Couchsurfing likes to remind people that it’s not a dating site, but in fact, it is a place where I’ve met many of my closest friends and the woman I married.
One of the keys to mastering the art of world travel on almost nothing is learning to trust strangers and let them become friends.
World Travel on Almost Nothing Tip #4: Make strangers into friends.
One of the things that I love about Couchsurfing.com is that it relies on opening your heart and mind to the hospitality of strangers. Contrary to popular belief, most people on the planet are good and want to help you in this life. If you doubt that, look inside yourself and I’m sure you will see it is true.
I wrote a thesis about fans of the TV show LOST. One of the amazing things I found was that when fans traveled to Hawaii they often found places to stay, free guided tours, and new friends waiting for them. In that case, what brought these people together was a love of a TV show. For the world traveler, you are more likely to come together because of a love of travel.
I’ve made friends just about everywhere I’ve been and in the process I’ve managed to avoid paying for hotels, meals, and sometimes even transportation. I’m not saying you should be mercenary about seeking out and using people, I’m saying that when you open your arms to the world, you often get a hug in return.
While I’ve never been a WWOOFer or used HospitalityClub.com, I certainly have known plenty of people who have. These sorts of communities thrive on the fact that people are in general kind and good natured. If you don’t believe that, then you better keep paying for hotel rooms and guided city tours.
In early spring of 2009, I was in an existential crisis. I’d fallen for a girl in Morocco and far too quickly, we’d decided to get married. I felt trapped but at the same time I was in love and wanted to marry her – something inside me or inside her wouldn’t let me escape. I had varying degrees of panic, emotion, and fear along with a sense of things already being written and no chance of changing what the future would be. I had one chance to get away…away from rings and engagement parties and expectation – bureaucracy combined with poverty could save me. She knew I didn’t have any money and also, when I set out travelling, I hadn’t brought things like my birth certificate or other paperwork I would need for marriage with me.
A friend had offered me a kayaking guide job in Alaska and I proposed to her that I leave, work for the summer – gather my paperwork, and then come back and have a wedding. My thought process was that if we allowed ourselves five or six months apart – our emotions would cool and we’d probably both decide it was better not to get married. I didn’t have enough money to fly direct to Alaska from Morocco – so I had to be creative with what I had. I booked a flight from Morocco to Madrid, a flight from Madrid to Germany, Germany to Ireland and then a round trip flight from Dublin to New Jersey. I figured I would take the ferry from Maine to Canada and then hitchhike to Alaska. It might sound crazy but that was the cheapest way to do it and this was in the days that I was still paying cash for everything – I didn’t have a credit card only a bank account and a debit card. The European flights cost me a combined total of about $150 USD using Ryan Air. The trans-Atlantic round trip cost about $600. That left me about $300 to get across Canada and I figured when the work in Alaska was done, I would be able to pay for a flight back to New Jersey if I wanted to actually go through with the wedding at that point.
There was only one problem – my bank saw all this European activity and the ferry ticket to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and they shut down my debit card and cut me off from all the money I had. By the time I was boarding the ferry in Portland, Maine where I’d couchsurfed with two awesome waitresses, I didn’t know it but all I had was enough money in my pocket to get $4 Canadian…and that’s all I would get for my trip across Canada. Also, one other hitch – when I’d landed in the USA, I found an email from my friend in Alaska – they’d already given the job to someone else – there was no job waiting for me. I couldn’t write about this at the time – maybe I shouldn’t be writing about this at all – since I ended up eventually going back and marrying the girl in Morocco – but there I was. Trying to figure out what the best course for my life was – trying to take control of my destiny – but my destiny was already laid out. I had thought there might be escaping it, but I’ve come to believe in powers greater than ourselves guiding our every decision. I believe that free wil is an illusion…an important one, but still an illusion.
With no plan, I decided to proceed across Canada by thumb and by foot.
Canadian Customs can be tricky. They sometimes are angry that American customs treat them badly. The same happens on the other side – unfortunately for me, I was targeted by an angry middle-aged Canadian customs agent. I’m convinced I reminded her of some guy who had done her wrong in the past, because she was relentless tearing through my bags…asking me suspicious questions in a machine gun patter….and ultimately, because she was convinced there must be something – she used drug wipe cloths inside a used book I’d bought in Portland, Maine and told me that it had tested positive for heroin. She read my journal angrily and when I protested she said “Why? Is there something in here you don’t want me to read?” “It’s my diary,” was all I was able to say. After several hours of interrogation and being locked in a small room – eventually a supervisor came and apologized to me – he said that someone had used duct tape to tape thedust jacket on the book and duct tape often came up as a false positive with that particular test. I didn’t see the agent who had ‘apprehended’ me again. I was led outside and released into a beautiful spring day in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
I spent a few days with a lovely couchsurfing host named Carla. She was the chief reporter for the newspaper in her area and she led me to pickled aliens, student pinwheels, and I got to go to the Mayor of Yarmouth’s birthday party and eat some delicious mayor cake. Nova Scotia was amazing. I loved it. Acadian culture is a mixture of the French, English, and Native American people who lived in Eastern Canada over the past several hundred years. I said goodbye to Carla and stuck out my thumb.
Next came the hitch hiking. Hitchhiking is always a little bit risky. Hitching in Canada is safe but you run the risk of being left out in the prairie for a cold cold night. I traveled 2922.1 Miles by thumb and foot in 11 days. You don’t want to be in any country with only $4 Canadian…but if you have to pick one, it should be Canada.
Halifax is where the maiden voyage of Titanic really ended, with the most lasting legacy from the sinking located here. The world was stunned in 1912 by the loss of the liner Titanic on her maiden voyage. Halifax, Nova Scotia, located on the eastern coast of Canada, has one of the most moving and intimate connections with the Titanic disaster, playing a key role during the tragedy’s aftermath and becoming the final resting place of many of her unclaimed victims.
Three Halifax ships were involved in the grim task of recovering victims – many of whom were laid to rest in three of the city’s cemeteries. Rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date, April 15, 1912, are a stark reminder of the disaster.
In Halifax, I stayed with an amazingly funny girl named Anna – again through Couchsurfing. We hit thrift shops and out of the way and off the beaten path tourist locations. We had a blast. I almost didn’t want to leave. Actually, I didn’t want to leave – but I felt like I had to. I moved onward to Quebec City.
Quebec City is gorgeous. While the cities of Europe are very nice, they always felt like something was not quite right about them. I think it’s because I’m a North American and we North American’s have a different sense of space, nature, and certainly history. Quebec City (like Victoria in British Columbia) has the charm of old Europe, the flavor of nobility, and the essence North America.
Most of my first day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.
I met up with my absolutely awesome couch surfing host, Kelie. Over the next few days – she showed me as much of Quebec City as she could and frankly, each moment I was there made it harder for me to leave. She was one of the coolest people I met in my travels. And yet, I was to keep meeting cool people on this trip across Canada. I’d lived so close to Canada in Bellingham, Washington during the 1990s…I should have spent more time in Canada.
I left Quebec with that same feeling of being driven by something larger than me. That largers something drove me into the large province of Ontario. Ontario is huge and to drive along Lake Superior is more like driving along the ocean than anything else. I caught unmemorable rides all the way to Thunder Bay when i got picked up by Dawn and Leah. They liked my hat and they took me home to Sudbury where we spent the next few days recycling cans, drinking, having parties, going to parties, and absolutely loving life.
Sudbury is an interesting place. 1.8 billion years ago a huge meteorite smashed into this area. It was composed of mostly nickel. Then about 150 years ago the Canadians started mining here because of the nickel. The nickel mining process is incredibly environmentally destructive and until about five years ago Sudbury apparently looked like the surface of the moon because of the huge slag piles from the mines.
This is a railroad town and sits on the trans Canadian highway, so it has a familiar feel to it. Feels a lot like Bellingham, Washington to me. The people are an interesting mix of weeded out bums, artists, musicians, and environmental activists.
Thomas Edison visited the Sudbury area as a prospector in 1901, and is credited with the original discovery of the ore body at Falconbridge.
During the Apollo manned lunar exploration program, NASA astronauts trained in Sudbury to become familiar with shatter cones: a rare rock formation connected with meteorite impacts. However, the popular misconception that they were visiting Sudbury because it purportedly resembled the lifeless surface of the moon dogged the city for years.
Dawn had just bought a car and hadn’t yet learned how to drive. She offered to take me to Winnipeg, Manitoba where she wanted to visit a friend – if I were willing to teach her how to drive. Dawn is a midwife and again – one of my favorite people ever. Off we went! We picked up another hitch hiker along the way and finally, she dropped us both off in Winnipeg at a truck stop. The other hitchhiker wandered off but Dawn and I were all torn up at having to part company. It was hard to say goodbye! I forgot my travelling hat and about a month later, the lovely girl mailed it to me.
From Winnipeg I hitched to Calgary where I finally managed to get Paypal to let me access some of my funds through my debit card. I got a cheap hotel room before heading off into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I got a ride to the rockies early but after that – no one was stopping. Late in the day, I noticed that I was being followed by three bears – a mother and two large cubs who were hungry after their long winter nap. A chain link fence stood between me and them as they walked on the railroad tracks and I walked on the road. As the road and the tracks got closer, I began to worry that the fence might end because the three bears were watching me intently.
Thankfully, a retired park ranger was driving by and stopped. He invited me to stay at his house and the next day drove me through the Rockies taking me to Banff, Lake Louise, the Three Sisters, and many beautiful spots. He dropped me at the base of the mountains on the British Columbia side and paid for a hotel room for me. All the way across Canada, I had people offering me shelter, buying me meals, taking me to their homes or getting me hotel rooms. I was awed by the sense of human deceny I found in Canada.
The next morning I caught a ride early from a guy who looked like he was coming off a serious bender. Turned out he was. He told me horror stories about his wife and best friend who had gone into the porn business together and then abandoned him to make their own movies. He offered to give me his and her wedding rings and the Rolex watch she had given him – I was broke and probably should have accepted but didn’t want the karmic weight he had attached to them in his tales. I politely said no but accepted when he offered to buy me breakfast at a Denny’s in Vancouver.
After breakfast I walked from Vancouver down to the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington. When the border guards asked where I was coming from, I lied and told them I had taken a day trip from Bellingham – which is what most people crossing the border were doing. I walked across the border and called my friend Dave in Bellingham, he drove up and picked me up.
That’s how I went across Canada by thumb and foot. It was awesome. I love Canada.