Nunavut is the size of Western Europe or all of Mexico, comprising 20% of Canada’s landmass. A statistic like this would typically suggest millions of people, heavy attention on the world stage, and significant development.
But we’re not talking typical here. There are no roads into Nunavut, nor are there roads between any of the 25 communities that make up its town-like population of 35,000 (<0.1% of Canada). Majority Inuit, proudly part of Canada yet largely disconnected from the national conversation, it feels like a different country. Maybe even a different planet: the landscape looks like Mars. No amount of Canadian flags, Tim Hortons, or TVs playing “southern” content can change that. Up here, people pay attention to what’s going on down south, but I can’t say that many of us down south do the same for the north. I found myself needing constant reminders that I hadn’t left the country, even with the words “us foreigners” once slipping out of my mouth. It’s hard to absorb how drastically different Canada can be from coast to coast to coast.
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
It’s a lonely, loud propeller plane ride from southern Canada up to Yellowknife. The cities disappear, the Rockies, the roads, the farms and plains of Alberta, and then… no signs of civilisation. You see the familiar Canadian Shield out of the window: bedrock, bogs, short trees, and a million lakes. Like a random map generator, it’s endless permutations of taiga (or boreal forest if you prefer). Then all of a sudden, Yellowknife.
Despite being so far west, in terms of travelling east, Yellowknife is basically it. It’s the easternmost territorial city connected by road to the rest of Canada. (Never mind the fact that across Canada’s three territories, only their capitals are cities, and they’re all pretty small! Yellowknife’s just under 20,000 people, containing roughly half of NWT’s population.) Other tiny settlements east are accessible by ice road in the winter, but the summer? Good luck with that.
So let’s stock up and head east! Wait, whaa?
Vancouver, British Columbia
One year on since officially returning to Vancouver, it still feels like I just returned mere weeks ago. While I’ve fondly been looking back at the last two years on the road, I’m quite happy to stay put, and having experienced everything I hoped for and more out of my sabbatical, the transition back to a non-travel life hasn’t been hard at all. It’s nice to feel like a normal person again rather than the visitor in town, and I’m enjoying the simple things — seeing the same people regularly, being able to follow TV shows, cook, try out restaurants around town, check out live music, or even just do nothing at all. It’s even nice to hold a regular job again, though of course I lament the loss of free time and spontaneity. That’s probably the only “hard” part.
I can’t even figure out where I want to go next, or when. But you know… here’s not so bad at all.
Oaxaca de Juárez and Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Music rings from every street corner. The streets and plazas are alive with conversation and activity. Colour adorns every building, whether by paint or by nearby blooming trees or by street art. And in the background, mountains.
This is not what I expected from the state of Oaxaca, a place that’s forever been on my radar as a food destination. We’ll get to that point later, but this was literally the reason I came, and the only thing I knew. But food is only one facet of what Oaxaca really is — a shining showcase of every facet of culture in this state, one which holds on strongly to its traditions yet embraces new ideas.
There’s an immediate difference if you compare Oaxaca de Juárez (the state capital, also called Oaxaca for short) to Mexico City. Gone are all the skyscrapers or any semblance of a modern metropolis: brightly painted colonial-era buildings line streets of brick and vibrant cathedral-centered plazas. It’s a bit of a time warp. Oaxaca’s zócalo is the big hub of activity, packed with crowds under the shade of its many trees, doing everything from chatting to shining shoes to people-watching to idly strumming a guitar to enjoying whatever roaming live entertainment comes their way. Surrounding it all are snack vendors and sidewalk cafes. It’s just a thoroughly pleasant place to kill time, closely followed by the plaza surrounding the Santo Domingo cathedral, just a short walk away past a Semana Santa-special artisan’s market.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City, a metro area of over 20 million, is one of the largest in the world. Packed to the max with traffic above ground and like sardines down below in the expansive metro (complete with unique identifying icons for each station!), it unexpectedly brings to mind other disparate megapolises: New York population-wise (and the Bronx and Queens demographically speaking), Tehran in density, and even London based on the sheer number of museums and cultural institutions out there.
Just when I thought I was done (which, you may recall, was first December, then February), I had to squeeze another trip in. Upon signing a new job contract, I impulsively booked a flight leaving the next day, scrambling to figure out how to make the most of my remaining sabbatical. This meant the least amount of preparation and planning I’ve ever done for a trip. Usually it’s not much at all, but this time I’m really flying blind. And everything in the first paragraph was literally stuff I just learned and perceived upon landing. It’s about time I found out what I’ve been missing all these years, as our close neighbour!
The spaces between
With a whole four days remaining and over 1200 km (~750 miles) to cover, I took it very easy and meandered back towards Boston.
Then again, what’s another 1200 km?
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Cape Breton is the Cabot Trail. What I totally didn’t realise was that the Cabot Trail runs through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and that there was anything other than a scenic drive. I also had no idea that the whole scenic drive could be done in maybe three hours — but there’s plenty to keep you around for far longer, as I realised — and after Newfoundland, that’s a pretty short drive!
Gros Morne to L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland and Labrador
Canada can easily be summed up as “vast”: giant spaces with people scattered across long distances. Having spent the majority of my life in Canada’s big cities, however, has masked this reality to me. On the other hand, renting a car and driving across Newfoundland has now redefined the meaning of what a “long drive” is: hundreds of kilometres where you’re lucky to even find a gas station or restaurant within an hour’s distance.
Fogo and Change Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador
After the cod moratorium decimated Newfoundland’s primary industry, people left. Many went off to the oil patch out west in Canada, while many stayed in Newfoundland but left behind the outports — isolated fishing communities — they grew up in.
In a time like this, it’s heartening to see some outport communities thriving in new ways. Fogo Island gets all the attention and most of the tourists, due to favourite daughter Zita Cobb (a multibillionaire tech executive) throwing in a ton of money into creating a luxury hotel (which I admittedly find ugly) and some other architecturally daring buildings scattered around remote locations on the already-remote island, inviting artists from around the world to take up residency — I managed to visit one by fortune, with German black-and-white-watercolour artist Silke Otto-Knapp opening the door allowing us a view into her beautiful, though somewhat impractical, studio where she was working on several new pieces. The island’s many towns have managed to stave off federally-imposed forced relocation, and have successfully attracted international attention and visitors that shore up plenty of jobs for locals.
On a completely different note, Fogo Island is also believed to be a corner of the Earth by the Flat Earth Society. Okay.
Still… it was the neighbouring island and its sole town of Change Islands that truly captured my heart in the mere two days (minus the daytrip to Fogo) I was there. Far more tranquil and quiet, I got completely lost upon arrival and managed to drive down every single road on the islands. Not that I minded at all! Around every corner or hillcrest was yet another breathtaking scene of coastline and houses and shacks hanging over the edges, and every person I passed by — kids, adults, seniors — gave a friendly wave. But between B&B owner and Ontario-transplant David and his partner, Massachusetts-transplant Carl and his son Adam, and their local friends Basil and Cherry, I received an overwhelmingly immediate warm welcome. Nothing like a lovely dinner, sunset boat ride around the islands, great conversation, a fine view, and some good reading material to while away the evenings!
Trinity and Bonavista, Newfoundland and Labrador
I woke up early two consecutive mornings to hike the Skerwink Trail, next to the hostel I was staying at in Trinity East. It’s relatively undemanding, just under two hours long, incredibly scenic…and also incredibly empty, at this time of year. I ran into one single person on the trail, looking absolutely tiny standing on the edge of a cliff. We later ran into each other and hiked the rest of the trail together, picking wild blueberries along the way. Shrouded in the morning mist that first morning, the jagged, rocky coastline, the lightly obscured view of the little town of Trinity, the quickly-hiding stouts (kind of like large weasels), and the complete quiet of an empty trail gave an aura of mystery. The next morning, in full-on sunshine (and again empty), the same scenery looked vast and majestic. Crazy what a little weather does for you.