Just admit it, you’ve fantasized of escaping to the lovely Land of Down Under, where sun is practically endless, a museum with free entrance just around the corner, and yet another crispy clear beach stretches on the coastline. We’ve all been there – I mean, in the same fantasy, but what about leaving your comfort zone, actually getting the plane ticket and living a full year as an Aussie?
Fortunately, there are many fun, exciting and rewarding ways to achieve this endeavor, so let’s take a look at a few Australia-perfect strategies to explore this wonderful continent, and yes, fall even more in love with its intact beauty during your stay.

The good ol’ work and travel

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Just when the winter blues starts to set in, you would be packing your bags and escaping the vicious cold all the way Down Under. Whether you’re a culinary wizard that craves for more hands-on experience with some of the finest experts in the field, or you’re looking to teach abroad, Australia offers a wide range of work and travel programs.

Some of them include tour guides, full accommodation and visa paperwork preparation, so that you can start getting ready hassle-free. It’s best to apply via an accredited agency with previous experience and success, because these applications require investments that can range from $900 in fees and additional funds in your account to prove you can support yourself during your stay.

Of course, you’ll get all the advice and guidance you need from the local agent and on site as well, so that your experience is as seamless as possible. From forwarding your mail, finding the right job, to nailing your visa application, they’ll have you covered.

Make a difference

Image by kuvaa via Pixabay Creative Commons

Traveling for a non-profit cause to Australia is another wonderful way to experience their culture, heritage and do your best to contribute to their efforts to protect the environment and their indigenous wildlife. There are numerous wildlife sanctuaries, rescue operations, organic farms, tree-planting programs, all of which are perfect for nature-lovers among you.

You will stay with the local folk, join in on their daily routine and gain invaluable experience in Australia’s cultural background. Many of these volunteering programs also include perks such as free horse-riding, kayaking, free accommodation and local sightseeing tours. You’ll also likely have field trips and regular access to major cities, including Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, but also some of Australia’s most beautiful natural wonders, including the Great Barrier Reef, the Blue Mountains, and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta stone formations.

Apply for a student exchange program

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As a country that boasts a staggering number of international students, Australia has some of the best universities, coveted educational programs, and great benefits for their student visitors from abroad. This is particularly alluring for those who would prefer a more urban experienced located in some of Australia’s cities, where you can apply for scholarships, and you will also be able to get a part-time job during your studies.

Before you go, make sure you look for student accommodation in Brisbane and other cities to see which option best suits your needs. Of course, you should budget for your studying and living costs in the area of your choice. Every university has different entry requirements and procedures, so it’s essential to get acquainted with them before you make a final decision.

What to expect

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As an international volunteer, worker or student, you’ll need to cover many expenses before you reach the sunny coast of Australia. From getting the right health insurance, ensuring ample financial support during your stay, covering the cost of airplane tickets, accommodation, and basic lifestyle needs, you’ll see that the standard of living Down Under is very high, and the price is no different.

Since you’re coming from a snow-covered north, you should brace yourself for an entirely different cultural setting. Aussies are known to be laid-back, friendly, welcoming and kind, and the climate is sizzling hot during summer, while they enjoy mild winters – but their seasons are flipped compared to ours, so if you are traveling during your winter, you will be greeted by their summer!

* Featured image by ajmclellan via pixbay Creative Commons

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My first hostel experience ever was in Montreal. I remember thinking how cool it was to immediately have friends even though I was traveling alone. I fell in love with the idea of sharing space and feeling at home in a strange city.

There are 19+ hostels in Montreal, it is a true International city, full of so much glorious adventure and beautiful diversity. I know that Montreal is also no stranger to the concept of gentrification. As neighborhoods become trendy rent is raised. Former community spaces are converted into hot spots for young, rich, usually white, professionals.

Vibrant artistic communities, reasonable rent prices, beautiful architecture, easy access to all parts of the city and transportation, being close to nightlife hot spots, and accessibility to waterfront are important aspects of a major city.

When I realized that my city, Buffalo NY, had a hostel, I was estatic. I started volunteering there with Food Not Bombs, using the kitchen, and began to talk to the guests and realize that this is the place I must dedicate my time to.

I started working at the Hostel Buffalo Niagara, our one and only youth hostel, over two years ago now. I am proud to be a cultural ambassador for my city.

I have lived here all of my life, I know the ins and outs, the cool places that are under the radar of normal advertisement. The heart of a city is not based on money or greed, it beats because of love and passion.

Buffalo needs a comeback? How about heart. How about if it isn’t broke don’t fix it?!

I am very inspired by my friends who helped save the Cafe Cleopatra with Save the Main and preserved an important space in the Montreal red light district. If people don’t fight for things they will disappear.

I never thought that this was a place I needed to fight for, it is such a vital asset to our community. How can a city call itself accessible and international if it does not have a hostel?

Helping us stop gentrification is a statement against this global trend! NO MORE! Stop colonizing the poor. We are economically vulnerable as a non profit community driven organization. We do not bring big money into the area, but we do bring something that is monumentally more important than that. We bring culture, we provide a safe place for weary travelers, and we treat this place like home.

The term gentrification was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass:

“One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences …. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”
-Ruth Glass (1964)

I love my hometown. Buffalo is an incredible city that people have forgotten about. It peaked around the industrial revolution and is only recently seen a resurgence.

We have had a non for-profit youth hostel for the past 20+ years, with over 6,000 travelers from all over the world staying with us. Most are coming to see Niagara Falls or check out the universities and fall in love with Buffalo by accident.

We do not need any more bourgeois restaurants or luxury loft apartments! Buffalo is not freaken luxurious. I do not want the city I love to fall victim to the evils of gentrification.

As of February 1st 2017, 667 Main St, the building housing our beloved hostel, was put up for sale by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

This decision was based mostly on the fact that the back half of the building was left by the city in negligent disrepair. Hostel Buffalo Niagara has continued to maintain and improve the building since the initial city investment of 1.5 million dollars in 1995.

Vibrant murals, Buffalo history, a time capsule of event posters from the past 20 years, welcoming energy, and unbridled passion cover the walls and fill the rooms here.

The Hostel’s lease will end in July 2021. We need stay here forever, not for just four short years! 30 of us walked to city hall in a snow storm to deliver our proposal, I bet no developer did that!

I cannot let this place fall into the hands of big money developers. They see this space as a dollar sign and not as a beautiful and accessible community space!

Help us control our own destiny. We want to continue serving the public and raising the bar for low priced hospitality, accessibility, and sustainability. Buffalo cannot lose our only hostel!

Our goal is to develop the back building for affordable extended stay housing and other cultural opportunities. Some thoughts are possibly a cafe that celebrates ethnic diversity and reaches out to local immigrants to fill the space.

I see infinite possibilities. Do not let gentrification take away our city’s heartbeat, we absolutely do not need more luxury lofts or overpriced restaurants. Protect the people, true culture, and flavor of what makes our city so spectacular.

We are a non-profit landing pad and safe space for travelers and community activists as well as a vital cultural asset to the city of Buffalo and Western NY. We host a wide range of beautiful humanity, people from every country imaginable: backpackers, touring cyclists, veterans, Girl Scouts, international students, refugees, doctors, law students taking the Bar Exam, Finnish folk dancers, Habitat for Humanity volunteers, entire families, circus performers, musicians, artists, and even Vermin Supreme!

All of them have shared meals, adventures, and stories of home and their journey. The best parts happen in the kitchen and common areas, people talking about their travels, connecting, sharing recipes in the kitchen, playing board games or ping pong, going on adventures with the free bike rentals.

Exploring new places with new friends is exhilarating to say the least. Travel enriches lives. Buffalo needs to remain a viable and accessible destination. If the hostel is gone those groups of people will pass this city by.


This is more than just a place to stay, we make real connections with our guests that last a lifetime! People are coming to see Niagara Falls and end up falling in love with Buffalo and all its breathtaking charm.

Hostel employees are cultural ambassadors, we share the secret gems and local favorites, we are all Buffalonians with a passion for our home. We are in a prime location in the heart of the Theatre District. Right out the door there is instant entertainment, libations, awesome architecture. It’s a stone’s throw from the waterfront and Canalside, and easy to find transportation.
We directly collaborate with cultural organizations such as The Buffalo Infringement Festival, Food Not Bombs, GOBike Buffalo, Waste Not Want Not, Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center, The Wash Project, and many more. We host a variety of entertainment, from poetry and bike breakfasts outside to music in the stairwells, ping pong tournaments, dance parties, movie nights, a vegan celebration for Indiginious people, The Box Gallery’s Art openings, and Curtain Up Buffalo are all part of our distinct charm and Queen City realness.

The Hostel is located in the heart of the theatre district and in the middle of a food desert. People ask me “why is Main Street so dead?” It is already beginning to overflow with crap. Beautiful buildings being sold to the highest bidder only to be stripped of all that matters.

I have already seen one of my favorite art galleries and my favorite book shop closed and forced to relocate due to this disturbing trend. We need to protect low income and social housing. Low income people already have instability in travel accommodations and housing, long and short term.

Montreal is grittier than most Canadian cities, and so is Buffalo. There is something special about cities with charm, places that remain true to themselves. Places that respect current residents, uplifting communities and not uprooting them!

You need to change with the people and not force them out due to a change in price. We are proud to be part of our city’s renaissance, however we recognize the dangers that cities face throughout the world as they are revitalized. Urban renewal does not mean lower class extinction.

Once vibrant cities like San Francisco and Portland are becoming shells of their former selves. The communities and culture that made them sparkle are pushed away and discarded by gentrification. True renaissance protects the people, flavor, and culture that makes out city special.

FIGHT GENTRIFICATION WORLDWIDE! STOP THE RISE OF HOUSING COSTS! SUPPORT COMMUNITY AND CULTURE! OTHERS NEED TO STAND UP WITH US, if you have ever stayed in a hostel please share this link. we need to give a shit about this place.

We have started a Go Fund Me to start the uphill battle of saving our home.

Thank you for your support!

On Monday the Orange Administration released a new Executive Order. We all knew it was coming, for no sooner had courts struck down the original Muslim ban when the White House promised a new and improved version. It was supposed to be signed and released last week, but then something strange happened.

In his first joint-address to Congress, the Lint-Covered-Cheeto President surprised everyone by acting like a gentleman. There was no blustering, there was just a man-child giving a speech. Reporters hailed his behavior as being truly “presidential” and the White House opted not to ruin the wave of good faith by releasing the new ban immediately afterward.

No matter what the new travel ban says, it will never outshine the atrocities committed in the first ban’s name. It will never outshine the baby who was denied entry for life-saving surgery (a lawmaker intervened on the child’s behalf when the story leaked so she was saved in the end), or the child separated from his mother for hours, or the old lady who was denied a wheelchair under the enforcement of the first Executive Order. It will never undo the widespread outrage from ordinary citizens and the legal community.

Now it’s time to look at the new Executive Order.

This order replaces the previous one and provides something the first order was sorely lacking: clarifications.

The first Executive Order was so vague no one seemed to know how to enforce it. As a result, people in positions to abuse it did and people with valid documents to enter the US from permanent residents to workers to famous authors and ex diplomats with legit visas were denied or delayed.

The new Executive Order provides a list of people deemed exceptions to its travel restrictions. Among the exceptions are lawful permanent residents, foreign nationals with valid visas or other documents allowing them to legally enter the US, people with dual citizenship, and those on diplomatic visas. Also exempt are foreign business people and workers, foreign nationals granted asylum or refugee status, children needing urgent medical care, and people legally admitted to the US to stay with family.

The new Order also does something the other did not: it condemned Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, the new Order does it in the most petulant way possible by defending the previous Executive Order with a none-too-subtle “we didn’t mean it that way!” response to the displays of Islamaphobia that had ensued.

Section 1 of the new order says:

Executive Order 13769 did not provide a basis for discriminating for or against members of any particular religion. While that order allowed for prioritization of refugee claims from members of persecuted religious minority groups, that priority applied to refugees from every nation, including those in which Islam is a minority religion, and it applied to minority sects within a religion. That order was not motivated by animus toward any religion, but was instead intended to protect the ability of religious minorities — whoever they are and wherever they reside — to avail themselves of the USRAP in light of their particular challenges and circumstances.

This petulant tone is consistent throughout the beginning of the new Executive Order as section 1 is full of justifications and excuses for the first ban.

On the bright side, it also includes a subtle acknowledgment that the White House would never succeed in the courts had they continued to try and enforce the first Executive Order. The provision that replaces the first order with the current one says that it is “in order to avoid spending additional time pursuing litigation”.

People generally back out of legal disputes to due amicable resolutions, lack of funds, or the fact that they know they can’t win. The former two do not apply here.

Then there’s the list of countries banned.

One would hope that a new improved travel ban would include limitations on some of the countries that actually produce terrorists. Those states widely acknowledged as such include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Lebanon, Turkey, and Kuwait. Sadly, none of these countries are on the list of limited countries as the new Order maintains limitations on Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from the previous version.

However, this new Order tries to back up this list with facts cherry-picked in part from the Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2015 (June 2016). The Order does not state where the rest of its justifications come from.

It maintains the discretion of the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to make exceptions to the ban and like the previous Order, gives them extra responsibilities. The Order requires them with the Director of National Intelligence to review and identify countries from which more information is needed about their people before they are admitted to the US. Once they make the list, they have to ask the countries for information and if they don’t get it in a certain amount of time, the country’s people won’t be admitted to the US.

The new Executive Order was an opportunity for the White House to redeem itself. They could have limited nationals from countries that actually produce a lot of terrorists. They didn’t. They could have used actual facts to back their rules and claims, but they didn’t.

The White House did however do one very important thing which to specify who the ban does not apply to, leaving less room for racists and xenophobes with rubber gloves and metal detectors to arbitrarily bar or detain people they don’t like. In that sense, this new order is new and improved.

Its interesting to me that I haven’t been writing about sex lately. My sexual writers block is caused by me actually having a sex life of late.

It is easy to write about anonymous faces or generalized sexual partners, but when you are getting it on the regular there is less to talk about because you are practicing it. I’m less concerned with chasing tail once its in my bed warm and waiting.

I came home to someone sleeping in the broken spot in my bed, I took off all of my clothes and climbed in. Right where I belonged in that moment. Sticky sweaty skin, soft flesh melting into more tender loveliness. I can go into detail about the sun coming through the window and the exact sounds and smells, the wonderful warmth.

Some things cannot be defined by words alone. A smile upon waking, my legs fit inside yours. Its nice to know that I wasn’t the only one wondering, what if? I run my finger down the nape of your neck and see you shiver with antici……pation.

I am more of an expert at longing for some touch, rather than actually having someone. I don’t believe in ever really “having” anyone, people aren’t propery. It is easy to preach about self confidence and feeling good about life regardless of your relationship status, but living it is a different story.

I always say that true love should be effortless, pure joy, constant stream of brilliant moments and moments where you must lift each other to brilliance. I was once told that I would never find love if I didn’t lose weight, but then I learned to love myself. There is more to love when you love each inch.

Do opposites really attract? I feel as though you must have some things in common to spark that initial fire, but you can’t be the same person. I always look for someone as out there and artistically over achieving as I am. There cannot be light without dark, you cannot know true bliss without knowing the bitter taste of defeat and sadness. The placement of the darkest shadow and most brilliant highlights is the main element of successful art.

I was in California and I couldn’t imagine having weather that pleasant all year round. Eternal summer. I need that six months of winter to hibernate and make art. If I were able to frolic about and play in the sunshine all year I would never get shit done.

I am so easily distracted by the summertime feel fine way of life. I want to lay in the sun in a field of flowers and stretch out as far as I can with the life affirming warmth beating down on me. It’s like love, to appreciate the good times you need to survive the rest of times. You need to have a job to appreciate days off.

travel
I had never traveled that far from home, I roamed away from Buffalo. I felt a little like Hunter S Thompson heading to Las Vegas to pick up a flight to San Diego. Instead I should rent the biggest reddest oldest convertible there is and drive it across the desert. No looking back, no surrender.

Humans are meant to wander, to move around, experience things. If we stay in place we become stupid and stagnant, fenced in by our own insecurities and fears. It’s a horrible life to not want more, to not wonder what else is out there, to see how other people live, to notice the differences and relish in the familiar moments.

Las Vegas is a place I never wanted to meet, slot machines at every turn, I thoroughly dislike gambling. There is something so creepy about the subliminal hum of casinos. The elderly and addicted sitting like drones pushing buttons and pulling levers. Its downright freaky to me. If I’m going to waste my money its going to be on something that makes me happy. Physical things should never be the cause of happiness. Money will never be the cause of happiness.
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I visited Coronado Island in San Diego. It was where Some Like It Hot was filmed. Gold flecked beaches shimmered brilliantly. I stood in the same place that Marilyn Monroe stood.

It was magical, but it also made me think that she was just a woman, doing her thing in the height of her life and popularity. She had no idea that her image would make such an impact on the world. Her beauty radiates throughout generations who were not even alive yet. Icon status.

People often compare me to her, I think merely because of the blondness and buxom nature of our curves. The curse of curves, the curves that possibly got her murdered by the Kennedys. Someone told me today that I smile like Marilyn, big and cheesy, a lot hiding in that smile. some like it hot
I was dumped once for being unnaturally happy, never arguing or fighting the entire relationship. He couldn’t stand it. I thought of myself as more of a ray of sunshine to his clouds.

It is easier to be openly flirty once you have already been inside someone. Asking for more is different than asking for the first time. Uncertainty is terrifying. It is also what life is all about, taking chances. The idea of being shot down by a love interest is as scary as the idea of being shot down in the streets by a robber.

Successful relationships come down to who did the dishes and took the garbage out, superficial bullshit that is actually a big symbol of respect. Little things count.

Life is more than just beautiful moments and physical attraction. You must work hard and struggle before success is handed to you. Take the good with the bad and fall in love with the journey.

Marilyn Monroe is a timeless beauty, she will never age in our minds because she was taken before her time, dead before she got too old to wrinkle. Love your wrinkles and curves, live in the moment, travel as much as possible, compliment others, and love hard. You never know when your sun will set. Life is only right now, bask in its glory.

Today I met a salsa dancing Peruvian clown. High wire trapeze and juggles. I’ve always wanted to run away with the circus, do something fun and be free. You really never know who a person is until you talk to them.

Then one of my Dreamlander friends stopped by wearing a bat onesie with big fluffy ears and played a half ass game off chess with me. We talked about a warehouse party we both attended, I was a glam leprechaun, and about having to create a scene versus joining into an established one.

My wanderlust is strong, my need to quench my quest for fun, for fantastical adventures and caravans of freaks. I want to roam, I want to be with someone who understands that life.

The clown I met today said he has had girlfriends but it was hard, like they didn’t really understand the circus life. The only thing I can’t approve of is being part of a circus that still uses animals, I can’t support that ever. It’s abuse and it is wrong.

There are plenty of awesome circuses that are animal free, which means all participants gave their consent. Animals cannot consent. I adore fire dancers, sword swallowing, aerial silk dancers, clowns, dirt bike tricks, and other human tricks. I want that ethical circus life.

clowning aroundI surround myself with performers. Everyone I live with is incredible and creative. I get home and lay on the couch with my cat , eating my dumpster grapes, surrounded by smoke and candlelight.

The door opens, cold rushing in, enveloping the living room with a bitter chill that cut right through my rainbow sweater, and then in walks in my roommate and her friends: a future male burlesque dancer named Chocolate Fantasy, the most beautiful Asian girl with all of the daddies, and a low key drag queen.

My best friend is a clown, think balloons full of blood. We even did a special performance on her birthday at the Cirque De La Lune where we re-created a scene from the 1920s silent clown movie He Who Gets Slapped. I really called in the clowns for that one. I had to go in to the venue to scrub blood off the walls, it was so worth it. What a magical night.

Juggalos are so easy to make fun of, but why? I bet the Gathering of the Juggalos is a blast. They do what they want and are ridiculous. I love anyone who isn’t afraid to wear makeup. If you ever get the chance please for the love of all that is good watch Tom Green at the Gathering of the Juggalos, it’s the funniest.

I had a clown hit on me once on OKcupid, he said he liked clown farts, is that a sex act?

ok cupid clownMy roommate met a clown on Tinder in New York City, but he didn’t come out as a clown at first. He tells his friends he is a party entertainer so they all think he is a stripper. Why so ashamed bro? That’s an awesome way to pay the bills.

Lucy and I literally had the same fantasy at the same time, painting faces! So jealous of that life, I would be the happiest clown ever, that’s what I am doing after I retire from burlesque.

I love performing so much, I always fall for musicians. I want to be with someone who’s voice makes me tingle, wiggle and writhe.

Once a burlesque couple guest performed- a dancer and a musician, so funny he even mimicked her number. I wanted that life so bad, conquer the world out of a giant bus run on vegetable oil that is set up so my three cats can come with us (don’t worry I will NEVER exploit them for the show). Maybe this pussy palace on wheels will have some solar panels and a garden on it, too.

I need a fearless artist, performer, comedian, quick witted, willing to make a fool of themselves, basically me. People all say opposites attract- fuck that I will never date a racist Trump voting bigot asshat- I only want like minded fools in my life. I am extreme so my opposite is also extreme.

I love in the movie The Punk Singer. Kathleen Hanna talks about falling for her husband, Ad-Rock from The Beastie Boys. She is a feminist riot grrrl and he is in a bro rap group that objectifies women. They were idealistically opposite with their art, but both still artists, they met in the middle and he even stood up against violence towards women during an award acceptance speech.

It is important to have some differences, because that sparks great communication and conversation. Positive change and mutual inspiration. I need someone to take the lead and lead me to somewhere good and not dark. I know that light needs dark to look brighter, but two bright explosions together is also a spectacular site.

What about a photographer, a dancer, a poet, or even a clown? Sometimes the people you least expect could be incredible, perhaps your next soulmate, future tour parter, love of this moment.

It’s all we have, those spontaneous seconds where new ideas form, where people change you so profoundly they could not imagine. I want to collaborate with someone I have never met yet. I know people who run away and follow their dreams instantly without thought or premeditation. Planning is for those who don’t truly succeed.

It’s interesting to me that letting someone in just a little bit can take life into all kinds of crazy adventures. It feels like things are literally piling up on top of you- work, dishes, piles of clothes, health problems, family stuff, drama llamas, ect. and you need to escape or be trapped. I must spin a globe and go where it lands.

We all know Québecers love Florida. But do Miami and Montréal in particular have any kind of bond? A week ago, I would have said no.

But sometimes it pays to rent a car and follow your stomach. The first stop on my namesake quest took me to Schwartz of Miami, a surprising discovery which I discussed last week.

Here’s the rest of the rundown.

Copacabana

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How odd. Here I am in Spring Break Central, a town where 70% of the local population is Spanish-speaking, and a local Google search for Copacabana yields nothing. Meanwhile, I am reminded of the near-legendary status of Montréal’s booty-shaking venue de Maisonneuve Blvd.

I persist. And with some effort, I uncover Boteco Copacabana, a newish Brazilian resto with mixed reviews online. I track it down on foot, landing smack in the middle of Miami Beach’s less-glamorous, tourist-trappy pedestrian street, Espanola Way.

I approach with caution. Visions of our own flamboyant, booming Copa quickly recede as I spot a lonely man played guitar in a front window—Boteco Copacabana’s sole indoor patron.

Sad guitar playing manAnd while the streetside has customers, the food looks sad and the prices outrageous. As much as I’d love to waste $30 of my hard-earned dollars for a lousy plate of chicken, I need to save up for the journey.

Grumpys

Montréal’s Grumpys is a cozy and cavernous joint whose vibe—intentional irony?—is so good-natured that I always stay too long. There’s no Grumpys in Miami, but there is a long-lost-brother: Gramps.

IMG_3529Crusty on the exterior while remaining honest, loveable and addictively fun inside, Gramps is a last remnant of grunge in Miami’s quickly-gentrifying Design District. The city’s de facto dive bar radiates screeching guitars, is housed in a crumbling warehouse, and is even guarded by ZZ Top’s eldest grandson.

Casa del Popolo

It seems like a safe bet: generic Spanish name and all. So imagine my joy when, after a hot thirty minutes on South 22nd Street, I spot Casa Felipe. My joy turnes to disappointment when (instead of a café I could compare with our own) I realize I am approaching a cigar emporium. But then I turn the corner and suddenly, it was all worth it. Thanks, Obama.

Obama smokes a stogie in Miami

Le Cheese Truck

Just outside Gramps, I stumbled upon a southern sibling of Le Cheese Truck. I almost did a double-take! It was called Ms. Cheezious.

IMG_3521Even the down-to-earth dudes who ran it mirror the sweet, bubbly proprietors of Le Cheese. They are super nice and obviously have a loyal following. Sandwiches such as grilled blue and bacon, apple-pulled pork, all sounded tantalizing—if a bit unoriginal to me. Sadly, they are not up to par with our own boys’ endeavour. My “Shaved tavern ham” with spiced apple and sharp cheddar with tomato on sourdough was sloppily satisfying—great for après-bar. But frankly, I was struggling to see why anyone would pay $10 for that when the same price would yield something much more flavourful and original chez Le Truck (such as the chili with cheese curds or their fabulous mac n cheese).

Varadero

In rush-hour-induced moment of contemplation on our two towns, I was struck with the fact that throngs of Montréalers escape to Varadero on a whim while Miamians—whose roots extend far deeper into the country than, uh, Sunwing—have no such luck themselves.

To make up for it, they have places like Varadero II, a run-of-the-mill Cuban bakery somewhere near nowheresville, (I later learn it’s called Tamiami).

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Handing my fate over to the lady behind Varadero‘s counter, I am summarily presented with a pastellito de guyaba. What a revelation. The flaky, unsweetened exterior gives way to muted, silky cheese. All fine and good. But then: the sweetish aftertaste of that mild queso suddenly bleeds—miraculously—into a gooey, ultra-sweet guava jam. Insane! At 75 cents, my blood sugar will be thankful that I won’t be able to find this in Montréal.

But I include this anecdote only to conclude that, subtle bonds aside, Montréal needs more Cuban food. While my stop at this and this Cuban cafeteria were both exceptional, it was that tiny bakery on SW 8th Street that truly tipped the scales.

More Cuban flavours on our frigid streets can only make this a warmer, happier, healthier place.

 

The next time someone asks me if they should travel through South America for four months or more, I will respond with another question: “Are you prepared to lose everything?” Despite bringing along my Macbook Pro, iPod Touch and Canon DSLR Camera, I really felt mentally prepared to lose everything for the sake of world experience. After all, they are just things. I even left my iPhone at home in Canada with the idea that even if they took everything else from me, at least I’d have that. However, despite my preparation, losing stuff sucks!

Below find a tale, not about loss, but about an outstanding couple, a thief, and the power of social media. By the end, it might just restore your faith in humanity, I know it did mine.

First things first: why the hell would I bring all that technology to South America of all places? Well, without this technology I wouldn’t have been able to keep this column on Forget the Box, make a wacky video about Carnaval, take a leading role in the development of the Bolivian Express magazine, write a freelance article about the End of Capitalism in Bolivia, or keep a personal blog as much as I did.

Why the hell would I travel by myself? At least with people you might have more security. Another good question, but I feel that if I wasn’t alone, I wouldn’t have the freedom to meet such incredible people like Damian Martone, the friendly Argentinian graphic designer who allowed me to stay in his apartment for over a week in Buenos Aires through the networking site CouchSurfing or Bruno Beserra, the flight attendant from Brazil who made the video of Carnaval with me and lent me his camera for the rest of my trip.

But all this journalism, travelling and partying can be taxing on the body, so since Carnaval I pledged to limit my drinking and start to run everyday. I kept to my word on the morning of Sunday, March 3rd and hauled myself out of bed at 8 am after a sober Saturday night for my morning run. In my morning drowsiness I accidentally bumped the foot of an Argentinian man sleeping above me in the 10-person dormitory in Salvador, Brazil and woke him up.

“I’m going to Praia do Forte!” he told me confidentially in Spanish as he started to pack his bag. “Cool!” I responded, having been to the nearby beach a few days prior. “There is an amazing, tranquil beach with no people and white sand if you continue walking from the main beach for 10 minutes. You have to go there!” Appearing delighted by the recommendation he agreed to go. I then locked my locker with all my valuables inside of it, took the key and set off on my run.

When I returned 45 minutes later, I saw the Argentinian on the way out, exchanged a friendly “Chow!” and went to unlock my locker. There, I discovered that my MacBook Pro and the Nikon point + shoot digital camera that Bruno had lent me were missing! Fortunately, however, everything else including my passport was there.

Before the embarrassment, disappointment and general bummed out feeling hit, I just felt confused as to how those items were stolen. I always make sure to lock my locker even if it is for a second to go to the bathroom.

Who could have done this!?

Immediately my mind shifted to the friendly Argentinian. He did rush out and he was probably the only person who saw me open my computer on that morning and could have been fast/sneaky enough to nab it, but there was no evidence to prove this. Where’s Dexter when you need justice!?

Justice had a rough start. At the police station nearby, the casually dressed policeman did not speak a word of English. Less than three words into my explanation in Portuguese (slow and choppy, but I know it made sense) the officer wrote “Pelourinho” (the name for the historic centre) on a piece of paper. Apparently in Pelourinho there is a tourist police station where they speak English.

Of course when I got there, both employees did not speak a word of English. One of them spoke broken French. It’ll do.

In the meantime, a beautiful Uruguayan couple living just north of Salvador named Veronica and Nicolas decided to make a surprise visit to the city to visit Nicolas’ sister.

Unprepared for their arrival, Nicolas’ sister was in the process of interviewing an Argentinian named Rodrigo about renting out her apartment. Rodrigo and the couple got to talking… The couple works with computers, Rodrigo has a new MacBook Pro (wonder where he got it…). Que buena suerte (such good luck) he must have thought! They can wipe the computer’s hard drive and it’ll be just like he never stole it! Having never touched a MacBook before, he asked Veronica and Nicolas to show him where the CD eject button was so that he could take out his Bob Marley CD.

Rodrigo went to the beach and left the computer with the couple with hopes that it would be all ready when he came back.

Suspicious of the odd request to wipe my computer’s content, Veronica and Nicolas took a peek online where she found my Facebook signed in with my photos. If that wasn’t proof enough that this computer was freshly stolen, they saw my full name displayed in the top right hand corner of the screen.

So here’s me sitting at the tourist police station awaiting a police report that a snail could have preformed faster, while Veronica is on my Facebook posting a status to contact me because I had been robbed.

When Rodrigo got back, Nicolas would not let the thief back in to get the stolen computer. He asked Rodrigo for the camera too, but the Argentinian wouldn’t give that back, nor the SD card. After about 15 minutes of arguing he finally left, without my computer!

Main Status

It was only by chance that I found out about the status, despite some of my friends’ best efforts to contact me through email or Facebook. I had no access to Internet because it was a Sunday and nothing was open.

I was eager to set off for Lencois, a nearby tourist town, to get rid of the bad energy I was feeling in Salvador, but had to wait for my police report – which would take another two hours because the lady writing it was hungry and wanted lunch! Ahem, wasn’t there a crime to solve!? This no-pressure attitude while handling necessary services is something that Salvador and Brazil’s Bahia province is infamous for.

While I waited upset and with thoughts of my retreat home to Canada out of disappointment, I went to a nearby hostel to visit a Canadian friend. She wasn’t there, but her boyfriend Pedro who works at the hostel was. Reluctantly, I told him the embarrassing news – that I had apparently left my locker and lost my computer and camera.

“Dude!,” the Brazilian told me in his perfect colloquial English accent. “You didn’t see your Facebook status? Someone found it and they want to meet up!”

Huh!? This must be a joke! My first instinct was to laugh.

I went to look and alas, there on Facebook, was my own status updated with all the information I needed to contact Veronica and Nicolas!

Veronica truly went above and beyond to get a hold of me. She messaged Damian, the Argentinian from CouchSurfing and called the hostel to get a hold of me.

Veronica tried diligently to find me

They also took photos and posted them on my own wall to prove that they had the computer.

Proof!

The comments on Facebook were filled with heart warming messages from family and friends from all walks of life. “Good things happen to good people,” said a friend I knew from high school, but hadn’t seen in over five years. “Well today officially became the shitiest day of the year…! At least Joel Balsam’s story still gives me faith in the world!” read a status of a former teammate from the French Jeux de la Communications.

I called Veronica. No answer.

I went to message a close friend of mine on Pedro’s computer to express my shock and suddenly I was typing my own name in chat, but I really wasn’t… Veronica was also logged in to Facebook and was communicating with me through the same message!

See how the conversation immediately changes as a third party enters the conversation
See how the conversation immediately changes as a third party enters the conversation

Didn’t Facebook used to sign you out if you were signed in at two different locations?

Anyway, Veronica messaged me the address and I punched it into Google Maps. Ready to head out the door, Pedro, the guy who worked at the hostel stopped me. “Dude, that’s in the worst and most dangerous part of the city.” Crap! Salvador is already pretty dangerous, so I could only imagine what the locals would do to a white gringo like me. Hopefully, a white gringo with his Macbook.

A closer search on Google Maps found the same street in a completely different part of the city. Relief.

Two hours later by bus and taxi I arrived to Veronica and Nicolas’ huge condominium and rang the doorbell. Finally, I would meet face to face with the saints that found my computer! But… you guessed it… they weren’t there! Crap, I thought as I looked out the window. I was in some strange place and still unsure if this was all real. Seconds later, a happy couple looked up at me from the street and said “hoy!” I knew it was them!

I sat at their kitchen table, still numb from the whole experience as they related the wild story back to me of how they encountered Rodrigo and hustled the computer back for me. Soon, we got to laughing and talking about each others’ lives.

Got it back!!!

If it wasn’t enough that they saved me the grief and expense of buying a new computer, Nicolas offered me an old shirt as a keepsake to take with me on my journeys.

Kickin butt!
Kickin’ butt!

I took Veronica and Nicolas out for pizza dinner and drinks and they offered me a place to stay when I come back from Chapada Diamantina, a nearby national park. And, Veronica wants to teach me to surf! How could I say no?

So, there you have it. There are good, even great people out there! Something I will tell the grandkids.

What would you have done?

All in a day’s travels!

 

The streets of Brazil are on fire in anticipation of Carnaval – one of the world’s largest and most extravagant festivals. Unfortunately, in Santa Catarina province where I find myself, the streets have literally been set on fire.

After a louco night of partying and dancing in the streets to the hymns of the lively Carnaval music in Florianopolis, the capital of Santa Catarina, I stepped onto the balcony of my hostel to get a whiff of fresh air and to take in the beautiful weather. In what could be something from War of the Worlds, I was surprised to see a spotlight shine down on me from overhead. The thumping noise of the helicopter in the distance signified something was wrong.

santa_catarina_mapFor the third night in Santa Catarina, masked bandits provoked mayhem by setting city buses on fire, attacking military or police bases, and lighting private vehicles ablaze with grenades and Molotov cocktails. 27 attacks, which included the burning of 15 city buses, took place in ten municipalities across the south-eastern Brazilian province.

Afraid to work on Saturday night, bus drivers refused to man their buses and the entire system in Florianopolis was forced to shut down at 10pm.

According to the government in Santa Catarina, the attacks were coordinated by the same group that launched 59 similar incidents in November 2012 in protest of new drug trafficking laws and the transfer of two major drug dealers to different jails. With cell phones inside of jail, going to jail does not really change much for head honcho drug dealers.

The unrest in Santa Catarina comes at a time when Brazil is still recovering from the shocking tragedy that struck South America’s largest country just over a week ago when 233 young people mostly aged between 16 and 20 were killed in a club fire in the south of Brazil. Canadian connection: a group of volunteers from the University of Toronto have arrived in Brazil to assist the rehabilitation of the nightclub victims who suffered from severe smoke inhalation.

Just like any cliché book or movie, rains just started to pour after a full month of dry balmy summer weather in Florianopolis — it’s called pathetic fallacy. What’s more, the forecast calls for rain throughout Carnaval week in Rio de Janeiro – the Mecca of Carnaval celebration for South America.

If there is ever a worse time (obviously there can’t be a good time) for tragedy and criminal activity to take place in a country it’s right now for Brazil. Carnaval-time is undoubtedly the busiest month for Brazilian tourism as thousands of foreigners flock to the gorgeous country to take in its culture, beaches, party lifestyle and caprinhas (local drink made with cachaca, lime and sugar).

Right now, I can’t tell you what will happen next. Hopefully just booze, beauty and samba bums.

Stay tuned to see what else I encounter at Carnaval 2013 (would you rather be freezing your ass off outside in -40 degree weather or swimming in a McGill University ice flood? Didn’t think so!).

Puma Nava captures a poisonous yellow cobra for us stunned travellers.

Skin of a snake, lungs of a dolphin, and the eyes of an eagle. A man so bad ass you could write a whole list of Chuck Norris facts about him.

Puma Nava, 25, was born of the jungle and knows how to conquer it. His scars, like the two snake bites on his right hand that brought him within five minutes of his death stand as a reminder of the experiences he’s faced and survived.

Puma was my tour guide for the Pampas region along the Beni river in the Amazon basin. He is like no other human being I have ever encountered.

Pampas Region, Bolivia.

Picture a group of gringo tourists floating slowly along the Beni at nightfall, shining their flashlights and dorky headlamps towards the muddy shores for a glimpse of a nocturnal predator. They sit there hopelessly wagging their artificial lights and praying that they are not another group of tourists to get rejected by the mighty stubborn force of jungle wildlife. Then, unexpectedly the 35-foot ancient-looking wooden motorboat edges closer to the shore. Puma, it’s worthy captain, slowly with eyes fixed on the translucent brown muddy water steps out of the boat and into the water. In a smooth, but deadly attack he plunges his bare hands into the water and pulls out a medium-sized alligator by the neck, hauling it into the boat for the stunned tourists to touch and take photos with.

“Classic Puma,” said an English tourist with a cowboy hat.

Captured my first alligator via Puma. Photo by Inge de Graaf

Puma is a member of the primarily traditional hunter/gatherer indigenous tribe called the Tsimané who live in the Beni region of Bolivia. Their tribe has been subject to various anthropological studies over the last decade under the banner of “The Tsimané Health and Life History Project,” which looks into the effects of aging on this traditional population. The Project and the Tsimané made news in 2009 when a study uncovered that Tsimanés are generally exempt from diabetes and hypertension – a worthy discovery in the battle against these two mass killers. Instead, Tsimanés tend to be brought down by the infectious diseases that run rampant in their tropical homeland, which brings their life expectancy to just 42.

Not so for the Nava family, according to Puma. His shaman-healer grandfather allegedly lived to 105 without once attending an infirmary. Natural remedies found in their regional backyard have aided his family over the years.


Lounging on a branch in the Pampas, Puma recounted a story in which his father’s leg was crushed by a large tree. Broken and with the skin around his thigh completely torn off, Puma’s grandfather took bark from a nearby tree and made a skin graft out of it to cover the open wound.

One year later, his father could move his foot just the slightest. Two years later, he could walk. Three years on he was back to leading tours in the Beni region, just like his two sons Puma and Ariel would go on to do as their careers.

Tours are extremely popular in the Beni region. Experience-hungry tourists eager to see the wonders of the Amazon region tend to land in the town of Rurrenabaque and sign up with one of the many tour companies stationed there. Rurrenabaque is also home to Puma’s family.

Despite the influx of tourists from England, the United States and Canada, Puma cannot adequately speak English. “When you come to Bolivia, you speak Spanish,” said Puma in Spanish to a couple of girls from Holland. “If I go to Holland I will speak Dutch.”

“But, you don’t speak Dutch!” giggled the girls.

Puma may not speak Dutch or even English, but he happens to be fluent in one of the world’s newest conversational languages, which is officially spoken in only one tiny country – Hebrew.

After some Israeli-tourists made fun of Puma in Hebrew, Puma decided to become fluent in the Semitic-based language by learning on his own.

“He speaks perfect Hebrew,” said one rambunctious Israeli-tourist. “It’s unbelievable.”

Rurrenabaque and the Beni tours are especially popular among Israelis who tour South America after finishing their military service in the Israeli Defense Force. As a result, many tour guides like Puma and his brother choose to learn Hebrew instead of English in order to communicate with the Israelis.

Learning to communicate with the tourists is an extremely minimal criteria for Beni tour guides. Their greatest worry must be the dauntingly unpredictable rainforest.

Puma feeds a deadly caiman.

For the Pampas tour, Puma is expected to find anacondas, alligators, caimans, river dolphins, monkeys and maybe even a jaguar. The stakes are high for the illustrious recommendation in a blog, travel guide or even a suggestion to some friends interested in taking the trek.

In the morning of the second day of my Pampas tour, we trudged through the swampy Pampas in our knee-high boots staring at the shrubbery for a glimpse of a ferocious anaconda, cobra, or even a poisonous rattlesnake. Many tours don’t get to see snakes and we had no idea what to expect.

Suddenly, we heard a loud grunt and looked over to see Puma swinging a massive poisonous yellow cobra around, taming it with every blow to the ground. The cobra eventually submitted to our Steve Irwin-esque tour guide and was a friendly subject for pictures. Classic Puma.


Later in the trip, Puma whistled down a wild eagle to come eat a fresh pirinha that he caught, teased a deadly caiman with fresh catfish, toyed with troops of tiny monkeys, and introduced us to a number of river dolphins. Just another day at the office for a Beni tour guide.

While the spectacle for us humans is an absolute delight, adventure tours like these are not sustainable for the animal population. Swinging around a rare snake or choking an alligator is not exactly healthy for these animals. Plus, the tourists’ DEET insect repellant covered fingers are poisonous to the animals that they touch.

What the tours bring us is a rattling sense of human capability. No amount of schooling or training could adequately prepare Puma for his daily dangerous bouts with wildlife. It is this feeling that makes us question our sheltered and safe lives in the West and gives us the ever-illustrious culture shock that we crave.

For Puma, a father of two, even if the tourists leave and never come back to visit him, each tour brings adventure and puts a smile on his face.

Classic Puma.

Hey my name is Joel Balsam and welcome to my travel blog!

Who Am I? I’m a 21st century multi-media journalist. Unashamed of my curiosity, I am experiencing to experience and to tell you about it. Who inspires me? Hunter S. Thompson, Jian Ghomeshi, Shane Smith and Tin Tin.

All jokes aside (or inside), I love to produce media.

I recently graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a Double Major in Journalism and Political Science. While there, I got involved with every media organization I could, including the campus radio station CJLO 1690 AM where I was News Director and co-creator/co-host of a radio show called Currently Concordia (think CBC Radio’s “Q,” but at University), the campus TV station CUTV, created three documentaries and more…

Forget The Box has graciously given me a soapbox to stand on while I partake on a potentially life-changing journey to South America (Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil). I’m packing light.

I’ve always been extremely interested in this particular continent. It is so steaming hot politically that the powder keg is bound to explode in revolution at any time and that is extremely attractive to a news junkie like me! Also, the culture and art scene there is extremely rich.

If you are looking for a travel blog with the hottest resorts, a daily account of where I went, or the best food, you won’t find it here (although there are some really cool blogs out there that you should check out if you are interested such as Legal Nomads What you will find here is real journalism – with interviews, background information and intriguing life stories from my perspective.

Sure, I realize that I am not the first twenty-something white male from the suburbs to travel to poor countries. I’m not going to “save the planet,” or to disrupt the local community (as much as possible). Instead, I am going to experience vastly different cultures and meet new people. Instead of hogging that information to myself, I will use my media skills to create a connection between you and the people I meet with this blog.

Make sure to subscribe to this page on your RSS feed and keep up with my journey.

Hasta Luego!

transgender airplane

transgender airplane

Last week, the transgender blogosphere exploded in response to the July 29, 2011 changes to the Canadian Identity Screening Regulations. The focus of this attention was section 5.2 (1) of the regulation, which reads: “An air carrier shall not transport a passenger if […] (c) the passenger does not appear to be of the gender indicated on the identification he or she presents.” The regulation is notable for two reasons: first, many Canadians have finally found something about airport security that breaks through the fabled ‘mildly annoying’ barrier, and; second, it absolutely smacks of social conservatism. Many are calling the regulation out and out discrimination against transgendered individuals (a sentiment held by trans activist Christin Milloy).

Of course, not everyone agrees with this. An acquaintance of mine recently attempted to defend the change, claiming that it was designed to combat an increase in passport and identity fraud, and furthermore, that calling the regulation discriminatory is an overreaction. I am willing to concede that this is probably not a convoluted, conservative conspiracy to systematically discriminate against transgender people. However, it is sign of either gross negligence or an entire disregard for the issues that trans people face every day.

First, I challenge anyone to justify the necessity of visually confirming an individual’s apparent gender with a letter on a passport. If someone is attempting to board a flight with fraudulent documentation, there are many other fields on a passport that will set alarm bells ringing (false name, false or doctored photo, incorrect age, invalid passport number, and on and on).

Second, lawmakers are, or ought to be (ignorance is no excuse) aware of the legal restrictions involved with changing one’s gender identifier on a passport. Most commonly, a signed letter is required confirming that the person has received SRS (sex reassignment surgery). Not only are the requirements for SRS quite stringent, but there are a large number of trans people who do not want SRS, and still others who identify as neither gender.

Besides all of these very real concerns, there is the problem of the actual visual confirmation itself. The regulation is essentially asking a CATSA employee to decide what an ‘M’ or an ‘F’ ought to look like. Should Janet be barred from her flight if she likes to dress as a lumber jack? All that this sort of check will accomplish is to reinforce an already prevalent and problematic gender binary.

There is a sub-clause in the regulation that allows for exceptions to be made if a person does not match their identifier, yet has a doctor’s letter, identifying them as a trans person. This isn’t much of a solution however, as it assumes trans individuals have the time and foresight to obtain a letter prior to travel – something not required of any other minority in Canada. Moreover, some trans people do not seek consultation from a medical professional during or after their transition.

A recent Xtra article cites a Transport Canada representative as saying “the regulations are the same as before, since they are those of the International Civil Aviation Organization that are in place in all countries”. This statement is both interesting and false, as the ICAO calls for participating countries’ passports to have M, F or X gender designation options [ICAO document **PDF file]. Hmm, I wonder why I failed to notice the X option while filling out my passport application?

To add insult to injury, the Xtra article goes on to note that while the oppositon was questioning the regulation, Conservative MPs could be heard snickering in the background.

To date, I am not aware of any trans person that has been barred from their flight due to section 5.2 (1) (c). However, what the regulation does or does not do in practice is not the issue. There is no distinction drawn between the gender-nonconformance of a trans person and the gender-non-conformance of someone trying to get away with something. In essence it is the nonconformity itself that may be punished. That the Canadian government deems it acceptable to amend a regulation in such a way as to allow for potential discrimination, is entirely unconscionable.

As a dog person, I wondered why I was face to face with a cat which, according to the ribbons pinned on its ten foot long, state-of-the-art, clear plastic living environment, was an “International Winner” and “Supreme Grand Alter”.

The prestige of its titles and glamour of its home came off as rather comical, since the award-winning competitor was attempting to escape right in front of me. It stared at me hopelessly, begging to be freed, while incessantly swiping and clawing at its plastic enclosure. I could feel its pain, and I wanted to help it in its conquest — but I couldn’t (due to the padlocks on the zipper).

Proud letters identified this breed as a Selkirk Rex (fun fact courtesy of The Ultimate Cat Book: “not taken seriously until 1950”), and below read what first appeared to be the title of a documentary concerning the dramatic tales of Mel Gibson’s career: “Dramatails Lethal Weapon”. It was, in fact, the unfortunate name of the little guy.

Thankfully, Dramatails Lethal Weapon had the wherewithal to fashion a sign below his name relieving the observer of any potentially awkward exchanges and confirming his Mel Gibson fan status: “…but you can just call me ‘Mel’!”

Dramatails — or Mel…I guess — was one of close to a hundred cats on display at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds for the Commencement Cat Club’s 2011 cat show. This year’s theme: the Roaring Twenties, even if the only clear example of this was one cat wearing a red flapper dress, though the intent was questionable.

Even amidst all the razzle-dazzle, my interest waned, causing me to instead peruse the free book exchange which hosted an odd, yet fitting mixture of cat books and erotic fiction (e.g. How to Tame Your Pussy).

Admittedly, the constant competitions, occurring at a rate of dozens per hour, engaged me slightly more than the literature. I sat in a seven person crowd awaiting the judge’s decision on Best of Breed for the Maine Coon, or Coon Man to the purists (Fun Fact courtesy of The Ultimate Cat Book: “Winner of the Madison Square Garden Show of 1895”). Behind the judge, Coon Men were placed in cages to await their turn to be inspected.

The little creatures were a sad sight, trapped and unaware why they were imprisoned. All five “contestants” handled the unfamiliar cages much like shroomers would: either by frantically ripping at the bars or just chilling in the corner, staring into space with wide eyes.

One by one, the judge would remove them and examine them on the table. The cats could not have appeared more unwilling to participate, impatiently waiting for the rub down to end while half-heartedly attempting to launch themselves into salvation off the table’s edge.

This was all too much for me, because in the end, cats aren’t my scene — they just don’t give a fuck. I mean, I probably wouldn’t either if I was relegated to the rather demoralizing role of filling the void in a spinster’s heart by stepping in as a self-cleaning alternative to a husband.

I wanted to love it, but the clear frustration and lack of enthusiasm coming from the subjects made for an awkward show. As one of the few lonely souls not presenting a cat, I was seen as an outsider — a situation not helped by my poorly-timed outbursts of laughter, and being the only person in the 15-45 age group.

But my experience did end with a proper farewell. It was from a woman in a denim jacket featuring a spray-painted tag on the back immortalizing Xanade, the Black Persian in her arms. She stopped her brisk pace for one second to acknowledge me with eye contact (simultaneously with Xanade, naturally), high off a Best of Colour placing, and boasted, “That’s my chunky monkey, winning it all!”

And then off she went, becoming one with a sea of cat-ladies.

 

Not Without My Cat Image from ucartsee.me

“Brownies” image candirandpersians.com

This is the first in a series of articles that will be published bimonthly to let everyone in on one of Canada’s best kept secrets, “Salt Spring Island” aka: SSI. SSI is a cornucopia of great artistic talent from all over the world. People flock to SSI from the far reaches of the planet, find paradise and never want to leave.

So far during my stay I have met many musicians, film producers, painters, pottery makers, glass blowers, sculptors, clothing designers, fire spinners, circus performers and the list goes on and on.

Fulford Bay – By Mundafar Lussier

The one thing that makes this place special is that almost everyone is on the same page when it comes to sustainable and ecological living and most importantly what we can do individually and as a group to make it a better cleaner world to live in.

There are over ten top notch recording studios here for people looking to record their music in the peace & quiet of SSI and want to be in a friendly help your neighbor atmosphere while they work on making a living out of   what they love to do. With the likes of Randy Bachman (from the famous Canadian band BTO) making SSI his home base and building his own studio and Oprah saying it is one of the most beautiful places she had ever been, SSI in the past few years has become a place not only known because of its artistic and organic agricultural community but for the likes of the rich and famous coming by and falling in love. Much of SSI has been bought up by rich outsiders but it has still been able to retain its sense of uniqueness and thrives on local businesses making a good living seasonally.

This summer a local musical landmark gets resurrected with new owners and a new staff ready to try to bring back the Fulford Inn to its former self. This has always been the place where people go to see a live show in the south end of the island.

I Mundafar Lussier am now in charge of booking all the events and entertainment at the Fulford Inn, so if you are part of a rock solid project and want to play at the Inn just contact me through my website. We really want to get top notch entertainment and get the Fulford Inn back on the map.

Fulford Inn
The Fulford Inn

As a Writer/Musician meeting many people along my travels is part of the job and especially part of the excitement. SSI has an affect on people here that tries to ground you with the earth and the artist inside you trying to emerge from the shadows into a world that needs artists who care about much more than their wallets. Its a local community that really supports each other and the old “word of mouth” and personal connections still are King here.

In the summertime the population doubles due to tourism and everyone instinctively works together with a smile and it permeates through the whole island as everyone gets ready for another busy summer in paradise. One thing is sure: as the weeks pass the artistic community starts to become alive again after a long winter of preparing like our ancestors have done. Honing our skills, creating our art and planning their next steps towards a positive creative year ahead.

The flowers are blooming, the sailors are smiling, the farmers are getting gardens prepared and planted for the season to come. The SSI local farmers market has opened officially which brings people to SSI from all the surrounding areas, a market filled with not just great local food but great local artisans trying to make a simple living selling their hand made goods from jewelry, to cloths, to woodworking and more not to mention musicians bringing music to the streets!

So if you’re on the West Coast this year come on down to Salt Spring Island on Canada’s Pacific to discover a world of artists that care and need your support. Be sure to check my bimonthly article called SSI Artist & Activist Adventures.

By: Alexia Jablonski

On the sleepy suburban town of Coquitlam (pronounced koh-KWIH-tluhm) in South-western British Columbia, I began to pack. Hastily, I went over the contents in my suitcase:

Towel: check

T-shirts: check

Oversized teddy bear: check

Quebec flag: double check

Yes, the following day I was headed off to Montreal.   Well, not exactly Montreal, not for the first few weeks.   Varennes, to be precise.   Never heard of it?   I’m not surprised. I have yet to find someone, other than a native Varennois, who could recognize this small town on the South Shore.

Fishing in Montreal

I was flying to Quebec not for a mere summer excursion, but rather to settle in to permanent residence as I enter my first year at McGill University in the fall.   To date, I have been here for over two months.   Now that I have said my finals adieus to my relatives in Varennes, I am living in Downtown Montreal, in one of those cramped dorm rooms where the mini fridge serves not only as food storage container, but also as a counter top, dinner table and air conditioner.   But I cannot complain, because my stay in Quebec has been one of the most exciting and eye-opening experiences of my life.

I had my expectations of Montreal before arriving: in particular, I was warned of the aggressive drivers, the acrobatics required to avert a full-blown language crisis, the unnatural veneration of poutine and as my friends have told me, the general “weirdness” of Quebeckers. Certainly, the most difficult transition was getting used to the people and the day-to-day life in Montreal.

Montreal is Vancouver’s vivacious, outspoken, politically incorrect big brother.   Most of the time this is a good thing. The pervasive joie de vie, exemplified in lax drinking laws, comedy shows, rich food, dance festivals and liberal movie censors, is an incredible occurrence coming from an area where such things are taboo.

Though local sites, events and jokes are bound to offend many, many people (including a few worried observers back in B.C.), such epicurean ideals tend to grow on you.   Where else in the world could you expect to find fifty-six different types of maple syrup, or hear such a fascinating, multilingual dialect of expletives?

Shopping Montreal-style

Through my persistent efforts to explore the entire city, I have discovered several unique districts.   The Mont Royal is my favourite, with its lush forests, trails and lakes. Westmount, the Quartier Latin, the Plateau Mont Royal, McGill, the Village, Little Italy, the Old Port and Chinatown also have their own appeal.

My inner foodie has revelled in the huge selection of fresh food at the Atwater and Jean-Talon markets. The old-fashioned townhouses, massive cathedrals and abundance of shopping centres have at times left me awe-inspired.  And with the festivals celebrating everything from Baroque music, fashion, asparagus and fish soup (gibelotte, anyone?), Quebec has truly elevated celebrations to a higher level.

Appropriate St-Jean attire

The granddaddy of all festivities, though, was Saint-Jean Baptiste day, the Quebec national holiday, in the capital city. Begot of francophone pride, historically plagued by acrimony and controversy, la Saint-Jean is unlike any other event in Canada.  Maybe it’s for the best. There is only so much intense partying one nation can handle.

Unfortunately, as the summer comes to an end, I will soon have to relinquish my glorified tourist status to that of a mere student. My perpetual excuse for laziness and absent-mindedness (“I’m on vacation!”) will cease to be plausible. Yet in the next few weeks, I plan to continue my journeys, visiting even the outermost areas of the city, to fully appreciate the colourfulness of Montreal, and to eventually learn to call this place home.

Photos by Alexia Jablonski

Ask anyone concerned, or some would say overly concerned, about new security measures at the border and they would probably tell you that it’s a Big Brother-type thing.   It’s all part of a greater plan to keep tabs on everyone, a surveillance society getting ready for a big play to control everything.   While this might sound like a conspiracy theory to some, I think there is a different type of conspiracy at play here: a cash grab.

Recently I went to the US by car.   Seeing as this now requires a passport, I applied for one.   I waited in line for about 20 minutes before discovering that I had been in a line waiting to get into another line.   About half an hour later, I had successfully made it through the second line and after a brief pre-screening I was given a number and permitted to wait for what seemed like 40 minutes for it to be called.

Is security really what’s behind all of this?   Is there some evidence that shows that terrorists have an unbreakable aversion to waiting in line?   Does the government feel that drug smugglers will just be too high to fill out all the paperwork and go through all the red tape?

Now before this starts sounding like a Laurence rant, I’d like to point out that requiring a passport to step on an airplane for international or even domestic travel does make sense.   If I was responsible for transporting people in a confined space through the air or sitting in one of those inescapable and vulnerable spaces myself, I’d feel justified wanting to know that everyone on board had been properly checked out.

Airline passengers, for the most part, have one thing in common: they can afford an airline ticket.   If you can afford $500 to $1500 for a flight, an extra $90 for the correct paperwork can almost be seen as an add-on.

If, however, you want to spend a weekend in a place that’s relatively close to home but technically on the other side of an artificial line created by humans, the extra fee for a passport could be a real deal breaker.   You may have enough money to chip in on gas in a car and enjoy yourself when you’re down there, but close to $100 for a little booklet is just too much.

Essentially, this is an elaborate way to charge cover to enter another country or a really expensive toll.   The missing logic here, though, is that the cover or toll is paid to your own country (unless you’re from Europe or somewhere else, then you have to pay $6 at the border even with the proper visa).

It starts to make more sense when you realize that both countries are implementing the new rules at the same time.   You could call it a “using security to bring prosperity to those high-ups in the partnership.”   Maybe that’s how they see it behind closed doors at the SPP negotiations.   It makes even more sense if you suppose that countries only want to let in people with enough disposable income to pay for the privilege of coming.

No matter what the intention, the result is clear.   Travel is becoming more restricted to those with larger incomes.   You can’t prove that those who brought this plan to the table, made it law and are keeping it there are doing so out of greed or a desire to further discriminate against the poor, but it is pretty obvious that they don’t care that this economic discrimination is a side-effect.