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The final frontier: Braving a Canadian winter

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Well here we are, the final blog. If you've made it through them all, congratulations, it's no mean feat! We can hardly believe the 6 months are over ourselves. It seemed like such a long time and such a long way when we began it back in August, but somehow here we are 6 months and an incredible 20,000 miles later (which Google tells me is not far off the circumference of the world!).

If you really want to get down with stats, that's...
12,450 miles by plane
270 miles by boat
2,970 miles by bus
4,100 miles by car (take a bow Mark)
And last but not least 40 miles by scooter
(If I could include a bar chart in this blog, I most definitely would)

Before I get too reminiscent over the end of our adventure though, there is the small matter of what we did with our last month. Well, in short we left the tropics and returned to winter with an almighty bang. We flew out of Costa Rica and 5 hours later arrived in New York with a reaction not too dissimilar to the one we had when we arrived in Costa Rica, only this time we were cursing the cold not the heat (oh bloody hell it's cold, so bloody cold, why's it so cold??). It was -5 when we arrived, windy and our winter clothing amounted to one jumper and a hat each thanks to the traveler mentality which says chuck anything that is a)bulky and b)you're not using. Safe to say, we were cold! Many people have asked us what crazy thought process lead to our decision to return to North America and more particularly Canada for January and February. In the words of one Canadian 'NO-ONE visits Canada in February, unless you ski...and you don't ski'. The easy answer is that it was much cheaper to fly out of the same country as we flew into, but there was also a bit more to it than that. There was a perverse part of us that wanted to experience a Canadian winter, wanted to know what a 'real' winter felt like. Well we certainly got what we wished for!

Perhaps not surprisingly our first stop in New York was the clothes store where we kitted ourselves out with some rather jazzy and brightly coloured snow jackets. It was only after we'd bought them that we realised that everyone, and I mean everyone in New York wears black and that we undeniably looked like German tourists. For a few moments I thought we might be getting away with it, but then someone hollered at Mark in the middle of the street asking whether he'd climbed any mountains recently. Welcome to New York!
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We really enjoyed our time in New York though. We thought it might be a bit of a culture shock going from the relative simplicity of Central America to the crazy bustle of New York, but in truth it was just so nice to be back in a place where you could catch a metro in minutes, have a choice of at least 10 delicious cuisines within one street and have a beer which didn't taste like watered down rubbish. We even found somewhere which specialised in nothing but mac'n'cheese - glorious! The first morning waking up on a deep cushiony mattress and wrapped in a heavy, soft, cosy duvet was pure bliss. We might have embraced Central American living but that doesn't mean we weren't loving a return to western luxuries!

Much of our time there was spent indulging in the usual tourist activities (after all, we had pulled off the look perfectly). Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Times Square. What stuck with us the most though was the 9:11 memorial and museum. Both of us had real reservations about visiting the sight, not really feeling comfortable with the idea of a place of such tragedy becoming a tourist attraction. A few people had recommended we give it a go though and we are really glad we did as it's one of the most thought provoking places we've visited on the whole trip. The real star of the sight is the memorial. It's really hard to put into words what makes this memorial so special, but in my opinion it's the most effective memorial I have ever seen. It simultaneously manages to remember and pay tribute to the loss in all its magnitude, whilst also being a thing of great beauty and pride, so much so that you can quite easily call it art. The sites of the towers have been hollowed out into the ground in their original shape, and the space turned into a square waterfall which goes deeper over a number of layers. I can post a photo but in all honesty it doesn't do the memorial justice! All I can say is that if you visit New York, take a look.
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Alongside the memorial is the museum, which is thought provoking in a different way. It's a sobering exhibit and we both appreciated the opportunity it gave us to acknowledge quite how enormous an impact the event had on an individual level and on New York as a whole, but it is also extremely morbid. It's an enormous exhibit for a one day event and so the level of detail it goes into is, to be honest, a little disturbing. It seemed to indulge the human fascination with this kind of tragedy and neither of us were quite sure how comfortable we felt with that. It was also very 'Go America!', which from a British perspective is quite odd. At the same time though, the new World Trade Centre which has been built alongside the memorial is enormous and impressive, and you can't help but admire the tenacity of a city which sticks its finger up to terrorism in such a way.

From New York it was time to drop in with our friend Barack in Washington DC. Mark had an old friend/teacher living in Washington who alongside a fantastic catch up gave us a tour of the city and what a lovely city it is! Neither of us had any particular expectations about Washington, slightly expecting it to be not much more than the administrative hub of the US with some museums thrown in for good measure. How wrong we were! You can tell Washington was built for the big bods of the US because it is a beautifully set out city with wide streets, beautiful architecture, open space and lots of very nice Victorian houses. The tourist hot spots are particularly impressive. The kind of places where even though you've seen hundreds of photos, the real thing still manages to impress tenfold. I don't think I'd ever appreciated quite how big the Lincoln memorial and Washington monument are, but the truth is they are huge and Abraham Lincoln is more than a little intimidating! It's also pretty awesome and moving to be standing in the spot where Martin Luther King made his 'I have a dream speech'.
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After just a couple of days in Washington and making a mental note to visit again some day, we flew to Montreal to find out what real cold felt like. New York's -5 temperature had been bad enough but Montreal promised lows of -20 with average daily temperatures hovering around -12. If you've never felt temperatures as cold as that, then here's my summary: it hurts. If you're lucky enough to get a perfectly still day, then it's pretty nice and maybe even fun, but add even the smallest touch of wind and any fraction of skin that is exposed instantly starts to sting. Then there's the snow, which lines every pavement and is at least 4 inches thick. Again fun for a period of time until that dastardly wind comes back and blows it in your face, blinding you as you try to cross the road. Having said that it was pretty amazing to be in a town that is constantly covered in snow. Montreal is completely designed for it, building half of its downtown area underground to minimise the amount of time you have to spend in the cold. The other coping mechanism is to look as much like the Michelin man as you possibly can meaning that Mark and I in our multicoloured ski jackets were no longer out of place, hurrah! The cold also meant that we had our first experience of ice skating on natural ice on one of the city's lakes. Really good fun and most surprisingly of all, completely fall free!

The thing that perhaps took us the longest to get used to though was not in fact the cold but the French. Having spent the last 5 weeks getting our heads around Spanish and regularly cursing the fact that we had done French at school rather than Spanish, it was of course Sod's law that the moment we stepped foot in Quebec every word of French left our heads and instead we could only remember Spanish. It seems that neither of us have room in our heads for more than one foreign language at a time and so try as we might to speak French, the only words that would come out of our mouths were Spanish, much to the bafflement of the locals. Perhaps naively we had expected Montreal to be a completely bilingual city, and whilst most people can and will speak English if you ask, French is without a doubt the dominant language. In part though, it's this combination of cultures which makes it such a very cool city. You have all the ease and friendliness of Canada but with the style and edginess of metropolitan France. There are endless good and cheap eateries and most streets offer a lot more character than you find in most city centres. Working alongside this cool, modern image though, is a city with real history, which can still be explored through the beautiful 18th century 'old Montreal', some stunning cathedrals and its namesake, Parc Mont Royale.
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After a fantastic 5 days in Montreal, we had just about acclimatised ourselves to the cold, which was a good job as we had 2 weeks on a pig farm in rural Ontario ahead of us. This was to be our last work placement, done partly because we were running pretty low on the budget front and partly because we had come to realise that our previous work placements had given us some of our most valuable experiences. Plus hard as it can be, we actually quite liked farm work...usually because it brought with it good food. The pig farm was no exception. It was always going to be hard to beat the food extravaganza that was 'cheese, glorious cheese' but the pig farm came pretty close! Not only did we get to eat the most fantastic, high quality, heritage breed pork but numerous other wonderful, hearty meals along with plenty of wine, beer and good company. Mark and I really can be very easy to please.

On a more serious note though, the other reason we've enjoyed working on farms is for the amount they've taught us about where our food comes from, the importance of of good and responsible practice and most of all how incredibly hard farmers have to work to make that product profitable. In short, there's a reason why good food from good sources costs so much and it's certainly not because the farmer is making a big profit! We had 250 pigs to look after on the farm, which was hard work but so much fun. It took 3 hours just to feed and water them each morning, which in reality meant running around a field with a bucket of feed whilst being chased by a mob of squealing pigs. This didn't just happen once but in every single field , every single day. Lesson number 1 on pigs - they are NOT patient. At times you would even find them nibbling away at your clothes, only to scamper away squealing if you made even a vague attempt at shooing them away. Lesson number 2 on pigs - they like to nudge you, they don't like you to nudge them! Then of course there's the stink. I don't know where that myth about 'pigs actually being quite clean animals' came from, but I'm telling you now, it's a lie. Pigs are pigs - they poop where they eat and eat what they poop. Lesson number 3 on pigs - they are proper stinky! But then when it all comes down to it, they scamper, wobble and snort around all day in the gosh darn cutest way, which of course leads to lesson number 4 on pigs, they are adorable.
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Our time at the pig farm also gave us the opportunity to visit Canada's capital, Ottawa. Without a doubt the highlight of this was being able to skate the Rideau Canal, which each winter becomes the worlds largest ice rink. It was a bizarre sight. Where normally you'd find a canal, a winter market on ice appears complete with food and drink stands, picnic tables and in some crazy feat of science, fire pits! Then instead of walking around, you just skate from stand to stand. For Canadians, who seem to grow up in skates this was pretty easy, but for us, ordering a coffee and skating with it to a table without any spillages was quite an achievement! As we discovered though, Canadians seem to be able to do just about anything on ice. There were numerous parents skating whilst pushing buggies, joggers, a skier and even one guy on a unicycle!
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The other thing to do whilst visiting Ottawa is to visit their parliament buildings, which as it turns out look a lot like British Parliament. Same gothic turrets, same copper roofing and even a clock tower that looks remarkably similar to Big Ben. You can definitely see the connection. The big difference is that Canada doesn't have a muppet as PM. They've just voted in the rather dishy looking and wonderfully left-wing, Justin Trudeau, who is quickly making Canada one of the best countries you could possibly live in alongside putting many other heads of state to shame with his policies on refugees, the environment and poverty. Sadly we didn't catch a glimpse of him, but you can't have it all I suppose.
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After 2 weeks at the pig farm, it was time to wash off the stench of pig poo for the last time and head to our very final stop, Toronto. Toronto is the business hub of Canada and somewhere that we'd found British Colombians loved to put down as too dirty, too busy and generally just not as nice as Vancouver. For this reason our expectations were quite low, but I'm pleased to say it had a lot more going for it than some Canadians would lead us to believe. Yes it's not as pretty as Vancouver but it's cool factor definitely makes up for that. Never have I seen so many amazing and independent places to shop, eat and drink. I reckon you could find somewhere new to eat in Toronto everyday for 4 months and not have a bad meal and also more importantly not pay through the roof for it. There are tonnes of great little street food outlets selling unique and delicious food for under £5, which is probably very clear by now, makes Mark and I very happy! Alongside this it's also a pretty awesome place culturally. A number of old industrial buildings have been transformed into galleries and arts venues including the whole of Toronto's former distillery district. They might not have natural beauty like Vancouver or heritage like Montreal but Toronto has realised how beautiful urban and industrial buildings can be when preserved in the right way and they have really made the most of it. Whilst we were there we even went to one of those edgy 'night club meets art gallery' type events. In all honesty I think we were a bit too country bumpkin for it though.
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A trip to Toronto is never complete without a visit to two places, the CN tower and Niagara Falls, which we duly embarked upon to finish off the whole 6 month adventure. Knowing we'd be going back to the UK with virtually no money we decided we might as well go off on a high and splurged on a meal in the rather fancy rotating restaurant at the top of the CN tower. As you would expect, the views were stunning and the food was amongst the best we've ever had, even if we did feel like frauds sitting there in the best of our now rather tatty travelling gear.
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Niagara on the other hand was not quite as we expected. Or at least I should say part of Niagara Falls wasn't. The falls themselves look just like the pictures, although I don't think you can ever quite appreciate the magnitude and power that erupts from them until you go there in person. Nor can you appreciate quite how wet it is when you get even vaguely close - in all honesty you may as well be standing in a rain cloud. The part that didn't meet expectations was the town itself. Never have I seen anywhere quite so tacky. Think Blackpool beach on drugs. The main street has, for some unbeknown reason, been filled with an unless supply of 'haunted houses' each with its own spooky soundtrack blaring out and weird puppets jumping around the pavement. If it isn't a haunted house it's a cheap burger joint which again seem to feel obliged to continue the theme and build a giant gorilla or some such creature on the side of the building. It's pretty amusing but then at the same time it is such a terrible, terrible contrast with the beauty of the falls that you curse whichever town planner allowed it to happen!

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And so ended our trip around the Americas. Well... nearly. We finished as we started by gorging on amazing sushi and appreciating some quality beer before heading to the airport via the worlds dirtiest humoured taxi driver. It's been a wonderful 6 months, with travelling becoming so normal to us that it's the return to 'civy' life that now seems unfamiliar. I have lost track of the number of times one of us has said 'this is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen', with each new place impressing us in a whole new way. But one final salute goes to the people we've met along the way. Our various hosts who have treated us life family, the hundreds of fellow travellers who have inspired us to see new places and finally the many, many Canadians who hands down remain the nicest set of people we have ever met. It's been a blast, cheers all!

Posted by CunninghamScott 08:47

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