Oxford

I've finally made it to the United Kingdom, where I'm boarding temporarily in Oxford until I figure out what I want to do. It seems there is a high administrative overhead in opening a bank account, getting a tax number and finding a flat, and of course London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The weather is exactly as I've expected it to be - cloudy and wet - but it is winter after all, and I expect it to warm up over the next couple of months.

It was a very early start in Reykjavik - 5am to be precise - to get to Keflavik Airport on Saturday, but the flight was short and I arrived in Gatwick just before noon with no problems at immigration. The bus to Oxford took two hours but at least it had free wifi. The first thing I noticed upon arriving is how gorgeous the buildings are; so full of character and rich with history. The food scene is apparently quite lacking here, but I'll be exploring the city tomorrow and will give you a proper opinion after I have experienced it myself.

I have at least managed to obtain a local SIM card for myself, and fortunately this deal allows me to roam around Europe with 12GB of data each month at no additional cost. Again, obtaining this was not a trivial exercise and reinforced the notion that bureaucracy is rife here. The app for managing my account and usage was only available in the UK App Store, so I had to create a new account in order to download it, and honestly I was rolling my eyes so hard at just how unnecessarily complicated things can be. Despite all this, it's all sorted now, and I've even managed to catch the fourth regional Pokemon, Mr Mime. That leaves Heracross (South America) and Corsola (equatorial countries), thanks to Generation II dropping a week ago.


Iceland

There's something in the ice in Iceland that makes it much more serene than in Canada. Certainly at this time of year, the soft covering of pristine white snow around the city makes it more picturesque, and even more so in the countryside.

Upon arriving in Reykjavik, I had some time to kill before checking in, so I wandered around town for a bit. I'm staying on a hill near a massive church, with a tower that overlooks the whole city. The view from the top is the highest point in Reykjavik and seeing the city come alive as the sun rose was magical. Afterwards, I walked into the CBD and visited a volcano museum, which happened to be staffed by a guy who studied at Victoria University in Wellington, so that was a good yarn indeed. I continued on to various locations around town, stopping for lunch (I got grilled plaice and lobster!) and for shelter during the snow storm. I wanted to go to this highly rated Icelandic restaurant for dinner but they didn't have space available, so I went to a steakhouse and got some steak.

Yesterday I went on a tour around Iceland's southern coast. It was jam packed with sightseeing, we visited Skogafoss Waterfall, which has water from the infamous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, then the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach for lunchtime where I got some expensive fish and chips. The tour continued to the Solheimajokull Glacier, where we hiked for a few hours onto the glacier itself, admiring (and avoiding) some large crevasses all over the terrain. There was the opportunity to go down and explore one of them, but unfortunately we didn't have time. There were a lot of groups on the glacier and we opted to hike further up to watch the sunset colours light up the white snow and blue ice.

We stopped by the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall on the way back, which we missed that morning as there were too many people around it. You can walk behind it, but at that time of night it would have been suicidal, so we took a few photos and then I got dropped off for the aurora hunting tour.

Four minibuses scoured the southwestern coast of Iceland for a dark spot with no light pollution and clear skies. We found the Strandarkirkja church and waited for a bit but to no luck. A snowstorm started picking up so we bundled back onto the buses. Unexpectedly, about an hour later on the way back to Reykjavik, we found a large campfire by the side of the road and all four buses pulled over - "we have lights!!" came the excited call over the intercom. We all rushed out to gawk at the night sky and sure enough, overhead, visible but faint, were these curtains and pillars of green light, moving slowly and fading in and out of view.

The shots you see on Google image search are all taken with long exposures on fancy cameras so completely not representative of what you see in real life. What the cameras don't capture is the movement, the ghostly shimmering of the aurora borealis as it dances across the sky. It was a very memorable experience for me, it's definitely one that I can check off on the bucket list. Of course I'd like to take every opportunity to see more aurora, especially in different colours.

I was back at the hostel close to 2am and today it's completely whited out with snow. They cancelled the whale watching trip I was supposed to go on and it does look quite miserable outside, so it might just be a quiet rest day today.


Waterloo to Reykjavik

A high school friend of mine met me at Niagara Falls and took me for lunch at a nearby winery before heading back to the falls for an Escape Room. Themed around science in one room and art in the other, we worked effectively as a team of five and a half to solve all the puzzles with 25 minutes to go - this room had an 18% success rate! Feeling pleased with ourselves, we walked down the river path towards the actual waterfall.

It's hard to put into words or even pictures how magnificent the Niagara Falls are. The view from the Canadian side is definitely superior, as you get a better angle of both sets of falls. Furthermore, it was such a sunny day that the spray from the river produced a fine pair of rainbows, making the sight truly memorable.

We went home to Waterloo and played some games before retiring for the night. The next day was pretty relaxed, and as it was a public holiday, my friend had the day off too. We went to the next town over to visit a VR Arcade called Ctrl V. It's exactly what you think it is - a set of cubicles with the HTC Vive wired up for you to play in for an hour. There were some really fun games in there - no Into the Dead though. My favourites were a simple shooter where you shot flying pods and dodged their bullets in turn, and a stand-your-ground zombie shooter that provided some fantastic shock and scare moments!

We ended up playing board games again that night, one called Tales of the Arabian Night, which is a controlled, shortened version of Dungeons and Dragons. My character had a horrible time, but the game was kinda fun.

Today I swam for a bit, but struggled with my sore shoulder, and also walked around Waterloo. My friend works at the University of Waterloo, so I met him for lunch, then detoured to an amazing board games and collectibles shop on the way home.

And now, I'm on the plane to Iceland. Forecast is partially cloudy with a 40% chance of aurora, increasing to 60% on Thursday - the exact date I am going aurora hunting!!


Toronto to Niagara Falls

My time in Toronto has come to a close for now. It's been a very enjoyable five days here, and the weather has been unseasonably warm and sunny too. I covered a lot of the city by foot, seeing many sights and revelling in the food scene here. Toronto is the world's most multicultural city so my mission this week was to eat at a different country each meal.

After arriving at Union Station, I checked in to the accommodation - a small lodging house - and had a rest before heading out towards the main shopping district. I ended up walking through the university and gay village too before settling for some ramen (Japan).

The next day, I walked down to the waterfront, then over to the CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium. I really needed to use the bathroom so I ended up paying for a ticket to the aquarium, which turned out to be quite interesting. From there, I went to Chinatown and Kensington Market where I got some bulgogi and squid for lunch (Korea), then continued north and east to Queen's Park, and all the way back to the accommodation on the east side of town. There was a Thai place I wanted to try for dinner, but it was closed, so I settled for a veal parmigiana and a very large tiramisu (Italy) from a nearby place instead.

On Thursday, I went to St Lawrence Market and was overwhelmed with all the amazing produce on display. Every type of meat and cut imaginable, all sorts of seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, shelves of cheeses, maple syrup, pastas, antipasto, charcuterie, breads and pastries. I was so happy walking around and admiring all the food. I ended up getting a grilled salmon sandwich (Canada) for lunch.

I took the subway over to High Park and spent a few hours walking around there. Though it was cold, it was very sunny and pleasant, and there were lots of people walking their dogs. I was on the subway again to Ubisoft Toronto, where I got a sweet tour of the offices and caught up with an ex colleague whom I hadn't seen since he left New Zealand. It was getting close to evening, so I settled into a cosy pub called The Caledonian for some haggis (Scotland).

The new set of Pokemon from the Johto region dropped in Pokemon Go, so I spent much of Friday wandering around the CBD to see what I could catch. It was another brilliantly sunny day, so I went up the CN Tower - what a spectacular view from the top. The lake was glistening in the sun, the city still had patches of ice and snow, but for a winter's day, this was most enjoyable. I continued west back to Kensington Market for some tacos and nachos (Mexico) before wandering back to the house for a rest. At night, I trekked back into town for mixed grill platter from Paramount (Lebanon).

Yesterday was more of the same, aimlessly wandering around town and visiting various PokéStops off the beaten track. I really wanted dumplings (China) for lunch, so I went to Chinatown and got my fix there, and I wanted to end my time here with something a little fancy, so I found this French restaurant nearby and ordered their pâté, confit duck casserole and creme brûlée (France). Fantastic! What a great meal to remember Toronto by. I will definitely have to come back and explore all the options I have available.

Just as I got home for the night, a lady right outside the gate cornered me and gave me some bullshit excuse of being hungry and pregnant, asking for any spare change. I offered to buy her food instead but she didn't want any - she tried to get me to pay $60 for subway tokens but I ended up paying $15 to get her to shut up and go away. Not the nicest way to end my time here but I won't let this faze me. I've had a most enjoyable time here and I look forward to coming back when it is slightly warmer!


Montreal to Toronto

I'm at Gare Central, waiting for my train to Toronto. It's been kinda miserable here in Montreal, for several reasons really, but mostly because the weather has been pretty terrible. Last week was painfully cold, so much so that it hurt to go outside. There were snow flurries over the weekend, making walking outside quite magical but still unpleasant. Yesterday was nice...ish, but the Botanic Gardens were closed. Oh well.

The hotel hasn't been that great either. I didn't have control over the floor heating so I was basically at the mercy of housekeeping, who put the temperature too high and I was even sweating last night. The room is quite noisy and I could hear a lot of traffic and people outside during the night. At 6am, demolition on the building next door starts, so really not ideal for a good night's sleep.

As a result of the weather, I've also generally felt quite unmotivated to look for food, though I did make it to Fairmount Bagels and Schwartz Deli. The bagels were really solid, but I didn't realise it didn't come with toppings - it was purely the bagel and nothing else. I ended up buying Italy's finest prosciutto and cheese at a ludicrous price, along with a really nice bottle of limeade. I had to wait outside for a seat at Schwartz Deli and to be perfectly honest I was a little underwhelmed at the sandwich. The meat was a bit dry and needed something more than mustard on the bread. The poutine was good though, and I totally see the importance of having good cheese curds. So, not all was lost, just not as amazing as I thought it would be.

Last night I went on Yelp to find somewhere nice to go for my last night in Montreal and I chose this well rated pub near the hotel. It was probably a 2/5 for me - I ordered a Filet Mignon with Brie and out came this massive plate with meat and fries and cheese. It was a hearty meal but way too much food and the cheese was almost sickening - and I actually had to...um...yeah, afterwards. I got a blueberry creme brûlée as well, which was subpar.

My time here hasn't been completely awful though. There was of course Distant Worlds on Saturday night which was so good that it made up for everything else. On Sunday, I went to the Biodome since that was indoors and really enjoyed it. I saw a capybara, a lynx, two otters, dozens of penguins, a porcupine, some fish, some birds and some bats. It was interesting seeing them cram four different ecosystems into this massive arena.

The weather is warmer in Toronto, and really, as long as it doesn't feel like death walking around, I'll be happy.