Wouldn't it be fun to go on a bucket list adventure with some of Canada's top photographers, explorers and travel journalists? Yes, it would.
I'm delighted to become a Royal Canadian Geographic Travel Ambassador, continuing the great work of this illustrious society to promote the natural and cultural wonders of Canada. This means I'll be hosting select, exclusive trips that tick my own storytelling and adventure boxes, and belong on anyone's Canadian Bucket List as well.
Working with fantastic companies and brilliant guides, I'll be enhancing your experience with stories, advice, support, a bucket list presentation, and the knowledge you're indeed enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
August 23 - 30, 2022: Prince Edward Islands Culinary Delights by Bike
Cycling across PEI is pure bucket list: incredible scenery, spectacular coastline, literary and Indigenous history, and the best seafood on the planet. Foodies and adventurer's rejoice! This amazing itinerary combines it all together, as our bags are shuttled ahead to lovely inns and lodges, and our carefully curated itinerary delivers the best experiences on the island. The terrain is mostly flat, and you can even choose to do this week-long trip on an e-bike. I've been working with Ottawa-based Great Canadian Trails for years, and they've perfected the art of a quality, bucket list outdoor Canadian experience. It's going to a blast, culminating with a stay, farm tour and feast at rockstar Chef Micheal Smith's countryside inn. Click here for information, and bring an appetite!
August 24 - 30 / August 31 - September 4, 2023: Discovering Banff by Horseback
Discovering one of the world's most spectacular alpine landscapes on a 6-day horse ride, staying in luxury yet rustic backcountry lodges, sharing wild stories with fine wine by the crackling fireplace, SIGN ME UP! They did, which is why I'll be hosting two trips in partnership with the fantastic Banff Trail Riders. We'll be riding along a historic pack trail and up Allenby Pass, crossing jagged rock formations and hitting altitudes above 8000 feet. Mountain air, bubbling rivers, wildflowers, soaring peaks, and a great chance t encounter wildlife along the way. Let's tick this one off the bucket list together. Click here for more information and giddy up!
Can Geo Adventures are working with fantastic tour operators and other fine Travel Ambassadors to showcase the very best adventures across the country. Check them out, and I hope to see you on the road!
T’was a time when chasing a bucket list did not necessitate cracking an Enigma code of shifting Covid tests and requirements, juggling what’s needed to board a plane, to enter a country, to embark on a boat, to disembark, to return in transit. T’was a time recently where nobody was allowed to travel at all, but it looks like we’re finally done with that bit. There’s still too much friction when it comes to global travel, the legacy of Covid lingering like a suds stain around a student’s bathtub. The good news is that much of the world has collectively decided to move on, focusing efforts on protecting the vulnerable while living with Covid the way we live with other problematic viruses. It just took time and money, which tends to solve most problems. The better news: last month I returned to both my Canadian and Global Bucket List after too long a hiatus, and I returned in style. I’ve always wanted to sail in the Caribbean, and I’ve waited over a decade to once again experience to the deep virgin snow of backcountry skiing. March presented the opportunities, and so I grasped them, tightly, with the wind at my sails, and a smooth path from peak to gully.
Part One: The Caribbean
It started with a thought about sailing as an eco-friendlier form of cruising. Then I got lost in the fascinating real-life history of pirates, and distracted by the pool-clear waters of the Caribbean. Putting it altogether, I found the perfect itinerary on board one of the world’s largest passenger sail boats, a towering old-world tall ship operated by Swedish-owned, Malta-flagged Star Clippers. My experience will get its full due in an upcoming issue of the Vancouver Sun, but I will say this: Star Flyer – a 4-masted tall ship that swivels the head of even the saltiest sailor – is out of this world. It carries up to 166 passengers served by 74 crew, sailing the trade winds and ocean currents in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Central America and across the Atlantic. Unlike cruising, you feel the ocean (sometimes a little more than you’d like, but that’s part of the adventure), visiting bays, islands and beaches beyond reach of the cruise ships. It’s a luxury sailing adventure for those who don’t know anyone with a luxury sailboat, which I’m assuming describes most of us.
Staff and service is fantastic, the meals top notch, the cocktails smooth and the onboard amenities (two pools, a massage therapist, deck chairs, an open bridge, stocked library, water sports etc) most accommodating. Time slows down, and people read books, not feeds. You can do bucket list things like hang out on the bowsprit, sprawled on the netting as it dips over rolling waves above playful dolphins (yep, that happened). You can climb up the rope ladder to an 18m-high viewing platform, gazing over islands and ocean. You can bake in the sun like those fried European passengers who don’t seem to know about skin cancer. You can dance at night, request tunes from the pianist, dress like a pirate, or ask a thousand questions of the patient crew as they pull ropes and release topsails with special names that I forgot the moment I heard them. Pop into the Caribbean’s most legendary beach bars (the Soggy Dollar, Foxy’s etc) for a souvenir headache, nap in your cabin, listen to stories of fellow passengers, snorkel into sea caves, paddle-board, ogle at super yachts parking in St Barts. It’s everything one would expect the good life to be, and a very different kind of cruise experience. The more I travel on a small ship – a luxury river barge in the Amazon, a catamaran in the Galapagos, an expedition ship in the Antarctica – the more I fall in love with boats as a bucket list form of travel. If you can burn just 15% of the fuel of a regular ship, as the Star Flyer does under sail, it feels like the future of cruising, and the responsible way to go. As time progresses, I hope to add more small ships to my growing, curated bucket list cruise collection.
Part Two: Catskiing in the Skeena
The last and only time I cat-skied was on a private mountain in Chile. We were filming an episode of Word Travels, and my single biggest memory of that adventure is nervously watching our cameraman Sean ski backwards while he filmed my descent with a large six-figure camera on his shoulder. It was the only true bluebird ski day I’ve ever had, when the sky is crystal clear after a big dump of white snow. Skeena Cat Skiing in BC would be my second, and this time I wouldn’t have to worry about my TV show crashing with a wipeout (I can do that all by myself, thank you).
I had one day to switch my Caribbean bag for my snow gear, catching a prop flight north from Vancouver to the town of Smithers BC. Here I met a group of elite ski journalists, gathering at the helipad for our memorable ride into base camp. Any day you get to ride a helicopter is a good day. Skeena Cat Skiing is a family-run affair and clearly a passion project of immense love and hard work. Many hours away from anything, guests stay in heated dome tents buried in snow, which is a cool experience unto itself. The comfy, wood-fired heated lodge tent is loaded with fine beer, snacks, worn couches, and a friendly chef who prepared outstanding hearty dinners and desserts. We’re surrounded by the Thomlinson and Gail Creek mountains, 30,000 hectares of fresh powder and skiable glades in every direction. Our ski chair is a customized Piston Bully snow grader, with a large heated cabin for 14 passengers on the back. This ‘cat’ can go anywhere and everywhere it pleases, and it does. Skirting a steep ride, it deposited us at the top of runs that funnel into valleys where we would be collected by the cat for another ascent. Backcountry safety is taken seriously: we’re all equipped with avalanche kits, air bags, walkie-talkies, and given a tutorial in rescue. Veteran guides know what they’re doing and accidents are rare to non-existent. Any nerves dissipate after the first run, replaced with elation and joy and wowzers because this is the skiing you dream about, every time you strap in, and every time you head up a mountain. I was easily the weakest boarder of the group, and I’m no slopestyle expert (especially in the company of Olympic skier Yuki Tsubota). But even at my own pace, I was able to keep up, sharing the pinnacle of what snow sport can deliver. Cat skiing is more affordable than heli-skiing, and you can read more about both in my Bucket Listed column for Can Geo Travel. Suffice to say: it’s going to be hard going up a local ski hill again, but there’s always something to aspire to, and something to look forward to next time.
I spent six months travelling across Australia to research my two books, The Great Australian Bucket List and 75 Places to Take the Kids (Before They Don't Want to Go). I'm often asked about highlights and tips, and so I'm delighted to share both below. Both books contain loads more experiences information, and are available on Australian bookshelves, or online.
1. Cradle Mountain, TAS
Nature has a powerfully soothing effect on overexcited young kids. The fresh air and scenery of Cradle Mountain, coupled with nearby attractions like Devils@Cradle wildlife park, made this Tassie jewel a highlight of our journey. The Dove Lake Circuit, my nomination for Australia’s most beautiful walk, might prove a little challenging for the very little ones, but forest walks, lake swims, and campsite BBQ’s will make up for it.
2. Shark Bay, WA
Both parents and kids were disappointed with the over-hyped dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia, but there were big smiles all round when sailing the turquoise waters of Shark Bay, spotting dugongs, dolphins, and a glorious sunset. Discovering Shell Beach, the Ocean Park Aquarium, Denham’s seaside playground, and the friendly locals that gather each evening inside the Shark Bay Inn proved just as successful.
3. Litchfield National Park, NT
Two iconic national parks dominate the Top End, but Litchfield is far more accessible than Kakadu. A two-hour drive on the 130 km/hr highway from Darwin, Litchfield is also packed with natural attractions in close proximity. After gazing at the giant cathedral and magnetic termite mounds, we soaked up a memorable afternoon in the Buley Rockholes, where Nature has carved a series of refreshing pools and rock Jacuzzis.
4. Melbourne Zoo’s Roar n’ Snore, VIC
Camping overnight in one of the world’s best urban zoos is wild. Driving into the zoo’s access gates after hours, it felt like we had entered Jurassic Park . Our friendly hosts gave us a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour, and after a tasty BBQ, we strolled around the grounds discovering just how active animals are at night (lions included). Waking to monkey howls and feeding giraffes all but guarantees a very happy camper.
5. Irukandji Shark and Ray Experience, NSW
We did a lot of research scouring the country for unique experiences, but we also followed our noses. A simple signpost outside of Port Stephens led us to this friendly, family-run facility working hard to dispel fears and give visitors a hands-on encounter with various rays and sharks. Our two year-old wasn’t convinced when a large smooth ray gave us a wet hug, but was awed watching me hand feed a 3-metre-long Tawny Nurse shark.
6. Whitsundays, QLD
“Best. Day. Ever!” My daughter screamed these three words many times on our journey, my just reward for braving her meltdowns, food quirks, and occasional projectile vomit. Fortunately, it was smooth sailing off Airlie Beach, hopping aboard a Cruise Whitsundays catamaran to snorkel, play beach cricket, and explore the squeaky pure sands of Whitehaven Beach.
7. Questacon National Science and Technology Centre, ACT
We took the kids to fantastic museums around the country, and there were definite standouts: MONA in Hobart, the Melbourne Museum, National Gallery of Victoria, and the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle. From the moment they encountered a thespian robot in the lobby of Canberra’s Questacon, my kids tuned into science through the museum’s outstanding interactive displays.
8. Oceanic Victor, SA
Having braved Monarto Zoo’s innovative and unnerving Lions360 experience, I took my kids to Victor Harbour to get up close and personal with large blue-fin tuna. Built for educational and tourism purposes, this offshore holding pen is home to 80 prized tuna, blitzing about as we fed them sardines under the guidance of friendly marine biologists. Swimming with these speedy “Ferraris of the Ocean” is an unusual and delightful tick on the national bucket list.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH YOUNG KIDS
Don’t overwhelm yourself with bringing too many toys on the plane, as you’ll just overwhelm yourself. A colouring book and device loaded with educational apps or their favourite Netflix shows (which can now be downloaded to tablets) will suffice. If your kid keeps licking seat trays that were last wiped down in the 1980’s, don’t worry. Ours survived and yours will too. Invest in durable over-ear headphones to fit small ears, and always carry easy-to-access snacks.
Plan longer drives around nap times. Keep a barf bag or towel in easy reach. Get to know signs of car sickness, like moans and eye rolling, as a few minutes break here will always be preferable to a half hour clean-up there. Load up your phone with your kids’ favourite songs. Build in extra time for playgrounds to exhaust their energy along the way. Imagination games buy some time, as will devices (although it could also buy you motion sickness). Instead of playing Tetris with your luggage, consider renting a trailer.
Ask for extra towels and call in advance if you need a crib (we travelled with an sturdy yet ultralight crib from Melbourne’s Valco Baby). Bring a favourite stuffed toy and light blanket for each child to ensure consistency at night. Rooms higher up are less noisy. Download a white noise track for your phone or tablet to drown out noisy neighbours. Move all breakables out of reach, and push tables with sharp corners to the side. Remove what you can from the mini-bar to fill the fridge with milk and snacks (and avoid temptation). With playgrounds and swimming pools, Discovery Holiday Park cabins and self-catering Oaks apartment rentals served us better than traditional hotel rooms.
Weathering the judgmental gaze of pre-digital and holier than thou parents, we faced a choice: employ the screen to enjoy our meal in relative peace and quiet, or forget the screen and risk food fights, tantrums, and spills. There will be plenty of opportunities for both, of course, and we usually start with colouring books and small toys before resorting to the device. Restaurants seem to think kids survive solely on chicken nuggets, fish and chips, and spaghetti. We often shared our healthier “adult” dishes, and ordered extra veggies on the side.
Many years ago, the Matador Network sent me on assignment with two filmmakers to Panama and Costa Rica. We were
searching for young Americans who dared to dream of an adventurous life abroad, and more importantly, dared to act. The goal was to produce a series of profiles that would inspire others to 'break free' ...but like so many other projects with big hopes and dreams, this one never took off. We did however create a cool demo that I love revisiting from time to time, and met some some inspiring people. I captured their stories in writing, although it has never been published. Today, bottled in by the pandemic, I find myself thinking of these personal journeys, and how anything once seemed possible. It still is. I'm delighted to share these stories this month, maybe it will inspire you too.
Part ONE: Breaking Free to Save Yourself
Bocas del Toro, Panama
Born into wealth, talented and driven by success, Dyllan Mitchell’s life might not have been considered conventional, but the long hours and hard work were definitely paying off. After studying ballet and dance, he performed for the Lido in Paris, at Caesars Palace in Vegas, on Janet Jackson’s year-long worldwide tour. Returning to he founded a highly successful events
his native South Africa, management business. Proudly gay (he came out when he was 14 years old) Dyllan also found a loving and lasting relationship with Darrion, a fellow performer. He wore the right clothes, drove the right car, lived in the right neighbourhood, and moved in the right circles. The money flowed. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
At 34, Dyllan was diagnosed with glandular cancer. After undergoing intensive radiation and chemotherapy, the cancer continued to spread. Wasting away, the doctors gave Dyllan six months to live. Weighing just 29kgs, tubes up the nose, Dyllan’s light was fading. He found himself in conversation with friends, planning his own death. And then a light bulb went on.
“You know what I suddenly realized? All this is bullshit. The money, the things. When you’re know you’re going to die, there’s a cataclysmic refocus on what’s important,” he tells me.
With nothing to lose, he took himself off all western and allopathic medicine. He stopped his chemotherapy, all medical tests, and visiting any doctors. He switched became a strict vegetarian, and stopped eating dairy or drinking alcohol. And without any experience, he decided he wanted to sail around the world. He packed up and moved to the coast to learn about sailing, bought a yacht, and set off to find his peace. That was eight years ago. The Jackaroo is docked at the Isla Colon marina in Bocas del Toro. A wind-worn rainbow flag flaps in the wind, in sight of the Calypso Bar & Restaurant. For the last 18 months, it has been owned, operated and transformed by two unabashedly gay South African dancers, standing in almost equal height and weight, a one-two punch with zest for life at the top of the whiteboard menu. They live on the Jackaroo, their mobile wind-powered home, and have been partners for over 20 years.
None of the townfolk had met anybody like Dyllan and Darrion, and to their credit, even the local, traditionally homophobic islanders have warmed up to them. They serve up simple fare: BBQ ribs, Durban curry chicken, beer battered fish n’ chips. Occasionally, they perform a fire dancing show for diners – typically expats or visitors - to the delight of kids in tow. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to South Africans, we’re all gaga with national pride and regret that we couldn’t be there to share the nation’s euphoria. My vocabulary rediscovers old, familiar words. “Ja bru, I’m telling you, that was lekker!” My accent becomes a little thicker, at first for fun, and then because it remembers.
“As long as I was buying into what the doctors were telling me, my belief system regulated what was happening,” says Dyllan. “I don’t think I cured myself so much as made peace with myself.”
With sailing, Dyllan discovered his passion. There’s nowhere he’d rather be than on the water, under the stars, listening to his iPod. It’s allowed him to tune into himself, and his body. When he’s tired, he rests. When he needs more greens – “jislaak I’m telling you I get so tired of eating broccoli every night!” Darrion interjects.
The power of positive thought has long been known, but Dyllan is quick to point out that manifesting reality has become a pop culture catchphrase, and doesn’t always take into account reality. Yes, he believes the stress of his job and his personal issues gave him cancer, but he’s not about to tell a rape victim she manifested the crime on herself.
“Living with purpose is not being Mother Theresa,” he says. “It’s having a conversation with yourself. If we’re not living with purpose, we need nudges to remind us. I’m a type A personality, prone to focus on negative comments. Even here in paradise, it’s easy to be unhappy. Every day is a choice.”
I spend my last day in Panama sailing amongst the islands with my new friends. It strikes me that if we can love unconditionally, as an ideal, then why can’t we live unconditionally too? Standing at the bow, my arms outstretched, warm wind blowing through my finger tips, I’m more inspired than ever. Is this what breaking free is all about? Sure, it’s not the American Dream. But every day, more and more people are showing us that this could be the New American Reality.
Update: Dyllan and Darrion sold the Calypso, built a resort, successfully sold that, and now live in Panama City where they have an event venue. He remains "super good and healthy."
Part TWO: Breaking Free for Redemption
Rancho Margot, Costa Rica
Juan owned a highly successful chemical company in Europe. It all came to an end with a heart attack, and the doctor's words: “Either change your lifestyle, or expect to see a lot more of me.” Juan took just two weeks to sell his company, and moved down to Costa Rica to open a fully sustainable farm, resort and educational facility that has become a model for farming practices across the country. The operation at Rancho Margot is beyond impressive. It’s the future hope for humanity. Juan looks me in the eye, candlelight dancing across his face, his long grey hair still wet from our walk around the farm in the drizzle.
“Success is going from failure to failure with renewed optimism,” he says.
We talk about life, the universe, the taste of chillies.
“I never really made money until I stopped working to make money and started doing the things I wanted to do,” says Juan. Now he uses that money to demonstrate how the world can be a better place. often makes it so.
Part THREE: Breaking Free for Adventure
Suresh and Christina
La Fortuna, Costa Rica
It’s both presumptuous and insulting to assume that everyone needs to break free. Indeed, a common factor amongst my subjects, even at this early stage, is an adventurous spirit, a restless home life, a craving for challenges. Before my journey, I had already held several careers, lived on three continents, and travelled extensively around Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This did not however stop me from working in a high paid desk job, feeling that my potential was being squandered. Sometimes, people develop what I call Destructive Creative Habits. A dream to be a movie star, a rock star, an author. The odds are slim but that should in no way deter one trying to achieve it.
I’m standing on the edge of a stunning swimming hole, holding onto a long rope connected to a tree. The rope is knotted and slippery, but that hasn’t stopped locals and tourists from clinging onto it and swinging over the deep blue rock pool. I ask Suresh, a pioneer of adventure sports in Costa Rica, about my technique. “When do you know it’s time to let go? If I hold on too hard, I’ll swing right back into the rocks, but if I let go too early, I’ll plunge into the shallow part. “ Not unlike say, a Creative Destructive Habit, when people chase an idea so hard it ends up wrecking everything else around them. Persistence is vital, but so is timing. I shift my weight back, hold on tight, and go for it.
Suresh applied an almost military- like focus when it came to achieving his goal. Fate and circumstance deposited him in Costa Rica, but ideas, passion and hard work led him to start what is now the biggest adventure operator in La Fortuna. Fate, circumstance, and a whip smart former Wisconsin politician named Christina who married him, partnered up on the business, and recently gave birth to their baby daughter, Marley. Their success owes to the right pairing of the right people with the right complimentary skill sets. Suresh is the dreamer, Christina is the doer. Before she came along, Suresh’s fledgling rafting company had gone broke four times, but he kept returning to Costa Rica, persistently saving money to keep it going just one more season. As for Christina, her restlessness took from her from local council in Madison, Wisconsin to being a TV reporter in Mexico City, to traversing up and down Latin America as a tour guide. Work brought them together, and three months after they started dating, they were married, living in La Fortuna, and building Suresh’s dream together. Eight years later, their Desafio Adventures employs over fifty people, expanding into new eco- tourism activities, farming and real estate. Desafio is a Spanish expression for challenging oneself, and has turned into a philosophy for both its clients and owners. “The first time I interviewed as a tour guide, a friend of mine gave me some advice. He said: ‘Don’t have any expectations,’” says Christina. It’s tough not to think about what might or might not happen, and yet much more positive if we don’t. Sure, we can anticipate and prepare for any eventuality, but the idea of crossing the bridge when we get there allows movement, and movement creates momentum. Sometimes, that’s all we need.
Neither Suresh nor Christina thought of themselves as parents, and neither planned for a family. Yet the arrival of baby Marley has profoundly impacted their world. Everything changes with children. Priorities shift, goals readjust. Marley was born in Costa Rica, and both parents immediately felt a closer connection to the country. While they constantly battle with local corruption, misguided regulations and a general suspicion amongst locals of American expats, they also love the freedom and opportunity available to them here. “There’s always someone better, richer, smarter in the US, and the competition kills you” says Suresh. “I could never have accomplished what I have done here.” New immigration rules means Marley might not be able to get her American citizenship. She is a child of immigrants, bound forever to Suresh’s passion for rivers in Costa Rica, Christina’s passion for Suresh, and their common goal of creating an operation to safely challenge people to have fun – on canyon platforms, upright surfboards or rubber rafts and kayaks. We visit the swimming pool, drive beneath the perfectly shaped Arenal Volcano (the most active in all Central America), and stop off at a friend’s farm. Marley seems perfectly adapted for the bugs, the heat, the action. Back home, parents with three-month year old babies often don’t let them out the house. Marley is like having a new friend around, albeit one that is quiet and passionate about boobs. I learn that children do not close the door on parents wishing to break free. Sometimes, it is actually the children that provide the key.
Update: Suresh, Christina and Marley are still doing well in La Fortuna. "It's still a work in progress," writes Christina.
Part FOUR: Breaking Free for Love
I connected with Connor while I was on a media tour as a guest of the Cuban government. She showed me a different side of the country, the side most tourists and don't see. I don't think the Cuban authorities liked what I subsequently wrote, and I was never invited back.
Usually, the traffic migrates the other way round. Isolated, embargoed and stuck firmly within its revolutionary past, many of Cuba’s people dream of the United States, which seemingly offers unlimited opportunities, or at the very least, the chance to participate in the global consumer frenzy they see on smuggled DVD’s. With the government’s strict control of media, information and immigration, most Cubans don’t visit the United States: they escape.
Therefore, it’s extremely rare to find a foreigner, an American no less, who has decided to move to Havana. Fair-haired, freckled, blue-eyed and chomping on a cigar, it’s extremely rare to meet someone like Conner Gorry anywhere.
“It occurred to me that leaving the USA is like losing your virginity or catching your parents having sex: there's no going back,” she tells me. Born and raised in New York, she gave it a go in San Francisco too, but after her sister lost her home and business just four blocks from the World Trade Center disaster, Conner decided to pack up and leave, and has never looked back.
She seems to strikes up a conversation with everyone. In the local market where she haggles for vegetables, in the elevator at the museum for Cuban hero Jose Marti, at the Coppelia, Cuba’s Cathedral of Ice Cream. Her Spanish is fast and sharp. She’s used to explaining how a gringo talks the Havana talk, and doles out local pesos in Cuba’s absurd dual economy (tourists pay in Convertible Pesos, worth 25 times more than the local peso locals earn). Legally she’s in the country working as a foreign correspondent for a US-based medical journal. She’s also married to a Havana local, who happens to head up Cuba’s largest NGO. Before settling in Cuba, Conner found her niche writing guidebooks, travelling back and forth across the continent – a restlessness that seems to be a common trait for those that break free. Today she reports from the modest state-supplied apartment she shares with her husband. “My mother would ask me why I couldn’t have fallen in love with a Miami Cuban? It would have been a lot easier! I fell in love with a wonderful and imperfect man, who hails from a wonderful and woefully imperfect place. Both the man and the place are unique and intriguing and most days it feels more like a blessing than a curse. So I put up with it.”
Keeping in touch with the outside world can be sporadic. Around the globe, even remote villages nowadays have high-speed internet cafes, but Cuba remains stubborn in its frustratingly slow dial-up universe. Access to the outside world is tightly controlled. Getting online is expensive and slow, but with her 56K modem, Conner still manages to publish her widely read blog: Here is Havana. It is not an easy place to live, but then Conner has not chosen the easiest path in life. Travelling on her own (she credits a self defence class as one of the smartest moves she’s made), moving to Cuba, and reporting from the front lines with Cuban doctors in the hellholes of post-earthquake Haiti and Pakistan. She’s seen things the rest of us mentally brush under the carpet, and only think about in our nightmares.
Explains Conner: “One thing I've learned in my travels is that when you're down or feel despair creeping in, look to the locals. Every Cuban has known blackouts, dengue, hurricanes, drought, terrorism, and has had the boot of the United States at their neck for half a century. They work and live in conditions most can't imagine. But still they dance, laugh, share, and dream. Last week, a random woman I was talking to said to me: 'we've suffered so much. What's the point in adding more vinegar to the mix? Better to have a good time don't you think?' Yeah, I think!”
There are similarities between following your dreams, and falling in love. Both present challenges that can twang the guitar strings of your heart, but both can give you a tremendous sense of peace, the knowledge that you are exactly where you are, doing exactly what (and ahem, who) you should be doing. Conner loves her husband, a man whose ideals, energy and passion she both feeds off and relates to. It’s a long way from Manhattan, but hot, crazy Havana is also far removed from the out-of-control consumerism that can trap so many of us. “This little island has held people rapt for centuries,” says Conner, who seldom lacks things to write about. “But no matter where you live, you have to take the good with the bad, and no place or person is perfect.”
How many of us complain about lack of money to travel, but rack up debts on credit card? In Cuba, where goods are scarce, I am forced to reassess the power of products, and the true meaning they bring into my life. Do I need a new iPod or a new plane ticket? Would I take nightly beans and rice with the knowledge that my children will be well educated and receive top-notch free healthcare? These are complicated issues, and of course, one must take into account what I call Esrock’s Theory of Relativity. To whit: everything is relative. We all have our issues, whether you’re in New York, or Havana. But where and how you choose to deal with them is up to you. Hanging out with Conner, I realize the flip side of sacrifice is reward, but you’ll experience neither unless you toss the coin. Conner’s leap of faith to build a life in Cuba owes much to her faith in love, and her faith in herself. The interesting job and swift adapting to new surroundings came later. Are you standing on the edge, wondering if you can take your own giant leap? Perhaps we should take a page out of Led Zeppelin. “Now’s the time, the time is now,” sings Robert Plant. Ramble on.
Update: Connor still lives, writes and smokes in Havana. Her long running blog, Here is Havana, is essential reading for anyone interested in modern Cuba.
Part FOUR: Breaking Free to Help Others
We all go through stress. Here in Panama, surrounded by the dense jungle and cradling mountains of Boquete, I learn about different types of stress, and in particular, the positive impact that comes from stress with purpose. Robb Pickett has always been drawn to humanitarianism, but like many of us, he found himself working an uninspiring albeit well- paying job. His natural desire to help others was firmly on the back burner. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it proved to be his personal catalyst. People needed help, and he couldn’t just stand by and watch the news. Robb signed up with the Red Cross, joining an incredible 97 million volunteers worldwide who are part of the organization. As things often do when you’ve found your life purpose, Robb quickly progressed within the completely independent and non-partial Red Cross, learning just how much difference one volunteer can make. But he also felt there was a lack of organizations enabling volunteers to find suitable, meaningful projects. Voluntourism has become a travel phenomenon, yet many organizations can be expensive and difficult to deal with. “It makes no sense that you should have to pay more to volunteer and help people than to go to a resort,” he tells me on the drive from David Airport. With this in mind, he moved to the popular expat town of Boquete, and founded Global Humanitarian Adventures (GHA), an NGO with the goal of engaging and finding volunteers from around the world, facilitating their needs, and channelling their abilities into a wide range of organizations. In effect, GHA is an enabler, the pipe to connect charity and aid groups with helpful volunteers, whether they are willing to pay for the experience or not. Interestingly, Robb’s priority is the volunteer’s experience. If people have fun helping others, they’ll be inspired to continue, even after they return home, where GHA can match them with a local-based group. Robb works hard to recruit new volunteers. He makes little money himself, while relying on donated office space and housesitting
gigs in lieu of paying rent. All the while, he’s bringing dozens of different aid groups together, running the local Red Cross affiliate, working on a range of projects, and facilitating a Humanitarian Happy Hour at a local bar, getting people talking and collaborating. Here’s a guy whose passion is finding resources to help an orphanage where over 60 kids are under the care of just one or two overnight minders. Here’s a guy whose sleepless nights are about fixing schools or supporting local coffee growers or figuring out why some volunteers would prefer to party than actually get their hands dirty, and others would prefer no social interaction at all. “It’s stressful,” he says. “But it’s meaningful stress.”
“I remember thinking, ‘this can’t be it. There has to be more,’” continues Robb over a glass of wine at a beautiful house overlooking the flickering lights of Bouqete and further away, the city of David. Robb is housesitting for a couple months, looking after the dogs. I have learned on my own journey that one should never underestimate the kindness of complete strangers. We talk about a reversal of priorities, how Panama's cheap cost of living means you earn less, but then you spend less. Time is valued, rather than money. “Here in Panama, people take their time. When you meet someone over coffee, you sit and chat for hours. And oddly enough you get things done,” says Tammy, a former beauty queen from Virginia. Tammy, Brian, Jim, Lisa – I meet Americans from around the USA, finding a fulfilling lifestyle in a small town in Panama. “I’d like to make a toast that nobody here is over 40, but everyone is living as if they’re retired,” says Brian. Clink clink. Sure, nobody here owns this stunning house Tammy is housesitting, and nobody here is making lots of money. Even after several failures, professionally and personally, everyone at the table agrees they are living on their own terms. The New American Dream. Right here in Panama.
The next day, we pick up some coffee ice-cream for 50c. “One of the things I noticed since I turned my life around,” Robb explains, “is how excited I get about the simple things. I feel like a kid again.” A kid who loves getting his daily ice-cream treat. It’s a long way from the guy who worked in marketing for a magazine, tired and bored. He drives us around in a borrowed Land Cruiser, taking us on a loop into the mountains, pointing out schools (we’re putting volunteers in there), farms (volunteers are fixing that up) and the striking cliffs, waterfalls and jungle beauty. “I can’t believe I actually live here,” he says, under his breath. Volunteers are increasingly coming from people who live in Boquete itself, along with American, Canadian, European and Israeli travellers passing through.
Robb talks about the “oh shit” moments that challenge and push us to realize our potential. At 32-years old, he’s sincere, motivated, and profoundly determined to make it easier for any one in the world to volunteer their time to help others. He has some ambitious plans, resources are tight, and he knows it’s not going to be easy. But this is the kind of stress he can live with. On the drive to my next port of call, I am reminded of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Update: Robb moved back to the US where he started a relief organization that serves animals and those in need in disaster areas. He's currently building a getaway in North Carolina for first responders, animal rescue teams, and those who need to unplug and rejuvenate.
It's October, which means we're going somewhere creepy, and I'm not just referring to the snakes Down Under.
Australian has no shortage of brutal convict history, but there’s a tangible creep factor visiting the cells of the Old Melbourne Gaol. It's unnerving as hell standing before the same gallows that dispatched notorious criminals like Ned Kelly, Frederick Bailey Deeming, and 131 others. Especially at night, when the lights are dimmed, the daytime tourists have cleared out, and writer Trevor Poultney is leading a group of two-dozen tourists. He reassures us that he doesn’t need to make up any silly ghost stories, since the jail has plenty of real-life stories to do the trick. In fact, the jail’s consistent paranormal activity inspired Trevor to start the ghost tours in the first place. Of course, nothing has been proved and there’s no guarantee you’ll actually see anything. I ask two couples in my group why they feel it is a good idea to spend Saturday night in a dark, haunted 19th century prison block. Both reply that it is a birthday present. Price of a Ghost Tour: $38. Scaring the crap out of your spouse: Priceless.
A purple early evening glow still permeates the cellblock when Trevor begins.
“It’s dark in here, and it’s going to get darker. Keep in a tight group, as it’s less likely you’ll be picked off.” He’s joking of course, but he’s also a great storyteller, adding just enough bite to his words to keep everyone on edge. It’s a ninety-minute tour, mostly conducted outside the cells since they are too small, too dark, too claustrophobic and too damn spooky to spend much time in. Trevor begins with the tale of a site supervisor locking up the museum for the night. Suddenly, she felt someone kick her in the leg. Heavy doors began banging, chains rattled, and she heard groans and screams. Apparently, much of the weirdness tends to emanate from Cell 17 on the second level, although no particular record exists as to why this would be the case. Trevor tells us that prisoners were often moved around, documentation has vanished, but conditions were notoriously horrific. At the rear of the first level, we sit around the lit-up death mask of Ned Kelly, the most infamous bushranger in Australian history. Alongside replicas of the handmade armour Ned wore during his famous shoot-out with the law, Ned’s head is the museum’s most famous attraction. Gad is it creepy!
After the lifeless bodies of the condemned were removed from the gallows, it was common practice for prison officials to shave their heads and cast their death mask for research. It was part of a discredited 19th century practice called phrenology, which believed science could physically determine the motivations of criminals and lunatics. Ned’s head looks peaceful enough as Trevor whips out his tablet to show us the three types of ghost photos the jail receives from visitors. There are the fakes, easy to spot and silly to attempt. The second are from people seeing things that simply aren’t there, an easy but sincere mistake given the numerous shadows and effects of using a camera flash.
“You paid good money. It’s an atmospheric building. We’re very suggestible. Of course we want to see a ghost, why else would we be here?” he explains. Out-of-focus blurry zoomed-in photos do make great ghost photos, but the apparition is just about always in the eye of the beholder. But, as my own photo from Savannah testifies, not always. The third photos are the anomalies, the ones with no feasible explanation. Trevor shows us the spectre of a man with a hat standing outside Cell 17. We see the wraiths of a woman and child that can be seen hovering on level three. Other visitors, who have not taken a ghost tour, claim to have physically encountered these people during the day, with some even asking them for directions. At the gallows on the second level, the very spot where 129 men and four women took their last breath, Trevor shows us the one photo that continues to freak him out. His own feet appear at the top of the photo beneath the demonstration rope…only, he was with the visitor who took the photo on the other side of the cell.
“I think it’s a peaceful building,” he whispers. “Do I believe in ghosts? Things happen here, and that’s as far as I’ll go.”
We have fifteen minutes to roam about freely before closing. We’ll enter cells to gaze at the haunting death masks of dispatched prisoners, feeling an icy chill lick our necks. We’ll read about the torrid history and conditions of the prison, which operated between 1842 and 1929. Not many visitors will go as far as to enter Cell 17, because Trevor has done a bang-up job spooking us about it. This is where the belligerent man with the hat appears. Where guests feel something pushing on them. Where breath gets laboured, and electronic devices go on the fritz. This is the one cell where guide dogs refuse to enter. With nervous giggles, a few of us still walk into Cell 17. With our imaginations in overdrive, a sense of dread in the cell is unmistakable. I took plenty of photos, of course, and I’ve poured over them in search of an apparition. As much as I want to believe beyond the shadows, I did not strike ghostly photographic gold in the Melbourne Gaol. I did however encounter a fascinating cultural and architectural history, entertaining stories, unforgettable characters, and a true one-of-a-kind experience. What more could you ask for on a great night out in the city?
Click here for more information about a Melbourne Gaol ghost tour, although as with many other activities in Melbourne and elsewhere, this is something to consider in your post-Covid plans.
In less haunting news, you can read my latest Bucket Listed columns for Can Geo Travel which adds 11 new experiences to my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List, and reviews the incredible Arctic landscapes in renowned artist Cory Trepanier's new book.
Travel safe, stay inspired, and don't turn into a pumpkin.
You might also be a fan of the late author Douglas Adams, who wrote Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and the genius dictionary of made-up words, the Meaning of Liff. In 1992, he wrote a book called Last Chance to See, a travelogue about his journey to visit animals on the verge of extinction. Although the book has dated (some rare creatures have now completely vanished), I’m struck at how ahead of his time Douglas Adams was. Not only did he give us the meaning of life (the number 42, in case you forgot), but he foresaw the sad reality that a modern bucket list is not so much about doing something before you die, but before it disappears.
I write these words in the midst of a second unprecedented heat wave in a normally mild British Columbia summer. The first claimed over 500 lives in just three days, a staggering number that’s largely slipped under the flood of the 24-Covid news cycle. Meanwhile hundreds of wildfires are burning in the interior, smoking our skies sepia, evacuating thousands of people and torching the entire town of Lytton, a popular destination for river rafting. Scientists estimate over a billion marine animals cooked in the first heatwave, and more are undoubtably boiling in their shells this weekend as the temperature and humidex approach the mid 40°Cs. Climate change has come home to roost, and techno-evangelism (technology will save us!) suddenly rings a little hollow for Pacific Island nations soon be underwater, communities going up in flames, loved ones burying their dead or biodiversity battered by urban encroachment, poaching and agriculture. I know you come here for good news, but since I’m a pragmatic optimist, we have to accept that the near and far future will suffer increasingly extreme weather events, causing unparalleled environmental, financial and cultural devastation. All I can hope is that this finds you in a safe and stable nation with enough progressive foresight and resources to prepare for this eventuality. All I can hope is that my bucket list books do not become works of history – much like Last Chance to See - a review of destinations that also no longer exist. Unfortunately, not much has been gained in thirty years since Douglas Adams sounded his convincing warning bell, and so much has been lost.
My new ‘Bucket Listed’ column for Canadian Geographic Travel combines commentary with my travel recommendations. Each column is short and punchy and well worth reading, especially my second column about Indigenous tourism. My joyous and poignant Celebration of Canada column was sunk by the sombre nature of this year’s Canada Day, which coincided with horrific discoveries of residential school graves, sparking outrage at the nation and Catholic church’s complicity in an obvious attempt at cultural genocide. It’s a heavy topic for non-Indigenous Canadians to grasp, which is why I highly recommend reading Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth about Lies about Indians which uses a lighter touch to help us understand the many challenges and injustices that Indigenous communities face today. Next, I explored risk tolerance with a column entitled: Is it Safe to Travel Again? before jumping into practical tips for planning bucket list road trips and revealing some of my favourite, less-known experiences in every province.
Speaking of road-trips, I recently returned from a little adventure of Vancouver Island with the kids, ticking off some must-do experiences along the way. The new Malahat Skywalk was spectacular, with a few unexpected offerings (like a slide, boardwalk and adventure net) to elevate the experience well above just another roadside attraction. I’ve long heard about caving on Vancouver Island, so I’m a little shocked it took me so long to get to the Horne Lake Caves. I just assumed they were typical show-caves, but it’s more aligned with my best spelunking adventures abroad: hardhats, overalls, scrambling, twisting, ducking and climbing. Letting the kids hammer away for fossils under the guidance of an enthusiastic and experienced dinosaur museum curator was a stroke of genius, and we finished off at a fun camping festival in a forest near Courtenay. After 60 days of no rain, the heavens opened up and drowned us with the heaviest rainfall in years, soaking the thirsty fields and farms, and maintaining my 85% record of a mud-soaked fiesta whenever I camp at a festival. The Canadian government should just drop me off with a tent, a band and a DJ in the country’s most drought-impacted regions: statistical probability will take care of the rest. You can read about my Vancouver Island road-trip in my latest post on the newly relaunched www.canadianbucketlist.com
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the team at Great Canadian Trails, who are also passionate about remarkable Canadian outdoor adventures. You don’t need to be a hardcore backcountry explorer, cyclist, hiker, or paddler to experience the joys of a true bucket list adventure. GCT offer guided and self-guided tours that take care of all the logistics and make these kind of adventures far more achievable, accessible and enjoyable than you’d ever expect. We’ve been working together for years, they’re great people, and I’m thrilled they’ve managed to endure the challenges of Covid to emerge even more determined to help me build your lifetime highlight reel.
Congratulations! Each decade of your life is an accomplishment. Goals are realized, professions evolve, priorities shift, families grow and experience is gained. This is also reflected in how we choose to travel, and where we choose to go. Celebrating these important milestones, I've gathered inspiring destinations to suit this passage of time. Of course, every journey is unique. You can turn these decades upside down, or mix them up entirely. A bucket list is as special and individual as the person who crafts it, and each life journey is one’s own. As for the passing of the years themselves, I defer to the wisdom of Mark Twain: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”
Meeting Boris Becker as an 18 year old at Madame Taussad's in London.
20’s - LET'S PARTY
In our twenties, we travel to relish in the excess. All night parties, camping on beaches, intense relationships – all with a no-holds-barred commitment to the carefree abandon of youth. It's a time to make the kind of mistakes you'll learn from, and sacrifices you'd only make when you're young. Legends of Full Moon parties and all-night desert parties sound particularly appealing, and you don't mind sleeping on floors or eating instant noodles for a month if it means you can get to them. Backpacking across Western Europe is a rite of passage, although it's also very expensive, Stretching your travel dollar, you'll be drawn to budget-travel meccas like Thailand, Central America, India and Laos. You might be drawn to a Kibbutz in Israel or volunteering with animals in Bolivia. Everything and everyone will be particularly vivid and intense, an opportunity to learn and grow and let your hair down. You'll only realize just how big that opportunity was when you're further along your life journey.
Sharing a special sunset in Mauritius
30’s - ROMANCE AND FAMILY
As we grow into our third decade, life might have rearranged itself so that we'd want to visit special places with a special partner who one day will grow a family with us. As we circle the possibility of a major life milestone, a romantic adventure is definitely in order. Bus around Thailand, from the white, sandy beaches in the south to the rich culture of the north. Brave the bungie jumps and wild adventures of New Zealand. Take a tour through Eastern Europe, exploring cobblestone alleys and medieval town squares. Perhaps towards the end of the decade or the start of the next, your partnership has grown. Parents of young kids know that happy kids will always make a happy vacation. Choose a sunny beach resort with lots of activities in Hawaii, Mexico, Barbados, or Jamaica. Introduce your kids to new cultures and cuisines. Slow down and bond with your nearest and dearest, as together you build the memorable traditions of meaningful family vacations.
Here's an idea: let's hire an RV for an epic road trip in the Rockies! So we did!
40’s - IN MOTION
At last, the kids are at summer camp, or old enough to join us on an adventure that's physical, but not too strenuous. As careers stabilize and hobbies strengthen, perhaps it’s time to hike the Inca Trail, trek in Nepal, or spend our well-earned holidays on a multi-day bike ride through the valleys of Italy or France. A fly-in fishing trip in Canada, a multi-day rafting excursion between the Grand Canyon, or maybe just an epic road trip to explore the Oregon coast, Route 66, Yellowstone or Banff National Parks. Consider a few weeks camping across Iceland, or taking a tour to pack in the highlights of Western Europe. Volunteering in a foreign country delivers a rich, rewarding experience. Teaching kids, building wells, looking after rescued animals – making a difference in the lives of others makes a difference for us too. Old enough to know better and yet young enough to go with the flow, the forties is a milestone decade to follow our feet, and safely veer off the beaten track.
Smoked burnt ends and dinosaur bones. This is going to be so bad for me, and so, so very good.
50’s - FOOD AND FESTS
Do you remember when 50 used to be old? Not anymore. Today it’s a time to celebrate our decades of hard work, and the settled income that it has brought us. Now we can appreciate the more expensive bottle of wine, the fine dining restaurant, the outstanding stage play. Forget nightclubs, it’s time to appreciate the spectacle shows and world-class performances on offer in Las Vegas. For something more exotic, we’ll turn to major cultural spectacles like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Rio’s famous Carnaval. Perhaps a major sporting event is in order, such as Wimbledon, an Olympics or the Superbowl. The very idea of exploring one of the world’s great wine routes – Napa in California, Mendoza in Argentina, Margaret River in Western Australia – is intoxicating. We’ve finally booked to see the world’s largest jazz and comedy festivals in Montreal, the best acts at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, or the latest hits on Broadway. Enjoy the festivals, performances, wine tastings and feasts. You’ve earned it!
You can take my youth, but you can never take my freedom!
60’s - TIME FOR HISTORY
As we usher in the next decade, the allure of history is more fascinating than ever. We begin to see our lives in a greater context, and appreciate the passing of time. Once we might have ticked off the Louvre in a couple hours before racing off to the next Parisian attraction. Now we take our time in the world’s great museums – the Louvre and Hermitage, the Guggenheim, the ROM and the Museum of Natural History. Waterways and rail transports us in comfort to treasures of antiquity: cruise down the Yangtze or Nile Rivers, or along the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Sit back in a viewing carriage to marvel at the Canadian Rockies, the Australian Outback, or the highlands of Scotland. We’ll take our time exploring the ancient temples of Cambodia’s Angkor, the biblical alleys of Jerusalem, the Mayan ruins of Mexico, or the narrow canals of Venice. There is so much to see, and still plenty of time.
Making friends with young Masai warriors in Kenya,
70’s + - BUCKET LIST
We’ve always wanted to go there. We’ve always wanted to do that. As we enter the seventh decade of life, we realize our bucket list destinations are not going anywhere, but we most certainly are. Fortunately, in an age of affordable airfare and such a diverse variety of packages, our dreams are more accessible than ever. Cruise among the islands and abundant wildlife of the Galapagos. On the plains of the Serengeti and the legendary Masai Mara, witness the migration of the wildebeest from the comforts of a luxury, or self-catered bush camp, and make friends with Masai tribesmen. It’s not always easy, but we’ll put up with a sweaty trek for a face-to-face encounter with endangered mountain gorillas in the jungles of Central Africa. Iconic landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal draw us like magnets. Perhaps it’s also time to finally tick off that Alaska or Caribbean cruise, or visit long-lost relatives in the nations of our ancestors. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and appreciate the value of all that is to follow.
I was recently speaking about the insanity of fixed gear biking, that is, bikes that don’t have brakes. I first discovered them many years ago one memorable Halloween night on the hot sticky-duck streets of Hong Kong. More recently I discovered my unpublished article about that experience, which was used as part of the script for the Hong Kong and Macau episode of Word Travels. Fans of biking, couriers and fixed gears will definitely enjoy. It also feels good to find a home for my long-lost and wayward words.
My bicycle accelerates into the crowd, zigzags through a small gap into the street, dodges oncoming traffic before turning sharply left into a side alley. A brick wall brushes my shoulder as I slice across two trams, ramp over a sidewalk, and pedal towards a major intersection. Sweat has drenched the shirt beneath my daypack, and in a city known to rush, people stare and wonder: why the big hurry? I have just a few minutes to get to the White Stag bar, do ten push-ups in front of someone called Big Glenn, have him sign my manifesto, and shoot off into the traffic to find the next checkpoint. I’m too busy playing chicken with traffic to ponder how many times I’ve almost tasted road burn. In a city famous for its pulse, fixed-gear Alley Cat bike challenges really gets Hong Kong racing.
A growing worldwide underground sub-culture, local Alley Cat races have their origin with bicycle messengers in North America. In order to test local couriers’ streetwise knowledge, their speed and ability to navigate obstacles, Alley Cat races were set up in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago and Vancouver. Legends were born as couriers, often seen racing around these urban centers in dangerous traffic, challenged each other for titles, prizes, but most often fun. Races consist of checkpoints to be reached, and in some cases unusual tasks to be performed on arrival. Upping the thrill factor, most couriers ride fixed-gear bikes that have no brakes, no gears, and require an expert level of control and ability. Fixed gears are popularly used in the courier messenger community because they’re easy to maintain, and for anyone with a job requiring them to run into buildings to deliver packages, the bikes are confusing and difficult for thieves. Hong Kong has seen the emergence of an urban cyclist community, attracted to the lifestyle and challenges of riding on fixed-gears. Amidst the choking car and foot traffic beneath the late-night neon lights of the Central district, I went along for the city’s first unofficial Alley Cat race. When it comes Alley Cat racing, it's important to note that nothing is official anyway.
Em, where's the brakes on these things?
“In Hong Kong, you have the taxis, the cars, the trams, the mini-buses, buses and pedestrians, it’s a little crazy but we’re doing it for the challenge,” says Brian Fu, one of the organizers. “The key is, you never stop, you run into a problem, you turn right, you keep moving,” says Jeff Welch, a native of Washington DC and courier veteran who designed the race route. “People have always looked at messengers in a special way, with a mixture of envy and lack of respect,” he tells me. “They’re attracted to the freedom and the lifestyle, but repulsed because of the sweat, danger, and dirt.” With road rage, traffic, and pollution, it’s a high-risk game, but the money can be good - top couriers can earn more than $70,000 a year delivering envelopes. “You’re on the bike nine hours a day, you’re almost killed nine times a day, but you get used to it, and you begin to need it,” says Jeff, who has a few dozen Alley Cat races under his belt. For some messengers, including some of Jeff’s friends, the job costs them their lives. Messengers trade war stories about accidents, reminisce about fallen comrades, hold parties, and even attract groupies.
About half a dozen riders meet at 10pm outside a coffee shop. The manifesto is handed out, including a checklist of destinations and tasks that must be reached in order before reaching the finish line. One of them requires racers to find two girls and tells them that they are “sooo... beautiful!” Another requires us to find a bald man named 9-Ball and rub his head. In each case, a third party must sign our manifesto to prove the task has been accomplished. We count down to the start, and the race is on, each contestant racing off into the crowds. I decide to shadow a more experienced veteran, since without him I’d be lost in the traffic and spaghetti streets within seconds. We pedal frantically, every second counts. A policeman shouts at me from the sidewalk, but I’ve already disappeared around a corner. Alley Cat racing is a do-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of activity. Biking in a light drizzle at night in Hong Kong traffic is not for the fainthearted, neither is racing on a bike that, perhaps I forgot to mention, doesn’t stop with squeeze on the handlebar. But with the wind in my hair, the exhilarating speed and the quasi-legal thrill , I can certainly understand the attraction – it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun, and hopefully surviving to trade stories at the finish line.
Just as prestige television has reinvented the high concept of broadcast drama, documentaries that investigate global issues have become vital components of civic society. Supported by the deep pockets of Netflix, Amazon, HBO and the like, it gives me hope that we’ve transcended the overly-commercial, ratings-dependant, and largely vacuous focus of traditional broadcasters, who seldom gave docs light of day. Important films and series are now being made that would never have been made before, and are seen by more people than would ever have seen them before. Their impact on our world is real. On Netflix, The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma have exposed the shocking consequences and murky mechanics of social media. Icarus unmasked Russian sport doping, 13th clearly explained systemic racism, while Capital in the 21st Century has revealed the scale of our financial folly. Produced by elite sports stars, Game Changers rewrote the book on veganism, while Last Dance and F1 Drive to Survive gave us wild access to wilder sports. Becoming and Knock Down the House hold up political heroes too. And then there’s David Attenborough.
Now in his 90’s, the legendary natural history filmmaker has grasped the potential of streaming to reach mass audiences, hosting ground-breaking series that air on Netflix as well as traditional broadcasters like the BBC. Night on Earth, Planet Earth II and Our Planet have truly pushed the boundaries (and no doubt the budgets) of what the genre can achieve, giving us jaw dropping never-before-seen glimpses into the natural world. Attenborough’s wise voice adds indisputable credibility and trust. For me, he’s always been the ultimate school teacher, an inspiring voice and authority worthy of respect. The teacher you listen to, and never forget. Other than perhaps Morgan Freeman, I can’t imagine another voice narrating spectacular natural visuals with such wonder, gravitas, reverence and enthusiasm. Which is why his latest film, David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet, moved me to tears. The final card reads: “This film is David Attenborough’s Witness Statement. Who else needs to see it?”
Everyone needs to see it. Absolutely everyone, and their families, friends and cousins too.
I read a review for the One World series that questioned why the show didn’t focus more on the imminent and deep threats to the natural world, why Attenborough is celebrating ever-diminishing diversity instead of hitting the panic switch. There’s no crime in focusing on the positive, and while all his series do address critical threats to our planet’s eco-systems, panic switches have never been Attenborough’s forte. Also, he likely knew well in advance what was coming, and exactly what his panic switch would look like.
A Life on Earth begins in spooky, desolate Pripyat, the abandoned Ukrainian city that once supported Chernobyl. I spent a couple days there, I’ve been in the same hallways, cracked apartment blocks and eerie streets. The world’s worst nuclear disaster has made this model Soviet city uninhabitable for thousands of years, an avoidable mistake blamed on human error. Likewise, we are doing the same for our planet, but our destructive global meltdown is taking place slowly in real time. When Mr. Attenborough (he deserves the prefix, as do all great teachers) tells us he has witnessed the devastation taking place over his own lifetime and with his own eyes, it warrants no discussion. For 118 minutes, everyone – boomers, millennials, scientists, corporations, politicians - needs to shut the fuck up and listen to what this extraordinary elder has to say, and respectfully bear witness to his statement. Accompanied by incredible images pooled from his many shows, he explains what is going on in clear, concise language so that a child might understand it. How the oceans and jungles and forests are dying, how we’re entering the planet’s sixth great extinction event, and how every step forward is through a series of one-way doors with no turning back. Once nature’s system is out of equilibrium, it all goes to hell. As a graphic shows the passing of his years, the loss of natural habitat, and the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, Mr. Attenborough becomes visibly more frustrated and upset. How fortunate we are to have shown up during the Holocene, a 100,000-year Eden of unprecedented natural stability. But like bad hotel guests, we’ve completely trashed the place. At this rate, Earth won’t be nearly as bountiful or habitable for future generations. The most harrowing part of the film is a projection of what the world will look like in 2030, 2050, 2080. Wildfires, dustbowls, ocean deserts, collapsing food stocks, melted ice, displaced millions…Attenborough looks away in horror, and we feel the blackness of his despair. We had so much, and we wasted it. How will the future ever forgive us?
But this is David Attenborough, a man who has seen more wonder and amazement than anyone could ever hope to see. All is not lost, and there is hope. “I’m going to tell you how,” he says. Once again, I sit up and pay attention, because as the film cuts to clips of Attenborough lecturing in Davos and for the UN, I know he’s not going into platitudes about recycling saving the Earth. Using real-world success stories in Costa Rica, Palau, and yes, even Chernobyl, Mr. A discusses the imminent approach of our peak population, with ambitious plans to protect our oceans, re-wild the scorched forests and plains, and increase vital bio-diversity. Because, he insists, that’s what it all comes down to: if we sustainably restore the system, our planet will breathe again, and it will be a win-win for our food security, stability, and human prosperity.
Often, the “we all need to change to save ourselves” diatribe can feel overly simplistic and dismissive of economic and political realities, but from the mouth of Sir David Attenborough, it left me with renewed hope and purpose. With any luck, it had an impact on his audience at Davos and UN, for those with political and economic power are the “We” that need to change most of all.
Other essential documentaries:
In a while, crocodile. Cango Wildlife Park, South Africa
have entered a cage four times to stare into the eyeballs of four famously dangerous creatures that one is strongly advised – and I cannot emphasize this enough - not to stare into the eyeballs of. Psychologists could unpack a fascinating study behind the motivations behind the people who choose, willingly and with good money, to get close to animals like sharks, crocodiles and lions. Not that such a study has ever been commissioned, since scientists of all ilk are currently laundering lab coats for more pressing concerns. Since we live in an age of misinformation, I may as well just invent one. According to global peer reviewed research study (*that was neither peer-reviewed, researched nor studied), thousands of people choose to cage-dive with dangerous animals because:
Curiously, 63% of these non-existent participants said they harboured a deep and unexplainable fear of the above-mentioned animals, and 12% said they only signed up having felt guilty for entering the booking office with the sole intention of using the toilet. Whatever floats your boat, and that's where we'll begin, bobbing off the east coast of South Africa on the lookout for man-eating Great White Sharks. Since they are widely known for bearing progressive and egalitarian natures, the Great Whites eat women too.
Nice fishy: Mossel Bay, South Africa
When I entered the cage, I was still between the teeth of the shark phobia that had plagued me since watching Jaws on a hotel movie channel as a 6-year-old on his first beach holiday. Fast forward a few decades, and I’d seen far better movies which highlighted the vital role sharks play in the eco-system, the horrific carnage behind their hunting for shark-fin soup, and their overall misunderstanding within popular culture. Fact is (and this is a real fact): Sharks are amazing. If they wanted to eat people, hundreds of us would be attacked every day, all around the world. In reality, you have more chance of struck by lightning or drowning in a bathtub (this is also true). I jumped into the cage, and had a life-changing experience with a rather large great white who could have attacked me from beneath (where the thick cage inexplicably and unnervingly morphed into a wire-hangar-thin mesh). From that moment, I resolved to learn how to scuba dive, and have since shared an underwater, cage-free space with sharks from Hawaii to the Papua New Guinea. That first cage dive truly changed my life for the better. If you insist and persist on eating shark-fin soup, please look at yourself in the mirror, then jump out a high window. Millions of sharks needlessly massacred each year will thank you.
Swimming with Salties: Crocosaurus Cove, Australia.
Crocodiles are an entirely different beast. For starters, they simply want to eat you. No curiosity here, no meeting of creatures or confusion because you look like a seal. To a crocodile, we look like lunch, which is why they quickly surrounded me in the pool. At Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa, I entered a steel cage and was lowered into a pool. At Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, northern Australia, I was inside a cylindrical Perspex tube with a few too many croc teeth scrapes for comfort. The Nile and Saltwater dinosaurs that decided I looked too delicious to pass up bumped me around a bit, their large orange reptilian eyes gazing deep into my soul. 17% of our fictional survey participants mentioned they enjoyed the sensation of feeling like prey. I, for one, did not. While my shark cage encounter made me want to dive with (admittedly less fierce) sharks in the wild, the croc cages left me twitchy about the Crocodile Warning signs I later encountered at popular swimming holes outside of Darwin and in tropical north Queensland. The mere thought of saltwater crocs patrolling the coast keeps locals off the beaches, and one taxi driver told me about a pet dog that ran to the beach, jumped into the water, and was promptly gobbled up by a lurking croc. According to a BBC Report, the best tip for surviving a crocodile attack is to avoid getting attacked. That's one helpful report, I don't know what we'd do without it.
Somewhere in Bohol, Philippines.
The Burmese python acting as a living sofa above was a roadside in attraction I passed somewhere in the Philippines. Entering its cage seemed like something to do. Once I was seated, I started questioning what on earth they could be feeding this thing. The answer, I hoped, was not dumb tourists who enter snake cages at roadside attractions
Lions 360 at Monarto Zoo, South Australia
Finally, I should mention that I once got into a cage surrounded by hungry lions. Inspired by shark cage dives, the Monarto Zoo in South Australia offers a Lions 360 experience, with feeding time for the zoo’s female pride coinciding with lucky tourists paying a little extra to be in a caged enclosure. The lions, which roam in a very large space that resembles the African bush, get to walk on the cage feet above your head, and close enough for you to smell their aroma, breath, and, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, their urine. My daughter was five years old at the time, and the lions paid special attention to her, recognizing our group’s weakest link. As well fed as they were, I had little doubt they would have gladly added a curly-haired dessert to their carefully monitored intake of horse (or perhaps kangaroo) meat. For further insight, here's a little video of Lions360 that I made about that experience.
Lions, crocs, snakes, sharks…getting close to dangerous wild animals is always memorable, especially when you’re in an environment designed to ensure you’ll live long enough for the memories. I’ve had close encounters in the wild with hippos (which kill far more people than crocs in Africa), grizzly bears, polar bears, piranha, elephants, orca, cheetahs, baboons, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and far too many mosquitoes (which kill many, many more people each year than any of the above). Every experience left me in awe of nature and the creatures we share this planet with. Except the mosquitoes. Those bastards just left me itchy.
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 love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.