Fresh and rotten in time for Halloween, here’s a gallery of the places that blasted chills down my spine. Haunted, sinister, evil or just plain weird, for those that dream about travelling the world, welcome to your nightmare.
The Bone Church of Kutna Hora
Some time in the 13th century, a monk brought sand from Jerusalem to this small ossuary in central Europe. Suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there, but soon enough, space ran out. The monks collected and stored the bones. Several hundred years later, a local woodcarver decided he’d get creative with the surplus skeletons. Using the bones of some 40,000 people, he created wall art, columns, even a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. Today you can visit this small bizarre church, marvel at its morbid creativity, and literally stare death in the face.
San Franciscan Monastery
Sticking with the bone theme (“the hip bone’s connected to the…thigh bone”), the 17th century San Franciscan Monastery in the Peruvian capital of Lima is high on most visitors list. It looks amazing from the outside, but head inside and below to the narrow, creepy catacombs. You’ll find carefully geometrically arranged skeletons of some 25,000 has-beens. Built using bricks of guano, the air is dense, lit with a distinct atmosphere of spookiness, as opposed to the intended religious devotion. One catacomb is piled head-high in skulls. With the low ceilings, you might want to watch your head too.
The Killing Fields
There is creepy and there is spooky, and then there is just plain evil. Nothing makes your hair stand up, your throat parch, your nerves collapse and your faith in humanity shatter like the physical site of genocide. And yet, sickening places like the killing fields of Cambodia, the Nazi death camps in Europe, and the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda are vital to understand the horrors of the past, and make sure they never happen again. It is beyond comprehension to picture mass graves, murdered skulls piled 30ft high, or pools of human ashes. It is also beyond the tone of a column of this nature. And yet I’ll continue to draw attention to historical acts of genocide, the importance that travellers acknowledge them, and the fact that even today, the horror of mass murder continues to exist.
The Museum of Medieval Torture
My head is on the chopping block. This actual piece of wood above was used in dozens of decapitations, which believe it or not, is one of the kinder punishments you’ll find in this gruesome collection of authentic medieval torture instruments. This bizarre museum, located off the main square of Tallinn’s old town, has wooden, iron and spiked contraptions that date back to the inquisition. Accused of being a witch? They’d lower you on a giant wooden spike and split you in two. Spanish Tickle Torture was a device used to strip flesh from bones. You can see the genuine rack, used to split a body in in two, thumbscrews, and iron contraptions designed to expire the victim in unbelievable agony. I’m not sure what’s sicker: The wicked contraptions, that someone has actually collected them, or that I paid good money to visit the museum in the first place.
Transylvania is the birthplace of modern horror. At least in books and movies. Fictional Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless leader who enjoyed the sight of his Turkish enemies being skewered. “Dracula’s Castle” is in Romania, but it’s a renowned hokey tourist joint. Hang on, aren’t the hills of Transylvania perfect roaming grounds for werewolves. Nobody has seen one of them in ages, in fact, nobody has ever seen one outside of a movie theatre. What you will see in Transylvania are small villages alive with traditional music and cuisine. You’ll visit the capital of Cluj Napoca (above), full of cool bars, frequented by hip students listening to dance music or reggae. There’s nothing particularly creepy about Transylvania at all, other than the fact that, hey, it’s Transylvania. I’m not walking alone in those woods, pal.
Lamanai Mayan Ruins
Most ancient ruins up the creep factor, which is why they frequently feature in horror movies. Some Mayan ruins have the added bonus of having been the setting for human sacrifice, where decapitated heads echoed off the jungle as they bounced down the steps of temple pyramids. Found throughout Central America, the fate of Mayan civilization remains steeped in mystery. Why and how did one of the most powerful empires in history suddenly disappear? It is uncertain if human sacrifices took place here in Lamanai as it did in other later Mayan temples, although blood-letting sacrifices almost certainly did. I walk up the blackened stairs, soak up the mystery, with silence so spooky it could break my fall.
Chernobyl and Prypiat
Site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, it didn’t feel that weird standing outside reactor number 4. That’s because radiation is a silent killer, and sure enough the Geiger counter was reading levels dozens of times higher than in the nearest major city of Kiev. The true creep only sets when you visit the nearby deserted city of Prypiat. Residents had just hours to leave, abandoning everything, including their pets. A quarter century later, the city is a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. Dead silence, school books flapping in the wind, buildings cracking with time. Since everything inside the 30km Zone of Alienation is considered nuclear waste, there they will remain. Including this haunting doll, one of many to be found in an eerily silent school.
The Kataragama Festival
Hang on, there’s nothing creepy about the Katharagama Festival! It’s an incredible, peaceful and unforgettable celebration of faith, as three major religions congregate in worship and respect. Still, when I stumbled on this unique Muslim ceremony, I witnessed a spectacle soaked in blood and wide-eyed fear. Holy men had gathered in a circle, and to demonstrate the intensity and extent of their faith, proceeded to stab themselves with knives and spears. To the chant of voices and the beat of drums, the holy man pictured jammed two knives deep in his skull, slashed his tongue and chest, but seemed to recover perfectly with a dab of ash on the wounds. Filming an episode of Word Travels, the reaction of our sound guy Paul (look right) speaks volumes.
Bonus: Introducing The Creepiest Guy I Ever Met. In Ethiopia's Southern Omo Valley. Oh, he was holding an AK-47. I believe I complimented him on his hair style, maintained eye contact, and backed away, very, very slowly....
Raquel on the Copacabana
When my daughter was 6 months-old, my wife and I took her on a one-month drive from Vancouver to Ottawa, staying in 18 different hotels. We did this because we are clinically insane. Before she was a year-old, she also visited New York, and spent six weeks in Brazil, including a one-week roadtrip to the state of Minas Gerais. We discovered that Brazilian restaurants do not have high-seats like Canadian restaurants. We also discovered our willingness to let total strangers pick her up so we could enjoy three minutes of peace with a freshly-shucked coconut. I did some research into travel products that might have made our lives easier. Maybe they'll make yours easier too. Oh crap, I think I just became a Daddy Blogger.
Portable Booster Seat While baby-friendly chairs are common in Canadian restaurants, we battled to find any on a recent trip to Brazil. The Go Anywhere Travel Feeding Booster Seat, invented by parents who love to travel, is just the kind of boost we needed. Compact and weighing just 1.5lbs, the chair folds out with a five point harness and adustable straps. Any normal chair becomes instantly baby friendly, a comforting idea for baby and you.
Baby Hammock for Flights
We were so hoping for a bulk head seat, or even just an empty chair, but no, the plane was jammed and bulkheads taken, and so we had to make do with a grumpy baby on our laps for the 10 hour long haul. What we needed was Flyebaby’s Airplane Baby Comfort System – a hammock that attaches safely to the seat in front of you, allows front seat movement, face-to-face contact, is FAA approved and good for take-off and landings.
Portable Travel Crib
Co-sleeping often means no-sleeping, and heavy travel cribs can be inconvenient for flying. That’s why I love Phil and Ted’s superlight, globally safety certified Traveller. The crib/play pen has full mesh sides, a thermally-insulated mattress with fitted sheet, aliminium frame, and best of all, weighs just 3.2kg, collapsing small enough to fit in the overhead bin of a plane, or even a backpack. Keep baby warm and snug in the French-inspired Badaboum Sleep Sack. Perfect for new borns to 3 year-olds, and travelling parents needing a few hours of sleep.
We’ve got baby flying, sleeping and eating, now we have to get him/her around. After trying a few brands, my wife and I settled on Ergobaby’s Baby Carrier. Its padded waistbelt, shoulder pads and kangaroo-like pouch fits snug and comfy.
Baby’s weight is distributed evenly, she loves being able to burrow into our chests, and the adjustable hood creates dark or shade. It’s machine washable, has a pouch for a pacifier and has three carry positions. Best of all, it can be used without consulting a manual.
Of course, you’re not going to be carrying your baby everywhere. You’ll need a small, light and practical umbrella stroller. First Year’s Jet Stroller is just the ticket. Weighing 11 lbs, larger wheels make for a smoother ride, with a wider seat and 5-point harness keeping bubs in the chair longer. A canopy protects from sun or rain while the seat reclines for napping, and the attached storage pockets are ideal for everything baby needs for the excursion ahead. If you’re in a colder climate, keep baby warm, dry and cozy in Bumkin’s stroller blanket.
iPad Travel Case
A prayer from us parents to the creators of Baby Einstein, and the invention of tablets. Sure, the videos don’t make your babies smarter, but it definitely keeps them occupied with shapes, colours, sounds, and movement. Of course, you’ll want to protect your tablet before putting it into the hands of a 6-month old. Fisher Price’s Laugh & Learn Apptivity Cases for iPads and iPhones worked great for us. The device fits securely into the protective case, is safe from drool, bites and bangs, and locks the content by removing access to the start button.
Babies sure know how to make a mess. Food and toys flying everywhere, stained clothing, and in the case of my daughter, projectile spit with the velocity of a water cannon. Dapple Baby’s On-the-Go Essentials kit has everything you need to keep baby, bottles, clothing, toys and pacifiers clean. Made with all-natural ingredients and free of dyes, parabens and phthalates (which sound as nasty as they spell), the airline friendly kit includes a bottle and dish liquid cleaner targeting milk and odour, toy and surface wipes, individually wrapped pacifier wipes, and handwash sink packets.
We love the convenience of baby food in squeeze packs. Less so the cost, and the fact that we can only buy processed food. Enter the aptly-named EZ Squeezees, a reusable pouch that lets you easily add your own fresh food, secure with a strong zipper, and hand the pureed goodness to your baby or infant. The non-stick pouch is easy to clean, either under running water or in a dishwasher. Best of all, the website includes dozens of fruit, veggie, allergy and other recipes. Easy peezy!
Ju Ju Be Diaper Bags
Diaper bags are not created equal. They need to be practical, sturdy, and fashionable to boot. Katheryn Lavalee, one of Canada’s best mommy bloggers, swears by her loud, bright and multi-funcitonal Ju-Ju Be. “I just took it to Jamaica and it was a lifesaver; held all my boys' gear, my stuff, my camera and was still small enough to qualify as a personal item.” Anti-microbial linings, crumb drains, insulated bottle pockets, a memory foam changing pad – Ju Ju Be’s BFF TokiDoki has it all.
Zip Lock Bags
Not all baby travel accessories need cost a fortune. Pack zip lock bags for food storage, waterproofing essentials, keeping wipes wet, and small toys and pacifiers clean. Zip lock bags are cheap, light, and easy to pack in bags or pockets.
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.