The long route to Van­cou­ver – Part I

Contemplating a semester in North America? Follow my journey from the US to Canada and collect some inspiration and practical advice on the way! Canadian grad school is known to be quite hectic, so I figured I’d take the slow, scenic route to get there – on a shoestring, by public transport.

Nach dem Flug über den Atlantik bereise ich Nordamerika mit öffentlichen Verkehrsmitteln. (Foto: privat)

Bureaucracy and biometrics

Studying abroad involves a tremendous amount of planning. For me, it meant trying to prepare for months-long travel through the U.S. from the Texan deep South to Toronto in Canada – all by public transport. Like most of my trips, this one started organized, became a mess just before I departed, and is turning dazzling in retrospect. Partly this perception is related to my selective memory of recalling only the good things that happen during my travels.

I started to apply for the North American exchange programme only a month after being officially registered at Humboldt. It's advisable to begin the application process almost a year before the exchange. Luckily, I got accepted for the direct exchange programmes at Humboldt and Freie Universität and, by coincidence, in both programmes for Canada! This was great because it allows me to see the east coast (Toronto) and the west coast (Vancouver). Getting Canada's study permit was extremely easy for someone used to German bureaucracy. Everything is online, I just needed to have my biometrics collected at an office in Berlin. The one thing that bothered me was that they asked me to prove I had a 10,000-dollar deposit in my bank account - which I obviously don't.

Legalities and lethal weapons

Well, I decided to simply not upload the form and was lucky enough to get away with it. You then get a bar code which you show the immigration officer at the airport, and they print your study permit on the spot. And that's all you need for your stay in Canada. If you also want to work during your exchange, you simply have to apply for a National Insurance Number online. Regarding funding, I applied for the DAAD, which I did not get, unfortunately. I did get a Promos stipend which is not a lot but better than nothing (a 1,300 euro one-time payment). The great thing in Canada is that you automatically have government health insurance when you study at the university. It costs around 240 dollars per term.

I heard from friends that grad school is pretty intense in Canada. Therefore, I wanted to travel a bit and visit friends and extended family before starting my studies. My journey started in Houston, Texas, and ended in Toronto, where I would stay during my first semester. I booked my transatlantic flight well in advance to get a good offer and decided to travel with hand luggage because it was much cheaper. In Houston, I had some great experiences. I found that nobody – except me – walked around, and public transport was literally non-existent. Only one bus would pass by in the morning to take me to the city center. And one bus to bring me back in the evening. The first place my extended family over there took me was a shooting range. After getting a 30-second introduction on how to hold a gun and reload, I was set up in front of my target and left alone with a massive firearm and 50 bullets. Definitely something else.

Mein "Zimmer" in Toronto. (Foto: privat)

Do’s and dont’s for rides and rooms

After leaving Houston, I visited New Orleans with great food, wild parties, and fascinating architecture. I then took a train to Memphis, which I reached on the official day of the death of Elvis Presley. For those unfamiliar with Elvis, Memphis is where he spent most of his life and where his famous Graceland ranch is located. I did not visit the farm because it was ridiculously overpriced. But I did see the National Civil Rights Museum, which is very recommendable, located in the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. After leaving Memphis, I took a Greyhound bus for over 20 hours – this I wouldn’t recommend, especially if, like me, you end up sitting next to someone on a bad meth trip – to reach the capital.

After spending a few days in D.C., I caught a Flixbus to New York City, which was much better and cleaner than the Greyhound. Much has been written about this city, and I am sure other people have found better words than I do to describe this marvellous place. While enjoying my last days in Manhattan, I realized that I didn't have a place to stay in Toronto. Three days before my train departed, I started panicking and rushing through Facebook Marketplace room ads, which were all around 1,500 dollars per month. I was beginning to think that the next month was going to be quite expensive. One day before my departure, I remembered a website a friend of mine told me about where you can sign up to work at people's houses and stay and eat for free. I registered and directly contacted eight people in Toronto. As people on those platforms usually take time to respond, I was already contemplating a bed in a hostel dorm. However, I still set some hope in the workaway website. And believe it or not, I got a positive reply when I was about to board the train heading towards Toronto.

Vegan with a view

I had a very relaxed train journey, slowly driving with an old MTrack train which looked like a retro model from the 60s at 100 km/h through the grasslands of New York State. We passed Niagara Falls and drove along Lake Ontario until we reached Toronto. It was dusk when I arrived at the community place and got a warm welcome and delicious food. It was a Toronto-based vegan community that needed some helping hands for construction work. My host then guided me up the stairs to the rooftop of the house, where I found, to my surprise, a small yurt on the edge of the rooftop. This would be my 'room' in Canada for the first months.

(Published 5 December 2022)