It started as a joke: if Donald Trump became U.S. president, Heather Vargas would pack up, leave her home in South Carolina and head north to Canada.
But as she watched the election results roll in last November, what was once a plan made in jest began taking root in reality for Vargas and her husband.
Now the Charleston couple are preparing to pack up their lives and move more than 2,600 kilometres up the Atlantic coast to Halifax — a city where they have no ties.
"I was sitting on the couch, watching the news coverage, saw that Trump had won [the] presidency, felt like I was no longer living in a reality. I still kind of don't some days," Vargas said in a phone interview.
Like 200,000 other Americans, she logged on to Canada's immigration website which crashed on election night. At the time, immigration officials said the crash was attributed to Americans wanting to flee to Canada, however the site crashed, in part, because it was already overwhelmed by people trying to obtain electronic travel authorizations before the Nov. 10 deadline.
But a few days later, Vargas went back online.
"The more I learned about it, the more I just started falling in love with the country as a whole, and it motivated me to, like, actually make it happen," said Vargas, who was drawn to Canada for its politics, people and diversity.
Finding a city to call home
Fast forward seven months, Vargas and her husband, Robin Vargas, have submitted their application for permanent residency as skilled workers through the Express Entry system.
She said they have no connection to Halifax, but picked the port city after months of research.
"We actually looked at Calgary initially, did more research again, talked to a lot of locals, a lot of Canadians, which you can't get better resources than that," she said.
"[We] found out that maybe Alberta as a whole is a little more Conservative than where we'd like to go.... We're from the Deep South, so we're used to that Conservative mindset, and that's fine, but that's not what we wanted."
Weather was also a big factor, which Vargas said is what drew her to the milder temperatures of Nova Scotia.
In April, the couple visited Halifax for the first time.
"It was like the worst time of year to go everybody told us," she said, laughing.
But Vargas said the people made her feel right at home.
"There's this stereotype that Canadians are above and beyond super nice. It is a factual stereotype. Again, [I'm] from the South where being polite is kind of in your blood, but it's a different kind of polite. Sometimes it can come across very fake," she said.
"Up there, it felt genuine. Everybody was so helpful. Everybody was offering phone numbers, email address. When they heard we were moving, they were like, 'Hey, call us, we'll grab a beer, we'll help you move.' That's extraordinary."
Worries about money, jobs
Vargas is currently finishing her master's in business administration back in Charleston while also working full-time as an office administrator. Her husband works in pest control.
But neither of them have jobs lined up in Halifax just yet — and thinking about that started to get overwhelming.
"It sounds romantic, 'Oh, we're immigrating and it's wonderful.' But when you get into the finer, dirty details, the stresses that you're going to come up against, the hurdles, I started having a bit of a breakdown," recalled Vargas.
"I said, 'Oh my god, I don't know if we can do this.'"
Reddit post offered reassurance
Vargas decided to make a post on Reddit, an online forum that has a section dedicated to Halifax, where she voiced her concerns.
"It just reinforced that y'all are so nice. I did not know what to expect, maybe a couple of snarky responses. Not because it's Halifax, but posting on the internet, you always take that gamble," Vargas said.
"Everybody said, 'No, no no. We understand you're anxious and that makes total sense, this is a huge life change, but here are all the reasons Halifax is amazing' ... I was like, 'Oh my gosh, you're right.'"
Now the couple are just going through the final stages of the immigration process.
But once she finishes school in December, Vargas said the plan is to move in time to ring in the new year in Halifax.
"It's one thing to say I'm going to move to Canada, it's a completely different thing to actually do it," Vargas said.
"But we are, we're determined, and we are going to do it."