Skip the plane, keep it simple
It was suddenly the day before April and I found myself broken down and tired. With exams around the corner, my savings trickling to their end and a general lack of motivation, I needed something to look forward to as I transgress the final stretch of the academic year.
I began to imagine myself sipping yerba mate at a café in Buenos Aires, Argentina, strolling through the Jalan Surabaya Flea Market in Jakarta, Indonesia, or even getting lost in the painted alleyways of Chefchaouen, the Blue City of Morocco.
But like many students, the commodity of time and money maintained my imagined travels as pieces of fiction. While I hope to fly away to faraway places in the nearby future, I still needed to find a way to get my fix of wanderlust for the summer.
The answer I was looking for happened to be poster-sized and framed in a GO bus shelter. I’ve passed by the system map and disregarded it several hundred times before realizing all the travel opportunities it presents.
From Hamilton, GO transit lines can take you as far north as Lake Simcoe, west towards the Waterloo region and east to Niagara Falls with dozens of stops in between each direction. Combined with each city’s independent transit systems, bike share programs and widespread Uber availability, the possibilities seemed endless.
I compiled a list of 20 new places I could visit, almost all of them by public transit and made it my goal to explore each one by the end of the summer. The plan was simple, everything beyond determining the route to the destination had to be spontaneous.
This meant I had to rely on my natural instincts and the advice of locals for directions to interesting spots and places to eat. I also had to learn to be comfortable with the idea of sometimes not knowing where I’m going and walking for hours on end.
This was in stark contrast to how I was used to travelling in the past. I’m known for planning out meticulous details in hand-drawn itineraries, complete with time estimates, cost calculations, printed maps and screenshots of Instagram photos.
In desperate need to experience things in a new way, I decided to approach my 20 destinations without building any prior expectations. My list included places like Brampton, Burlington, Cambridge, St. Catharines, Waterloo and Kitchener, which are often overlooked cities for travel and entertainment.
I believed that each place was waiting to reveal its charm to those willing to take the time to build an intimate relationship with their surroundings. No matter where I went, by slowing down and taking in every detail, it became possible to have an immersive and valuable experience.
Travelling with this mindset completely changed my perspective and I learned there is so much more to the towns next door.
Suddenly Cambridge’s graffiti-painted alleyways became more than just a common trait of Ontario cityscapes. I discovered that the freshly-painted murals on walls of business establishments were part of a rare project where dozens of graffiti artists showed off their skills to their community earlier in June.
A long day of walking through Vineland farms and Prudhommes Antique Market in search of sweet peaches and vintage finds ended with crashing at a random café in downtown St. Catharines. I quickly forgot about my aching bones as I lied down on a worn-out couch and listened intently to the atmosphere changing from a quiet coffee shop to a homey concert experience as a band rehearsed next door.
A different couch, this time a little fancier and in a Parisian-inspired macaron shop in Brampton, became the setting of a new found appreciation for a friend. As I stirred sugar into my coffee, I realized that something else was brewing within us, the trip made my friend and I open up our hearts in ways we hadn’t before.
Local travelling forged an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and nature. I hiked the beautiful trails of Don Mills, Milton and Tobermory with friends I hadn’t seen in years. The astonishing clear waters of Georgian Bay and meaningful conversations while driving back from the Bruce Peninsula are memories I hope to never forget.
Sometimes the commute itself was an experience. I was stuck on a bus with a handful of passengers for two hours while returning to Hamilton from Burlington the night of the infamous May wind storm. A man who had just finished a shift at a steel plant became our unofficial tour guide as we drove at a maximum speed of 10 km/hr.
He talked about the history of the buildings around us, shared stories of growing up in Hamilton and working as a rigger on oil platforms and mines between occasional sips from a bottle of Disaronno. He had been working for 22 days straight and the wind storm was testing his patience.
I let a stranger be my guide through Greektown in Toronto. She greeted me with a dried lavender bouquet and basil seeds. We immediately clicked like long-time friends as she walked me around her neighbourhood garden, showed me photographs from her travels and taught me a few tips on how to live in a more ethical and environmentally conscious way.
While in Kitchener I let hunger guide me through downtown, walking briskly from one street to the next, until the irresistible aroma of wood fired pizza stopped me dead in my tracks. I ordered a Quattro Fromaggi and patiently watched as David O’Leary from Bread Heads tossed my pizza into the fire.
Mass consumption of pizza is a hallmark of my university experience, yet somehow I managed to develop a deeper connection to my slice when I learned that Bread Heads was a travelling pizzeria. Bread Heads and I have been travelling all summer long throughout Ontario.
David took the time to sit with me and chat about pizza and life as a Celtic musician. While looking for a wood fired oven for his backyard he came across the idea of a mobile oven and realized it was a brilliant solution to combat drab festival food.
In another sweet shop I met Buba, who kept telling me to dare to dream over and over again as she shared her story with me. Her young family fled Bosnia when the war broke out 25 years ago. She left her aspirations and the little café she owned to start her life over in Canada.
After facing adversity, unpredictable change and constantly putting her children first, she decided to take her own advice and start Lola, a café and chocolate bar in Burlington named after her first grandchild.
Buba thanked me for listening to her story even though I had accidentally trespassed into her closed café. She bid me farewell with another reminder to dare to dream as I made my way to visit her neighbour, Rayhoon Persian Eatery, in the 19th century inspired Village Square.
I felt like a nomad as I peacefully enjoyed chai with a saffron rock candy. My attention would shift back and forth from the book I was reading to the father of the owner and self-proclaimed big boss. I watched on and learned as he taught his restaurant-goers how to traditionally eat their dishes and get the most out of the flavours.
Perhaps it was my travel backpack or the messy journal I was writing in that gave me away as being from out of town, but the big boss refused to let me pay and wished me luck on my journey. I did not anticipate these moments of kindness and wisdom from strangers, but I’m thankful for how they’ve shaped my experience.
I’ve left every destination with a content heart and excitement for the next trip. I’ve lost count of all the clock towers, bridges, historic buildings, museums, farmers’ market and bookstores I’ve visited in every single city, but each time I come across yet another bookstore I’m consumed by the thrill of discovering something new for the first time.
Sometimes I found nothing. I’ve even walked kilometres only to realize I’d hit a dead end. But even those moments were valuable as they presented me with the time for contemplation and reflection while I retraced my steps.
While reflecting on these trips, I learned that we tend take where we live, go to school and work for granted. I was more often than not met with expressions of disbelief when I shared stories of travelling in my friends’ hometowns.
We are surrounded by so many unique and diverse communities yet we rarely recognize them as places worthy of travel and exploration. I didn’t need a plane ticket to sip yerba mate or walk through bustling flea markets and painted alleyways, instead I created my own versions of those experiences by paying more attention to what the cities next door has to offer.