You can really get a sense of place by its name. Take Istanbul, Timbuktu, or even Bird Island (where I write these words, off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia). Revelstoke, the BC transport hub on the way from Vancouver to Banff, certainly has a name better than most. A town that lets you revel in the stoke? Come on, a high-priced brand agency couldn’t have come up with something that good. The town, population 15,000, got its name from one Lord Revelstoke, an English industrialist who rescued the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. In the shadow of the Selkirk Mountains, sandwiched by the mountainous beauty of Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks, the town also boasts a ski resort with the greatest vertical descent of any ski resort on the continent. Fun for another time. We’re here for a family roadtrip in summer, driving six hours up from Vancouver to explore local activities for all ages, including another tick on my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List.
After crossing dramatic mountain passes and driving alongside large, scenic lakes, we pull off the Trans Canada Highway to explore The Enchanted Forest and adjacent Skytrek Adventure Park. With various high ropes courses through the tall forest trees, the latter is catnip for kids and adults channelling their inner gibbon. The former is eccentric and certainly bizarre. Dozens of tiny and not so tiny fairy tale houses have been built on the forest floor, complete with a castle, a giant climbing a tree, mermaids, wooden horses, and mischievous forest elves. A passion project that has been a popular, quirky roadside attraction for half a century, my young kids embraced Enchanted Forest with sheer, unadulterated delight. Happy kids, happy parents, and happier still that both these attractions are less than a half hour’s drive from downtown Revelstoke, where our room at the Regent Hotel awaits.
A town that straddles the industries of railway, forestry and tourism, Revelstoke is refreshingly devoid of glitzy retail brands, and oozes small town charm. It is protected from being overrun by its relative isolation from a major city, resulting in the kind of place where locals greet each other at free nightly summer music concerts in Grizzly Plaza, or at the weekend street market bursting with local flavours. Our outstanding meals at Taco Club, Nico’s Pizza, Paramjit’s Kitchen and the exceptional Quartermaster offered funky, homely and fine dining, while a visit to the Aquatic Centre (a must for young kids) made me pine for something similarly inexpensive and less crowded in Vancouver. Toasting outstanding craft beer at Rumpus Beer Co, I admired the moxie of the husband-wife owners chasing their small town dream, and wondered, along with many others I imagine, if Revelstoke is the kind of place where I could chase a dream too. A real sense of community permeates the town, a community that doesn’t mind living ten minutes down the road from a world class ski resort, or two and half hours from Kelowna, the nearest regional airport.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort is famous for the highest vertical run on the continent, but is embracing its four season possibilities. This means world-class mountain biking, and for my bucket list, the longest alpine rollercoaster in Canada. Taking the gondola up to mid-mountain, my family soaked in the stellar mountain views and fanning Columbia River, before hopping into yellow go-cart like contraption connected on a narrow single rail. My wife and I each put a kid in our laps and strapped in for a thrilling 1.4 kilometre descent. The Pipe Mountain Coaster twists, curves and whoops its way 279 metres down the mountain, through forest and breathless dips at speeds of up to 42 km/hr. A simple mechanism allows us to brake and go at our own pace, and most first timers will take it easy. Get the three-ride pass (or more) and you’ll soon dispense with the brakes altogether, hitting the hell-yeah! controlled maximum speed that ensures it’s safe and fun for the whole family. “Faster Daddy!” yelled my daughter, and who am I to argue?
Feet away from the exit point of the coaster is newly opened Aerial Adventure Park, where you can easily spend two hours navigating fifty different balance and height obstacles, rising four stories above the ground. Graded like ski runs into green, blue and black difficulties, climbers are safely harnessed throughout the entire contraption. Watching brave little kids take on swinging rings or a knee-shaking four-story jump should add some pep to your steps. Fortunately, great food and craft beer awaits the victorious in the village regardless (and for the kids, ice-cream).
River rafting is another popular summer activity in Revelstoke, with various companies offering grade three runs. For younger kids, consider Wild Blue Yonder’s River Pirates Tour, complete with pirate costumes, face paint, bush battles and fun tales of yaargh! Downriver from the impressive hydro dam, we drifted on the glass mirror of the Columbia River, listening to Captain Jack’s brogue as he recounted the myth of the man-eating moose. My daughter - made-up with face paint, bandanna’d, and now known as Jolly Lips Sue - had a blast. Nobody got wet, and foam sword battles continued back in our comfortable family suite at the Regent.
Fortunately the sword stayed behind when we checked out the old world Railway Museum, although the knives came out when my three year-old had his thermonuclear meltdown when we told him it was time to leave the large, warm wading pool at the Aquatic Centre. We packed a lot into just three days, and could have easily spent a week exploring this underrated wonder of the BC interior. It’s all right there in the very name of the town, where families can revel in the stoke of it.
Every July 1st, Canada Day rolls around a little quicker than the year before. The long days we’ve waited for all year have an ironic effect of making the season shorter, because winter is great and all, but summer is when the Canadian Bucket List BBQ really starts cooking. The national and provincial parks, the festivals, the lakes, the hiking, biking, canoeing, and other ings you can think of. I missed Canada Day last year as I was on a one-year adventure with my family. We travelled the far and wide of Australia for six months, doing as much as we could for my book, The Great Australian Bucket List. Then we lived for a while in Thailand, Bali and Vietnam (you can read all about that if you wish), popping into Singapore and New Zealand for good measure. I can assure you, you miss Canada when it’s gone.
For all the comments that Australia is Canada with better weather, I discovered this is not at all the case. Are there historical similarities? Most certainly. Both have colonial hangovers, the Australians even more so with the Union Jack still part of their national flag (it’s 2019, don’t you think it’s time to move on, mate?) Both treated their indigenous populations like fodder, and both have done too little and never enough to make that right. Both are surrounded by ocean (especially if you consider the United States an Ocean of Political Disappointment). Both have relatively small populations with relatively gigantic tracts of land. The Canadian Arctic is a pretty hostile environment, as is the Australian Red Centre. One country is famously hot, the other famously cold. One has a marsupials, the other has bears (the koala is certainly not a bear). Both love sport, and both sport endless natural beauty. We have many of the same chocolate bars and burger chains (Hungry Jacks is Burger King, in case you were wondering), the same dominating commercial multinationals, the same insecurity about larger, wealthier and more ambitious geopolitical neighbours (spare a thought for poor New Zealand). I could go on, and one day I probably will.
For now, let me paint why Canada is not Australia, using a broad brush of generalizations. Please don’t look at my strokes too carefully, as you’ll see paint is all over the place…it’s really more of an abstract piece. Because of course Vancouverites are not Newfoundlanders, and those who live in Perth are a different kettle of kangaroo from those who live in Alice Springs. Still, Canadians, by and large, are milder, cool as their weather. Australians are rarely accused of being over-polite, and an Australian will sooner bear hug you than apologize. Canadians are more reserved, and barring the extremes, tend to be a little more reasonable. I was once pulled over by a traffic officer in New Brunswick racing way over the speed limit to chip factory. Did you know one-third of all the commercial French fries used worldwide come from Canadian potatoes? Did you know that up to 90% of all the global mustard seed - the stuff used to create your favourite French Dijon - are Canadian? I pleaded with the cop, and he let me off. The people of New Brunswick are friendly to a fault. Driving north up the remote coast of Western Australia, I was doing the speed limit when a cop appeared out of nowhere and pulled me over. He told me I was ten kilometres over the speed limit because I was pulling a trailer. I told him I’m Canadian and had no idea that was a law, because nobody told me. There wasn’t another car in hours on the bullet straight Bruce Highway, and with kids in the back, I assured him I’d just set the cruise control to ten kilometres slower. He still gave me a hefty ticket. I just know, in my maple leaf bones, no Canadian traffic office would ever have done that. Australians are obsessed with rule of law. Cameras everywhere, enforcers ready to pounce. Both are secure societies with some of the least corruption anywhere in the world. But you feel the law in Australia, and they know it.
I am a South African who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Canada, and a Canadian who wrote a bestselling book about the joys of Australia. I feel I have a grasp on both these cousin nations, at least as much as my experience allows. I think my parents back in Vancouver were worried that my wife and I would fall in love with Australia, and decide to settle there. Admittedly, we loved Hobart, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth (Melbourne and Sydney were way too busy and far too expensive to even consider). But we’re a faithful lot and have already given our hearts to the country that famously opens it doors to those, like us before them, who seek a better life. Canada is a country that isn’t walling itself off, instead choosing to embrace the global, multicultural spirit of our age. Canada is a country with problems (every country has problems) and a country that can and must do better (every country can and must do better). Canada recognizes the unequivocal right of same-sex couples to marry, that the war on drugs will never be won if you don’t take a different approach, and that no future can be attained without addressing the needs of the past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Australia isn’t quite there yet, but that’s OK. Each sovereign nation is on its own unique journey. This July 1, I’m just really glad that my own journey is in a country that flies a red maple leaf. Also, and I needn’t remind you, the Raptors.
My cabin is as comfortable as any you’ll find on a train, the bed adorned with soft sheets and pillows, and still I cannot fall asleep. Too much on my mind, too much to process from a day exploring remote underground homes in the world’s opal mining capital, too much fun at the open bar aboard The Ghan. I typically read before bedtime as a way to put my mind to rest, but tonight my eyes are too tired to stay open, and my brain too wired to close. It would be great if someone could read me to sleep, with a safe and soothing voice. As for the story, it should be deliberately and delicately crafted to avoid anything too exciting, and take me on a peaceful journey to Sleepland. Just so happens that Phoebe Smith, soon to be the official sleep storyteller-in-residence for the Calm mindfulness app, is in the cabin right next to mine. I’m sure she’s sleeping like a baby.
With over 40 million downloads, 200,000 5-star reviews, and Best App of the Year Awards from both Apple and Google, the Calm app has hit a cultural bulls eye with sharpened z-shaped arrows. It’s loaded with meditations, ambient music and soundscapes, and dozens of sleep stories narrated by folks like Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, and The Wire’s Clarke Peters, who has richer Morgan Freeman voice than Morgan Freeman himself. Millions of satisfied subscribers swear that Calm does exactly as its very name suggests: it calms you down, whether you set-up an easy 15-minute Focus or Anxiety meditation, a fiction or non-fiction story to lull you to sleep, or soothing sounds to massage your ear canal.
“Two million people a month listen to my stories, it’s mind-blowing,” Phoebe tells me. “I admit I was sceptical, until I listened to one of my own stories and quickly fell asleep.” A year has passed since our Ghan adventure across Australia, and she’s in Vancouver on her way up north to explore the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. Since we ran about Alice Springs trying unsuccessfully to get an epic author photo for my next book, she’s been called the JK Rowling of Sleep Stories, has been profiled in major media, and fine-tuned her craft. We’re in the lobby bar at the Hotel Vancouver, and having just flown in from Brisbane that morning, Phoebe looks like she could use a little sleep herself. Isn’t a 14-hour flight and 17-hour time the enemy of the well rested? “Honestly, travelling with my own pillow has been a game-changer. Your brain associates the scent of your pillow with sleep, and it really works!”
It pays to listen to someone who makes a living devoted to sleep.
Back in the UK where she lives, Phoebe is known for her books and stories about sleeping in unusual, extreme and wild places. I quite like the fact that Calm didn’t hire a scientist or psychologist to methodically bore you to sleep, but rather a storyteller. “Storytelling is such an old tradition, it’s how knowledge and wisdom has been passed down throughout history,” says Phoebe. But hang on, aren’t you essentially writing stories so boring it puts people to sleep? “As a kid, you didn’t want a boring story, but there’s definitely a technique involved. There can’t be too much action or excitement, and it should take you on a journey, which is why trains, boats, rivers and forests work so well. Feedback suggests that most people fall asleep within five to ten minutes, but I get lots of emails from people around the world wanting to know more about the places I write about.” Places like the lavender fields of Provence, the jungles of Madagascar, the Mississippi River and the forgotten forests of Morocco. There are travel stories about oceans and deserts, safaris and night skies.
There are train journeys aboard the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberia, and yes, our adventure aboard The Ghan. We both agree that stories are a far healthier alternative to medication and sleep aids.
“These days, we often treat sleep as an inconvenience,” Phoebe explains. “There’s so much going on and instantly available that we can’t switch off, which only adds to the anxiety.” It’s why she turns off her devices at least an hour before bed, keeps her bedroom free of distractions, and is passionate about sleeping in the wild. “When it gets dark, you sleep, and when the sun rises, you wake up. It’s the natural rhythm of our bodies, and it makes you feel calm and rested.” Unlike Phoebe, the very thought of sleeping outdoors, exposed and alone on say, a mountain top, freaks my poor brain out. So I’ll ignore her advice and keep my iPhone handy, ready to load up a Calm sleep story, and let her words inspire a blissful lullaby.
You can follow Phoebe's extreme sleeps and wild camping here.
Learn more about Calm here.
Get over Jaws. Sharks rarely attack humans, are vital to the marine eco-system, and as any diver will tell you, a thrill to meet in their natural habitat. With rampant shark finning, the entire species is at risk. Encounter them underwater, and you’ll quickly realize just how beautiful, and harmless sharks really are.
Mossel Bay, South Africa, Great White
The coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape is full of Great White Sharks, the most feared predator in the ocean. Cage diving is popular and while thrilling, is completely safe. Years later, I can still see that Great White coming towards me, literally rattling my cage.
Malapascua Island, Philippines, Threshers
A stunning tropical island, Malapascua is the only place where you can dive with thresher sharks every day, due to “cleaning stations” that attract the sharks in nearby Monad Shoal. Shy around divers, threshers are known for their distinctive tail.
Shark Reef, Fiji
For those looking for variety, Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve has a regular shark population of 8 different species: Whitetip Reef, Blacktip Reef, Grey Reef, Tawny Nurse, Sicklefin Lemon, Silvertip, Bull and Tiger sharks are all found in the reserve.
Galapagos Islands,, Hammerheads
During the December to May season, divers on live-aboards yachts around Darwin and Wolf Islands can find themselves in the water with thousands of hammerheads. Aggressive predators for marine life , hammerheads do not attack humans unless provoked.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico, Whale sharks
From June to September, hundreds of whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, gather north of Isla Mujeres to feed in waters rich with plankton. Tour companies let you snorkel with the sharks, although you are not allowed to touch them.
Flora Islet BC, Six Gill Sharks
Divers hope to encounter elusive six gill sharks in the emerald waters off Vancouver Island. Typically found in deeper waters these ancient-looking sharks can grow to over 6m in length. Thanks to the Scuba Diver Girls for this great video of a sevengill shark dive off La Jolla Cove, California.
Grand Bahama, Tiger Sharks
Fierce Tiger sharks gather by the hundreds in the warm, clear waters of “Tiger Beach”, a dive site popular with cage diving operators. Experienced, less timid divers can leave the cage and be surrounded by Tigers, who are not afraid to get up close and personal.
Palau – Reef sharks
With 50 metre plus visibility clear Palau is renowned as one of the best diving locations in the world. Since establishing the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2001, it’s also one of the best places to dive with sharks.
Get on the Friends of Sharks Facebook page, and look into organizations like Shark Truth that are helping to spread the word about the evils of shark finning.
In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets and monitors, sits a small button. 24 hours a day, an officer monitors the equipment, awaiting a single phone call. On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise. Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads hits multiple targets in the United States. In the ensuing carnage, each warhead vaporizes an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it. Millions die instantly, millions more slowly from the release of deadly radiation. Life as we know it ceases to exist, as thousands of similar missiles criss-cross the skies seeing their targets. All it takes is one push of the button, located in a control room 33-metres below the Ukrainian countryside. My finger draws near. My hand starts to shake.
Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the countryside, missile units were surrounded by armed guards, 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases. Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine. Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled. Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister. Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world. As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo. Immediately, the atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy. Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.
Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade. If the orders had come down, as they nearly did on several occasions, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities. Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a stick pointer. He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing. The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions.
I remove my Ray Ban sunglasses as we leave the bright sunshine behind and enter the guts of the facility. The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only. Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, while above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo. The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks. In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”.
We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12. A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck. I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank. Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door. Bleak as a tomb, this was the living quarters for the two officers on duty. An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room. All signs of life are removed. Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities only exist here in the imagination. I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing.
Even though the button is useless and the missiles long since destroyed, it feels like I’m playing with an unloaded gun. I’m thinking about the horrifying photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above. Is the barrel empty? My hand shakes. I just cannot bring myself to do it. Some buttons are just not meant to be pushed.
My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot sun to warm them. I put my sunglasses on, my eyes struggling with the afternoon light. Various missiles are on display outside, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built. NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”, an apt name for pure technological evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.
The most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist around the world, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call. Even as Russia and the USA work to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club.
Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this tool of “mutually assured destruction” into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope.
The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is located 3.5 hours drive from Kiev. It is open daily from 10am to 5pm. Tour operators in Kiev can arrange transport and entrance.
It took three, long hours to get to the temple. An hour of that was figuring out which bus to take, negotiating the ticket, and finding directions to the correct platform. Five people were crammed into a seat built for three, and although there were no live animals, there was a freshly slaughtered chicken. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, it was intense, and it was vivid. This is travel, and this is all worth it. I hike up the hill, and there it is, a beautiful stone temple, glowing in the sun. I take a deep breath, pull out my camera, and then I see them. Over a hundred tourists, wearing name tags, following a red umbrella. Ladies and gentlemen: begin the debate!
Travellers carry towels, never iron their clothes, and freak out when there’s a schedule. Tourists stay in nice hotels, look forward to going home, and typically pay the set price. Travellers discard guidebooks, tourists clutch them closely to their chests. Travellers need a holiday when they return home, tourists leave home for a holiday. Or vice-versa.
The Traveller vs Tourist is a timeless, heated debate. Many backpackers make proud, public announcements so nobody might confuse them with being a tourist. Many tourists seem compelled to sheepishly justify their package vacation, while others would never dream of leaving the comfort bubble of a tour bus. Never mind that both groups are united in the same purpose – to leave their homes and discover something new. And never mind that tourists don’t seem too bothered by the whole debate in general – it’s usually travellers, sitting in a dive bar, scratching the dirt from under their fingernails, scoffing at the thought of seeing anywhere from the comfort of, dare I say it, a brightly coloured tour bus.
I get queasy when I read or hear others talk about what makes a real traveller. Writes one popular blog: “A real traveller avoids hotels or restaurants. A real traveller does not buy souvenirs because a real traveller never goes home. A real traveller only carries two pairs of underwear, knows more than the guidebooks, and never goes where the tourists go.” To which I say: “Real Traveller, you also sound a like a real idiot.”
At the root of this inane rivalry is the assumption that one experience is better, more authentic, and more valuable than the other. I love it when I meet “real travellers” and the conversation goes like this:
Them: “Have you been to Bolivia.”
Me: “Yes, I’ve spent three weeks in the country.”
Them: Did you go to [insert obscure destination here].
Me: No, I would have loved to, but focused on [insert second obscure destination].
Them: Oh, then you haven’t seen the REAL Bolivia!
Me (under my breath): So many stupid people, so few asteroids.
Every single one of us is different, and every single one of us will have a different experience, even if we’re in the same place. Further, by definition, anyone who travels can be called a traveller. Some travellers like comfort, peace of mind with their security, being told where to go, and even what to wear. Some travellers like crowded buses, smelly toilets, sleeping in dorms and bargaining for everything. Seriously, they love this stuff! Judging someone by the experience they choose (with little thought to decision-making factors like budget, time, health, or personal preference) is like judging someone because of the colour of their skin, religion, or personal belief.
There, I’ve said it. The old debate is nothing more than thinly veiled racism, which, like all racism, is steeped in ignorance, fear, envy, and several ounces of basic stupidity. Still, I don’t see the argument ending anytime soon. As I watched the busload of Japanese name-taggers descend on my (my!) hard-fought temple, having being comfortably dropped off by their luxury air-conditioned bus, I couldn’t help but feel they had missed out on the best part of the journey. And when I told them what I could expect on the long road home, they wondered why anyone in their right mind would put themselves through such an ordeal. It felt rejuvenating to be independent, but I was jealous as hell of their comfort.
There’s no right way to apply ketchup to your fries, scratch an itch, or smile at a stranger. While we can always and should learn from the advice of others, there’s also no right way to see the world.
There is only your way.
Bucket Lists are so much more than places to see and things to do. They can teach us about the world we live in, our place within it, who we are, and where we come from. Whatever nationality you’re descended from, visiting the country of your ancestors results in rich, emotional travel. Genealogical tourism first exploded in the 1970’s, largely credited to the success of Alex Haley’s book (and subsequent television series) Roots. With the evolution of online genealogy tools - designed to make databasing and research as simple as ever – it has now become one of the busiest traffic segments online. Dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers become private investigators of their familial pasts, looking for unlikely connections, unusual stories, and answers to questions of their origins. If you think social media is addictive, try looking into your own lineage.
Genealogists advise to start with what you know. I know my grandfather was born in a small village in northern Lithuania called Kupiskis. Before booking a flight to the Baltics, I hit up the All-Seeing Eye of Everything (aka Google) and found a wealth of knowledge. Kupaskis, like all shtetls in Europe, has a tragic history. Before World War II, forty-one percent of its population were Jews, all of who were rounded up and brutally murdered by local Nazi collaborators. Over three thousand men, women and children were massacred, including members of my own family. While many people travel to the countries of their heritage expecting to encounter long lost relatives, there is no chance of physically discovering a forgotten branch of my own family tree. Despite this, I headed off to Lithuania, eager to see what else I might discover.
Vilnius is a lovely European capital, with big town squares, cobblestone, cheap beer, few tourists, and welcoming locals. It’s a three-hour drive from the city to Kupiskis, which is no longer a shtetl, just a small industrial town. Piloting an old rental van, the surrounding countryside explodes in the colours of fall. Each passing kilometre is one more step into the past. A bold sign on the outskirts signals I have arrived in the town. I feel like a grown turtle washing ashore on the very beach on which I was hatched.
In 2004, a group of fifty Kupiskis descendents from as far away as the US, UK, South Africa, Denmark and Australia visited this small town to dedicate a memorial to the Jewish families wiped out in the war. They were greeted by the town mayor, and presented with a list of the names and ages of the victims compiled by a local midwife during the war – the only such list that exists in the country. These names are now engraved on a memorial on a plaque on the old synagogue, which is now the town’s library, and my first stop. I run my hand over the names on the memorial, stopping at several with the surname root of Ezroch. It is exhilarating to meet the names of these ancestors, and depressing to know what happened to them. I’ve found and lost new family members all at once.
Late afternoon Kupaskis is half asleep, the streets deserted. Red and gold leaves cover the roads. Some locals still get around in a horse and buggy. There are a few clues of the town’s rich Jewish history; the old library, and a street named Sinagogo, still lined with century-old old wooden houses. It is cold and damp, and I wonder how my great-grandparents adjusted to the hot, dry veldt when they immigrated to South Africa before the first World War. I wonder what might have been if they didn’t. With the help of a local guide named Regina Kopilevich, who specializes in genealogical tours, I visit several mass graves, some of them with memorials, some of them with vandalized plaques. Who would deface a mass grave? The same kind of person responsible for its existence in the first place.
Jews and Gentiles had co-existed peacefully here since the 16th century. Regina leads me to the ancient, wooden house of a 91 year-old local woman named Veronica. Floating in and out of lucidity, she recalls babysitting Jewish children, even singing me a few Yiddish lullabies from the depth of her memory. Her house overlooks the Freethinkers Cemetery, a nearby site of one of the worst massacres. Veronica witnessed the children in her care stripped, lined up, and murdered.
“I still see their faces,” she says, “I cried and cried.”
The room is freezing, as if all the joy in the world has been sucked right out of it. Veronica died a few months after my visit, taking those lullabies and horrors to her own grave.
Watch an extended clip of my visit to Kupiskis while filming my TV show, Word Travels
Back in Vilnius, I spent hours researching life in Kupiskis, reading old reports, and the testimonials of survivors. I Skyped my grandmother in Johannesburg and asked questions, feeling somewhat disappointed in myself that I had never asked her these questions before. In turn, she was fascinated by what Lithuania looks like today, what has become of Kupiskis, a place that always haunted my late grandfather. Lithuania’s history did not settle. First the evils of Hitler, then Stalin, it became the first Eastern Bloc country to declare its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Although my own roots were dug up, I’m nevertheless drawn to country, its under-the-skin familiarity. Three of my four grandparents were Lithuanian. It must count for something.
Michael, a distant cousin in New York, is an amateur genealogist and proved a great resource prior to my visit. He amassed over three thousand names on my family tree. I asked him how others should begin their personal journey. “Talk to your parents and the oldest people you can find in your family. Ask them very specific questions. Names of places, birth dates, if they have any newspaper clippings,” he told me. Every time an elder family member passes away, they take with them an important piece of the puzzle.
Genealogical travel brings the rewards of travel you’ll find anywhere: beautiful landscapes, interesting new cultures, people, food, and history. Yet when you journey into the land of your heritage, it makes those rewards all the more relevant. You don’t need plane tickets or hard earned savings to begin your quest either. If you’ve ever wondered about where you come from, your Bucket List simply wants you to start asking questions.
Note: There are thousands of volunteer genealogical societies worldwide who can help you start your search. Websites like Cyndis List and JewishGen contain many links to get you started, and there's all sorts of software to utilize. Talk to the people you know before going to online archives, census records, obituaries, newspaper clippings, and other sources of information. It is highly likely you’ll soon encounter a relative or enthusiast on the same path, eager to share and learn from you. Remember, when publishing personal information on websites and databases to respect others privacy.
There are travellers, hardcore travellers, insane crazy hardcore travellers, and then there’s Rus Margolin. I met Rus in the Arctic Circle when we both were guests at the world’s most northerly eco-lodge. Born in Belarus, Rus had done well as a bond trader working in New York, and seemed hell-bent on visiting every country, unique region and territory in the world. A few years later I interviewed him in a popular post about his progress, and just a couple years after that, his mission has been accomplished – visiting every country on Earth (an impressive feat considering his previous year included Somalia, Yemen, and other places that don’t exactly bring in the cruise ships). With that milestone, I thought it’s worth checking in with the most travelled man I know on the planet.
Two years ago, we chatted just after you ticked off country #200. The UN has 193 members. Remind me how you get your numbers, and where are you up to now?
193 is the only well defined number, and essentially every other list is arbitrary. To be honest I never liked any of the lists, so I made up my own. For me, an entry has to have its own culture, currency, and unique geographic location. I have a constantly changing list of 300 plus or minus destinations, and I’m at 298. But the official list of 193 is now absolutely complete.
Just some parts of Iraq, and Socotra Island off Yemen, possibly territories in the Arctc and Antarctic, and some other outlying islands.
Oh, then clearly you haven’t been anywhere *sigh* . Between #200 and #300, what have been the biggest stand-outs or surprises?
I left the hardest destinations for the end, so every one was difficult to get to. Yemen, Syria, Libya, various breakaway republics… all really hard to get to places. Ethiopia’s Omo Valley was out of my comfort zone. I ended up taking pictures of other people taking pictures, it was a human zoo.
I had the same experience, the tribe watching circuit in Ethiopia was totally dysfunctional. I was reading the other day about a young lady who hopes to be the youngest female to visit all countries on Earth. Why is long term, intense travelling becoming so popular today?
Different people have different goals. I’ve run into people doing it for the check mark. Land in airport, enter, exit, fly back home. Touch and go. To me, that’s not travel, that’s pursuing a limited goal. You’ve got to get in there, explore the land, describe the people, taste the food, do the attractions. I’ve been learning so much from it. Travel is the best university you can go to.
Do you think social media makes things better or worse for the traveller?
When it comes to planning, the logistics, and meeting like-minded people, social media definitely makes it better. The avalanche of online interest might destroy some places, but there will always be out of the way and difficult to get to places that social media won’t ruin. Unfortunately social media makes people think they have to comment or have an opinion about places they know nothing about.
I was recently writing about Bali’s overtourism problem. What are your thoughts on that?
My most recent travels have been more rewarding because I’ve focused on places that people don’t visit for getaways. Nobody goes to Mogadishu for a holiday. And yet in places like Damascus, the people were welcoming and friendly tourists were treated like gods. We’ve had ten years of a non-stop growing economy, so another setback will probably set tourism back quite a bit. Everyone is travelling and flying now, but the economy is cyclical, so at some point people will slow down.
What’s the least friendly country in the world?
I’d say the US and Russia. Knock on someone’s door in the middle of the night in some parts of the United States and they’ll probably shoot you. In West Africa, they’ll offer you the last piece of banana.
You’re the first Belarusian to have successfully circumnavigated the world (and to be honest, you’re only the second Belarusian I’ve ever met). What had the biggest impact on inspiring you to travel – being a Belarusian or living in New York under the Western influence?
Growing up in Belorussia, when I was a kid, I used to collect these magazines called Young Naturalist. I used to look at them and think I’m never going to see any of this, but I wished I could. I used to make my own notebooks of places I wanted to get to. Once I got to New York, I worked hard and got the resources to actually start travelling. So it’s a combination of the two. At the end of the day, some people want to accumulate wealth, for me I’d rather look back on visiting every country in the world.
Were you influenced by any travel writers or travel shows? The new Blue Planet II is incredible.
There was a weekly Soviet show where they would highlight some country in the world. BBC’s Life with David Attenborough and National Geographic's Great Migrations gave me lots of ideas. Of course, technology has advanced so much in the last couple years. The amount of effort they put into these shows is amazing. But what you see is not what you’d see in real life.
When you strike up a conversation with people abroad and tell them what you’re doing, what are the three most common questions you receive?
What is the most amazing place you’ve seen? What will you do when you finish all the countries? How can you afford it?
How do you keep yourself busy on those long flights, trains and drives?
I travel in blocks and do my best to keep the moves short. Although this summer I did New York to Korea to Vladivostok to Japan to Southeast Asia to Somalia. Often I just sort my photos, do research, plan out the next steps. I don’t plan for more than a month forward.
You told me in our last interview that one should strive to learn everything and anything, take on the physical challenges, be respectful of cultures and traditions and be open to other people and their views on life. I feel like I picked up the bulk of my insights in the first few months of travel, when things were perhaps the most intense. Have you learned anything new?
The first trip to a destination is usually an introduction, the second trip you go into more depth, and you’re more prepared, and you may be looking for something in particular. In my experience, it gets richer and more rewarding the longer you do it. Each new destination opens your eyes.
You recently visited a few war zones and hotly disputed regions. Have you had to hire bodyguards, or use any cover stories? Are you sure you’re not a Russian spy?
I’m sure I’m not a Russian spy! In Somalia you have to have bodyguards. You can’t really go anywhere beyond Mogadishu. I had four armed guys in a truck in front me jumping out at intersections to protect me when the car stopped. The hotel I stayed at is in the Green Zone. Two weeks after I left the hotel across the street was attacked and 40 people were killed. There’s only one company on the ground that arranges everything for NGO’s and business people. Tourism is not such a big thing though. In Mogadishu, you don’t really have choice in terms of what you can see, it really depends on your guide and the situation. We went to places that have barriers and are safe, like the incredible fish market, and the beach. Often when I’m flying to the destination I think I’m crazy, especially going to places like Tehran, Tripoli, Damascus, and Mogadishu, but nothing happened.
You’ve had opportunities to see more and do more than 99.9% of people on this planet. Has this emboldened you with any special skills or abilities, and if so, how will you use them moving forward?
I’m definitely a professional traveller, so I can probably navigate any destination, and take people anywhere. Perhaps one day I could take people to harder to access places and show it to them. The difficult places discourage people because of safety, legal, and cost…so if twenty people or more visit there it won’t be much of an impact.
I often wish I could have collected fridge magnets, or beer coasters, or something small and light from every country I’ve visited. Are you a collector, do you have boxes of souvenirs back home?
Yes, I’ve always been a collector. Stamps, toy cars, all sorts of things. My apartment is a museum, I should charge money for it! There’s something from every country in the world. Plates, cups, different alcohols, shells, masks, coins and currency. I’m trying to sort it all out. It’s getting to the point where I look at a souvenir and I wonder where the hell I got it! I have about 50 different hats. On the other hand, my website has over 140,000 pictures, which describes everything.
What do you think of bucket lists? Are they a fad, do they inspire people or make them miserable with unattainable goals?
It depends on each person. Trying to visit every country is a bucket list, as is trying to see every animal migration, or climb every mountain about 14,000 feet…for every person who wants to do that there will people who don’t care. There’s an audience for everything. Bucket lists are not a solution for everyone and not everyone will follow them, but it’s a great way to draw attention to things.
Visiting every unique spot on the world is a formable bucket list. What kept you going? How do you keep it interesting?
The same motivation from the beginning; the immense satisfaction of seeing something new and feeling good about it. An idea gets born, you dream it, plan it, do it. I got bored doing the same thing for a long time, and my attention span is short. So I seek contrasts, one day I’m looking at modern skyscrapers, the next I’m in Somalia, the next I’m in Oman. To keep things interesting I also try to alternate climates on the same trip, for example switching from Asian heat to Russian cold, and changing the cuisine along with it.
And now that you’re coming to the end of that goal, what’s the next step?
The more you travel, the more you find out the places you haven’t been to. It becomes a never-ending expanding universe. I wish I could clone myself into 6 Rus’s. Travel is a known, everything else is an unknown.
Over the years I’ve found that I’ve become really good at guessing what a place is like. Is that the same with you?
Not really. My expectation is rarely the reality. I thought Yemen would be destroyed and it wasn’t. I thought Chernobyl wouldn’t be very interesting and just a bunch of ruins, but it was incredible.
And the food has been good?
The food has been fantastic. So few tourists visit these off-the beaten track places, the meals are cream of the crop. I always aim for authentic local food, prepared with the same fresh ingredients people cook for themselves. You get sick from the shock of something different, not necessarily from the food.
Can you answer those top 3 questions everyone always asks you? Kicking off with what is the most amazing place you’ve seen?
There’s no answer. You have to create 100 different categories, such as the most amazing mountains, churches, festivals, people, food - I can’t prioritize one over the other. There’s no easy satisfaction, and it’s lazy to expect one answer. Some people think ‘here’s this guy who has travelled for years, so I’ll just ask him for that one special place and he’ll tell me what it is.’ It doesn’t work like that.
What will you do when you finish all the countries?
Well, I’ve basically done that now. But every country has places I haven’t seen, especially India, Brazil, Russia… there’s lots of places still to see. There’s another list out there. People, wildlife and experiences will always be different when you return anywhere, although the buildings tend to stay the same. There are also many ideas that come out when I look back all these countries and places I’ve visited.
And finally, how can you afford it?
I’ve found travelling is cheaper than living at home. Look, I worked on Wall Street for 13 years, the stock market performed well, that all helps. But there’s ways to do it on the cheap, you can accumulate miles on cards, and I seldom use agencies and packages. In India and Southeast Asia you can travel for a week with what you spend in NY on a single day.
Check out incredible images from Rus Magolin's journey at his Travel2Unlimited Facebook page
Luminous orange overalls flap in the strong wind, an egg-yolk sun cracks against the horizon. It’s been a physically tough hike, stumbling over loose rocks, my face caked in black volcanic dust. Atop the cone of Cerro Negro, one of the youngest active volcanoes in Central America, the countdown has begun. All that’s left to do is sit down on my wooden board, lean back, grit my teeth, and hurl down the cone, 0 to 40 km/hr in eight, wild seconds.
You can tell the “next big travel thing” by watching the trends of budget travellers, and they’re heading in droves to Nicaragua. The beaches, colonial towns, accommodating locals, and prices are a backpackers dream, along with Bucket List activities like volcano boarding. From the roof of Leon’s cathedral, the largest in Central America, you can see eleven of thirteen surrounding volcanoes surrounding the city. They sit like a chain of pearls on a necklace, and when they erupt, as Cerro Negro did as recently as 1999, it can cover Leon in a layer of fine, ashen dust. Not that it bothers the backpackers at Bigfoot Hostel. When I inquire about the conspicuous absence of waivers for volcano boarding, its affable owner explains some of the legal differences between Nicaragua and the United States. If tourists want to pay twenty bucks for the opportunity to throw themselves off an active volcano, that’s their problem! Even though the volcano is at the tail end of its regular eruption cycle, and could explode any day, Bigfoot is doing a roaring trade, with about a dozen clients of all ages heading out daily, a wooden sleigh in hand, anticipating a Bucket List ride of a lifetime.
It took some time to figure out the right apparatus to accomplish such a feat, with everything from fridge doors to second-hand mattresses tested to strike the right balance of speed and relative safety. One thing is certain: while Cerro Negro appears to have soft, sandy steep sides from afar, the granite dust is as sharp as broken glass. Protective overalls, eye-goggles, and remaining seated (as opposed to traditional upright sandboarding) is essential. Wiping out would tear you to shreds.
It’s a forty-minute drive to Cerro Negro National Park, and it’s no accident the adventure takes place during late afternoon. The sunsets in this part of the world are atomic, November through June, night after night. We pay a small fee to enter the park, grab our boards, and start the climb up the rear of the ominous looking black pyramid. Once we begin our steep ascent, the wind picks up considerably. Blackened lava from the last eruption sits like an Exxon mess, the thick oil spilled over the countryside. At the back of my mind, I’m well aware that nobody can sandboard faster than an erupting volcano.
The loose rocks are sharp but we scramble over them, shifting the awkward weight of our boards from arm to arm. Half an hour later we arrive at the outer edge of the crater to find steaming hot sulphuric ash. You can burn your hand on the ground here, so we keep walking around the lip, a silent prayer that the monster below us remains asleep. With the sun perfectly poised, our guide Gemma explains how to use our feet to break and steer.
“Keep the mouth shut unless you want to chew rocks for dinner. Back straight, lean back, and smile for the radar gun at the bottom!”
A thin metal sheet is fixed to the bottom of the wood, along with a piece of plastic that increases speed. As I begin the five hundred-metre slide, the grating sound of granite against metal sounds like an engine, revving fast. Rocks and sand attack my goggles, stabbing my lips, sieging my shoes. I’d scream, but it’s wiser to keep lips pursed and board straight (cone-burn awaits those who flip).
Active volcanoes have intrigued many a Bucket Lister, but only in Nicaragua will you find one so creatively accessible. Safely on the bottom, the group cracks celebratory cold beers and compares experiences. “Now that’s something to do before you die!” says one backpacker. I certainly agree.
Our 4 months living in Southeast Asia can be broken down into 5 parts:
Thailand was a great start. We jumped into the deep end of digital nomadism, swimming in an exotic culture, and enjoying a slower pace after the frenetic pace of Australia. Bangkok was a sort of purgatory as we waited to visit Bali. Bali was like an overharvested cornfield, a deep disappointment sprinkled with tasty moments. How desperately we needed Hoi An to be different, to be the anti-Bali, to deliver on the promise of why we chose to visit Asia in the first place. And how relieved I am, five weeks later as write these words on the plane back to Melbourne, to reflect that Hoi An delivered. Everything clicked. The warmth of the locals was sincere and inspiring. The food was fantastic. The facilities we found were top-notch. The friends we made were lovely. The house we lived in was the best of any we’d stayed in, the water buffalo abundant, the excursions fun. And most of all, the timing was perfect. Wet season along the central coast of Vietnam officially starts September 1st, the day of our arrival. But the rains only came October 1st, four days before our departure. What September did was dampen the interest of high-season hordes. Hoi An’s lantern-lit night markets, ancient storefronts and coastal attractions were busy, but never overcrowded and unmanageable. It also meant that the locals were even friendlier, flashing their gentle smiles and gifting the kids lollipops. Da Nang, the city that services Hoi An (located 45 minutes drive away along a quiet four lane highway) is exploding. It’s got a lovely long white sandy coastline with resorts and apartments starting to encroach. “This is probably what Rio looked like in the 1960’s,” says Ana. Given its turbulent history, communist Vietnam has embraced modern tourism with a fever, attracting bus loads of Chinese and Korean tourists with mega-resorts sprouting all along the coast, edging closer and closer to Hoi An’s old city. The Four Seasons, the Intercontinental, the Sheraton – it’s all coming in thick and fast, and it’s going to change everything, indeed, it’s already changing everything. The Canadian owner of Dingo Deli – one of our favourite hangouts with its great food and play area for the kids – tells us he was one of the first European families in Hoi An, when the inbound artery of Cua Dao was still a dirt road. This was less than a decade ago. Today, coffee shops and restaurants and tour operators and ubiquitous tailor shops and ATM’s and opulent-looking boutique hotels and mini marts line the paved roads to the Ancient City. In a decade, Hoi An could well become another Bali. And while it felt like we missed the boat with Bali – which must have been incredible a couple decades ago, at least we discovered Hoi An when the going was good. When we could walk beneath the colourful lanterns, scooter through rice paddies, lie in hammocks under coconut trees, shop in busy local markets, and drink strong coffee on the patios. The kids might remember key moments from the photographs that captured our stay, but we’ll remember the general feeling of cultural bliss, contentment, and adventure. Without doubt Hoi An proved to be the highlight of our Big Year, and one we’ll always remember with great fondness. With the pace of modern tourism and the explosive growth of the mass Asian market, going back would probably be heart breaking.
I’d never been to Vietnam, and now I deeply regret not putting it into my Modern Gonzo itinerary 13 years ago. It was a different country back then, just emerging from decades of Communist isolation. I’d heard a mixed bag of backpacker’s opinions: some complained they were ripped off every two minutes and hated it. Others said the people were lovely and it was their highlight of SE Asia. And now, so many years later, I heard the same stories, which illuminated the discrepancy. It appears the the big overcrowded cities are intense, and travellers feel preyed upon. Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) and Hanoi sound like places far removed from the reggae music, siestas and watermelon shakes we found in Hoi An. It is a small town that repeatedly came up in conversations with friends about places they loved most, and wished they could have stayed longer. Chiang Mai was the other one, and so no surprise we ended up in both. My knowledge of Vietnam, like so many 80s kids growing up in the age of ‘Nam movies, is pretty tainted by the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese call the American War. All that’s in the past. Heck, it seems that Communism is in the past, the Vietnamese taking their cue from China – the powerful neighbour that has played a huge influence on Vietnamese culture for millennia – embracing capitalism within the confines of a one-party state. Tourism is embraced and protected. After somehow talking my way out of corrupt police roadblocks in Bali and Thailand, I do not recall any police presence at all during five weeks in Hoi An. Gem’s Rider, where I rented our 130cc Yamaha Nuevo scooter, wanted to keep my drivers license as collateral. “But what about police and roadblocks?” I ask. “Oh, they’d never bother any tourists,” was the reply. Everything here appeared peaceful, the roads were clean, people got about their business (working 7 days a week, I should add). More than once I walked into a store during the hot mid-day siesta to find it abandoned, the products unattended and inviting theft from anyone off the street. It’s why we stopped locking the front gate. If locals are unbothered by petty crime, why should we be?
The only relics from the war were the stories we heard from an Israeli we met who was disarming bombs in the countryside for an NGO – “more bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in the entire World War II” – and an underwater mortar shell that Ana saw in the bay when she was doing her diving certification. It continued to amaze me that these peaceful, gentle people inflicted a military defeat on the United States superpower, and then swiftly invaded Cambodia to unseat the horrific Khmer Rouge, and then held off an attack from China. The Vietnamese are strong yet peaceful, gentle but unbelievably proud.
We Air Bnb’d a house located over the bridge from the Ba Le Market off Cua Dai, in a neighbourhood served by narrow alleyways that can barely squeeze a car. Next door to us was a small holding with banana and coconut trees, and across the road was a modest yellow temple on the shores of a large river. The house was called Mali One, consisting of 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, two upstairs and two downstairs, typically rented individually. We took the whole place, giving Amy her own space and a different area for Raquel’s home-schooling. With temperatures ranging between 28C – 35C, air-conditioners in each bedroom were essential for sleep, and fans aerated the muggy air in the living areas. The shower pressure was great, , we could flush toilet paper, and brush our teeth with tap water. There were roosters next door and across the street, but their crows didn’t destroy us like they did in Chiang Mai. Dozens of geckos patrolled the walls, and fortunately we’d missed the brunt of mosquito season. A giant spider hung out downstairs by the front door, but we pretended not to notice it. On our first morning, discovering the Dingo Deli by chance, we met a Canadian family temporary living in Hoi An with their two daughters, the same age as Raquel and Galileo. We got to know Meredith and Jonathan, Charlotte and Aria well over the next 5 weeks, and shared the joys and challenges that come with schlepping your family around the world. They introduced us to Kahunas – a friendly backpacker’s beach club that welcomed families to swim in their pool and use their beach chairs. No $50 entry fee, no Bali exclusiveness. Having broken in our scooter skills, we could pile onto the long backseat of the Yamaha and cruise the relatively calm streets of Hoi An and its surrounds. Vietnamese scooter driving is as insane, probably more so, than in Bali. Bikes come from every direction, at any time. People bike on the wrong side of the road or on the pavements, using lights when they feel like it, carrying washing machines or mirrors or other bikes on their bikes, honking repeatedly and unnervingly. We saw a couple accidents, and drunk people who could barely stand much less pilot a bike. One hapless duo as so hammered on their bike they literally fell over in the middle of the street. The difference with Bali’s madness is that there was a lot less traffic. Outside of the hectic 4pm to 5pm school hour, the roads were generally calm and the highways basically empty. Ana and I took the bike on a roadtrip to the Hai Van Pass, cruising over mountains and through some of the busier traffic areas in Da Nang. As crazy as the riding and traffic was, it never felt nearly as dangerous and as desperate as in Bali. As a bonus, concrete paths created shortcuts through the green rice paddies that surrounded Hoi An, showcasing water buffalo and farmers in pointy hats accompanied by wonderful feelings of exoticness and travel buzz. I never wore a helmet, and have confirmed that riding a scooter with the warm tropical wind in my hair is as close to nirvana as I can be, more-so when I feel Raquel hugging me at the back, and have Gali holding onto the antennae-like mirror stands in the front. Speeding along the the “water buffalo road” to Kahunas, and zipping about the rice paddies on the bike, comprise my singular best moments of the entire year abroad.
Just about every morning I would pop on the bike and ride around the corner – slowly across the road that became more and more flooded – to the Ba Le market. Fresh bananas, mangoes, dragon fruit, watermelon…I’d have to haggle but at 17,000 dong to one Canadian dollar, it was always a bargain. Some ladies ripped me off more than others, my favourite was Miss Huey, who always added a handful of fresh mint, spring onions, basil and other herbs the Vietnamese add to the soups, noodles and sandwiches. Across the road was the white house bakery, where I could buy fresh baguettes and breads, and a little further down, the Hoi An version of Bali’s Everything Shop, although it wasn’t very big and certainly didn't have everything. There were no supermarkets in Hoi An, no 7-11s, no Cocomarts or Pepito Express – and the two stores that sold groceries left no doubt that it was cheaper and a lot easier to just eat out. Meals would cost between 30K – 130K, depending on the type of restaurant, and unlike Thailand or Bali, there were plenty of affordable Western options. Raquel liked her freshly squeezed lime juice, Gali his watermelon juice, and every day the kids would have their Yakult and Milo drinks, along with homemade ice lollies from juice. We made our own smoothies, and although I cooked schnitzel a couple times, we got a lot of take-aways from one-person kitchen restaurants nearby. Visitors to Hoi An typically come for about 2-3 days, rent a bike to cycle in the rice paddies, visit the lantern-lit Ancient Town, check out a few temples perhaps, and pop into a tailor to get a suit, dress or shirt made. Every Friday we’d go to the Chabad – always the only non-Israelis – and those we spoke to were amazed we were actually living in Hoi An.
“But what is there to do here?” they’d ask, and we’d say, “not much, which is why we love it.” After having done so much this year, the opportunity to spend days by a luke-warm pool drinking Larue, Saigon or Tiger beer sold cheaper than bottled water while the kids play with new friends to the tunes of vintage reggae is as close to paradise as we can hope for. Of course we got the suits and dress made, it’s the thing to do here, and you’ll struggle to find bespoke tailoring cheaper. On the advice of someone from the Hoi An Expats Facebook group, we ended up at Cloth Shop Sue, where I got a suit, a blazer, 4 shirts and 3 waistcoats, and Ana got a suit, dress, and pants. Shipping wasn’t too expensive, so we sent 26kg of clothes, souvenirs, books, and other stuff we’re trired of schlepping around home to Canada via sea. Hopefully it arrives! In our home was a 2002 copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, and the country it describes is very different from the Vietnam 16 years later. Hoi An is described as a small but popular town famous for its temples - we only visited one of them, by accident. Our two sojourns were me taking Raquel on the bike to the Marble Mountains, a series of limestone outcrops overlooking flat Da Nang. We took the elevator up to the top and visited a couple cave temples, sweating bullets in the process. After riding 90 km;/hr with Raquel, I’m more confident than ever to get a motorbike! Our second adventure was to the Ba Na Hills, a bizarre kitschy French medieval-style theme park built high in the mountains, and serviced by cable cars. It was expensive and took a while to get to, but the admission price included all the rides, and they’d recently unveiled a stunning “hand” bridge that made world news when it was unveiled a few months before we got there. We went to see a water puppet show, which was quite fascinating, visited Cham Island, which was less so. Amy took the kids on a small traditional boat that looks like a saucer, after which they made stuff with coconut fronds. We visited the Ancient Town a couple times, took the boat on the Ancient Town to let the kids make a wish as they released a floating candle-lantern. We hit pub night where we didn’t fare particularly well but did win a pitcher of beer, and followed that up by a visit to the Dive Bar, which wasn’t a dive bar at all, and watched Jonathan support the local nitrous oxide balloon dealer. With booze this cheap, tourists were more than happy to buy rounds for everyone. For Ana’s birthday, Amy looked after the kids while Ana and I spent the night in a fancy hotel, having dinner and dancing to a samba band (yes, a samba band!) at a place called Soul Kitchen in An Bang. From the layabout couches to the kid-friendly restaurants on the beach, there was just so much to love here. Raquel even took ballet classes on Saturday mornings, with an English teacher who knew what she was doing (in stark contrast to Bali). The expat community heard about us and it’s a small circle – the folks with young kids living in a small town in a strange country. Otherwise, no lost boys in caves or tragic earthquakes, although the ceremonial president of Vietnam did die, not that we (or the rest of the world) heard much about it.
A typical day looked like this:
6am - 8am: Wake up, make breakfast, hear about Amy’s evening exploits with the South Africans living in Hoi An teaching English to Chinese students online.
10am – 2pm: Kahunas or playdate
2pm – 4pm: Gali naps, Raquel does school with Miss Amy downstairs, Robin works in Australian Bucket List website/Ana explores/get PADI certified/rides around looking for baguettes.
4pm – 6pm: Kahunas or playdate with Charlotte or bike ride to the water buffalo or or some such thing.
6pm – 8pm: Dinner, shower and bed time.
9pm – 11pm: Monopoly Deal or Netflix or Pub Quiz or Girls Night Out or Book Reading or Sleep.
Other memories: The Koi Café, the karaoke clubs, the weddings, the trips to the one ATM machine where you could withdraw 5m dong. The inflatable pool on our upstairs patio, emptying the water over the sides into the banana trees. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Chabad eggplant, hunting for diapers, hunting for new shoes for Gali. The challenging Wednesday night Pub Quiz (the most populous mammal on Earth is not humans!), the Birthday night away in a real hotel and dancing to Samba at Soul Kitchen, the horrendous sound of river frogs, the power failures, the horrendous sound of Vietnamese karaoke, the insanely strong coffee, the kids doing this, the kids doing that…
It’s all a blur, and time does fly when you’re having fun. Unlike Bali, where the highlights were crisp because they were fewer and far between, days in Hoi An blended into each other the way we blended the market fruit into smoothies. At the the end of it, when Amy looked after all four kids and we hit the town with Jonathan and Meredith - four parents of four young kids bewildered to have some fun time to ourselves - we realized we’d be sad to say goodbye, and yet if you don’t, months will blend in the same sort of motion blur. It’s just hard to get much done when the going is this good, and it’s the closest we’ve had to a family holiday since we took the kids to Maui in April 2017. For despite what people think, just because you’re travelling, it doesn’t mean you’re on vacation. At least, until you find yourself in a place like Hoi An, the kind of place travellers visit for a few days and end up staying for a few weeks, the kind of place that vindicates your wild, crazy, irresponsible and risky decision to go travelling for a year in the first place.