Don't have a cow, it will be just fine
1. Don’t drink tap water
Obviously, enough said. Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists buy bottled water straight out of the tap. Packaged water is fine, just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And importantly, watch out for ice in drinks.
2. Don’t eat meat
India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking vegetables has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork or chicken, even though it is widely available. Relish the veggie curries, and stay clear of potentially contaminated meats. There are plenty of live cows running about to keep you close to the beef you love.
3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese
Cheese is heaven for nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice. Paneer is fine – it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be OK, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.
4. Don’t eat eggs
Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will tie your intestine into a sailor knot.
5. Don’t drink milk
For some reason, most travellers deal well with lassi, the delicious yoghurt-based drink. It has been known to be mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgement. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour, take your coffee black.
6. Don’t eat fish unless you see it caught and cooked
On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make sure that’s the case first. Uncooked or fish left standing in the heat too long is going to swim in and out of you faster than Michael Phelps.
7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables, peel your fruit
Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical. Peeling fruit is a wise choice. If you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.
8. Eat in restaurants that cater to tourists/wealthier Indians
A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself recommended in the guidebooks. When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who have come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine. I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals, just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.
9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and especially before eating
Just like your momma taught you.
10. Trust Your Gut
You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you can meet travellers who don’t follow any of this and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of having an awesome experience. India is no place for Nervous Nellies. The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.
In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza - only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.
2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available. While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry. The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouseclick of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating: “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.” Ouch. Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.
Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge. The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan. The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us. I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.
GREAT WALL OF CHINA
There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space. Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours. I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling. From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers. Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower. Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself. Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in. Mao famously said: "You're not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall.”
THE TREASURY, PETRA
You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabataean ruin. Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever. Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.
CHRIST THE REDEEMER
This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow. On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervor, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests. On the other, there is no hotdamn way it belongs anywhere near this list. The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy. Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead. As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global center of finance.
Many years ago I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours. By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable. I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour. When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both. There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks. Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly. The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles. Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.
The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Maccu Piccu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re in Japan. It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it. Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Maccu Piccu lit up in the morning sun. Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.
THE TAJ MAHAL
It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination. A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart. I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj. Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s. Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas. To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile. “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip. Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation. Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern. Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list. Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps). After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway. This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.
Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head? Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression. In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.
I’ve long been an advocate that travel is safe, but there are scams waiting to part tourists from their holiday dollars. We make easy targets: excited, confused, anxious, eager to meet locals. Most people abroad are wonderful, but it literally pays to be aware of whom you’re talking to, and what you’re getting involved in. Below are some of the scams you might encounter, but keep in mind that all of them can be easily avoided by walking away, being firm, or asking to speak to authorities.
1. No Change
In many countries, you’ll get nailed with the “no small change” shrug, which isn’t bad when it costs you pennies, but sucks when the street vendor is rounding $12 off to $20. When using foreign currency, it’s best to try and keep a range of notes, particularly smaller amounts for things like water and snacks. Watch out for the “5 for 50” scam in which people claim you gave them a five bucks when you actually gave them fifty. This might happen in countries where notes look the same.
2. Settle on the Price
Before getting into any taxi, or hiring a guide, or being taken to a show, settle on the price. I’ve seen some horrific scams in this category, including a 50 euro taxi fare for a 5KM ride because a price wasn’t settled on beforehand. Scammers typically defer this conversation for as long as possible to hook you at the end (and threaten hysterically if you refuse to pay). Once a price has been agreed on and if it seems fair, you’re good to go.
3. The Jewellery or Rug Store
Popular in Thailand, India and Turkey, your taxi driver or guide inevitably tries to steer you towards a jewellery or rug store where you can get “amazing deals” from some cousin or family member. The reality is that you’re in kickback town, so it’s in everyone’s interest except yours to get you to buy anything. You’ll hear very well rehearsed sob stories and pleas of desperation. If you do want to buy rugs or jewels, go on your own accord, you’ll probably get a better price.
4. The Fake Jewel Scam
I know veteran travellers who still get taken in with this one. If something looks too good to be true, it’s because it isn’t. Those cheap emeralds that you can sell for a fortune back home are usually cut glass. Unless you’re a jeweller and know what you’re looking for, don’t take the risk.
5. I Want to Practice English
Once the conversation is flowing with your new friend, it inevitably leads to stories of poverty, distress, a sick mother needing medication – anything that will tug your heartstrings and open your wallet. Whether you choose to believe this is actually true is up to you. Most of the time, it’s simply a way to get your cash. In Ethiopia, I had a long conversation with a bright kid, and we discussed why scams are preventing foreigners from having authentic conversations with locals. It was great, and then he tried to scam me.
6. Taxi Drivers
I know there are plenty of honest, hard working taxi drivers out there. I salute you. Unfortunately, many taxi drivers around the world just love ripping off clueless tourists. You have no idea where you’re going, so it’s common for a 3-block ride to end up taking a half hour. You cough up the dough thinking they’ve done you a favour! Watch out for bogus extra charges like baggage or new taxes. Where possible, ask a local/hotel/restaurant to call an established cab company. Always make sure the metre is working from the start of your trip.
7. Hot Spots
Transit zones and tourist traps are always hot spots for scams. Airport arrivals, subways, train and bus stations are especially confusing and stressful, leaving you particularly vulnerable. Be vigilant and less trustworthy in these locations. Don’t get into a strangers car, don’t believe people will actually look after your things, be weary when a stranger offers to take your photo (and ask for money afterwards). Keep an eye on your bag at all times, especially when there are groups of kids hanging around.
8. The Distraction Scam
In Lima, it’s the water bombs. In European capitals, it’s mustard or ketchup. Something will distract you just long enough for someone to rifle through your pockets. Watch out for invaders in your personal space! There are scams that have a “victim” getting mugged . People drop everything to go help, which are promptly collected by the “victim’s” friends. If you do find yourself getting sprayed or distracted, make sure to keep walking on, firmly, and well aware of anyone getting too close.
9. Fake Tickets
Always a risk with scalpers, but also watch out for fake tour operators issuing fake tickets for excursions, bus rides, or train trips that don’t exist. In Delhi, I ended up in a fake train ticket office and would have bought an expensive ticket if I didn’t notice a typo on the fake letterhead.
10. Hidden Costs
Scams don’t always come from shady looking characters. Airlines and tour operators have a special knack for burying hidden costs in the fine print. Watch for “surcharges” , “local spending”, “resort fees” and “administrative costs.” Make sure you know what the final price is before handing over your credit card.
I truly believe most people you meet are there to help not hurt. Other than a taxi rip-off here and there, I’ve never been the victim of any scam in the 100 countries I’ve been to. There’s no need to be paranoid or neurotic. Just use your common sense, listen to your gut, and don’t be afraid to say no.
Previously published on Sympatico.ca
There has been much hype about Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast being the new Riviera, a playground for the fabulously wealthy to parade their yachts and Lecoste uniforms. It’s true, which is good news if you happen to have an enormous yacht, and a fondness for alligator logos. If not, it can be punishing for both your budget and your options.
After the unfortunate Balkans war that saw the gorgeous city of Dubrovnik under fire, the Croatian government has pumped millions into their tourist infrastructure with obvious success. Amongst their investments is a peninsular opposite the Serbia-Montenegrin border called Prevlaka Park. Originally a quiet village, Prevlaka was invaded and occupied by the Serbs who turned it into a military base. When NATO moved in, they kicked out the Serbs and handed it to the UN. Three years ago, the UN handed it back to the Croats, and today you can go shoot your buddies up with paintballs, ride an ATV and free-climb the walls of the old HQ. Paintballing in authentic Croatian army togs is not for everyone, but it is a welcome distraction from the expensive bars and coffee shops providing entertainment for the Alligator crowd.
Arriving in the Adventure Park, it appeared as if the Tourism Board had given up on adventure travellers – the place was practically deserted. Later this would please me as I sprayed bullets in every direction in a fit of Jackson Pollock-inspired carnage. Paintballs have a tendency to bruise, especially when shot at close range, but the only real casualty of the day was a Belgian who passed out from heat exhaustion under the thickness of the army togs. There is something eerily disturbing about crouching in a thorny field with a gun, in used army uniforms on a military base within view of a former conquering army. “The Serbs destroyed everything,” explained our whip-smart 16-year-old guide Pero. Then he showed me his customized gas-powered rifle and we really got into the topic of destruction. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, with a better understanding about the region’s conflict, and why Belgians make horrendous warriors.
Kayaking to Lokrum Island
Next I joined a kayaking adventure run by the models at Adria Adventures. The Adriatic on the Dalmatian Coast is sparkling clean and pool blue. Kayaking in and around the islands of Dubrovnik has become a popular activity, ranging from short day trips to five-day camping expeditions. My destination was Lokrum Island, which lies just off the Old Town. My guide, a 6ft 3 water polo hunk named Matko, explained about the island’s dubious history, but the girls in our small group weren’t listening because they were too busy staring at Matko. We paddled amongst caves, facing the stunning views of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, the surrounding, burnt-out hills and the cruise ships depositing their payload.
On returning a few hours later, the Adria boys, none of whom would look out of place on a ramp in Milan, packed away the gear. The girls took turn posing between them, big smiles all round, while the guys tried their best not to stare at Ivana, Adria’s friendly manager who is a former Miss Croatia, with cheekbones to carve a turkey. Paintballing, kayaking, ATV’s, and beautiful people. My faith was suitably redeemed in Croatia’s appeal to those with big hearts, small budgets, and no love for alligators.
Rooftops of Dubrovnik
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.