Saturday, June 19, 2010

how to travel on a student's budget: May in Montreal

Student travel is a huge industry: from Semesters at Sea to a Summer in Greece, universities around the country participate in international exchange programs that enhance student study. Every location has its natural benefits for certain students (I wrote about my friend who went to Bolivia last summer for Social Justice and another who just returned from South Africa for engineering.)

But for the student who isn't able to travel formally with a university, whether constraints are money or time based, all students can find a way to live the adventurous lifestyle they want without breaking the bank (or the calendar).

Montreal, from The Metropark Amtrak station, is a 10 hour trip. (I've had friends who've driven there in 8 hours... but the driver ended up with a $90 dollar speeding ticket from a NY State Trooper, I do not advise.) Prices aren't horrible, especially compared to what an international flight runs on average. And let me tell you, Montreal really is a European treasure on the North American Continent. And don't let anyone hear you say Mon-TREE-all, especially if you're exercsing that nice and rusty high school French, it's pronounced Mon-reah-al (with accent on the "r" if you can manage a throat slurring).

Old Montreal is where the traditional European vibe is, with a ton of great local pubs and plenty of museums to visit. In that district there are also a lot of independent artisans and vendors who make art by hand. I found a beautiful blue glass ring that I'm wearing right now!

One of the most spectacular views comes from the heart of the city's mountain, properly called Mount Royal. The city is actually an island, so the middle is the highest point for miles around. In French, if you say Montreal (as my expert pronunciation directions suggest) fast enough, and for long enough, you start to hear "Mont Royal," and *ahh* it is all becoming clear to me!

Personally, I would always opt for hostel stays if you're with five or six friends because most places have cabin-like rooms with that many beds, so you'll effectively share a huge room (often with a bathroom attached) for a fraction of the cost as if you'd each gotten your own room. I've seen prices as low as $24 (US) a night, and it's been well worth it.

One of the top spots during the day was the Botanical Gardens, filled with absolutely beautiful varieties of domestic and exotic species of flowers, shrubs, and trees. In the gift shop area, there's an artist who makes his own clay figurines from hand. The details on my baby panda were incredible, there were even claws on his tiny black paws and every grass stem was rolled and assembled on its own. The clay isn't baked, but is left to dry naturally; the figurines hold all of their color and you can often get things custom made.

Food is another one of Montreal's notable treats, and not just French-style cafes or seven-course dinners (of which there are many awesome options). Actually, one of the best meals was a Greek place just a few blocks from the hostel, a delicious gyro was only four bucks!

Late night fun (after the bars close), there are lots of little crepe houses that are open 24/7, it was the best way to end a really long and terrific night! Anyway, the point is, with all of these activities, and all the friends to be made in this uber-social and friendly atmosphere, all in all, a five-day trip is manageable with $300.

So, if you're looking for a great adventure this summer, take a trip to Montreal with some buds, your significant other, hey... why not even take your parents? Or, you know, maybe next time.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Cup: Many Travel to South Africa, But My Friend Comes Home

I've got to admit, travelling back to New Jersey from a four-month stint in South Africa has to feel great and terrible just about now. For my friend John, it's great for us to see him, for John, it's terrible because his flight took off approximately 48 hours before the start of the World Cup. But there are thousands of people who have traveled with their national team of choice, and millions around the globe who are participating in one of the most unifying traditions. Soccer has been a historical value for peace, like in Nigeria in 1969 during that country's civil war; in many more nuanced ways, soccer in 2010 is subtly rebuilding damaged international relationships that the United States has had in the past with other parts of the world.

Michael Washington says, "I think that the US team in the World Cup this year really marks an official foray of soccer into the American life. In many ways, it unites us with the rest of the world, and with ourselves in ways that we have up until now, largely ignored were there."

It's true, soccer opens up modes of social interaction and communication between most all groups in the world: one of my friends told me that one of his fondest childhood memories was a vacation to Jamaica when he met two British and Mexican kids playing on a field; although verbal communication was somewhat limited,  the power of the game had united them as friends for the duration of the stay.

So, whether or not you're in South Africa or watching the games on tv, there are many health-benefits of an international vacation, especially if it's on the game-field interface.