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St. John’s

May 30, 2013

Last December I made the decision to move away from the big city life in Toronto, and try my luck in Newfoundland. I came to this decision for a few reasons. I wanted something new and challenging in my life, and I also wanted to see some of my family background. My father was born and raised in St. John’s, the capital of Newfoundland, and has taken me to visit the province a few times in my childhood. I’ve had fond memories of the place since I was a kid, and always wanted to spend time living there.

Just getting to Newfoundland was an adventure. I went the long way, taking the VIA train from Toronto to Halifax, and crossing by the ferry in North Sydney, NS. I met very many new faces along the way, some of who I may not forget soon. Others, I have already forgotten their names but their faces are still fresh in my mind. I sat beside a very kind Québécois woman on my way to Montréal. We spoke of lots of things; where we were going, my music and photography, her daughters, and a bit about what I was doing, and what I wanted to do. I dropped out of grade 12 around last November, so people often ask me what I want to do with my life. Honestly, I cannot yet answer this question. It’s a subject where I have a lot of difficulty articulating my opinions. I live for the day, not the morrow. The train rolled into Montréal as it was getting dark. The French woman got up to leave the train and put out her hand. As I shook it she wished me good luck, and told me she hoped I find what I was looking for. I thanked her and wished her luck, but that has stuck with me since.

When I got to Halifax it was late, and stormy outside. I got my pack from the baggage claim and went to the bus booth while I waited for my guitar to show up. I needed to get a bus up to Sydney in Cape Breton Island where the ferry connects to Newfoundland in the winter. The lady there told me there were no more buses running that way until the afternoon the next day. I bought a ticket, and she helped me look for somewhere to stay for the night. I knew there were a few hostels, but didn’t know my way around the city. I found the hostel just down the road from the train station in the wind and rain. Luckily there was an extra bed, and I had a place to stay for the night. I shared a room with a few men, mainly Canadians, one Australian who was living in Toronto. I initially asked him if he was from New Zealand, and he got offended. What’s the difference, anyways?

I spent the next morning wandering Halifax with my camera, since my bus wasn’t leaving until the afternoon. I was considering hitchhiking to save some money on the bus tickets, but I didn’t want to miss the bus between stops and put myself behind another day. Halifax is a beautiful city, and home to quite a lot of interesting history and culture. However, this was not my final destination. The bus took me up the coast of Nova Scotia, right to the ferry terminal, just north of its last stop in Sydney. The bus arrived at the terminal around 11:00 or midnight, and I thought I had missed the ferry service for the day. I was beginning to think of places where I could stay for a night in Sydney, but as it turned out, the ferry was still waiting for less stormy weather before crossing to Newfoundland. I bought a ticket and found myself a seat to sleep in for the night aboard the ferry. It docked in Port-aux-Basques early the next morning – I was in Newfoundland!

I lived in a hostel on Gower St. before finding a job dishwashing, and renting an apartment. I met lots of interesting people at the hostel. It was a popular place for foreign students at Memorial. I bunked with two students, one from Russia, and the other had just moved to Canada from Nigeria. He had a very very strong accent; I barely understood half of what he said. I also met some Newfoundlanders in the hostel, and some mainlanders like myself.

My first impressions of the city, and of Newfoundland as a whole, were as you may expect. This is a place full of friendly people, who generally want to help you. A city bus driver helped me find my way to the hostel after passing it earlier on in the bus route. Later on in my visit, just down the road from where the bus driver had pulled over to radio in to the dispatcher for me, I was wandering downtown when I came across a man in a dark alleyway. I had seen him before begging in that alleyway, and he was lying on the ground holding his chest in pain. Knowing first aid, I immediately came to his side to help in any way I could. Another passerby stopped to help me, and we began trying to figure out what was wrong with the man. I think he was likely overdosing on something, and asked if he wanted help from a doctor. The man with me said he was from out of town, and didn’t know where any hospitals were, to which I (half)laughed and said I was also from out of town. The man left to get a coffee for the homeless junkie, and I waited with him to make sure he was okay. I asked him a few times if there was anything I could do to help him, which I regretted afterwards. He slowly turned his head to me and looked me straight in the eyes, pupils dilated enough to hide his irises. “Be my friend” was the slow, shaky response he finally formed for me. This memory has haunted me since, and I don’t think it will be leaving me anytime soon, either. His request stabbed through me like a spear. I was speechless. I was also bothered by the fact that both myself and the other bystander were from out of town. Despite the friendly and caring nature of most Newfoundlanders I met, not one stopped as they walked past.

IMG_0024IMG_0026Urban Exploration in St. John’s proved to be quite a challenge, though there were many different places I tried. The intersection of Duckworth St. and McBride’s Hill is right in the middle of downtown, and has three larger abandoned buildings in the area. The photo on the left shows the old Bell Aliant building (closer), and the CBC building behind it. The old Newfoundland Telephone Company building can be seen in the photo on the right, across the street from the other buildings.

Though I never found any ways into any of these buildings, I had more success elsewhere. St. John’s was once home to an abandoned hospital known as the Pleasantville Janeway Hospital. It was the city children’s hospital until it was joined with the medical center at Memorial. Sadly, this hospital was demolished before I came to Newfoundland to make way for the Janeway retirement homes, but some of the buildings from the complex were still around. The Janeway Hostel was part of the hospital complex, but was left behind for whatever reason during demolition. Perhaps this is because it is not in the way of the new developments. The building was small, a center atrium, and a hallway going out either side, making an ‘L’ shape. All the rooms off the halls were dark and empty, like the halls, but the atrium was lit by a large skylight. Within the first few minutes of my visit, I was shooting the skylight and the rest of the atrium, when two voices came up to the back door. One person opened the door, and peeked inside. “There’s someone in there…” he said to his friend, who clearly thought the place looked pretty cool. It was obvious I wasn’t making the guy feel very comfortable, so I nodded and said hello, trying to appear friendly. They left right after and didn’t come back while I was there. I thought it was sort of funny that I had scared them off. I certainly wouldn’t have minded them around. Maybe I look scarier than I realize.


I had an incredible time in Newfoundland with all the great people I met along the way. It was nice to spend some time outside of the big city here in Toronto, though most of my time in Newfoundland was in St. John’s. I plan on returning here, and when I do, I’ll be taking lots of pictures of the beautiful rocky landscapes. As for if I found what I was looking for – I’m not sure I did, but I found lots of unexpected lessons, and that whatever it is I am looking for is out there somewhere. So, here’s to exploring!

  1. Great post Mike, it’s good to hear from you after so long! I’m glad you enjoyed yourself on what sounds like quite the adventure.

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