Meat- free in Mexico – can it be done?

Travel with a dietary restriction can be hard, but luckily in Mexico, many places are coming around to the idea that not everyone eats meat, animal products, or gluten.  In more cosmopolitan areas, such as Cholula, la zona rosa ‘the pink zone’ and La Condensa of Mexico City, and touristy areas like Isla Holbox just a stone’s throw from Cancun, you can often find restaurants specifically dedicated to the alternative-eaters among us – or at least recognition on the menu. In fact, there was an amazing vegetarian taqueria on my street in Cholula, meaning I was actually able to try soya-based alternatives for the classic dishes I’d been dying to try- like tacos al pastor and tacos árabes.

Nevertheless, vegetarianism and veganism seem to be fairly new concepts in Mexico, and are often quite alien to locals outside of big cities or tourist areas. It’s often a case of adapting a menu, or accepting (as a veggie), that when going to the taqueria, it’s going to be a quesadilla or a quesadilla – which was never an issue for me. As a vegan your choices could be further limited to just a plate of guac in some places, but that’s usually in the more niche destinations.

My classic order would always be a mushroom quesadilla and i’d pour over heaps of salsa verde

To sum up, vegetarianism Mexico is totally doable, it just takes a little bit more research sometimes, or accepting limited choices, but I never had to pack food on a trip as I knew I would always find something. A lot of street food was open to me, such as elotes and esquites (corn on the cob or in a cup: with cheese, lime, and mayonnaise), champurrado (mexican hot chocolate with corn), and homemade ice cream in massive flask style containers. If you’re vegan or gluten free however, you will often struggle to find a complete meal unless you are in a dedicated restaurant. The best eating experiences for you would be in fairly touristy and gentrified areas, however don’t let that discourage you from seeing the amazing pueblitos (small towns) and countryside spectacles – just bear in mind that here you will probably only find taquerias, almost exclusively serving meat, cheese and bread.

Vancouver on a budget

I didn’t anticipate just how expensive Vancouver and BC would be. I could write all about how I wished I’d saved up more money during the summer prior to departure, but an equally strong case could be made for my spending it- which ensured I had a memorable farewell summer with friends who I wouldn’t see for a while. Given the current circumstances- with summer 2020 being CANCELLED and everything- the no-raaagrets approach is even stronger. I like to avoid doing the whole ‘shoulda coulda woulda ‘ thing (Serves 0 purpose), but before I get on to my ‘Vancouver on the cheap’ tips, I will completely contradict that in the interests of prospective exchange students.

SHOULDA COULDA WOULDA

Get your work permit sorted BEFORE you get there

This first one might not apply to you savvy savers out there, but for those of you who do plan to work AND play, I would recommend looking into this sooner rather than later. A couple of days in, I discovered the extortionately priced phone plans in Vancouver (expect to pay at least double UK prices), a bigger tipping-culture (tip everyone, and don’t insult them with a mere 10% ) and RIDICULOUSLY expensive cheese (which is also pretty gross so I would advise binging on this to the MAX before leaving the UK).

It also became pretty apparent that my study commitments weren’t too time-consuming, and with a couple of weekdays off during the week (if you choose SFU over UBC), I defo had time to be earning a lil moolah on the side. So, I had this realisation that I might need some more money to live out my Vancouverite dreams, but I kept giving myself excuses to the delay the work permit process (e.g “I’m still settling in to the city” or “I don’t have a Canadian bank account yet” or “maybe I can fill out LOADS of surveys online and earn p that way”…). When I did finally get round to arranging a meeting with a study abroad advisor, I’d been notified that i’d need to send off my study permit to be amended, which would take 2 MONTHS. Once I had received my study permit and SIN number (Basically like a national insurance number) I had to complete a BC ‘Serving it Right’ course to enable me to serve booze.

I finally found a job that seemed perfect for me with a hospitality and temporary staffing agency, which would allow me all the freedom to earn money according to my own schedule. I did actually manage to get a few shifts accepted for April, but apart from those, none of the employers accepted my shift requests, as I had no stars or reviews to get me going – I was essentially the equivalent to an uber driver with 0 stars :(( If that wasn’t sparse enough, the 2 shifts I did have planned were cancelled due to COVID19 anyway. I think this was a sign from the universe that I wouldn’t be needing this money for the California-Mexico trip that was coming up. Though a bit of extra money would’ve helped me travel around more, I still had enough to go on weekends away in BC, and managed to secure a Whistler season pass, which allowed for plenty of fun in the mountains.

Anyway, the moral of the ramble is… Get that work permit sorted before leaving the UK and you’ll be good to go!

Find your Lidl/Aldi equivalents pronto

The SFU campus is on a mountain, 40minsish away from the more reasonably-priced food shops, which understandably pushes you towards the Nesters Market on campus. However, If you choose to shop at Nesters every week, you could be paying up to double for your food shop. I know its a bit of a trek away, but a 40 minute bus journey to either ‘No Frills’ (can assure you’ll be thrilled with those cost savings) or Walmart (Asda vibes) will help you to save money aside for the more exciting parts of your study abroad experience. Sometimes I had classes at the SFU downtown campus, so I’d try to coordinate my weekly shop with this- Or I’d make a trip out of it, using the food shop as an excuse to get me off the mountain and out into beautiful VanCity.

Soak up that late-summer sun as soon as you arrive

I arrived in Vancouver a couple of weeks prior to the beginning of my exchange, in Mid-august. The beaches (such as Sunset, English Bay and many more around the Stanley park sea wall) are gorgeous. The ability of Vancouver to shape-shift and evolve throughout the seasons is one of my favourite things about the city. When I first arrived, it had a Venice-beach vibe, with people playing beach volleyball and roller skating along the seafront paths. The city then descends into a rainy Fall season, before pulling through with snow outside the city to accommodate for winter sports. Though all the seasons bring with them new opportunities, I would advise making the most of that late summer sun when you first arrive!!

Fun things to do on the cheap

Yoga by donation

My favourite yoga studio is the Karma Teachers centre (45 W Hastings street) – a place you can indulge in all kinds of yoga/meditation at a price you decide. The studio is volunteer-run and is so beautiful- all round good vibes and a great way to mingle with locals (smiling through your legs in downward-dog) from every corner of the city.

Cycle around Stanley Park

You could walk if you wanna save the cash- which would take like 3 hours- but I defo recommend renting a bike (From Spokes or any of the other shops close to the entrance of Stanley park) for around $7 an hour- a small price to pay to cycle round the sea wall and feel that fresh sea breeze in your face. If you begin the cycle from Spokes rental shop, the first section of the seawall cycle path treats you to gorgeous views of the harbour, Vancouver rowing club, the aquarium and totem poles. Around the next corner, you are hit with views of the ocean and snow-capped mountains facing you, before passing under the infamous Lions Gate bride and finishing through a long stretch of beaches. You get to see so much of the city from the Stanley park peninsula along the sea wall, but if you have some extra time, I recommend checking out the interior of the park- which is actually a temperate rainforest (great for a gentle forest bathe).

Go to Deep Cove- buy a doughnut, and do the Quarry Rock hike

I did this little trip so many times- it’s a proper-gem, only a couple of buses away (which you can use your compass card for) and fulfills the quintessential Canadian coastal village vibe that lacks from Metro Vancouver. First, be sure to cop yourself a doughnut from Honey’s Doughnut’s and let that digest (I promise it’ll be one of the tastiest things you ever consume) before proceeding to the Quarry Rock trail head. This trail constitutes a section of the larger Baden Powell trail- which takes you all the way to horseshoe bay if you fancy a day-long hike. The Quarry Rock section is a 1.5hour journey through densely-green areas with giant Douglas Fir trees surrounding you. The trail leads you through higher and lower terrain, before arriving at the rock viewpoint, where you can indulge in insane views of the Indian arm and mountains around Belcarra. You can actually spot the SFU campus across the water at the top of Burnaby mountain.

Stay tuned for charity ride nights at the local mountains

I never actually attended one of these- as they were all cancelled due to weather conditions and Corona- but the charity ride nights (often advertised through SFU ski & board club) offer cheap lift-pass rates (normally around $15 to ski from 5-9pm) and a chance to experience breathtaking night-time views of Vancouver (if you’re blessed with clear skies). You can rent all the ski gear from the Mt Seymour, Grouse Mountain and Cypress mountain resorts for around $40 if you don’t have your own, but if you’re an avid skiier/boarder I recommend purchasing some second-hand (More on this in the following section).

Iceskating in Robson Square

This is a free winter attraction in Downtown Vancouver, though you do have to rent skates for $5 if you don’t happen to have a pair of your own kicking around! Though it might not mimic the Canadian ideal of frozen lake skating (found in the neighbouring Alberta province) , it is a great inner-city attraction to enjoy on the cheap. I think there’s a similar set-up across in North Vancouver in the Shipyard area which is pretty cool.

Sunset at Burnaby mountain park

If you’re at SFU, you might find that this view point will become an important part of your daily routine- the views across the city at sunset are sure to pull you out of any bad-mood, relieving stress and reminding you yet again why you chose Canada. You can see the lights of downtown melting into the peninsula of Stanley park and densley packed forest, and are surrounded by mountains at every angle. You can also peep the ski-resorts at the top of Grouse, Cypress and Seymour mountains, lit for night-skiing.

Go to Lynn Canyon rather than Capilano suspension bridge

Any list of ‘things to do in Vancouver’ will encourage you to go and see the Capilano suspension bridge in North Vancouver. But those views come with a $50 price tag and crowds of tourists trying to get that insta-perfect shot of Capilano Canyon. The cliffwalk section is pretty cool and is bound to supply you with great views, but a free-alternative and less touristy option is Lynn Canyon, which has a similar suspension bridge overlooking the Canyon and waterfalls. There are also swimming holes with ice-cold glacial water which will defo perk you up if you’re feeling bold.

Get the seabus to North Van – Polygon gallery

I wish I’d done this more, as it gives you a great perspective of downtown Vancouver from afar and has a quirky but peaceful vibe in the Shipyards area. The Polygon gallery is architecturally stunning, and offers by-donation exhibitions whilst boasting views across the water. Pay what ya can!

More expensive things that are worth your money

Paradise night club (Chinatown)

So Vancouver isn’t exactly renowned for having great nightlife- with the Granville street strip of quite mainstream clubs (top-40 vibes)- being the main destination for partygoers. However, the more alternative scene for Techno and electronic music is existent and is mainly publicized through Resident Advisor. The city – once notorious for having a pretty dead music scene- has experienced a boom in recent years in techno and house events , so if this is your cup of tea, its defo out there! Along with Open Studios, Dolly, the Waldorf and Gorg-o-Mish, Paradise (my personal favourite) will satisfy that itch for a proper dance. It’s located in a China town basement, and isn’t easily identified from the street- with no flashy lights or signage. Once you manage to find it though, the descent into the basement is reminiscent of a house-party, with a pop up bar and an intimate dance-floor setting. Paradise is also one of the only clubs open til late.

The Cambie bar and grill

The Cambie has a lil place in my heart. This place is the closest you’ll get to a British style student pub, as its attached to a hostel (meaning lots of young people) and requires you to queue up at the bar to buy drinks- Most bars in Canada pursue a more formal table service, which doesn’t allow for as much mingling or candid conversations with people. The Cambie gets pretty lively at the weekends, and transforms into a cheesy club night which can be quite fun. Cheap drinks too!!

Guilt & Co – Jazz bar in Gastown

If you want a more fancy evening out, Guilt&Co is such a cool spot for live jazz music and some cocktails. It’s very dark in there with candlelit tables and a mildly sensual vibe…

Buy skis from Sports Junkies

Like I mentioned earlier, avid skiiers/boarders may wish to purchase their own gear for the season and I couldn’t recommend Sports Junkies more. I managed to buy a decent pair of skis, poles and boots for around £250- this’ll save money on rentals in the long-run. They also guarantee a buy-back service at the end of the season, so you can easily return your skiis and get some cash for them if you don’t wanna fly them home.

Go thrift shopping in Mount Pleasant

This area, just outside of downtown Vancouver is full of trendy shops and cafes, boasting some great thrift shops if you wanna cop a bargain!

It did happen to all of us – dealing with the Coronavirus Pandemic whilst abroad.

On Monday the 23rd March I was, much like the rest of the country, sat at home with my family in the UK, hearing for the first time that we would now be in lock down. Just a week prior, I was saying goodbye to my sister as we both boarded flights after an amazing trip around Quintana Roo and neighbouring Islands, hers back to London and mine back to my hometown in Mexico. To say that, at this moment, I was oblivious to the virus and how it could potentially impact my year abroad would have been a lie. As my sister works in the NHS, and was also keeping herself well informed of the government’s measures, we had daily conversations whilst on our trip about the developments in case numbers, testing and travel restrictions. During this week, the global developments and updates concerning the virus appeared to be increasing in number and alarm by the day. When it was the end of our amazing trip, I was then faced with a busy international airport, Cancun, and found myself surrounded by people across the spectrum of concern for the virus: from those wearing masks continually, those with masks around their necks, those waiting in the boarding gate next to theirs which was empty instead of their own crowded one (me), and those who had absolutely no concern and would happily choose to sit right next to someone else even though there were entire banks of free seats (the woman next to me).  As I arrived back at my home in Cholula, which although is packed with international students and has a big party scene for them, is an otherwise sleepy town, I felt that surely, I’d be able to see out the rest of the year there.

The Monday I awoke to was frantic. It appeared that, almost overnight, panic had taken over the international student community at UDLAP. Flights to some home countries were being cancelled, borders were being closed, embassies being contacted and mindsets were changing and re-changing, including my own, over and over again. At this moment, the internationals appeared to move in packs: first the Americans, declared they were all leaving, then the Italians, then the French. This wasn’t about nationalism as we were, all in all, a very well-integrated group, but it was a case of people not wanting to be stranded without anyone to travel home with in uncertain conditions, especially when we were starting to hear stories of people going to the airport alone for their flights and having them cancelled, or even worse, have their connecting flight cancelled and become trapped in an unfamiliar country with no visa or rights otherwise to leave the airport. This was one of the most stressful days of my life, most of all because, I couldn’t come to a decision that I was happy with. Leaving Mexico almost 3 months earlier than I had wanted to, and so suddenly, felt too gutting a decision to bear. Yet I was faced with the concern that if I didn’t leave now, with the direct flights to London being cut to only 1 per day and a number of those that week already having been cancelled, I might be unable to come home for a very long time, perhaps until a lot later than I had originally planned. Unfortunately, none of us had any real idea of how long the virus, and the response of governments to it, could shut down international travel.

Although there was a fairly panicked group mentality, I was determined to make up my own mind. Two days may have not seemed long enough to make such a finite decision: in leaving Mexico at that point, I would not be returning to my home where I lived with international friends, as a resident of Mexico, for a long time, maybe not ever. However, I came to the realisation that what made me so happy on my year abroad was the freedom I felt; to travel to some amazing places; the nights out with friends; performing on the cheer team in front of huge crowds at football games, and that- whether I liked it or not- this was being taken from me regardless. My year abroad in Mexico had been the most incredible chapter of my life so far, and I wanted to remember it as that.

I knew that, from the amount of information I had read about the virus, I would feel too guilty to attend parties or travel, where it was still permitted. My classes were all now online and the campus virtually closed, all of the bars and clubs were shut and soon the restaurants would probably follow suit, and, most crucially, so many of my best friends and close housemates were leaving. It came to me that, whether I remained in Mexico or not, the year abroad that I knew and loved, was over. So why fight it. At this point I decided that I would make my last week a great one. With money chipped in from the rest of the housemates, we bought an inflatable pool for the terrace, and we had house pool parties every day, and all ate together each night. I also went for meals with other friends and had a final walk of the campus. Once the day of my flight came, I had already had to say goodbye to a few of my housemates and other close friends. Our house, along with a few other friends who had joined to see us off, did the traditional goodbye route we’d developed in the last few days, of all coming down on to the street and hugging goodbye as the taxi arrived to take us to the airport, and as we drove away I watched my house and my amazing friends, shrink into the distance.

The journey home was smooth and fairly stress free – apart from some shuffling of weight around in our jam-packed suitcases and rucksacks, and then as soon as I knew it, I was home. I was surprised by how normal, jet-lag aside, I felt to be at home. I thought that, alike how I was in uk customs just after landing, I would immediately be translating things I wanted to say into Spanish in my head, or resist drinking water from the tap. But it’s amazingly easy to slip back into the normality of home and, at times, almost feel like you were never away at all. I have actually heard this a lot from other year abroad students, that their life abroad feels like some kind of dream, not quite real. For this I am so glad of the decision I made to leave, because once the experience is over, apart from a few souvenirs and the friends you’ve made, all you are left with are the memories of the experience you had. I didn’t want my memories of Mexico to be distorted by the changes the virus had brought.

So, for me, my year abroad is over. I have been continuing with my UDLAP classes online and still in touch with the friends, but this is part of a new chapter for me now.

Although it may not be a particularly interesting read, made even harder by the comparison with the stories before, with my family now close by, facetimes all the time with friends, and knowing that everyone is going through struggles in some shape or form right now, I think that it’s going to be ok.

Mexico City Must Dos

Although I am usually more wowed by the breath-taking scenery that Mexico has to offer, in all of the bustle and traffic, there are some, not so hidden, city gems that have really stuck in my memory as amazing places to visit. And seeing as direct flights from the UK usually land in the Benito Juárez International Airport here, why not take a look around…

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Their collection of artefacts spanning the development of different civilisations, be that Aztec, Mayan or Olmec just to name a few, is divided across 23 permanent exhibit halls. If you wanted to look at every piece and read each plaque it would take days to get around. I would recommend having a fairly sweeping walk through the indoor exhibits, taking note of the information plaque for the overall region, and heading to the gardens, where you can find some recreations of relics tucked away amongst the plants. Also, if you have a Mexican university credential, entry is free! Whilst here, I would recommend also visiting the Bosque de Chapultapec right opposite, for a retreat to nature. There are plenty of attractions such as a castle, botanical garden and zoo, however we chose to take peddle boats on the lake.

Xochimilco

Slightly further out of the city is Xochimilco. This network of intersecting rivers has become a Venice of its kind, as the waters are filled with the most colourful, if slightly haphazard, barges. In a small group it’s not inexpensive to rent a boat privately, and each boat is priced the same – the seller should wear a government identity card. Don’t worry about bringing any food or drink with you, as once you’re on your way you’ll soon be greeted by waiters who will leap on to your boat to offer refreshments, and soon enough bound back over with a tablecloth, quesadillas, drinks and sides, all freshly prepared on a neighbouring boat. You’ll then be passed by a number of mariachi boats, which will offer to play to your liking, although you would have to pay them for this, along with boats selling clothes and gifts. There will be a number of boats selling flower headbands, and it is customary for men to by them for women, although I think that my friends actually bought them for us because they wanted to try them themselves. You can chose tours of different lengths to visit different parts of the channel network, but we just chose a route that was roughly 2 hours there and back, and during this had the opportunity to stop off at a small petting farm and a replica of the island of the dead dolls, although we politely declined the very kind offer to visit (its legend can be found here http://www.isladelasmunecas.com/). Some visitors will choose to make a party of the occasion and bring their own music, however we found it more immersive to just sit back and take in the unique bubbles of activity that passed us by. I returned to Xochimilco for an evening tour, which lead us to a floating stage for a performance of ‘La Llorona’ (the wailing woman) as part of the Day of the Dead Celebrations. The atmosphere was markedly different in this night-time low-lit tour, and the ending of the show was breath taking as the wailing woman all dressed in white appeared to float over the murky water and then suddenly disappeared on to her back as the lights went out. However, the showmanship was slightly overshadowed by the realisation that our boat was taking on water. Luckily, we had a woman onboard who gallantly downed the rest of her michelada (typical Mexican drink) and started bailing the water whilst still watching the performance – a hero to us all.

Teotihuacán

North-east of the city, you can transport yourself to another time and visit a vast expanse of what remains of this ancient Mesoamerican city. There are often a number of options to get there and back such as bus transfers and coach tours, however you can often arrange with your hotel or hostel host to order you a taxi for a fixed, and really not expensive, price for the return journey and your driver will just wait in the car for however long you would like. It is the most impressive archaeological site I have ever visited, and its walkable route connects the temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Sun and Moon Pyramids. I would recommend going early in the morning or late afternoon as the site has almost no shade and can become gruelling in the heat. Whatever the weather, any visit is worth it for the views.

‘It’ll be lonely this Christmas’? Reflections on a Christmas away from home and family.

Ever since I can remember, my Christmas Day has involved being at my own house or that of a close relative, with lots of my family squeezed around a table, or a couple of different shape and height tables, sat on emergency chairs, stools or even the garden bench, with food filling every possible space and bits of cracker debris in your gravy, dogs barking, everyone talking at once and reading out the joke already heard twice so far, and it being my favourite day of the year. So, it may have sounded like a very privileged problem to have, to feel deflated that I would be spending Christmas day on holiday, in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, most likely on a beach, and with 3 amazing friends, but it was how I felt nonetheless.

2/3 of the amazing friends

The preparations for our unconventional Christmas in Cancun had begun a few days before, when on a trip to a nearby town, Valladolid, we had all split up for an hour to scour the markets and shops for our not so secret Santa gifts. The biggest adventure of the evening, however, was having our car locked into the cathedral’s car park. Luckily, we were rescued by an on-site shopkeeper who managed to find a key – a Christmas miracle?

We were then tasked with the compromising of everyone’s ideas for how the festivities were going to be spent. As I was spending this holiday with French friends, this meant we were to be having a traditional Christmas eve dinner cooked by them, and a Christmas day meal, cooked by me. We decided to round it all off with a brunch in between the two, which meant crepes along with, my new found favourite French food, which roughly translates to ‘lost bread’. All of these last minute plans meant we would have to make a trip to the worst place imaginable on Christmas Eve… Walmart. Luckily, we’d split the list and paired off to make the experience more bearable, and had successfully navigated the crowds to find everything we needed apart from the ‘essential’ chocolate spread that was nowhere to be seen. We eventually tracked down the item under lock and key in customer services, it appears that mexico takes its Nutella VERY seriously. With that, the claustrophobia inducing nightmare of a food shop was successfully completed – Christmas miracle number 2, perhaps.  

In all of the festivities, my lowest point was Christmas day morning. Due to the time difference, with my family all so busily involved in the Christmas activities back home that we hadn’t been able to facetime. This was made harder by the fact that all my friends, who’s families had their main celebration the night before, were all speaking to their own families at that time, so I was feeling a bit out of the loop – quite inconsiderate of my family really, to be enjoying themselves without me… However after calls from friends back home, the family facetime, and trip to an absolutely packed beach, I was coming round to the idea that I might actually be having a good time. Following this by my cooking almost entirely, of a Christmas dinner that I was really complimented on, including by our airbnb host and her partner, a chef, made my day.

Side note – our Airbnb host was one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met. On arrival at the property she demonstrated, and had us practice, how to open the gate with two hands so as to not ‘strain the lock’. We then found there to be notes all around the property which reinforced the double sided page of house rules – why by the way was typed and laminated, with emboldening, capitalising and highlighting for emphasis – the most interesting of these notes being an actual metal fork taped to the wall by the sink to remind us not to use metal forks in the pans so as not to scratch them. Just as we were finishing our dinner, we received a message from her to kindly turn off the air conditioning, which had been on to cool the house down from all the cooking. At the point of explaining this, we made the snap decision to invite her over, as we had lots of food still hot that we couldn’t bear to throw away when we left the next morning, and also because, even though she was a character, we were unsure if she had company, and we felt that no one should be alone on Christmas. Her and her partner arrived at our door shortly after and we welcomed them in, after which to our horror she swept round the house, throwing all the windows wide open proclaiming ‘let the air in, it’s wonderful’ – inviting in all the mosquitos for dinner as well… However, after sharing some of our meal with them, we found them our hosts to be so endearing, and ended the night not only with gifts of handmade head massagers – which is still the weirdest gift I think I have every received from a near stranger, but more importantly, had got to know the person behind the notes and the rules, as a friend – Christmas miracle number 3.

Once our esteemed guests had left, we exchanged gifts and then gathered by the pool to dip our legs in the water and take in the ‘wonderful air’ of night that had fallen. At this moment, I realised what a nice Christmas it had been, and how, as I did have the rest of my life for beloved family Christmases, missing it just once, really wasn’t so bad after all.  

Such a sudden end

I was in New York only a month ago, and now it’s on the news.

Every now and then I start to realize I’m in a science fiction movie, I feel like the world is grinding to a halt around me. It’s a very surreal feeling.

I’ve had to emotionally turn on a dime so many times these last weeks. When Guelph first announced that they were closing for a week to organize online classes, my housemate and I talked about taking a spontaneous trip to Montreal or New Brunswick. Four days later she had flown home.

In the last five days I’ve had to say goodbye to so many people who have made this year amazing.

These are scary times. Our everyday lives have changed in ways I wouldn’t have believed three weeks ago. It seems like the only thing anyone can talk about.

Let me acknowledge; I’m lucky. I always felt safe in Canada, life was still relatively normal when I left, and now I’m home safe.

I made the decision to come home. It wasn’t an easy one, and a rebellious part of me wishes I had stayed.

I’m finally home, after a long & stressful week. It’s more than a little silly when I think about it; I left Guelph, where there are no cases, in a country that was handling the crisis very well, with possibly a much better medical capacity to population ratio. I’ve transited through three airports, come into contact with numerous people transiting from all over the world without checks, and been squeezed onto a packed plane.

I don’t get particularly home sick. I had a plan, in case I could not get home for months; I’ve used wwooofing & workaway before, and I was ready and prepared to find a farm to work on over the summer.

Why then, did I not stay?

Mostly because of insurance. There is no guarantee that I’ll be covered, especially if I were to get stuck in Canada for months. I also don’t want to spend all my savings on surviving there, especially if I’m stuck in my room rather than taking advantage of being in the country.

I also have family aged 65 and up. If they did fall ill, I would hate to be stuck halfway across the globe.

Every situation will be different, but I think it’s important to acknowledge; these things do happen. When these choices need to be made, and all any of us can do is make sure we get the information we require, and then consider the practicalities frankly & realistically.

I’m guessing, if you’ve been on the internet in the last few days, you’ve heard people urging you to self-isolate. If you go to Manchester, you’re smart enough to realize, this is more serious than the flu. This isn’t the time to be brave or rebellious. It’s one of those times you do the boring, practical, sensible thing.

Stay safe out there.

The premature ending of my Canadian adventure: COVID-19

I’ve been holding off from writing this blog post for a few weeks now, as I knew it would be a little painful to look back on my final days in Vancouver and think about this dystopian film we’ve all been sprung into. As I sit here writing this, it doesn’t even feel real to think my year abroad ended so prematurely, and so abruptly. However, I find some solace in the fact that my final months at SFU were stolen from a global pandemic- one which has disrupted everyone’s lives, in a situation from which no one is exempt. Though I regret not travelling outside of British Columbia (saving money for a California-Mexico trip at the very END of my year) I feel like entertaining such regret is futile. The best way to make peace with this situation is to reflect on all the amazing experiences I did get to have- and the ways which study abroad has changed my life for the long-haul. Firstly, I’m going to document my final days spent in Vancouver- both those during which I was blissfully ignorant to the encroachment of a pandemic, and the ones where I was aware. Then, maybe I’ll talk about the ways study abroad has impacted me more broadly. This all has a very dramatic tone, it’s meant to be nice and reflective lol.

Following on from my previous blog post

A month ago I had written a blog post about the first half of semester 2, including the event I organised for Ban the Bottle and the things I was really looking forward to- most notably, my family coming out to visit (saving the expensive activities I couldn’t afford for this week), and a trip travelling through California and Mexico with some friends at the end.

After my last blog post, a couple of weeks of normal life followed. We were aware that the Coronavirus situation was worsening, but still felt untouched by its reach. The weather in Vancouver was amazing, so naturally we fled the SFU campus and headed downtown. Me and Maddie explored the neighbourhood of Kitsilano – one of the first places I went to last August, when the outdoor pool was open and the bikini-weather flowing. After this, we headed towards the yoga studio in downtown, but were sidetracked by a massive thrift shop and jumped off the bus to have a lil browse. We tried on summery clothes, imagining ourselves on the beaches of Mexico, ice-cold corona in hand. Instead, we were dealt a very different kind of corona, as the situation worsened over the following few days. We hadn’t been skiing in Whistler since reading break, so planned a day trip that weekend- not expecting it to be our last :((

Skiing that day was perhaps my favourite ever. I kept saying ‘lets just assume this is our last time, since this corona thing is escalating’- but everyone brushed it off, already making plans to ski again the following week. The ‘last-time’ mentality helped though, and the day was filled with a combination of off-piste, trees and jumps, with bluebird conditions. We found out that the resort would be closing the following day for the remainder of the season. At this point I began to realise the magnitude of the situation, and started to grapple with the reality that we might be flying home very soon. Everyday, me and my other exchange friends would gauge the feeling of the group- deciding whether we’d risk staying in Canada and potentially getting stuck, or if we should just fly home and admit defeat. Another idea we toyed with for a couple of days was to escape to Mexico for a few weeks, after which we would more willingly return to the UK. Each day, our plans would change drastically, and it was stressful not knowing how much time we had left in Canada. Reluctantly, we all booked flights for the end of the week, with the intention of having a proper send-off- visiting our favourite spots for the final time.

The final days

The final days- I mean the ‘flight booked’ actual final days- were weirdly similar to my first days spent in the city. Me and friends went to see our fav views for the final time, and I went off freely exploring the city on my own just as I did last August. I drank boujee coffee, took way too many photos, and chatted to friendly Canadians. I opened my eyes more, and noticed little things about Vancouver that I had taken for granted (helped by the teasing sunshine).

On our final day together, we walked down the mountain to Barnet Marine park for a chill day and a casual spot of crabbing (??). Another gorgeous day:

So that concludes my time in Canada, how strange. Being home for the last couple of weeks has been weird, almost as if Canada was all a dream. It’s been nice to just focus on my wellbeing and getting fit again (The super-fit, healthy Vancouverite lifestyle doesn’t stretch to exchange students, oh noooo), but this isn’t the return I had anticipated, and its hard not being able to wrap my arms around friends and family who I haven’t seen for ages. However, I haven’t felt the need to wallow in self-pity about what could have been – after all, everyones lives have been impacted by this, and I know I’m incredibly lucky to be in safe position back home. This definitely is not the end of Canada’s influence on me though- it has only given me greater wanderlust to keep on exploring new places. I hope to return someday, but for now, I’m staying home xoxo

“It won’t happen to me”: Pandemic Edition

“Students who can safely leave are urged to do so.”

Kasha Yip, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

(TL;DR at the end.)

You really don’t think a worldwide, society-stopping, economy-crumbling, mass panic-inducing virus would become a big problem in your lifetime, especially not when you’re studying nearly 5 and a half miles away from home for a year. Luckily for us, the coronavirus came to say hello for who knows how long.

So… how do you prepare? What do you do?

Honestly, that’s the question I’m asking myself right now. The past week has been so turbulent with the various updates either from UCSB or about how other countries are doing.

On Tuesday 10th, the Chancellor told us that the rest of Winter quarter (dead/the last week and finals week) and Spring quarter until the end of April were turning into remote instruction. Between then and Thursday 12th, I found out 2 of my finals would be online, my last final would be optional and we could use midterm grades if we wanted (yes), and the musical production I was involved in would be cancelled.

Sure, okay, I have 2 weeks spring break now because my finals end early, and then 4 weeks of home schooling with no commitments because everything is cancelled. Doable. My aunt lives in DC and asked if I wanted to stay with her during this time, but my grandparents are also staying with her so I told her I’d think about it.

On Friday, it came out that there might have been suspected cases in Isla Vista (IV). Some people went to a music festival in San Diego with their friend who just came back from Italy, and they were now self-quarantining. I was definitely not going to stay with my grandparents, and it was probably for the best to stay put here just in case.

Just yesterday, Saturday 14th, the Chancellor updated us that the whole of Spring quarter would be remote instruction. “Students who can safely leave are urged to do so.”

Excuse me? What on earth do I do? I can’t go to DC or go home – I don’t want to have or catch the coronavirus in the airport or on a flight and give it to my family. But what if all my housemates leave and I have to stay here by myself? How depressing and isolating is that? And what if I stay here and then get stuck here, because who knows how this will develop by summer? Should I go and stay with my family when it’s the end of the world? So much overthinking, so many questions…

In a time where it can already feel lonely and away from so many people you care about, not having any choices to do anything and being forced to stay inside and away from people really hits hard. It’s isolating, feels hopeless, and gives you so. much. anxiety.

It’s hard to talk about; everyone’s affected in different ways. Some people have sunk (back) into depression, some people have overwhelming anxiety, some people have immunocompromised friends and family, some people don’t care and think everything has been over-exaggerated.

I definitely did not expect this to happen on my year abroad. There is no way to prepare. There is nothing you can do.

I still don’t know if I should go home or if it’s better for me to remain in IV and just not leave my house. Things are changing so rapidly, and there’s no way to predict what will happen next. At this time, we can only wait and see.

So, yeah, “it won’t happen to me” until it does. But I was thinking more of, you know, an “I broke my leg, and now I have to pay a lung and a kidney to deal with it” type situation, or maybe a “there are campfires and we should evacua—”. Oh wait, that already happened the week of Thanksgiving. Never mind. You know what I mean.

I have no useful information in this post besides to tell you all to practice social distancing and stay safe. I know this has affected everyone around the world, including home students. I don’t know how other students abroad are dealing, or what’s happening with them (I know a girl who has to go back to the UK from Toronto in the next few days), but this is what’s happened in the little old town of Isla Vista this past week.

I’ve tried to keep this as neutral and panic-free as possible, and I’m sure there will be updates along the way. Stay safe everyone! (And don’t let a global pandemic stop you from studying abroad. It’s great apart from this. I promise.)

TL;DR: Pandemic = online classes + ??? + big sad.

Guelph; why you should come here, even though you’ve likely never heard of it.

When I found out I was coming to Guelph I was a little underwhelmed. Here are some of the reasons you should consider a town whose name sounds like a cough.

The eco-friendly vibe

I have got a free reusable mug, free metal straws, and a free menstrual cup within the first month being here. The farmers market is one of my favourite places, and if you get food on campus you can either get a plate, or get food in a reusable container which is then returned and washed.

Small size

Small is boring right? Wrong! In a big university you can feel a bit like a small fish in a huge lake. Being in smaller classes makes it much easier & much friendlier to get involved in different projects & initiatives. This also means I have the option of talking to professors about assignments and lectures, and a lot of support. I know all the physics students in my year,

The location

I went to New York for spring break. I never thought I’d go to New York; it’s expensive, and it’s far away. Now it’s only one of those things.

I’d say that, in general, the whole of the US and Canada is quite awful for travelling in; everything is so big, and far away; even crossing the street sometimes seems a bit daunting, but Guelph is in a pretty good spot; Montreal, Ottowa, New York, Detroit and Chicago are all either few hours or a night-bus away.

The price

It’s hard to comment on the places I didn’t go, but I’d guess Guelph in on the cheaper side. For me, living expenses have been comparable to Manchester (but a little more expensive). In some of the more northern parts of Canada, groceries can be very expensive, and rent here is more accessible than the more famous cities like Toronto.

The climate also means I didn’t have to buy any of the new clothes I budgeted for; I’ve survived all year in my doc-martens and coat from superdry. I wear two pairs of socks, a bobble hat, scarf and gloves, and I’m happy and snug and warm.

The weather

The autumn leaves are a beautiful, surprising shade of red and gold. I love the snow. Snow is amazing; it’s soft and clean and its so satisfying to walk through a pristine layer. Icicles fascinate me; they’re so sharp and glassy.

Canada is a beautiful place, and a big part of that is the weather. Don’t be too scared of the cold however; the southern-most point of Ontario is further south than the northern-most point of California. Guelph is pretty temperate; this winter we’ve had mornings of -15 to -23 degrees, but the cold doesn’t bother me as much as -1 in Manchester, because the air is drier.

In short, I love Guelph. It’s a wonderfully friendly, supportive university, whose small size makes it really easy to explore. I’ve had a great time, there is so much discover in the locations around the town, including Toronto and Algonquin Park, and I’d highly recommend Guelph to anyone who wants to go on study abroad in Canada.

On-arrival thoughts & first impressions of Rutgers and New Jersey – Is this it?

By Noor Namutebi (Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, USA).

Driving from Newark Airport to my accommodation (Easton Avenue apartments) was surreal as 1. I was extremely sleep deprived 2. This was the first time I had ever stepped foot in the USA and it was, for lack of a better word, crazy. The drive was not entirely representative of what my university area would look like, as it was mostly the outskirts, but I got incredibly excited when every 10 minutes we would pass a well-known American food chain (like Olive Garden).

New Brunswick

Growing up in the hustle and bustle of London has skewed my ideas of what a ‘city’ entails, I admit. I would describe (the very little I have seen of) New Brunswick more as a college town. Imagine if the main university campus was in Fallowfield, almost. New Brunswick is one of three, big university campuses of Rutgers, the others being Newark and Camden, with Newark being the more metropolitan campus I believe (and where the airport is). What I didn’t entirely grasp before I came was that New Brunswick was split into another 5 campuses. I live on College Avenue which is considered quite social (it has the frats, bars, if you’re 21, and has the train station which is one direct train into New York) but there are others including Livingston, where I have two out of four of my classes. There is a free shuttle bus system which operates between the campuses and has peak and quiet periods depending on the time or weather. Whereas this was difficult to get used to at the beginning, as societies were are held on different campuses and I was making friends who did not live on my campus, it can be quite refreshing. The other campuses are way greener and calming than the hurry of College Avenue and therefore I would recommend either taking a class on another campus or joining a society based there, for a change in scenery and to get out of the bubble that can come with living so close to your classes. Plus, the bus to/from Livingston passes by the Raritan river which goes through New Jersey so sometimes, if you’re on it at the right time, you can get a good view of the sunset on the journey home and make people on Snapchat jealous.

The LX bus on a good day.

Having a roommate

The view from my apartment (it looks better at night).

Having a roommate is not a thing at all in the UK so the idea of having one in a completely foreign country was quite daunting, especially after hearing horror stories online. My roommate, luckily, is lovely and easy to get along with but the first couple days was quite an adjustment. It felt like someone kept walking into and sleeping in my room but I couldn’t do anything about it because they paid half the rent. However, it feels more normal over time and when she goes home at the weekend the room feels unusually empty and I wonder how I used to spend extended amounts of time in my room alone before!

Education

Goodbye to lectures and seminars which now come under the umbrella of one ‘class’. One interesting thing which I found out upon arrival and going over the syllabus of each of my classes is that active participation is a big deal in America. In one of my classes, up to a third of my overall grade is based on ‘participation’ which includes attendance and punctuality as well as vocalising your opinion in front of your peers. This has been good so far as not only does it absolutely force you to go to every class unless you are on your actual deathbed, it forces you to think about the topic at hand more, in order to ask questions or say something smart.

Side note: Speaking with a British accent in front of an all-American class kind of feels like you’re obliged to say something interesting because they’re already paying close attention to the uncommon sound.

Walmart

I have dedicated a whole section to Walmart because I genuinely think a whole book could be written about how it is an allegory for the whole United States.

“Voted New Jersey’s #1”?

At the end of my orientation day they had ushered us into a coach to go to a retail park to shop for some essentials as it was impossible to walk to any of the bigger supermarket chains. Everyone automatically flocked to Walmart as it is, truly, one of the biggest cultural exports of the country. The coach driver told everyone to come back to be picked up in either an hour or an hour and a half. I had written a shopping list so I thought I would be in and out in 30 minutes, at a push. Really, how am I going to fill an hour? I thought naively.

From the moment I entered, my senses were ambushed. Not only did it have the size and feel of an industrial factory as well as tens of people running around, there was a McDonald’s inside to your right as soon as you entered. That was the first time I had truly felt like I was in America.

I walked around the store approximately 5 times trying to balance buying food as well as necessary things I needed for my apartment. Table mirror? Check. Tortillas? Check. However, I was not prepared at the sheer amount of choice that was presented to me. In the UK, when going to buy kidney beans at Tesco, for example, I expect there to be maximum of three, maybe four, options. In Walmart, and the country which is the number one defender of free market capitalism, there were at least 20 (I wish I was exaggerating).

A film about my first week in America.

I had so many ideas for healthy dishes which I had made at Manchester (in cooperation with Lidl) and would hopefully prevent me from gaining the dreaded ‘freshman fifteen’ or supersizing myself. However, these ideas suddenly seemed so drastically distant when the news dropped that this Walmart had. No. Vegetables. They had drawn me in with the beans but apart from those that were in a can, vegetables were not present in the building. I looked in shock at the worker who informed me that you had to go to a ‘Super Walmart’ for that rare, rare produce. Why is it the vegetables, and not the Mcdonald’s or the film section or the clothes section, or the thirty different ice creams, which makes a Walmart ‘Super’? I thought to myself. Oh America.

The view I grind for, we are not the same.

I eventually found vegetables in a local Hispanic supermarket and an Aldi nearby but I will never forget that Walmart experience, a cautionary tale which I tell every American when they ask me how my experience has been so far. And now I pass it on to you, it’s my first amendment duty.

México 101: All of the essentials (that I can think of) for moving to this beautiful place.

VISA

Image result for mexico visa

• In the UK: You’ll need to organise this through the Mexican embassy (all information can be found online) and make a trip to London to bring all your documentation. There they will then take your passport and hold on to it for a few days to process all your documents and put a temporary student visa inside.

• On the flight: you will be handed a migration form so just follow the instructions and make sure you fill out the bottom part aswell (which is a repeat of the same information because one of them is your copy)

• Arrival in mexico city: in immigration just hand them the migration form and your passport, they will then give you back one part of it which you MUST KEEP SAFE and hand to UDLAP when required.

• In terms of getting your temporary residence card, udlap will then sort everything. In your induction you’ll be told at what point to bring your immigration form and then don’t worry about how close to the 30 day limit it appears, the student services will sort all the paperwork for you and even drive you to the embassy, just keep an eye on your student email for updates.

FLIGHTS

• Flying to mexico city is most likely much cheaper (and direct) than flying to the nearest airport, Puebla. You can then get a coach directly to Cholula (more on that in the transport section)

• Aeromexico (is usually the cheapest but skyscanner.com is a really good website to compare flights and is great for internal ones. (P.s. the baggage policy for Aeromexico is confusing but to make the most of it, take a big suitcase in the hold, but also a small one in the cabin as well as a backpack in the cabin).

MONEY

• The currency is mexican pesos (mxn) and for ease of conversion i always approximate $25 =£1, although obviously this may change

• I would recommend getting either a Monzo or Revolut card while you’re in the UK- they have lower charges for withdrawing cash then most major cards, and the apps are really useful for managing money or instantly seeing the conversion of what you’ve bought/ withdrawn. However, the fact is that for either of these cards you will go over your £200 limit/month of free withdrawals in another currency, however after that limit, the charges are not extortionate and I just consider it as a foreigners tax.

• Once you’re there: try to use BBVM and Santander cashpoints as they seem to charge the least to withdraw and you can also often select if you want to withdraw the pesos in terms of pounds from your account to avoid charges.

HOUSING

The majority of international students live in big shared houses. I would strongly recommend this as it’s super sociable, especially since houses are often linked, and its a great way to meet people from all over the world as well as Mexicans

If you choose to live in halls, you are much more likely to live with all Mexcian students (great for Spanish) however you will be subject to the strict rules such as in terms of having guests in your room, curfews, noise restrictions etc..

Good options for international houses include:

• Casa Roja: my home. Luis the landlord is super sweet amd the rent is really good value (i pay 3800 for a big double room en suite) you can enquire directly from their instagram (casaroja.housingcholula) page, and will most likely be speaking to someone living there currently who will then pass on the whatsapp of Luis.

• Casa Naranja: the landlord Ray is lots of fun and super friendly. He is also the boss of Cholula Capital, a student travel company, and runs a number of trips during the semester https://www.facebook.com/casanaranjahousing/

• Another housing company, which admittedly I am less familiar with, is ‘changapachanga’ and other houses such as casa condor, and casa olimpus, which can be found online. All residences thus far are part of an event called ‘Thirsty Thurs Preocupeo’: the houses take turns to host parties every Thursday which are really popular with international students and open to all students.

• Casa Real houses https://www.facebook.com/Casa-Real-587225684727415/: here you will find a number of houses run by the legendary Oswaldo, owner of a rival travel group, travels life. Most of these houses are all in a little community right by UDLAP. The Casas Reales also have their shares of events, ‘Peda Reales’: ticketed house parties with themed music rooms, organised every month or so, and of course which are free for residents to attend.

MOBILE/ INTERNET

I would recommend you buy a ‘Telcel’ pay as you go sim once you arrive (a quick search on google maps should show you where your nearest is, often inside corner shops – i would advise buying it once you reach Puebla as otherwise you will have a foreign state’s area code which may make it confusing for when you add Mexican contacts)

You can then choose how you want to top up your phone, and can do this in store but i find it much more convenient to do through this link: pqtmex.telcel.com. You can choose different packets including calls and texts if you wish, but i usually prefer to just pick the ‘internet amigo’ as almost all your communication in mexico will be through whatsapp (‘por whats’), and these packets also mostly include unlimited social medias -although beware this does not include online calls so i try and save these for wifi. I usually by the £300 of 3.5MB for 33 days top up and the internet usually lasts me, as long as i’m careful.

WATER

In short, don’t drink it – from the tap. I’ve had absolutely no problems using it to brush my teeth, wash dishes, and for hot drinks or cooking food when fully boiled. For your drinking water, you’ll be buying large tanks of water. If you have a shop super close, as in Casa Roja where we have one downstairs, you can just go and get it as and when. Otherwise, it’s about equal price (35 pesos) to organise a drop off, whereby within a 2 hour selected time frame they will carry the water right to your room. You’ll also want to buy a pump (from Walmart or Bodega) to put in the top because pouring straight from that full bottle is nigh impossible. Whatever form you buy it, make sure to save your empty plastic tank and swap it for your new one with a big discount. You’ll be saving money and the planet.

TRAVEL

Coaches: for long distances, i.e. from the airport at cdmx to cholula, i would recommend Estrella Roja or ADO coaches. You can book both of them from your phone or at the desks in airports and bus stations and they will take you safely and comfortably. The only issue mind is that they have a great habit of not shouting out the stops, so its good to keep an eye on google maps if you’re not sure, or as we did in on our coach from the airport to cholula, get off when you realise you’re the only ones still sat on the coach.

Taxis: i would highly recommend uber. It’a super cheap, you have an online trace of where you are and is really convenient. However, as with any countries, you hear one or two stories of people having strange drivers, so best not to travel alone if it can be avoided (although i have always felt super comfortable when alone in ubers here). Didi is a Chinese version of uber which often works out cheaper but requires you to pay in cash, and is useful for areas such as Yucatan (i.e. cancun) where they don’t have uber. Avoid hailing taxis on the street, as a foreigner you will most likely be ripped off and its less secure. If you have to take a taxi from the street, in mexico city only take the official pink taxis, and in other areas try and book a taxi from inside a bus or coach station where you can prepay.

Blahblah: this is an app for sharing a person’s car who is already taking the journey you wish to make. I have had a good experience with it so far, and the driver has to present valid documentation. You can also personalise your profile to include things such as whether you’re comfortable with pets or how talkative you are during journeys – although it appears that our ‘rarely speak’ election was largely ignored by our very talkative driver.

Hire cars: can be very convenient and cost effective when travelling with a group. Just keep in mind that there will be additional charges per day for any driver under 25, and also that the deposit is required on the credit card of a driver, although we have found on one occasion that Monzo, although a debit card, has worked for this purpose.

BUYING THE ESSENTIALS

For fruit and veg there are lots of independent fruterias where you pay based on weight. Then most other essentials bread, milk, simple toiletries etc can be found in little independent corner shops or in oxxo and superroler (small chain stores). For everything and anything else there’s always a walmart, bodega or a soriana not too far away.