night in Ubud (would definitely go back) – but the Airbnb was extremely memorable.

They booked me this life changing volcano hike!

3. Make friends who can drive a scooter

My day tour was amazing, and if I go back alone I will definitely hire Listya for more time, but the flexibility and freedom of hopping on a scooter is just unmatched. I had ridden a scooter in Turkey before and knew I wanted to do it in Bali.

I had trouble making friends in empty hostels my first couple days in Ubud, so I decided to go for an alternative route. I fired up my Tinder, put in my bio that I was “looking for someone to PLATONICALLY go on scooter adventures with” (see the disclaimer mom?) and within 10 minutes I had a buddy to drive me to a waterfall the next day! He was German living in Sydney, and he drove a scooter there every day so I decided to trust his driving abilities. The next morning we headed off to Tukad Cepung, about a 1.5 hr drive from Ubud. It was so lovely to drive through the countryside with the wind in my hair, children and women shyly smiling at me and beautiful scenery rushing by.

The waterfall was busy but not as busy as some others that I would see, and partway through our visit some amazing light rays appeared that turned into something out of an Elven Kingdom in Lord of the Rings. My pictures can’t really communicate how ethereal this was – but I did not regret this random adventure at all.

So, my takeaways? Bali is best travelled in a different way than I normally travel. I never hire drivers, rarely stay in Airbnbs, and certainly don’t make a habit of going on random people’s scooters, but here – my trip wouldn’t have been the same without these things!

How to Spend Five Days in Japan: Kyoto

Kyoto is almost as magical as Disney World. If you only have time for one city in Japan, I would choose Kyoto over Tokyo. Also, does anyone else find it really entertaining that Tokyo and Kyoto are anagrams of eachother? No, just me? Ok.

Anyway, how I got to Kyoto was almost as awesome as Kyoto. The incredibly fast bullet trains (aka shinkansens) were out of my budget, so I decided to take an overnight bus after two days in Tokyo – worked out well, since I also saved money on accommodation! I was expecting it to be a relatively sleepless night, as most overnight bus rides are.

BUT. This was the greatest overnight bus of all time, I talk about it constantly. The seats reclined so far back I was basically lying down, each chair had a little dome that you could pull over yourself to make it feel more private, and it was totally dark and silent the whole night. I slept for over eight hours, with zero interruptions, and woke up to the extraordinary view of the Kyoto river just as we pulled up, rubbing my eyes as I peered out the window slightly disoriented.

The first thing that I did in Kyoto was have a nap. I said it was because I really wanted to try out a capsule hotel, but if I am telling the truth it is because I was lazy and also needed a shower. Side benefit – I got to try out a capsule hotel! I think I paid about $20 for a 2.5 hour stretch of time at nine hours Kyoto. I truly think that being able to rent a place to nap is the greatest idea of all time. I got to shove all my stuff in a locker and use the included toiletries and toothbrush, AND A ROBE AND PAJAMAS. Then when I got in the capsule, I could set the alarm to wake me up gradually with light, for the exact time I needed. Truly the best nap of my life.

Anyway, I am realizing this entire post has been about sleeping. Let’s talk about the actual reason you’ve come to Kyoto – sightseeing!

I was in Kyoto at one of the two best times of year. It’s a great destination year-round, but if you want to be wowed, cherry blossom season and autumn are the best times. Autumn apparently comes later to Japan than Canada, so in mid-November the beautiful colours were in full swing. Everywhere I walked the trees were almost the best attraction, and the ancient temples and shrines looked even more beautiful with the vibrant red backdrop of nature. Let’s get into where I went and what I did!

Free Walking Tour

I love doing walking tours to orient myself to a city, and this was a great one. It was the first thing I did after the aforementioned nap, and was a great way to learn about some shrine etiquette AND spot some geishas. Our guide explained the history and culture of geishas to us (they are not prostitutes!) and we got SO lucky in the Gion district, seeing multiple geishas rushing to lessons or appointments.

It was so cool, and our guide said it was the most he had ever seen in one day. This area of town itself is so historic and beautiful, and I loved wandering through it.

Philosopher’s Path and Kyoto’s Temples

I actually missed out on some of the most famous temples in Kyoto – like the Golden Temple. I honestly just wasn’t too fussed about temple after temple, even though they look beautiful. I was more in the mood for hiking and nature! However, I certainly made time for the Philosopher’s Path, which is a gorgeous 2km path leading along a canal and between some of the city’s most famous temples.

It was quite busy when I walked along, but it was a really lovely stroll, especially with the fall leaves. I ended up at Ginkaku-ji and decided I wanted to go for a hike. I sat down at a restaurant, ate some amazing ramen, and googled a hike nearby.

Daimon-Ji

This was the best thing I did in Kyoto! When I hiked, I had some extremely vague directions, but fumbled my way through it – when I just googled the hike, though, I found this site. It even has pictures, so if you save this site in advance the hike will be a BREEZE.

Anyway, the hike itself was lovely – but the atmosphere at the top was the best part. I was the only foreigner that I could see, and there were tons of families picnicking, chatting, and just enjoying their days. I found a perch and read, journalled, and people-watched to my heart’s content. And of course, had a solo photo shoot!

Let’s end this post the way it started, by talking about sleeping:

Jam Hostel Kyoto Gion

I really liked my hostel. It’s owned by a lovely woman (who speaks great English and is happy to chat) who also owns the sake bar on the bottom floor. I love hostels attached to bars; it makes it so easy to make friends and it worked out perfectly here! I sat down for a sake tasting and ten minutes a lovely British girl named Jo sat down and we started talking. We ended up going out that night together for dinner, and meeting up the next night for dinner and drinks. We had a great time trying out lots of different restaurants and bars; the food in Japan was SO good. I somehow managed to leave the country without eating any sushi, which I’m still really confused by, but everything else I ate was amazing.

One of my favorite moments in Japan came as I was walking back to my hostel, full, happy, and maybe a bit tipsy. I took a random route and ended up walking down Pontocho Alley, which is apparently known as one of the most atmospheric dining areas in Kyoto. The lanterns were lit, every bar was buzzing, and I felt very content with my life and with Kyoto.

Next up: my thoughts on the two most famous day trips from Kyoto!

How to Spend Five Days in Japan: Tokyo

Japan has fascinated me ever since I can remember. Last year, when I found a super cheap flight to Hong Kong, I knew I wanted to combine it with a hop over to Japan, even if I wouldn’t be able to see much of the country.

Through the magic of budget airlines, a friend living in Tokyo, and affordable transportation, I was able to make it to three cities in Japan. And not just that: I did it on the cheap! Whenever I told someone I was going to Japan, they said, “Ooh, it’ll be expensive there.” I found it to be pretty darn affordable, even without really trying to scrimp.

If you only have a short time to hit some of Japan’s highlights, here’s what I’d recommend, starting with…

TWO DAYS IN TOKYO

I knew I would fall in love with Tokyo. I love big cities (although as the years go by I’ve become more and more of a country girl), and I couldn’t wait for Tokyo to join my list of favorite modern cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York…

The moment I landed, I was enchanted. The customs officer sweetly pointed out to me that I had written my birthday as November 11th, 2016, not yelling at me like they would have in some countries. (Cough cough, the United States).

Then I embarked on my journey to my friend’s house in the expat district of Roppongi: multiple trains later, I stepped out from the underground to the city of my dreams.

Tokyo is very much a city of neighborhoods, and I tried to see as many as I possibly could.

Marunouchi

You’ll probably end up here at some point, since it’s the home of Tokyo Station. The other main sight is the Imperial Palace, which made for a lovely stroll. However, I was a little underwhelmed by the total lack of signage or information: I left still knowing nothing about the Japanese royal family. If you find yourself looking for some good eats in Tokyo Station, I recommend T’s TanTan: it’s a busy little vegetarian ramen restaurant and it was SO yummy.

Akihabara

This is the “electric town” of Tokyo. It’s the home of hundreds of electronic shops, which makes for a glittering spectacle of flashing neon signs. It’s also the home of some of Tokyo’s most famous cafe’s….everything from hedgehogs to cats to maids. If you haven’t heard of a maid cafe, it’s a restaurant where the servers treat guests as their “masters”, and it is SUPER weird. The very young-looking girls standing outside the doors trying to entice diners made me very uncomfortable, but it was definitely a sight to see.

Asakusa

Senso-ji is a famous Buddhist temple in Asakusa, and you really can’t leave Tokyo without seeing it. The walk up to the temple from the subway station is full of souvenir shops, unique looking snacks, and anything you could imagine: it’s very touristy, but also very charming. I had a wonderful time at this temple – an old Japanese man offered to take my photo and walked me around to have a precious little photo shoot:

Then, while I was sitting on a wall, drinking my coffee and people watching, a group of children came up to talk to me. This has happened to me in a few countries, where schoolkids approach tourists to do an ‘interview’ and practice their English. It’s always adorable because the kids are so nervous. These kids were from the countryside and gave me some green tea in exchange for speaking with them. Then they wanted a photo with me. SO cute.

Harajuku

Everyone has heard of Harajuku! It lives up to all the hype. It’s the fashion mecca for young Japanese kids, and young tourists as well. I wasn’t here to shop, but to people watch – you’ve probably seen photos of the outrageous outfits paraded around the famous Takeshita Dori alley. The rest of the district is very charming as well, the type of place I’d love to live with all kinds of independent coffee shops and restaurants.

In the alley, every store is bursting with clothes and accessories that my mind could never dream up. There are also crazy snacks, from giant cotton candy to excessively stuffed crepes. Go here on a Sunday morning for the best people watching, but any day of the week your mind will still be blown.

Shinjuku

Three great things happened to me in very quick succession in Shinjuku.

  • I found a 48 hour unlimited metro pass on the ground, right before I was about to buy my own
  • I saw a group of Japanese toddlers dressed as firefighters milling around and trying to take a photo, and I almost exploded from the cuteness
  • I walked into the Meiji Jingu Shrine right as a traditional wedding procession was walking by

Needless to say, this was a good couple hours. Meiji Jingu Shrine was one of my favorite temples for the setting: I took a lovely stroll through the woods after my visit and felt like I had stepped back in time to ancient Japan.

The next highlight in Shinjuku are the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings. I went up here to have lunch with a view! The observation tower is free to visit, which made it an easy choice. Look at this amazing skyline!!!

Shibuya

I went here for one reason: the Shibuya Crossing. One of the most mind-blowing things about Japan is its efficiency and organization. Every time I was on a train I was shocked by the total silence, and the way that absolutely everyone was so courteous of one another. A dream come true compared to my Toronto commutes.

This crossing is a defining example of that, with an amazing number of people moving in perfect unison to make it across this intersection in any direction. The popular tip is to go into the Starbucks above the crossing for a great view, which I did: it wasn’t very busy, but I also wasn’t there at rush hour. I’ve also read that the Keio Inokashira Line Shibuya Station give a great view.

Roppongi

Like I mentioned, this is where I stayed, in my friend’s beautiful and modern condo. It’s known as the nightlife district – my last night we went out for dinner and drinks, and I can see why it’s so famous. Even on a weekday it was one of the most lively nightlife areas I’ve ever seen! Tokyo Tower is also nearby, so there is a great view of it from Roppongi.

Now, full disclosure: I didn’t have time to venture past these most touristy districts of Tokyo. Obviously this is a pretty surface view: but with a short time in Tokyo, you can’t go wrong with a wander in each of these areas!

 

My 9 Favourite Hostels Outside Europe

I recently extended another Boston work trip to include a weekend, and this time the Hostelling International Hostel had a bed available! I was excited to try my first real North American hostel, which I assumed would be a totally different breed from the ones I’ve stayed in on almost every other continent.

When I walked in, I was hit with insane deja vu; it looked exactly like the hostel I stayed at in Berlin: One80 Hostel. I knew right away that it was going to be a much more enjoyable stay than I had predicted, and I was right! I fell so in love with this hostel that on a flight, I made a list of the 21 best hostels I’ve ever stayed in: from Hong Kong to Salzburg. The post got so long I split it into two; here’s the list of all the hostels I’ve loved outside Europe.

NORTH AMERICA

HI BOSTON: BOSTON, USA

Duh – I just talked about this one. This hostel had everything I love about international hostels: group activities, amazing location, free breakfast and great hang-out space. Side note, I can’t believe I just used the phrase ‘hang-out space’….

One of my favourite streets in Boston, and so close to the hostel!

Anyway, I had a blast here. I often expect Hostelling International hostels (the international accreditation organization) to be kind of stodgy and institutional, so this one exceeded all expectations. I also got to enjoy my first night as a legal 21 year old in the US with some of my roommates, which was very exciting.

AFRICA

HOSTEL RIAD BIK: MARRAKECH, MOROCCO

I can’t totally explain why I loved this place so much. I read some reviews and they’re all fairly mediocre – the facilities are a bit run down and there’s not a ton of space. But like most of my Morocco trip, the good outweighs the bad. The staff here was SO friendly – I wrote about them here – and the roof terrace holds some of my fondest memories ever. Also, it’s almost appallingly cheap.

What a great quality photo.

So happy that I was on my phone. Anyway, I miss this terrace.

CAMPING POISSON SACREE: TODRA GORGE, MOROCCO

Thinking back on this place, I would NEVER want to stay here alone – it was literally empty until we arrived and the only staff were men. But with the four guys I was travelling with, it was amazing! I wrote a whole post about this place, but suffice it to say the staff, location, and beds were practically life-changing.

My favourite quote from the post: “Cooking in hostels in an art which I have not yet mastered, while lying on a canopied sofa in the Moroccan twilight drinking wine is one of my greatest skills.”

KENDWA ROCKS: ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA

Not technically a hostel – technically a resort. But I still booked a dorm, so I’m saying it counts. Honestly the room was kind of shitty, buuut I got to stay right on the most amazing beach in the world and use all the resort facilities and that 100% made up for it.

SO glad I had water on my camera lens for all of these photos.

This place is where I got over my biggest fear in the world and went scuba diving, where I had the most romantic evening of my life with a French architect, and I will always want to return.

THE GREENHOUSE: ARUSHA, TANZANIA

I should hate this place, because it left me hungover for my first day of driving six million hours in my safari car. However, the people I met here were so lovely that I could never hate it. Also, my dorm bed was a DOUBLE BED – just for me. And all my meals were included. For the price I was paying ($15 USD a night), I couldn’t have asked for more value. The hostel is a haven for volunteers in the local area, and hanging out with people my age with so many stories to share was so much fun.

I apparently didn’t take a single picture in Arusha, so here’s a photo of a lion WITHOUT ZOOM.

ASIA

SHOESTRING CAVE HOUSE: GOREME, TURKEY

Turkey. This country keeps calling me back, and my heart breaks for what is happening there now. Cappadocia was an amazing trip, and one that was very unusual for me – the purpose of going was the hot air balloon ride, and they’re very weather dependent. In an effort to make sure I got that hot air balloon ride I stayed here for five nights, which is a lot longer than I normally stay in one place.

The plethora of cave hotels, built right in the fairy chimneys that Cappadocia is famous for, makes choosing accommodation here pretty overwhelming. I was overjoyed when I found this super affordable dorm in a cave, which seems to be more rare. Nothing like sleeping in an actual cave, and the pool deck has amazing views of Goreme – there’s a picture below.

Also, I just remembered how incredible the breakfast here was. It’s included, and I honestly just teared up a little bit thinking about how good it was.

JAM HOSTEL KYOTO GION: KYOTO, JAPAN

Honestly the actual hostel portion of this place wasn’t anything to write home about (although I also can’t complain). The reason it made this list is the fact that it’s attached to a sake bar!!! I really wanted to try sake in Japan, but was very intimidated by it; I didn’t understand how to order it or what it was.

So this place was perfect – one evening after dinner I plopped myself down at the bar and ordered a sake tasting. The owner of the hostel, who spoke amazing English, brought me a flight of local sakes and explained them. It was surprisingly good, and a few minutes later a British girl showed up to do the exact same thing. We bonded and chatted and ended up spending the rest of our evenings in Kyoto together, exploring and drinking.

URBAN PACK HOSTEL: HONG KONG

My first moments in this hostel, I had just finished about 36 hours of travel across the world. I was exhausted, confused about where I was, and it was also my 21st birthday. I walked out onto the balcony, saw this incredible view of a beautiful mosque and of course the iconic HK skyline, and rejoiced in the fact that I’d finally made it to a city I knew I’d fall in love with. (Spoiler: I was right).

The iconic Hong Kong skyline – just steps away from the hostel.

This hostel just felt so Hong Kong to me, with the cramped yet livable rooms, its location halfway up a skyscraper, its buzzing vibe. I met some awesome people here as well, and spent a good portion of my trip with them. The location, too, is pretty much all you could ask for in Hong Kong – zero complaints.

The Best of 2016

In my mind, 2016 is kind of broken into three completely separate parts. From January to April I was at university for the last semester, working at a cafe and hanging out with friends constantly. In May and June I went on an incredible whirlwind trip to eleven countries. In July I moved to Toronto and now I have a grownup job and sit in an office staring wistfully at my world map all day.

However, a surprising number of these 20 highlights happened in the school or the work part of 2016. Be forewarned that this is a very long post.

Going on a camping safari in Tanzania

I think in 80 years, my safari in Tanzania will still be the number one coolest thing I have ever done in my life. Sure, there were tsetse flies and both extreme cold and extreme heat, and a lot of time in a car, but thinking back on my 6 nights camping in the wilds of Africa none of that matters.

I watched thousands upon thousands of wildebeest make their way across the savannah, sitting on top of the Jeep and marvelling at how far I could see. I darted back into my tent in the middle of the night after seeing glowing eyes staring at me from the grass. I woke up to the most incredible sunset straight from my tent, and felt at peace.

Overcoming my fear of water by scuba diving in Zanzibar

Every time I think about the fact that I went scuba diving, I am in awe of my bravery. That may sound dramatic, but until literally last year I held my dad’s hand the whole time we snorkeled and sometimes cried into my mask because I was so irrationally afraid of the water. In Zanzibar, I saw a dive shop, marched myself over to sign up for a one day discovery course and then sat on the beach contemplating how afraid I was. I got in the boat, thought about all the ways I could die, and then threw myself backwards into the Indian Ocean with my heart in my throat.

And it was pure magic.

Taking the Sound of Music bike tour in Salzburg, Austria

Despite the fact that I only spent four days in Austria, three of the things on this list happened here. I think I need to go back to Austria…

Since the moment this tour began, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it again and take my mom with me. We LOVE the Sound of Music and the only reason that this tour wasn’t perfect is that my mom wasn’t there to experience it with me. My morning of riding out into the Austrian countryside, singing along to Do Re Mi and dancing around filming locations pretending to be Liesl will always be one of my fondest memories.

Hiking Pulpit Rock in Norway

Have I annoyed you all yet by continuing to rave about Pulpit Rock? Yes? Oh well, I’m going to keep doing it. You may notice that five of the items on this list are hikes; 2016 was the year I discovered that I actually do like hiking and now the first thing I do when planning a trip is check whether I can hike there. Anyway, I already wrote a whole post about this hike and I even used the word magical in the title (so dramatic) – here it is.

Hiking Ben Vrackie in Scotland

Another hike you say? Yep…I started my two month trip this summer with this hike, and it couldn’t have been a better kickoff. This random, not very well-known hike in Scotland was absolutely breathtaking and all it made me want to do was hike all over Scotland. My sister did a 10 day Scotland trip in August and did basically all the things I wanted to, and now we are seriously discussing opening a hostel in the Scottish countryside or trekking the West Highland Way together.

Scooting around Cappadocia

Oddly, my hot air balloon ride was not the highlight of my Cappadocia trip. It was incredible, but the day where my American friend Julie and I rented a scooter and drove wherever the wind took us stands out more in my mind. I was lonely in Cappadocia, the sole backpacker in my cave hotel’s dorm and shocked by the sharp downturn in tourism in Turkey.

When Julie arrived in the dorm I literally walked over and said, “Oh my god I’ve been so lonely, will you be my friend?” Somehow that worked, and we spent the rest of our time together. We climbed castles, feasted on Turkish food, got lost, and later went on the weirdest double date of my life with these two creepy Turkish guys. We also spent an amazing night dancing in a local bar, this time with less creepy Turkish guys.

I often say that Turkey is my favourite country, and I am heartbroken for what has been happening  there. It’s a magical place.

Visiting Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

I had a weird obsession with the Holocaust as a child, and I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary a million times and cried every single time. I managed to find a last-minute ticket through sheer luck (if you’re going, try to get one in advance) and on my last rainy day in Amsterdam I went and cried for a few hours. It’s impossible to describe how impactful this place was; they have set up the exhibits and memorials incredibly well and I believe everyone should know the story of this incredibly inspiring girl.

Spending the evening with the orchestra at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna

It’s no coincidence that two of these favourites happened with the same people. I met two girls from Chicago on my Sound of Music Tour (see above) and we traveled to Vienna together. I told them about a free concert by the Vienna Philharmonic happening at the Schonbrunn Palace, we picked up a French boy from their hostel, and off we went for one of the most special nights ever.

After an epic quest to find the only store in Vienna that was open (I think it was a public holiday) we bought a crap-ton of wine, bread, and cheese and made our way to one of the most beautiful palaces in Vienna. Obviously, it was packed, so we made our way to a hill behind the actual orchestra, ignoring signs that said we wouldn’t be able to hear.

The signs were in fact correct, but it didn’t matter. We got tipsy, talked about our favourite international misadventures, chatted to random strangers around us, and I kept having those moments of perfection where I stopped to take it all in.

Near the end of the concert, we decided to leave and avoid the rush. We ended up walking by the orchestra at the perfect time to hear AND see the final flourish – that’s right, there were fireworks.

Amazing.

Hiking Lion Rock in Hong Kong

If you had asked me during this hike if it would ever make it to a highlight list, the answer would be a firm no. This hike was REALLY HARD and I thought I was going to die. I actually hiked to Amah Rock first, which was a waste of time, then up to Lion Rock, and it was so hot. I’m much better at handling cold than heat (thanks Canada) and I have never sweat so much in my entire life. I considered giving up about 7 times but when I made it to the view, it was all worth it.

Hong Kong itself was a highlight, just like I expected it to be – it’s an unbelievably cool city with so much to do and see, and the cute Swedish boy I met certainly didn’t hurt.

Hiking Daimonji Yama in Kyoto

Japanese temples and shrines are gorgeous, but I find when I travel solo, going to these kinds of places means walking through in half an hour and leaving. In Kyoto I felt kind of listless after hitting the major highlights in a day, so I googled ‘hiking in Kyoto’ and found this gem. It was extremely confusing to find because there were no English signs, but if you use these directions you’ll be set.

The hike isn’t too hard, especially compared to some of the others on this list. At the top, there’s a very convenient area to picnic, chat, or read and journal – I did all of the above. I was the only foreigner for most of the time, and tons of Japanese families and groups were there. The atmosphere was great and the view was just incredible.

Hiking Mount Tampa in Brasov, Romania

When I arrived in Brasov, it was raining. When I left three days later, it was still raining. I napped and hung out in the hostel lounge much more than I would care to admit, because I couldn’t motivate myself to get out and do anything.  Luckily, the one time I dragged myself out of bed was great enough to make it to this list.

I booked my hostel (Kismet Dao) solely because a dog lived there, and when I got there I learned that if you walked the dog you got free beer. Um, win-win situation much!? I put on my sneakers and leashed up Zara for what I expected to be a light stroll around town. However, Zara had a mind of her own and since all I knew in Romanian was  thank you and no, controlling her was a challenge. She led me to what appeared to be her favourite path and we ended up climbing a mountain.

Going on a pub crawl in Edinburgh

I loved Edinburgh in general, but one of the highlights was the pub crawl I went on. I may not have thought so the next morning, but the girls I met were so fun and the pub scene so buzzing that the hangover was totally worth it. The hostel employee running the pub crawl was also a riot, with the most Scottish accent ever and the most Scottish beard ever.

Strangely, one of the highlights of the pub crawl did not happen in a pub. I only took one piece of photo ID with me because I didn’t want to lose my passport three days into my trip. At one spot the guy refused to let me in without another piece, which made me sad because the drinking age in Scotland is 18, and I was 20. I look sixteen.

Anyway, I had to run back to the hostel to grab my passport and the walk took me down the most charming little alleyways and streets I’ve ever seen – and the fact that I was already a pint of beer in just made me more pleased with my surroundings. It was strangely lovely and I will never forget how happy I was in that moment!

Visiting Iceland

The only country which is itself a highlight on this list. Iceland was the last destination on my insanely packed 2 month trip so I was worried that I’d be so tired (and maybe even jaded) that it wouldn’t impress me. Not so. Yes, I was exhausted, but Iceland is so COOL. I wrote about the logistics of planning a trip to Iceland already, and still need to sit down and try to remember the details of both tours I took.

But suffice it to say that there is a reason everybody gushes so much about Iceland. The sights are beautiful, the people are beautiful, the prices are horrifying, and you will never forget your time here.

Touring the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg

Totally never thought something in Winnipeg would be on this list. My sister moved to this fairly remote Canadian city for work. I had visited on a layover just to be able to say I’d visited all ten Canadian provinces, but hadn’t explored the city in depth. We found a cheap flight, split the cost and I was off to visit on a packed weekend.

Most of the time was spent snuggling doggies and eating junk food, because dogs and junk food are two of our favourite things, but we also made time for some sightseeing. The only must-see on my list was the Human Rights Museum, which I’ve heard only amazing things about.

It lived up to my expectations: the design, exhibits and educational value of the museum is stunning. I learned a ton. I was very moved to see Malala Yousafzai’s bloody school uniform on display; I have so much admiration for Malala and loved her book.

Wondering at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

I am SO obsessed with libraries. Many of my fondest childhood memories occurred in our local library and I read a lot, so anywhere with books is a draw. When a library is historic and stunning, I can’t resist but to stop by. That’s why in Vienna, my very first stop was the Austrian National Library – I saw it on Instagram and immediately knew I had to go.

Did I wander the library pretending to be a Hapsburg princess? Perhaps. I was totally captivated by the amazing room, the exhibits on Hapsburg royalty, and even the smell of old books. I could have spent hours here.

Spending a solo Thanksgiving at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario

I love plays and solo travel. I couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, and it’s never been a huge deal in my family anyway, so I decided to take a weekend trip in my new province. When I realized that I could get youth discounts on tickets to shows at the Stratford Theatre Festival, I was sold!

I stayed in the weirdest hostel ever (it was attached to a hospital and I was the only one staying there) but at least it was cheap. I saw incredible productions of Shakespeare in Love, MacBeth and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!

My emotions were all out of whack in October; the three-month mark was one of the toughest adjustments in moving and starting a new job. Solo travel always centres me, and this quick trip was exactly what I needed.

Pretending to be rich in Muskoka – Ontario’s cottage country

One of my best friends, Nicole, was working at a swanky resort (the JW Marriott) in Muskoka, which is the gorgeous lake country 2-3 hours north of Toronto. I headed up to visit her and see if I could take advantage of the resort facilities without staying there. The answer – yes. During Nicole’s shifts I walked in like I owned the place, plopped myself down by the pool and tried to put on my best snooty rich person face.

It was so relaxing to pretend to be rich for a day, and having my every whim catered to was just delightful. Top it off with the chance to see one of my best friends and the gorgeous surroundings of the resort and it was the recipe for a much-needed escape from the blistering heat of Toronto.

Visiting New York for the fourth time

It never gets old. My friend Emma was in Toronto, so of course we decided to travel a 10 hour bus ride south to NYC and spend like 36 hours there. Because we took Greyhound and Greyhound is the worst company in the history of capitalism, our bus was delayed almost five hours and we were stuck in Scranton, Pennslyvania for EVER. We did make it, though, and once we made it we had a blast.

Our hostel had the comfiest beds known to man and we took in two shows: Fiddler on the Roof and An American in Paris. I literally go to New York just to see Broadway shows…no regrets. It was HOT and EXPENSIVE and TIRING but would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Graduating university!

Somehow, this milestone pales in comparison to all the other amazing things I did in 2016. While during my third year of university I travelled more than I went to school, in my fourth year I think I only left the province twice, and it was all job interview-related. Despite this, I had the most incredible time during my last semester of school.

I worked at an Italian espresso bar, finally falling in love with the community vibe of my small university town. I finally made the close groups of friends I’d been searching for, spending my free time with so many people I absolutely love. Since I was also finally legal drinking age for the whole school year, I took advantage of that a bit as well..and by a bit I mean all the time.

I also barely had to put any time into school because I had completed most of my courses. I may have skipped classes every now and then (or all the time), but by fourth year I had mastered the art of getting good grades while putting in very little work.

I never understood why people say your university years are the best years of your life, but now I get it. I will remember how happy and free I was during my last semester of university forever.

Extending a work trip to Boston

My second week at my new full time job in Toronto, I flew off to Boston for a work trip. I felt very glamorous and everything about it was very exciting to me. I think it’s funny that my superiors, who travel all the time for work, are so jaded about it while the hotel bed is enough to make me clap with glee. I guess that’s what happens when you have a spouse and children to come home to!

Anyway, I wanted to extend the trip for a weekend and managed to get my way. I stayed in a lovely Cambridge Airbnb and powered through the Boston heat to sightsee. A highlight was ordering a cocktail at the Cheesecake Factory and not getting ID’d (I was 20). After my whirlwind weekend I was off to a paid-for Marriott and a packed week of meetings and orientations, which at the time was fun and exciting!

I completely adored Boston, but the highlight here was the fact that my flights were free 🙂

It has been the most incredible year and it has felt like an entire lifetime of experiences. I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings – in the first two months, I already have trips to Boston, London and Colombia booked!