Saturday, 7 January 2017

2016 in Review

Well, my 2016 was a pretty wild year (then again, my life never gets boring, and I find myself saying that about every year...).

Without further ado, here's a quick recap!

Countries visited: 6 (including Canada)
New countries: 3 (Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Italy)

World Heritage Sites: 5 (4 new)
Swiss Tectonic Area Sardona, Switzerland
Old City of Berne, Switzerland
Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch, Switzerland
Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy
Wartburg Castle, Germany (this one I've visited before, several times)

Places visited:
Montreal, QC, Canada
This was my first time returning to Montreal since I was a child, and only my second time since I lived there. While not all my memories were bad, I associated Montreal with a bunch of negative things since that time. This visit, though very brief, gave me the opportunity to build a little bit of a new relationship to the city and make some new memories of my own, as an adult.
Montreal street views.
And one of Montreal's most famous sights, the biodome.
Halifax, NS, Canada
The furthest east I've been in Canada was New Brunswick, so when the opportunity came to go to Nova Scotia for a conference I jumped on the chance - particularly as it was in Halifax, which I'd heard great things about and really wanted to see.
Colorful Halifax streets.
The conference itself is the biggest in my field in Canada, and going was a fantastic opportunity. I got a better sense of opportunities in what I'm studying, in addition to making contacts (always critical!) and learning about other people's research (always cool).
Halifax harbor and the mouth of the bay.
Despite spending most of our time at the conference, Tristan (yes, he also went) and I still managed to fit in some time on the waterfront and in Point Pleasant park, as well trying our way through a collection of the city's excellent restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops and eyeballing as many pretty old buildings as possible.
And old sailboat on the waterfront.
I loved this tiny house at the Halifax public gardens!
This country was, somewhat obviously, the highlight of my summer. I've already posted extensively about my time there, and there will be more forthcoming!
Oberstockenalp hut on Stockhorn, Bernese Oberland.
Living so close to the German border while in Switzerland, I popped over there regularly for grocery (and beer...) shopping. That said, I wouldn't really consider that visiting...

I did swing by my grandparents' place for a few days in the midst of my time in Switzerland (you may recall Tristan and I starting our 2015 Europe trip there). This time around, I didn't hit up most of the tourism that Eisenach has to offer, preferring instead to spend as much time in my grandparents' company as possible.
Eisenach street view, photo by Tristan.
From the moment that Switzerland was certain, I knew I had to swing by Liechtenstein. Of course, I wanted to add to my passport stamps. However, I'm always intrigued by places people don't go to; I've only heard from one person who's been to Liechtenstein, and so my curiosity was piqued.
Vaduz castle, Liechtenstein. With thanks to the random backpacker I hung out with for taking the picture.
I spent the weekend there (most people do a day trip from Austria or Switzerland if they do go), hiking the country's most famous trail - a stunning and challenging hike - and cycling along the Rhine on a gorgeous, sunny summer day.
Cycling in Liechtenstein.
I really liked my time this tiny, quirky country, the sixth-smallest in the world, remarkably friendly and defiantly proud of being a monarchy...and with exactly one youth hostel.
You can see most of the country of Liechtenstein in this picture...I'm not exaggerating.
Domodossola, Italy
I went to Domodossola, Italy, for half a day after leaving Zermatt at the end of my time in Switzerland. This mini-trip was, to be honest, done mostly with the intent of stamp-collecting (I've never been to Italy, and this was the easiest spot to get to).

Renaissance-era marketplace, Domodossola, Italy.
I'd never heard of the town before, but it's home to a world heritage site. I spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering the Sacri Monte, and was surprised by how you could instantly tell you were in Italy the moment you crossed the border from Switzerland.

You have to admit, it looks very Italian here.
London, England
I flew through London on my way home from Europe, making use of WestJet's new direct flights from London to Winnipeg. However, having never been to London before, I wanted to see at least a few of the sights. Highlights included meeting Jason (my unofficial couchsurfing host), in whom I found a kindred spirit, and seeing Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, and the Big Ben with my own eyes. Thanks to Jason for being a rocking tour guide, and to him and his housemates for graciously allowing me to occupy their couch for two days.
Tower Bridge and me! Thanks to Jason for the picture.
Much like Montreal, England is place I haven't been to since I lived there as a child and a place I had negative associations to. There's a certain symmetry to beginning and ending my trip in those two places, and a whirlwind day in London proved to be a fun end to my epic adventure. Oh, and not having to change planes after a transatlantic flight? Priceless.
Classic London tourist picture.
Night views of the shard and the London waterfront.
Halifax. I fell in love with this city. The people are friendly, it's full of beautiful old buildings (by North American standards, that is), in a gorgeous location, and felt vibrant and full of life. I'd love to return and also see more of the province, and of the east coast more generally.
Halifax street views. Can you blame me for liking this?
Inside a Halifax restaurant.
Switzerland. Obviously. More specifically:

Guesthouse life. Guesthouse life, which I talk about a bit here, had its downsides (not a proper kitchen, no privacy, being isolated...), but my time in Switzerland would not have been the same had I not lived there. Meeting people from all over the world, making wonderful friends, some of whom I still talk to on a near-daily basis, and the great social life were some of the biggest highlights of my summer.
Fun and laughter at a guesthouse BBQ.
Zermatt. I went to what might be the country's most famous mountain town/tourist destination at the end of my time, accompanied by hiking/travel companion extraordinaire Michael (who accompanied me on the 5-Lakes hike and to the Walensee). I figured seeing the Matterhorn would be cool and all, but I didn't expect to like Zermatt that much; I thought it would be crowded and full of rich people and expensive, well, everything. I was wrong (well, okay, it was expensive), and the two hikes I did there are among my most memorable ones from Switzerland.
Street view in Zermatt. The town is car-free, so bikes, horse-drawn carriages, and tiny electric "busses" are all popular modes of transportation.
Seeing and photographing the Matterhorn at sunrise is quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and while it meant barely sleeping, I was awed and utterly blown away by the spectacle.
Sunrise on the Matterhorn. Photo by Michael.
The other hike took me around the Matterhorn's rarely seen north face, past enormous peaks and jaw-dropping vistas, to and beside multiple glaciers, and left me the accomplishment of solo-hiking 20km with multiple ups and downs.
The Matterhorn's imposing north face, a remarkable sight.
Solo-hiking against a backdrop of glaciers; the Schünbielhütte trek near Zermatt.
National Day in Engelberg. I really wanted to experience Swiss National Day celebrations while in the country. In particular, I wanted to see the Höhenfeuer, bonfires lit on hill- and mountaintops, a traditional and very Swiss part of the celebrations.

The day of, Dominik and I ended up on an impromptu via ferrata (between hiking and climbing) near Engelberg. Through bad (or good?) luck, we didn't make it back down from the mountain until darkness had fallen, with about an hour before the last train of the night. I lieu of catching the celebrations in Lucerne, as I'd planned, we joined the party on the streets in Engelberg. It was wonderful: stands selling beer, others selling fresh baked goods, live music, children parading with lanterns, and all around, the bonfires up on the heights.
It's hard to see, but the mountain bonfires are lit in the shape of the Swiss cross. Taken from Engelberg.
We were struck by the fact, too, that the celebrations were clearly for the locals and had not been put on as a tourist show, despite the fact that Engelberg is a popular tourist destination and we were far from the only foreigners in the crowds.

And then, when we left by train, the fireworks started going off. It was even better than anything I'd imagined experiencing for National Day.
Lanterns at the Swiss National Day celebrations, Engelberg.
Swiss Food. I had proper Swiss food exactly three times: Alpenhörnli, the Swiss equivalent of mac'n'cheese, at the hut on Stockhorn and on Titlis with the ThinkSwiss people, and when I went for fondue and raclette with Bruna and Sierra in Zürich. However, I love anything that involves cheese and starch, and so Swiss cuisine is right up my alley. The raclette is possibly one of the yummiest meals I've ever had, mmmm.
Three cheese-lovers. Photo credit to Bruna/the server.
Mmm, raclette! Photo credit Sierra Alef.
It can all be amazing, all the time. Some low points include:
  • Probably my most stressful semester to date, at the start of the year, followed by a month of working full-time, taking a class that was two hours in class a day, every day, and trying to prep for a conference and a summer in Switzerland.
  • Baden, Switzerland. Hard to be too sad when you have this view...
  • Everything breaking just before leaving for Switzerland. First, about a month before leaving, my camera battery stopped holding charge. So, I ordered in new ones. Then, just after those came in, around two weeks before leaving, my camera stopped wanting to turn on. It eventually woke up again, but I didn't want to risk being camera-less in Europe, so I ordered a different body, which made it in a few days before leaving. Then, in Montreal, not one but two zippers on my carry-on backpack broke, rendering it basically useless. I replaced it at the MEC in Halifax. Then, the sole on my sandals broke while in Halifax...I started despairing of actually making it to Switzerland with any of my stuff intact
  • Visa issues. Some bureaucrat in Switzerland decided to drag their feet on my visa, and it took far, far longer to get approved than anyone expected. I went to Montreal in the hopes of picking it up there, without success (shoutout to the consulate staff, who went above and beyond to help me as much as they could). It finally got approved the evening before I was due to leave for Switzerland, which led to me flying out without the visa in my passport (though with the approval letter in hand), a nerve-wracking experience I'm not keen to repeat.

    The troubles continued in Switzerland, where I had to figure out a way to mail my passport to Canada safely and then get it back, and was left sitting passport-less for several weeks. By the time I finally resolved everything, around half my time in the country had elapsed...and then no one ever asked to see the visa, so I could have saved myself a lot of worry and stress (though I feel better knowing all my paperwork is in order). Shoutouts are also due to the guesthouse folks who provided moral support, a (at one point literal) shoulder to cry on, and driving to finalize the paperwork.
  • Communication issues. I won't go into this further in a public place like this, but these cast a bit of a shadow over my time in the country.
  • This past term has been filled with lot of personal issues. There's been loss and grief, and changes and endings that were not always by my choice, and that all added up.
  • I sprained my ankle falling off the climbing wall just before Halloween, and it's been very slow to heal. It's kept me from climbing since then, as well as from running and skiing. While I know I got off lucky with just a sprained ankle, rather than broken bones, it's still been a frustrating process.
Alright, enough sadness! Back to some positivity.

The closest thing I have to a picture of me cimbing; on the via ferrata by Engelberg. Photo credit to Dominik.
  • I started climbing! I'd been meaning to do this for a long time and finally found the time and courage, and I'm utterly in love. In Switzerland, I was lucky enough to try outdoor climbing twice, which is even better than indoor climbing.
  • I purchased my first DSLR camera. I felt that I'd reached the limit of what I could do with simpler cameras, and having the ability to shoot in manual and use different lenses really helped my photography. The change also inspired me to practice, and I've gotten much, much better this past year.
Me and my DSLR. Photo credit to Dominik
    Solo hiking.
  • I solo-hiked for the first time. Solo-hiking has been a long-held goal of mine, and completing my first solo hike felt like an enormous accomplishment and gave me a confidence boost. I would go on do it several more times in Switzerland and if I have any say in it there will be lots more in my future.
  • Traveled solo to a foreign country (other than the US, which is culturally almost the same as Canada) and lived alone in a foreign country.
  • I went to my first (and second, actually) conference in my own field, and also presented at a conference for the first time.
  • Tried cross-country skiing
  • Started blogging, of course!
Thanks for sticking around for my adventures, and I promise you many more tales in 2017!

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