London is an interesting city. The shear amount of history imbued in its streets, buildings and art is overwhelming. “Oh look, here’s a building that’s 500 years old, no biggie.” and “There’s another one that’s been around since before my country was a country.” Or even “I wonder how many people stood in this exact same spot before me?”
Quite the feeling.
I found that the population density is a stark contrast to the one back home, and that’s clearly reflected in the public transit system. The London underground is a magical teleportation system linking all the neighbourhoods in the city. The fact that pretty much anywhere in the city is within walking distance from a station is mind boggling for someone who comes from a city with a single, new train line that works only when it feels like it. I found the maps and signage to be very clear and easy to understand, and when paired with Google Maps, you can zip around like there’s no tomorrow. It also makes a great subject for photography.
I had the chance to visit a couple local markets, each with their own different vibe and feeling. Camden market was bustling with various shops, stalls and foods, full of different smells and colours. Nestled in old stables, the market reaches all the nooks and cranies of this old industrial area.
Covent garden had a more upper-class feel. More spaced-out, a large part indoors and decoreated, and more expensive stores. Much more touristy, probably due to its more central location. Also, lots of pubs.
I also had the chance to watch a Shakespeare play, in London’s Globe Theatre. A real throwback to grade 11 English class. The entire theatre was built like it was in the 1600s, and the play was portrayed in the same manner; the costumes, the props and the language. The Elizabethan English was hard to understand at first, so the play started off a little confusing. But as it went on, more and more made sense. The actors were excellent, delivering every line with volume and precision. The comedy of errors was written by Shakespeare in 1594, and it’s surprising how much the slapstick comedy, puns and mistaken identities are still funny to this day. I can really see how this was the primary source of entertainment back in the day, and now we have movies, sometimes even about the same story, just flatter.
The food in London was fairly similar, yet different. Like in Canada, British cuisine doesn’t have much to offer itself. Sure, fish and chips are good and all, especially when the fish is fresh, which usually isn’t the case back home. But to get good stuff, you need to look at foreign restaurants. I’m talking Indian, Turkish and French, môsieur, hon hon hon.
Similarly to my exchange in Manchester in 2020, walking in London felt similar yet different. I don’t know if I can ever get used to traffic on the left-hand side, and the amount of bikes, scooters and motorcycles weaving through everything adds to the confusion. Western culture is still very present, so consumerism at every corner is pretty much the same. The language is also the same, though the snippets of different accents add some spice. But walking around the touristy areas, seeing the typical London landmarks reminded me, that in fact, I was in London.
Overall, I had a nice visit in London. I’d say four nights was just the right amount of time to see what needed to be seen. Obviously, I’d like more time to soak in more aspects of the city, but maybe during another trip. I haven’t travelled in a while, and I’m feeling my stamina for adventure starting to get low. The lack of routine and stability will take some getting used to, and the fact that close friends and family are on a different time zone make staying in touch challenging.
However, I really enjoyed the photography. New and interesting things are always around the corner, and expressing myself with my camera is something I’m growing quite fond of. I look forward to the rest of my journey; both my physical one as I move across the world as well as my mental and spiritual one as I embark in reflection and exploration, both within and without.
About two months before the end of exams, I was faced with another big decision: Do I travel in Europe despite everything that’s going on, or do I go home? Not all borders were closed, and only some countries had implemented mandatory 14-day quarantines to travelers. In my opinion, it would be possible to do some limited travelling during the summer. A lot of places that I wanted to go visit are closed right now, but it all might change in just a few months, maybe countries will reopen in July or something — Or, I just go home.
Of course, if I do decide to travel, I’m literally helping spread the virus one way or another. Transportation, hostels, restaurants, all can be ways that I could spread the virus. I should be a responsible global citizen and just keep the travelling for another time. It sucks, but right now is really not a good time to travel. Might as well save my money for another time when I could have a better experience.
Ok, I’m going home. Now for the how. Flights are still operating, (I was never stuck in Manchester, really) but they are expensive and have a very small selection. Alas, I found one; Manchester-Dublin-Toronto. Getting from Toronto to Ottawa was the least of my concerns right now, so I’ll deal with that later — may that be a flight, train, bus or pick up from parents, it’s a decision for another time (turns out, a flight was the simplest option).
It took a few weeks for the fact to sink in that I was going home. I planned out everything I needed to do before leaving; return my bike, buy some snacks to bring back, clean the flat, and decide for every item in the flat if it was coming with me or not.
Knowing that your life is about to change drastically in a day to day countdown is quite an interesting feeling. It wasn’t the same as the feeling I got when I left for Manchester because I didn’t know what to expect then. Now, I know what my home looks like, what stuff I have there and the people that will greet me when I arrive.
My flight left Manchester at 8am, with all the subtractions, that makes my wake up time around 4am. Since I usually go to bed around that time, I’ll have to completely switch my sleep schedule around in a couple days. Or… Simply stay awake the second night before my departure and go to sleep early the night right before leaving. And that’s exactly what I did, kind of. After eating my ceremonial last dinner (which was a box of KD), and before going to bed at 6pm, I decide to check my flight status, just to make sure. “That’s weird. Why isn’t my flight there? Let me search the flight number again… Still? Nothing?” *heart starts panicking* I decide to call the airline to ask what is going on, and sure enough, it’s cancelled.
“Now the fun begins” I thought. Here’s all my plans to go home, now throw them out the window; it’s time to improvise. I call some of my family and friends to let them know of the “slight change of plans”. Thankfully, I found a flight from London to Toronto tomorrow at noon. After some time calculations and planning, I’ll be able to make it, if I take the first train out of Manchester at 5:50am, arrive in London at 8, and hurry through the London Underground to Heathrow airport. Google Maps says an hour from the train station to the airport, I’ll say an hour and a half, so that makes 9:30am at the airport for a flight at noon? That’s doable, if everything works.
With all the calling, planning and booking, it was getting further and further away from my planned bedtime, which meant less sleep before my 23-hour journey.
The alarm rings at 3:40am. I spring up on my bed, fully awake; “I’m going home today!” I eat breakfast, do any last-minute packing, take out the trash, say my goodbyes to my flat and head out the door. According to the bus schedule on my phone, it arrives in 15 minutes. Just enough time to drop off my keys and walk to the bus stop. While waiting for the bus, I realize that this schedule might be pre-lockdown, so there is a possibility of the bus simply not showing up. Thankfully, I left enough time before the train departure to walk/run to the train station from my residence. I decide to do the classic walk-from-bus-stop-to-bus-stop-in-case-the-bus-doesn’t-show-up trick. It’s a very quiet morning, with very few birds chirping away, and I hear in the distance the distinctive sound of a bus. I turn back, wait two seconds, and there it is. It is time to put my mask on. The bus is almost empty, with only a couple people getting on or off the bus on the way to the city centre.
The train station is quite empty, with only a handful of people waiting to grab a train. Barriers form lanes for people to walk in one-way directions to maximize space between everyone. I notice dots on the ground evenly spaced 2m apart on the ground with the markings “Save the NHS [National Health Service], save lives”. I get on the train, and there’s about 5 other passengers, on this 11-car train. As the train leaves the station, I snap one last picture of the Manchester city skyline.
The lack of sleep starts to hit me, but I take the time to appreciate the English countryside this foggy morning. I’ll have time to sleep on the plane. As the train plows through the land, I notice that the train car tilts when in negotiates a curve. “That’s odd.” I feel like nothing changes, but I can see the horizon go up or down in the train window. My inner ear and eyes seem to disagree on my orientation, even if it’s just for a few degrees of rotation around the y-axis.
I double and triple-check my route through the underground from Victoria train station to Heathrow. Take this line to that stop, then switch to this line all the way down to the airport. Got it. If all goes well, I should arrive 2.5 hours before my departure.
I notice that the markers on the ground for reminding about physical distancing have a different slogan: Stay safe, leave a space
As I arrive to one of the busiest airports in the world, I notice one major thing: It’s nearly empty. I only see a handful of people checking in at the various kiosks of terminal 4. Markers are everywhere on the ground, and signs remind everyone to stay apart and wear a face covering at all times. I check-in and go through security, walk to my gate and check my watch; 15 minutes have elapsed since I arrived at the airport. “Wow, that was fast. Guess I didn’t need 2 hours!” None of the shops are open. Only a small duty-free convenience store is open in my terminal area, everything else is boarded up. I take some time to eat a sandwich before heading back to my gate.
As I approach my gate, the first (and only) boarding call is made. “Just like clockwork” I think to myself. Before lining up to check my temperature and board the plane, I snap a quick picture of my plane:
As I enter the plane, I notice the flight attendants are wearing white scrubs on top of their uniform, and give everyone a care package that includes a mask, gloves, a water bottle, some hand sanitizer and some disinfectant wipes. We’re informed to keep our face coverings on at all times inside the plane and that it was disinfected beforehand.
The plane itself was also quite empty. (I had the entire row of seats to myself, it was great for naptime) Only the window seats and the isle seats of the middle section could be booked. Behold, my top-notch explanation:
| x – – x – – x – – x | x = bookable seat
I find it surprising how much light can be prevented from coming inside the cabin. My flight to the UK was an overnight one, but this one is during the day, and yet, the cabin is kept fairly dark (with the window shutters closed). I decide to look outside to see the landscape slowly crawl underneath me, and I’m immediately blinded by the sunlight reflected off the clouds underneath the plane. I close the shutter and think “Ok, I’m blind. I can’t see anything, this is pretty cool” After my eyes readjust to the interior lighting, I decide to have a bit of fun and open the shutter, but this time with one eye closed. Looking back in the dark plane with my eyes adjusted to different light levels is really neat. (I highly suggest you try this, it’s wierd)
Just before landing, I look out the window (didn’t get blinded this time) and see downtown Toronto and its iconic CN Tower; that’s when it hit me; I’m back in Canada. Not quite home yet, but in Canada.
Arriving in Toronto is essentially the same as London; empty and everything closed:
The last big step; going through customs. I feel rather nervous, I’m expecting a rather long list of questions to answer pertaining to my whereabouts during my mandatory 14-day quarantine. Will I be able to fly to Ottawa? Am I going to have to stay in Toronto in one of those “quarantine facilities”? My mind is racing as I ride along the horizontal-walking-escalator things that airports have. A customs agent asks everyone to fill out a form with information about where we will be staying for the next two weeks. I try to keep my distance from other travelers, but it seems like I’m the only one since people crowd around tables to fill out the form (which seems ironic in a way). I proceed to the actual customs where the agent asks me:
Where are you headed?
Are you aware of the mandatory 14-day quarantine?
Alright then, have a good day!
Wow, that’s it? That was fast! On my way out, they ask me to drop off my form in the super high tech container by the exit; a carboard box.
My flight to Ottawa was about the same, around a dozen people in the plane, but this one was new. Brand new. It even had the new plane smell, which is a thing apparently. I can’t help but feel bad for Air Canada; a brand new fleet of planes right before such a huge decrease in demand. It’s going to take years for the air travel industry to recover from this.
Throughout my flight, there’s something in the back of my mind saying “I’m on the wrong plane, I’m not headed to Ottawa, no way.” Hunh, look at that, I’m strait up in denial, that’s funny. But when the plane approaches my hometown, I notice the Canadian Tire Centre (that’s where the Ottawa Senators play hockey), which is a fairly unique building that pops out of the landscape, it finally clicks: I’m in Ottawa. I am home.
Boy was I ever glad to see my parents in person again and give them a big hug. And my dog, I was happy to see him too (and so was he). Some Indian food and a good night’s rest later, I was back. Though my official return was the weekend after my quarantine ended when I went canoe camping with my dad: truly a Canadian return.
Looking back, I’m glad I had my experience— and would gladly do it again. I was fortunate enough to have this very unique experience that I could look back to in the future: In 2020, I was alone, in another country, doing my international exchange, during a global pandemic. How many people can say that did that?!
I know this blogpost is a couple months overdue, I’ve been procrastinating it for quite a while, but thanks to the notes I took during my travels, my experience got somewhat recorded and didn’t get lost to time. It’s been a pleasure sharing my experience with future me and the world, cheers.
I cringe every time I hear/see the term social distancing. I much prefer the more appropriate term physical distancing. We need to physically distance ourselves from each other, not socially! That’s the last thing we need right now! Get it right, media.
On a different note, I’ve been doing pretty good these days.
Like many others, I’ve been doing my part: staying home. I’ll be honest, since all my flatmates left, it’s been pretty lonely, but I’m finding ways to cope. It’s been pretty good so far. Keeping in touch with friends and family is a big one. I’m so glad the internet exists. Honestly, I don’t think there’s been a better time in history to be isolating ourselves. I feel super lucky.
My sleep schedule is all messed up. I made myself an excuse to feel better; “Since I video chat with people in Ottawa, I’m on Ottawa time” (-5 hours), so going to bed at 3am is ok. I’ve been getting my daily social interaction quota from video chatting with friends and family back home—which is usually super late in the evening.
I don’t get bored. Ever. It’s just not something I feel. I always find something to do. It just isn’t always productive… On the topic of productivity, I have a goal in mind: do what I came here to do: study. But trying to get work done is hard. Really hard. Honestly, on a good day, I can maybe work for an hour, tops. After that, my brain just shuts down. Motivation is low and distractions are high. Even though I stick to my no-video-games-or-netflix-before-7pm rule, (which works out quite well) a fully stocked fridge five steps away and freshly baked shortbread cookies are quite the challenge to resist after 20 minutes.
I did find one thing that worked for me: Lego. After walking by Lego sets every grocery run, I finally gave in. I got one that had some good pieces for my style of creative building (which is mostly planes and spaceship looking things). I decided to keep the set untouched until I achieved two hours of continuous work. It stayed on my counter for weeks, until I finished my assignment on The safety of nuclear power generation in a glorious 4 hours of non-stop work. I submitted it a week before the deadline (not 4 hours before, I’m proud of myself for that). So yeah, Lego works for me, that’s good to know.
Since all my flatmates left—and mostly everyone in my residence hall for that matter, I’ve gotten used to the quiet Oak House. No more loud thumping music at 2am (I was up at that time anyways, so it rarely bothered me), no more broken glass by the bicycle parking and no more crowded bus stop across the road. Although, I do miss coming home and having new people sitting around the dining room table every couple of days (I met tons of people that way), and the kitchen just isn’t the same without everyone coincidently making their own dinner exactly at the same time, around 10pm, buzzing around the stove like honeybees. To think that was two months ago is mind-boggling.
I do like that now I can maintain the level of cleanliness that I like, so that’s nice. I spent an entire weekend cleaning right after my last flatmate left and it is nice that my shower never runs out of hot water anymore, plus no one is using the wifi now, so I can hog all the bandwidth.
Though the place looked nice, it needed more space decor (it always does). I had a vision: a space window in my living room. I would be reminded of what I want to accomplish in life and give me a little extra motivation to get stuff done. I spent a few days to paint my own living room space window, overlooking the earth from orbit:
I’m growing my own potato for scientific curiosity—and for company. I named it Mark Watney, after The Martian. I figured my situation resembles his, you know, being stranded alone on a deserted planet.
My parents sent me parcels filled with little things from home. I didn’t realize how much I missed Coffee Crisps until I opened the box and 7 little yellow chocolate bars were looking up at me. It’s not like I eat those regularly or anything, it was just really nice for some reason. Since the residence reception was closed for safety reasons, getting the parcels was a whole other story. I actually only got 1 out of 3. As of writing this, 2 of them are somewhere between here and Canada, either sitting around in a depot somewhere or on their way here or back home, who knows. At least I got one, and I’m really happy about it.
I started to really enjoy cooking. There’s just something with finding a way to make something tasty, nutritious and balanced with what’s in the fridge while minimizing time, waste and dishes. I just think it’s the ultimate design problem, the only limit: my taste buds and the size of my biggest pan. As much as experimenting around with what I have in the fridge, I try to plan out my meals when I do groceries, but when the shelves are empty, plans change really quickly.
I’m really happy to have all this extra time to spend experimenting around with cooking. Speaking of extra time, I decided to save myself a few pounds and do my own laundry. No, I mean, do my laundry by hand. In my bathtub. Let me just say that all the rubbing and squishing was quite the workout, and drying took a few days, so if you plan on making your laundry in your bathtub just for fun, don’t do it all at once.
Apart from work and cooking, I find ways to spend time without screens involved:
One main thing that’s necessary for a healthy lifestyle is exercise. I’ve been going to the park almost every day, either walking, running or biking. When it rains or I don’t feel like changing out of my PJs, I do some weightlifting with my homemade free weights: a mopstick with some cans taped to the ends (I couldn’t spare the broom, I use it too often).
So far, it’s been one heck of an emotional journey, but I’m glad to have this opportunity to learn about myself. Being alone in another country during a global pandemic is somewhat the closest thing I’ve been to space travel, and so far, it’s been quite the learning experience. It’s not every day that you spend so much time alone with your thoughts and emotions, dreams and aspirations.
I’m glad I chose to stay. It’s really not the experience I was expecting to have on my exchange but nevertheless, it’s an experience, and I’m glad to be living it.
As the Coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, I can’t help but think: This sucks. For everyone.
Over the past couple of weeks, I got to see my international friends get recalled to their home university one by one before travel restrictions get in effect. One by one, as fast as they entered my life, they left. It’s interesting how the effect of people leaving creates an underlying aura of danger. And when you don’t hear anything from your home university, it merely adds to the stress.
Two weeks ago, I was minding my own business in my room when I noticed an ambulance parked outside my residence hall. I didn’t think much about it, just hoped everything was okay. A few days later, I came across a video of the same ambulance from another angle, showing someone in a hazmat suit walking in a flat. The student who got examined tested negative, but nevertheless, the video went viral around here, feeding the fire of panic that is starting to emerge among students who are caring less and less about their studies.
The University of Manchester switched to online classes only this week, about a week later than almost all the other universities in the region, so students have been complaining online for a bit now:
Last Friday, I was chilling with the folks from the Manchester University Speleology Club (MUSC) at a birthday party (which got transformed to going away party for one of the members who got sent home) when I received an email from uOttawa:
I was devastated. A mix of frustration, despair and sadness overwhelmed me. I was fortunate enough to receive the news with my caving friends, I really appreciated the support, thanks guys.
After checking with uOttawa, I was told I could stay if I wanted to. I was now faced with one of the hardest decisions of my life. To stay here, or go home. I took a few days to decide, pondering on the pros and cons, and following the news in the UK and Canada regularly. As much as I felt like going home, I thought I should stay. I came this far, stayed this long, adjusted to life here and going back would feel like I’m aborting the most important mission of my life so far.
The situation is better in Canada, the British government is getting quite a lot of international criticism on the way they’re handling the situation (I found a good video about their way of doing things: Herd Immunity vs Isolation). If I did return to Canada, I’d still be stuck at home, strongly discouraged from seeing friends and family. It’s essentially a choice between self-isolation here or at home. A full lockdown is apparently weeks (or days) away, with the closing of borders very soon. I feel like most people are leaving simply because the window for going home is closing, and the uncertainty of when it’ll open again is worrisome. When I look at the hard facts and data, the risk for me here (or at home) is low; my immune system is good, I’m young, healthy and have no underlying respiratory illnesses. Plus my medical insurance is still covering me in case anything does happen. Nevertheless, it’s still a good idea to stay safe; wash hands and avoid face touching.
After careful consideration and analysis, it made sense for me to stay. I was lucky enough to be given the choice, and I intend on taking full advantage of that.
This is by far not the most ideal circumstances, I know, but I did do this semester abroad to live new experiences, after all.
It’s been a month now, and it went by quickly and slowly at the same time. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here for quite a while, other times, it feels like I just arrived yesterday. I’m fairly adjusted now, but there are reminders that I’m not in Ottawa any more.
Small things like the different paper size still catches me off guard. In Europe, the standard paper size is A4, which is slightly taller than the letter size in North America. Not by much, but I do notice when I fold a piece of paper in three, so I can stuff it in a bag or something. Now, the paper is awkwardly too wide to fit in my back pocket, and folding it in four would just be too narrow.
Apart from the multitudes of accents (I think I’ve heard around 5 different British accents up to now), the language is slightly different. Expressions like cheers and mate are used quite a lot, and simple things have different names, for example; peanuts are called peanuts, but when they’re in their shells, they’re called monkey nuts. Here it’s lift, not elevator. It’s a flat, not an apartment. The term class isn’t really used, it’s module when referring to the entire semester, and lecture or uni when it’s a single session (As in “I have uni this morning”), and the term course refers to the entire degree. Also, I got confused for a bit when my professor read out the number 0.05 as “nought point nought five”, to which I found interesting that even something as universal as numbers are pronounced differently here. Bus numbers like 147 are pronounced “One four seven” instead of “one forty seven”, though no one will look at you weird if you pronounce it the North American way.
I mostly cook my own food, stopping for groceries on my way back from the university (though once in a while, I’ll try out a new restaurant. I found a Tim Horton’s here, though I think it’s the American chain since it’s Tim Horton’s Cafe and Bake Shop. Had a donut there once when I felt homesick, it wasn’t the same…). It’s funny, at first glance, everything seems so cheap. “2.50 for a tub of Haagen Dazs ice cream on sale, sweet!” Then, when I think about it, it’s in pounds, not dollars. So multiply by 1.7, add a little bit in credit card charges, that’s…. umm… You know what, I’ll just double it in my head. Yeeeaaa, that tub is 5 dollars. Maybe another time. Oh what the heck, it’s on sale.
Getting around is not too difficult. The busses are better than the ones in Ottawa, but they don’t have an indicator for the next stop. So I have to guess when I need to get off the bus, which can be a gamble in some cases, especially when rain is involved (which is often). Also, if you’re waiting for the bus here, you need to signal your intention to board to the bus driver by kind of pointing at the road in front of you. A bus almost drove right past me once.
I rented a bike at Biko Bikes, a student-run bike rental shop in the Student Union building. I went there the first time they opened for the semester and evidently it was pretty busy. So busy in fact, that they didn’t have any working bikes that could be rented out, so we had to wait for them to fix some. As I waited, I asked if they needed a hand with anything. I have some experience working with bikes, after taking mine apart back home a few times. The volunteer then gave me something to do in the back of the shop. About 30 minutes later, he asked me: “You’re waiting to rent a bike right?” I said yes, and he answered “You want to rent the bike you’re working on?” “Yeah!” And so I continued fixing it up for the next couple of hours. After the shop closed, I dealt with the paperwork, paid a nice sum of £15 (with a £40 deposit) to rent it for the entire semester and I rode off with a rented bike, to which I already had an emotional connection with. I now volunteer at the bike shop on Wednesday evenings, getting my hands dirty helping students fix their bikes, so awesome.
Academically, things are going well, though it is a little difficult to get back into studying mode after about two months off. I’m taking five classes, two of which are aerospace engineering topics, so that’s fun. My schedule is lighter than I would’ve thought, but this is due to the fact that there are no tutorials and lectures are only 2 hours per week.
Due to the small amount of in-class time, studying here is much more self-regulated. This is accentuated by the fact that final exams are worth 80% of your final grade, compared to the 60-70% that I’m used to. There are no mid-term exams here, only labs and a handful of assignments, so revising along the semester is key, although a lot of students here simply cram during the last two weeks of the session before exams (and by cram, I mean sleep in the library).
So far, it’s going okay, though I feel like I have a bit more adjusting to do. The absence of close friends is taking a toll on me; I don’t laugh as much as I used to, I stay in my room longer than I’d like, I chat with friends and family in the late hours of the day. It is nice to talk to other international students, we’re all going through the same thing; we miss home. So talking about it is alleviating. The trick I’ve been told to solve homesickness is to go out and make experiences. Every time I force myself to go out and do stuff, I’m always glad I did. So in a few weeks, all should be great.
I’m so exited! Today I will visit real castles for the very first time. Getting up early this morning was tough, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it. The trip is organised by a local society for international students wanting to visit the country, for a very reasonable price.
First stop is Conwy (about an hour away), a castle built by the English in North Wales in 1283 and was constructed in only four years. It was built as a means to control the Welsh, who weren’t exactly happy that the English were in their territory. After several attempts and sieges, it was eventually captured by a Welshman who snuck in during a holiday, killed the two guards and opened the doors for the Welsh army. Learning about British history is quite interesting since it goes back sooo far compared to Canadian history.
I watched the walls of the castle in the distance making their way closer and closer, to which I realized the immensity of the stone structure. This was built in the 13th century! And is still standing to this day!
I decided to walk around the ground level first, and then make my way up at the back of castle. I observed the foundations of the houses, imagining the bustling medieval life. Each tower had their own role; the kitchen, the well, the church… Inside each of them was a set of steep spiral stairs that led from the bottom all the way to the top. Climbing them, I realized how in shape these people were; the steps are a little less than a foot high, making climbing 80 of them quite the challenge. As I wonder through the many hallways, rooms and staircases, I stop to observe the view through some windows, some of which are only slits to prevent unwanted enemy projectiles inside. As much as climbing the stairs was exhausting, the view was well worth it. Good thing I brought my jacket, it’s quite windy up here.
After exploring the castle for a couple hours, a few friends and I decide to go eat some fish and chips, which is a local specialty apparently. It was even better than the ones I ate in London, simply delicious. But I still craved a salad after. Even though I’m stuffed, I wouldn’t mind a little something sweet- Oh look! A bakery! As I walk in, the smell envelops me in a pastry wonderland. All these goodies on display, but it’s all stuff I could get at home, so I ask the baker; “What’s traditionally Welsh?” She pointed at some welsh cakes. They looked like small, thick pancakes with raisins in them. “I’ll have that.” Tasting one on my way out, it was a little dry, but not in a bad way. It’s pretty good, but I can’t eat more than two, I guess I’ll keep them for the bus ride then.
Next stop is Caernarfon, another English castle built in the 1200s. As I arrive, I couldn’t help but notice it’s in much better shape than Conwy, and also much bigger. Walking through the main gate led us to the interior courtyard, which is quite big. Not really knowing where to start first, I head towards the tower across from me. Inside, I find the Royal Welsh Fuseliers Museum. I locate the entrance, in the wall beside the tower, to which I find many displays about this regiment I’ve never heard of. Quite the history lesson! After visiting the museum, I explore around the castle. As with the one in Conwy, the many stairs and passageways offer hours of fun. Unfortunately, after exploring only half the castle, I hear a bell ringing, which I imagine is announcing the castle’s closure; it was 3:45 after all. The bus is picking us up at 5, so I have some time to kill. I feel like a nice walk by the river, and the bridge is right there. The castle looks majestic from here, great for pictures. The tide is low, leaving seaweed on the pebble-ly beach, which emits that classic sea smell. It reminds me of the many trips I did to the east coast with my family. Man, I miss them. A sudden rush of homesickness overcomes me. I feel like I’ve been here for months, and yet it’s only been two weeks. I’ve met so many people, but no quality friendship has been made yet. My squad and my best friend is in Canada, and what I have so far here, are just acquaintances. “I just need more time. I’ve got plenty of it, but I’m sure once June rolls by, it’ll all be gone in a flash.” Time calls, the bus will arrive soon, better get back to the pick up point and head home.
Looking back, spending that time alone in the park by the river, across a majestic castle, was a moment of self reflection I needed. I realized that it’s been gogogo for two weeks, and I need to simply relax once in a while. I don’t have any trips planned for the next couple of weeks, so I think that’ll be nice. Unless something unexpected comes up, we’ll see.
I got up early to meet the caving club members at the nearby sports centre. Last night, almighty Google said it would take 6 minutes to walk there. I seemed to have adjusted my schedule well, taking in account snoozing, getting ready, eating breakfast, along with walking time. As I arrive, friendly, familiar faces welcome me and help me get ready for the adventure ahead. I met a few of them at a social event a few days ago, so familiar faces were nice. I choose a pair ofrubber boots that fit me, it’s a little hard, most pairs are either too big or too small for my feet, but at last, I found some bright yellow ones that fit me quite nicely. They seem to call the boots “Wellies” which took a little used to at first, but the term grows on me. As the leaders organise people into cars, I take a moment to breathe in the fresh Manchester air. Five people are chosen to squeeze in a Ford Fiesta. I chose to sit in the middle back seat, to be polite. As we’re driving, it reminds me of a self driving car since there’s no steering wheel on the left side of the vehicle. Still got to get used to that.
The trip is scenic, driving through the English countryside. I watch the green rolling hills covered with a pattern of small stone fences holding in grazing sheep. Certain twists and turns reveal valleys with small towns wedged between the hills, not fully awake yet. “You don’t see that in Canada.” I thought. The car slows down, there are two sheep on the road, minding their own business. As they move out of the way and we drive by, I notice dyed markings on their backs, probably from their owner. After about an hour, we arrive in a small town called Castleton, mostly made of stone brick buildings. It feels like travelling back in time, in the middle ages but with cars instead of horse-drawn carriages. The church, the inn, the houses, all built from stone bricks and wooden shingle roofs. Some chimneys were lit, puffing out smoke, dissipating in the sky. The car parks beside a war memorial laid with wreaths and poppies around the old stone monuments. We walked not five minutes before entering a building through a low wooded door. Even the shortest of us needed to duck in order to get in. The others were already there, preparing our equipment. The leaders helped us getting ready: “These are the undersuits, put these on then grab an oversuit to go on top. Find some your size. I recommend getting one size larger than you usually do, you’ll need to be able to squat comfortably. And don’t wear anything else but your underwear, or else you’ll get cold. If you want to have some dignity, there are bathrooms behind you if you want to change there. You should leave your phone in your bag here, it’ll get pretty wet down there.” I spot a green wool onesie that seems my size. It was comfortable and a great fit. As I put it on, I notice a huge hole in the crotch area. I’m debating weather to keep it or find another one. “It won’t hold much heat if there’s a hole in it.” I thought “But it’s the same story with the boots, all are either too big or too small.” I finally decided to test my luck with another one. After a couple tries, I find one that was a little snug, but hole-less. Next was the oversuit. They remind me of the engineering coveralls back home, but thicker and waterproof. Same story; couldn’t find one my size. “Maybe I’m just too slow, plenty of people here are my size.” I opted for the XXL one with a belt to keep all the extra fabric not flapping around. This aint a fashion show, so who cares. “I hope you all don’t mind getting wet and muddy.” One of the leader says to the group. It would appear so; most of these oversuits are covered in dried mud. “This is going to be fun!”
A short walk through Castleton later, we arrive at the foot of a tall cliff, maybe 70-80m high. I read the infographic sign headline: “The Devil’s Arse, biggest cave entrance in the UK.” I ask one of the leaders about the name. “It used to be called that, but when queen Victoria visited the cave, it was considered unproper, so they renamed it Peak Cavern.” The entrance to the cave was the shape of an almond carved into the rock maybe a dozen metres high, with a touristic showcase inside. I ask about the star-shaped wood structures on the ground. “They’re tools to make rope, 100 years ago, rope-makers lived and worked here. If you look closely enough, you can spot the foundation remains of the houses along the right-hand side of the cave.” an older gentleman answered, who was suited up to come with us. He seems to have a lot of experience caving, so I kept a mental note to direct him any questions I had.
As we entered the cave, the sunlight shining through the clouds slowly dimmed away and bright floodlights lit the corridor-shaped cave. We passed through a locked gate, the floodlights were no more, and our headlights remained our only source of photons. We arrive at an open chamber with a steep incline at the back. On the incline was a slide. Seems like plexiglass. We split up into two groups of 8 and the first group went ahead, down the saddest slide I’ve ever seen, due to a high friction coefficient. Mud and sand prevented proper sliding to take place, so a few people just walked down beside it. I waited with the second group, observing the wet ceiling around me. A few minutes later, I install myself onto the slide and push myself down into the darkness. I have no idea when this slide is going to end and not ten seconds later, I arrive at the bottom with my bottom all muddy. After waiting for the others, we proceed through a long corridor for a little while. The ceiling was almost semi-circular with several rock formations that looked like round holes carved by thousands of years of erosion. I was walking on an elevated bed of clay, slightly soft to the touch. Beside the bed, a small stream of water trickled down the corridor, serpentine in nature, forcing me to cross it a few times. The next chamber accumulated the water in a large puddle, with an artificial dam holding it in place. As I continued down the corridor, the ceiling got lower and lower, eventually forcing me to an awkward squatting duck march, my helmet rubbing against the rock. The ground started changing from rock to clay, then from clay to water. I arrive face to face with a large puddle, the ceiling suddenly drops to a meter above the murky water’s surface. As I start walking through the water, I can feel the hydrostatic pressure on my boots getting higher and higher. The depth is now greater than the high of my boots. Cold, murky water floods into them. I grunt at the sudden rush of cold enveloping my feet. The ceiling is getting lower and the water deeper. It seems to stabilize around thigh height, with the ceiling around a foot above the water’s surface. I have my torso bent forward, keeping it above the cold water, feeling the rocky ceiling with my hands and back. Hurray! It starts to rise and quickly I get the luxury to stand on dry land. Yet my cold, wet clothes are sticking to my legs, slowly sucking away my heat. As I move along, they warm up to my body temperature, so I barely feel them. What I do feel, is the water sloshing around in my wellies, making my feet heavier than usual. I consider stopping and pouring the water out, but I then realize that it would be a good idea to leave it in, since it’ll eventually warm up and keep my feet “warm” during my next water encounter.
I arrive in a low-ceiling chamber, where I could stand in a few select spots. A leader is sitting beside a small crevasse on the ground, asking if anyone wants to go in. My hunger for exploration drives me into it. I put my feet first and slide down on the wet rock into the dark. It’s only about a foot wide, and inclines slightly to the left. At the end of the crevasse, my feet feel a flat rocky surface. I enter feet first into a small open area, not even big enough to turn around in. The small hole continues down, which I decide to go into, feet first, sliding on my back with the ceiling only a few centimeters away from my face. I feel a sudden drop with my foot. Holding myself with my arms, I try to feel how deep this drop is with my feet, to which no bottom could be found. “Ok, now is a good time to head back. No way I’m going down there.” I then make my way back up, pushing with my feet and arms in the most awkward positions possible. When I got out, a great sense of satisfaction fills me. After squishing through those tight spaces, I now know that I’m able to fit in such small crevasses.
Continuing down the cave system, another creek lead down the passageway. This time, it carved a trench right smack in the middle, giving the passageway the cross-section of a mushroom with a thin stem. The trench is barely wide enough to fit in, facing sideways. It’s depth made the walls of the trench reach my armpits. As I’m strafing through the trench, I hear the sound of a waterfall getting louder and louder. “We must be getting close to something.” The trench ended in a steep cliff, the creek spilling over the edge into a tall chamber. The drop was about 4-5 metres high, with a large puddle at the bottom, fed by the waterfall. The puddle split into two creeks flowing in opposite passageways out of the chamber. A chain and ladder assisted us down into the chamber. I followed the leader into the passage on the left, stepping into the creek that flowed down the narrow passageway. He pointed out a rock that we stepped over, saying “Some people take it as a challenge to go underneath it, instead of simply stepping over it.” “Maybe on the way back.” I said, since we crossed the group ahead of us, I thought that we’ll make our way back through here afterwards. The passageway lead to a sump; where the water level reaches the ceiling and thus is a dead end without proper diving equipment. On the way back, I decided to go under the rock this time. The space under it is maybe a little above a foot in height, so I lay down in the creek to crawl under the rock, cold water rushing into my face. I power through and get up after, proud of my little stunt, with my entire front dripping wet. “I can’t feel my toes” is the running thought in my head. The feeling goes away for a little while then comes back after any water-related obstacles.
Returning to the chamber with the ladder in it, we go down the passageway on the right, which bears a striking resemblance to the other one on the left. After around 10 minutes of walking through the creek and puddles, we finally arrive on solid ground. A small hole above to the right, leads into the dark and the creek continues down strait. Following the creek, we arrive at what appears to be a sump. A rope tied to the rock wall led into muddy water, where the ceiling went low over the surface into the darkness. The leader goes ahead, splashing his way through the water. He says “There’s a few inches of air under the ceiling, so it should be fine. As long as you don’t have to hold your breath, it’s ok.” It wasn’t a necessary part of the trip; there was a detour we could take to avoid getting wet. Again, my sense of adventure wanted to try it. Following the leader’s instructions, I float on my back into the cold water, pulling myself along with the rope. I could see the other end through the couple of inches above the water, it wasn’t far. My headlight flashed a few times, indicating that the battery was low. My helmet rubbed against the rocky ceiling and I plunged my head into the water. Using the rope, I pulled myself across, coming out of the water a few seconds later. I was little confused as to why I unnecessarily dunked my head in the water, but glad I did it. I felt the cold shock through my body as soon as I got out of the water. I moved a little bit to warm up, transferring heat to my water-drenched clothes. I now know by experience the purpose of the wool undersuit I was wearing.
Continuing down the cave system, we arrived in a chamber with a very steep incline leading up. A knotted rope was attached at the top, which came in useful when we started climbing. “I’m used to rock climbing, so this shouldn’t be too hard” I say to myself. As I started climbing, I noticed the cold affected my hand in a strange way, greatly reducing my dexterity, adding to the difficulty. I still made it, with great trust in the rope. The top ledge was covered in mud and clay, and a dark narrow crawlway started at the back. When everybody climbed up, the leader said, “Prepare to channel your inner earthworm!” as he squiggled himself into the muddy crawlway. I followed him on all fours, watching my oversuit change colour from red and blue to a milky coffee brown colour. The small crawlway had two grooves on the ground, made from countless hands and knees before me shaping the clay. I laugh at myself in this situation; “I miss standing, lol.” After a few awkward slides through muddy crevasses into more puddles and creeks we arrived back at the top of the tall chamber, where the ladder was. Heading back where we came from brought me a feeling of relief. “Ok, now I can’t feel my toes.” But now that we’re headed back, the cold, numb feeling is more tolerable. The leaders take us by a small detour, climbing a small underground hill, and reaching a nice spot on dry mud. I notice a few black waterproof bags in the corner and a small plastic bag hanging from the low ceiling. “We call this place the treasury. In those bags are emergency supplies in case cavers are stuck down here and can’t come out due to flooding. This nice elevated spot is a good place to set up a shelter, which can be found in the bags.” As the leader explains, I look around at the plastic bag hanging from the ceiling. I take a closer look and notice that it’s a radon test kit, measuring radiation doses in the cave. I remember the paperwork I signed before coming down here, saying that “We are not responsible for elevated radiation doses that could cause cancer bla bla bla…” I’m down here with professionals, I’m sure it’s fine.
We head back to the entrance, passing by the artificial dam to bathe and clean ourselves in really cold water. We scrubbed each other’s backs with brushes and rolled around in the water. “Ok now I can’t feel my entire foot. It’s just all cold. Everything’s cold.” I know that we won’t be crossing any water on the way back from here, so I put my foot up on a rock, tilt my boot backwards and watch the little waterfall of water, sand and mud exit my boot. As we walk back through the steep slope beside the slide, I notice the floodlights, lighting the entire cave with ease. The colour of the ambient light starts to fade from an artificial yellow to a natural bluish colour from the outside clouds. Fresh air at last! But the worst was yet to come: wind. I just washed myself, and still soaking wet, walked outside into the English countryside. A slight wind pierced right through my layers, stealing my heat. Only five more minutes until we arrive at headquarters and we can change. Arriving into town, I still admire the stone architecture of the old buildings around me.
I’ve been winter camping before, been much colder. I’ve been canoe-camping in the rain before, been much wetter. But never have I ever been that cold and wet at the same time. Changing into my dry clothes was a very special type of comfy feeling. My feet itched as my blood recirculated through them. I helped to clean up and we were on our way back. Tired and exhausted, I dozed off in the back seat of the Fiesta. Suffice to say, the shower that followed was one of the best showers I ever had…
Looking back, it was an awesome experience. Now I know a little more what to expect when it comes to caving, the next time will be much better (I hope). The feeling of exploring the unknown was by far the best. Squeezing through those crevasses and braving the cold pushed the boundaries of my body to a point I never would’ve known if I didn’t go. I’m definitively going to the next outing organised by the club, but for now, it resting time. Got another trip lined up tomorrow.
I got a message a few days ago from a friend working a co-op term in Versailles saying that he’s visiting London this weekend. I figured, why not? It’ll be nice to see a familiar face, and to give London an actual visit.
After checking with my budget, I decided to take the bus instead of the train. It was about a 5 hour ride, since it left early Saturday morning, I slept through a good chunk of the ride.
I met up with Alexandre in Trafalgar square, where we walked around, chatted for a bit and checked out the British Museum.
I definitively need to come back and pay another visit to the British Museum, it’s huge. Essentially, all the artefacts found by the British Empire throughout history are here (plus some other stuff). Everything from the first grindstones used by the Mesopotamians to Iranian astrolabes, medieval chess sets, native American totem poles, and even the Rosetta stone.
After visiting the museum, we decided to try some famous English fish and chips. Let’s just say, I was not disappointed.
After stuffing our bellies, we walked around the Thames river, admiring the view of London at night:
We said our goodbyes and parted ways to our hostels (the one he booked at was full). I was planning on visiting the Imperial Museum the next day, but saw an ad in the newspaper (yes, I read those) for an exhibition called “Moving to Mars” at the Design Museum, about human missions to Mars. It was only around until mid-February, so I thought it was now or never; one of the reasons I wanted to travel Europe in the first place was to visit as many space museums as I could, so this was a great find. I totally nerded-out with all the space stuff inside:
Sadly, I had to catch my bus back to Manchester. I stopped in Birmingham for a connecting bus and had the chance to walk around a bit:
When I finally arrived in Manchester, I felt a feeling I haven’t had in quite a while: familiarity. “I’m back.” I then realized that I’ve been exploring the unknown this entire time, and for once, something felt like home, it was nice.
I did a lot of exploration in the past couple of days. I find that the more I know about my surroundings, the more I feel at home. The city is in itself pretty big, but I’ll have an entire semester to explore it. For now, I’ll make sure I know my campus first, which is quite beautiful in it’s own way. The medley of modern and Victorian-era buildings make for an interesting mix:
I also visited the engineering department of the university to sort out my class schedule. There’s quite a few that seem interesting, it’s too bad I can’t take them all. Trying to make a schedule is like playing whack-a-mole: As soon as you pick a class, a conflict pops up. Resolve the conflict, a new one comes up. Replace the class, everything seems fine. Add another one, more conflits pop up. I’ll get it, it just takes careful planning.
Meeting international students is an interesting experience. Basically, we’re all standing around chatting in groups, saying all the same things; “Where are you from? What are you studying? Why did you choose Manchester?” and looks like the groups, squads and cliques are formed by looking at people, but in reality, we all just met a few days ago.
I met so many people, so fast, from so many places, that my brain has a hard time keeping up with the new names and faces. Thankfully, smartphones exist so they can do the work for me. And yet, even keeping up with all the group chats is a demanding task. I have a feeling as time goes on, we’ll all settle into our own groups with similar people.
Yesterday, I was chatting with a few people after an orientation session and just when the conversation started to fade, I proposed going to grab lunch. And here we are, munching on some burritos like old friends, 45 minutes later:
I did some shopping for raising the coziness level of my room and grabbing some utilities. Sheets, plants and forks are just examples of my shopping list.
Something interesting happened to me yesterday. I was shopping around in Poundland (the British version of Dollarama), when I felt a slight tug on my backpack. I turn around and my friend says “That guy just tried to open your bag”, pointing at a man walking away, muttering what I’m guessing is insults, in what sounded like french, who then proceeded with shopping around, like any other regular person. My first instinct was to check my bag, which the zipper was only partly open due to the stiff rubber around it. I guess I felt it before he could grab anything, luckily there was nothing in there. I spoke about it to my flatmates, who were surprised as this was the first time they’ve heard such a thing. It’ll teach me to be even more vigilant I guess. (and not to put valuable stuff in that pocket)
One joyous afternoon, I received a text from my airline saying they found my luggage and will be shipping it shortly. Receiving it was a whole other story.
The address I gave to the airline was the one for my building, but later realized I needed to give the one for the residence reception. I sent an email with the corrected address, and received a phone call a few minutes later. The delivery man said he’s arrived at the address and cannot park anywhere. I was waiting for him, who was nowhere to be seen. It was the evening, possibly at the end of his shift, so he’s getting frustrated over the phone, adding this to my difficulty understanding his accent made identifying our locations challenging. After texting me the name of the shop he’s parked beside, I quickly look it up; it was only 400m away, so I decide to run it. He wants to come back tomorrow, but I urge him that I need my bag tonight. “I’m on my way, I’ll be there in-” and my phone cuts out, it ran out of minutes. “Wha? I just activated it yesterday!? Never mind, I’ll deal with it later.” Finally met up with him a few minutes later, super nice guy. He had the right address, but I guess his GPS gave him wrong information. When he saw my name written on the form, he said: “Are your French? Moulin Rouge!” We had a good laugh. I thanked him immensely, and was ready for bed, with actual pyjamas for the first time in a few days.
Receiving my luggage gave me a great deal of relief. Now that the last piece of home is here, I can finally settle in.
After so many months of preparation, days of packing (Not. I packed the day before), and hours of travel, I finally made it. I step outside the train station and take a breath of the cool Manchester air… Nothing special, to be honest, I’m not too sure what I was expecting.
Immediately, the first thing I noticed, was that cars drive on the “other” side of the road. During the weeks leading up to my departure, I paid special attention during my daily walks to uOttawa when I crossed the street, so I was a little more prepared for looking the opposite way when the day came. The training paid off, having no close calls yet, but it’s still weird.
I completely missed my orientation, but ran into some student ambassadors who gladly showed me where to pick up the nice stack of papers that was my briefing pack. I’ll sift through it in the evening, when I have time.
I got the chance to catch a tour of the campus, walking about the various buildings, some of which are new, others are quite old. It makes for an interesting mix. I’ll be able to grab some more pictures tomorrow when I’ll explore the campus on my own. On the tour, I got to meet a bunch of other international students, all here for the same reason: to have new experiences and to study something they’re passionate about. A lot of them studied economics, marketing, psychology, linguistics and other social sciences, but when the engineers realized who they were, an instant bond was formed.
After all the greeting, I needed to collect my residence key and find the actual residence. I wondered about the Fallowfield campus, where the residences are, searching for the Oak House building and it’s reception desk. The area looked oddly more like a campsite or a cadet training centre than a university residence. I searched for a good 30 minutes, I noticed I was feeling grouchy, tired, hungry (I was running on airplane granola bars and cookies all day) and a little homesick. “I can’t just go back home, I need to find it.” I then realized that Oak House was an entire block of buildings, which I was circling around, trying to find something specific that never existed. Eventually, I found the reception area and through all my mixed negative emotions smiled at the receptionist and said: “Hi! I’m from Canada and I don’t know where I’m going.” Paperwork got sorted out and I was good to go. When I was mingling with the other international students it came up that Oak House was the party residence. “Oh great. So much for quiet sleep. Maybe it’d be cheaper to rent a hotel room for the semester?” So at the reception, I grabbed an accommodation transfer form, just in case.
I finally found my building, my flat and my room. Crashed on my sheetless, pillowless bed and lied there for a few minutes. I’m used to camping, so sleeping with a sweater as a pillow isn’t new to me. I got to meet my new flatmates, who seem all like nice people. Lets just say I was relieved to hear “Oak House is usually a loud place, but we’re a pretty quiet flat.”
One of my flatmates accompanied me to grab some groceries. Apparently everyone does their own meals here, so I grabbed some essentials to make some pasta for dinner and oatmeal for the next morning. I’m too tired right now to deal with long-term decisions like lunch tomorrow. I’m going to really enjoy sleeping tonight.