Over the years, I've found myself in some dark, deep caverns. I'm not talking about the heavily trafficked tourist attractions where a red gel light illuminates some rock that may or may not look like a breastfeeding alligator. No, these are the caves where you truly get a sense of the subterranean world, too dark for a sliver of light, so quiet you can hear the blood rushing past your eardrums. Some caves have been holy, others have been wet, while others somehow host life, like glow worms, bats, and butt-ugly blind scorpion spiders. Here are some of my pics and experiences from Turkey, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Hungary and beyond.
Sometimes, things don't go exactly as planned
The Bus Ride from Tirana to Dhermi, Albania
It was supposed to take four hours, but it took eight, and every of them was an attack on my shattered nerves. The bus, possibly held together by elastics, could barely make its way up steep mountain hills, while rusted springs stuck through the vinyl seats and poked in my butt (think marshmallows on a sharp twig). The driver’s buddy thoughtfully came around to collect all the trash, and promptly through it out the window. The surface of Mars is in better condition than most Albanian highways, but that didn’t stop the driver from playing chicken with the approaching trucks. Wrecks lined the road to prove head-on collisions were common, just in case I thought he knew what he was doing.
The Flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela, Ethiopia
While we’re in Africa, lets check into the only flight I’ve ever been on that broke down mid-flight No sooner had we taken off from one of many stops along the way than the twin prop Fokker pulled a U-turn and landed back on the runway, the result of engine/wing/equipment/something trouble. Four hours later, another plane arrived, also experiencing technical difficulties. The passengers from that flight transferred over to our plane, which all of a sudden worked, and took off, leaving us still on the tarmac. Another four hours later, another plane arrived that may or may not have been in working order, but since it was a choice between a night on a runway or arrival amongst legendary 11th century rock churches, survival seemed like a small price to pay.
The Tazara Rail from Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam
It’s one of the great African train adventures, 38 hours through scorched wilderness. Sounds great, now lets crank the heat, overcrowd the cabin, blast bad music through distorted speakers, obscure the windows with thick layers of dust, cross the wildlife reserves at night when you can’t see anything, charge $10US for soggy eggs that nobody in their right mind would eat, and depart once a week (maybe) from a train station that is only slightly cleaner than an open pit toilet after a school trip. Not that I’m complaining.
The Rickshaw in Puno, Peru
Pedal-power rickshaws can be a charming, cheap way to get around bustling cities in the developing world. In the southern Peruvian town of Puno, the driver is located behind the carriage, as opposed to the front of the carriage in India, or the side, as found in Malaysia. My rickshaw took a corner and the carriage suddenly came to an abrupt halt. I turned around and saw my driver had somehow lodged himself underneath a car. How he did this is beyond me, as it quite possibly defied the laws of physics. The rickshaw rider seemed OK, especially after he received a wad of notes from the car’s frantic driver. I hopped into another rickshaw, but insisted the driver get in the carriage so I could pedal off safely myself.
The Train from Rishikesh to Chakkebank, India
Having waited two hours in a steaming carriage before the departure, I was exhausted from fending off beggars, and a maniac selling hot chai. Finally, we left the station, travelled ten minutes through an open sewer, stopped, and spent another two hours waiting for Godot. Due to a festival, the second-class sleeper carriage was crammed with people. I dozed off on my top bunk and woke up to find two guys sitting in the gap between my legs. When a third guy tried to join the party, I put my foot down, literally, on his head.
The Slow Boat down the Mekong River, Laos
The 48-hour slow boat resembles a long, wooden coffin, which is why I felt like death after the journey. The engine is deafening, the wooden seats narrow, providing ample legroom for five-year old dwarfs. Noise, heat, splinters, smells - it’s almost, but not quite, enough to spoil the incredible views I passed along the way
The Ferry from Salvador to Morro de Sao Paulo, Brazil Serious ocean storms are nothing to be sniggered at, even in a large catamaran designed to pounce over huge swells. On this 90-minute ferry ride, I had two choices. Go outside, get soaking wet and hang on for dear life, or stay inside and fill up a barf bag with yesterday’s beef stew. It felt like the Perfect Storm, with more fear, and no life jackets. Inside, the puke was gushing up and down the aisles.
The Metro to Budapest Airport, Hungary
With a terrible hangover, I had two hours to get to the airport for my flight from Budapest to Istanbul. Due to construction on the metro, I took a bus shuttle to the nearest station, which locals informed me was complimentary. Not according to an overzealous ticket inspector, who let me off a considerable fine after much begging, but still confiscated my remaining metro ticket in spite. Nervously, I rode the metro without a ticket to the last stop, only to realize I had gone in the wrong direction. Time was ticking, my head was exploding. All the way back in the opposite direction, I arrived just in time for the airport shuttle driver to slam the door in my face. I just made the flight, with no help whatsoever to the Budapest transit system along the way.
The Arctic Night Bus in Sweltering Brazil
Night buses are my bane, but often provide the only way to get from A to B. What made this bus special was the driver cranking the air-con so high that icicles were forming on the edge of my nose. Outside, it was a warm and pleasant tropical evening, but inside the bus, the Arctic Circle was blowing a snowstorm. With all my gear inaccessibly packed way in the storage beneath me, I was only wearing shorts and a T-shirt, spending the long, painful night shivering and shaking. The only advantage to all this was being able to flick the frozen mosquitoes off my legs.
Originally published on Sympatico.ca
Tonight, I burn an old, faithful friend. Into the fire pit, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He travelled with me to over 50 countries, saving me from the scorching desert sun, burning acid rain, frozen hail and showers of confetti.
I lost him once, in a back seat of a Bangkok taxi on the way to the airport. Miraculously, I found him 10 days later on my return from Tokyo. I left him on a train in Croatia, but jumped back on, grabbed him, and hopped off while the train was moving out the station. An Indiana Jones escape.
He pegged me as an Australian, although he was in fact made for life on the prairies, complete with ear flaps to keep me warm. But the travel took its toll. My friend became warped and twisted, shrinking and fading from healthy tan brown to sickly grey-green. I took him to a specialist, who looked at me incredulously.
"What the hell did you to this guy?" he asked me.
He wouldn't believe me if I told him: Mongolia, Guatemala, Tasmania, Poland, Laos, Argentina, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Czech Republic, Brazil, Albania, Peru, Cambodia, Bolivia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Lithuania, Colombia, Thailand, Fiji, Russia, China...it goes on.
The end was nigh after we spent a night in Chernobyl, as one does. Perhaps it was the radiation, perhaps the fear, but my old friend teetered and heaved, his rims folding, his arches collapsing. I retired him to my home office, where for years he stoically watched the usurper (grey, more urban) accompany me to over a dozen other countries. My home office has in turn made way for another cycle of life, one that finds no space for a disheveled old memento that may or may not be dangerously radioactive.
And so tonight, in the cold, dark rain he was made to withstand, I will gently place him in the licking flames, and sadly watch him dissolve to dust. I will watch his ashes blend our remarkable good fortune with the winds of the city.
Goodbye old friend. Good night, my sweet hat.
"The people were so FRIENDLY!" We often hear those CAPS from friends and family returning from abroad, or recollecting an experience many years ago. People do make an impression. Personally, I've found locals to be rather lovely.India, Turkey, Georgia, Laos, Sri Lanka - they certainly rated amongst my most friendly countries. It's a gross generalization, of course, since my experience (like everyone else's) is supremely subjective. Maybe I'm lucky, but it's the reason why one of my maxims is that PEOPLE WILL RATHER HELP YOU THAN HURT YOU. Even in a country like Albania, which has perhaps the worst reputation in Europe, and tops my list as the World's Friendliest Nation. When random strangers go out of their way to show you kindness with no expectations of something in return, that's friendliness. Not to be confused with "I'll help you, now visit my jewelry shop!" or "The time is 11am, now please go away." The least friendly country I visited was Hungary. That being said, I made some wonderful local friends, and in this photo taken in Budapest (above), it doesn't look like I'm a Hungarian Hater at all, does it? Now, now, settle down...