A World Cup in Saudi Arabia
I’m not a particularly big fan of soccer, but I love the FIFA World Cup. Every four years, countries clash on the football pitch in a proxy war for cultural supremacy, creating a spectacle that delivers controversy, thrills, and the illusion that the world can truly come together every once in a while, even if only to focus on a beautiful game. When would the nations of Denmark and Tunisia join together over anything, much less Mexico and Poland, Switzerland and Cameroon, Uruguay and Korea, Portugal and Ghana? That was only in the first round.
Imagine if Ukraine could play Russia on the pitch, or Israel kick-off against Iran? The matches themselves run back and forth on the spectrum of boredom and excitement. This year Canada made the finals for the first time since 1986, announcing itself as a true soccer nation (alongside other underrated teams like Australia and the USA). It was a close opener, losing to the world’s #2 ranked Belgium. Our second match was against Croatia, and I tuned in from 35,000feet on a Lufthansa flight that screened the game live. Technology, eh? When Alfonso Davies scored Canada’s first ever World Cup goal in the opening minutes, I screamed "YES!" scaring the crap out of my fellow Airbus 330 passengers, the vast majority of whom had little interest in this particular game. We were, after all, en-route to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It's not a country I ever thought I’d visit, but I received an invite to the prestigious WTTC Global Tourism Summit, and an opportunity to explore some of Riyadh and Jeddah in the process. Yes, I’m fully aware of the problematic international reputation of Saudi Arabia, just as I’m fully aware that what we hear in the media can differ starkly from reality on the ground. Among critical news coverage are whispers of a great cultural reformation, a dialling back of religious extremism, and a massive investment in mega-projects to attract international tourism. I’ve written more about that in an article I hope someone will publish, which gets into the contradictions and controversies. Here, I thought I’d focus on moments and vignettes without getting too much into the weeds. I expect some readers will take offence regardless.
As a Jewish journalist, I was a little nervous heading to the highly-controlled kingdom, of course, but I had been provided with a new online tourist visa, and an invitation. I was greeted with the first of many small cups of Saudi coffee, a blonde elixir spiced with cardamom, saffron, ginger, and others spices, and always served with sweet dates. Saudi Arabia is trying to get its coffee tradition recognized by UNESCO as a unique cultural heritage, a similar designation as baguettes to France or Balsamic vinegar to Italy. My first impression leaving the airport was similar to my first impression visiting Dubai. Endlessly straight, flat roads lined with neon malls, minarets, unusual skyscrapers, and heavy traffic. I see a large neon sign advertising the Human Rights Commission, as if proudly defying international criticism. There’s Starbucks, H&M, Dunkin' Donuts, major hotel chains, gas stations (about 80c a litre, in case you’re wondering). We pass the world’s largest female-only university, villas and palaces, glitzy car dealerships. My hotel room at the Jareed Hotel was huge and modern, surrounded by upscale restaurants, and overlooking two giant screens showing the World Cup. A bottle of wine with fruit sat at the foot of the bed, only the wine bottle held Italian sparkling water. There would be no wine, beer or spirits this week, and it would take some getting used to. Although I’m told there is a black market, alcohol is illegal across the kingdom, and so it will be a rare, dry week of hot, exotic travel.
I grab an excellent burger from a nearby food truck, and sit with the locals as Spain draws with Germany. Mostly men, but women too, some of whom wear the full abaya, others just a headscarf, and a few with no head covering at all. Under the leadership of the millennial Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salmon (simply called MBS), the regime is stepping away from the hardcore extremist Islam that denied women rights, and locked up the kingdom to western visitors. They don’t call it modernization, they call it restoration, and while culture still dictates very conservative values, the kingdom has passed laws to allow freedoms unthinkable a decade ago, and religious authorities have had their wings clipped. In the hotel, I bump into a young Canadian kid here for Middle Beast, a massive desert rave that will attract some 200,000 people, with acts including Carl Cox, Swedish House Mafia, Nervo, Eric Prydz, DJ Khaled, and other electronica superstars. Sounds too good to be sober. “Oh, there will be drugs and alcohol,” he tells me confidently. “Possession is okay, you just don’t want to be caught selling it.” Not for the first time, I catch myself saying: are we in Saudi Arabia?
The Chair of the Royal Geographical Society’s Younger Member Committee and I wander up to the Hollywood actor Ed Norton, who is at the travel conference to speak truth to sustainability bullshit. We have a great conversation about my first impressions of the kingdom. He reassures me that it's very different to what most people see and hear in the news. We trade details, which is when I discover that Ed Norton is actually an affable British venture capitalist named Justin Cooke. The real Ed Norton is on stage tomorrow, and turns out he’s a travel ambassador for Kenya, who knew? Just about everyone I speak to at the luxe World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit is interesting and worth the words. This includes Carnival Cruises CEO Arnold Donald (a name that just rolls off the tongue) and Mexico’s former Minister of Tourism and now Special Tourism Advisor to Saudi Arabia Gloria Guevara. I ask her if she’s supporting Mexico or Saudi Arabia in the World Cup, and like an experienced politician, she doesn’t provide a definitive art.
Walking the palatial and fragrant hallways of the Ritz-Carlton Convention Centre among traditionally robed Arabs, Asians, Africans and Europeans leaves me feeling optimistic. It’s a true melting pot of culture, gathered to tackle major issues in the realm of hospitality. I expect it must feel the same at COP Climate Conferences, or the United Nations, except with 250 CEOS and 52 Ministers of Tourism in attendance, something concrete might actually get accomplished here. Canada is notably not in attendance, likely because of an on-going diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia. This intersection of tourism, politics and commerce can be controversial. Although I expect I’ll be heavily criticized for visiting the kingdom, I’m here with an open mind, and an open heart, full of questions which I’m not afraid to ask. Over the course of the week, I have a dozen terrific conversations with Saudi men and women, all of whom speak of a country transforming itself at rapid speed, eager to modernize, and ready to welcome the world.
We fly to Jeddah, the Saudia Airlines in-flight entertainment interrupted when we fly over Mecca for a special prayer. There are R-rated movies in the system, in case you were wondering. Jeddah is hot and humid, and the traffic is bonkers, especially at night when Saudi Arabia comes alive. Our business hotel is opposite the Red Sea, with a wide lane for bike and walking traffic, and concessions on the beach. Most women are fully covered up in their abayas, some not.
I had picked up a SIM card at the airport, and unlike China, all foreign media is available, including articles highly critical of the regime. Reading about beheadings, death squads and brutal royal purges makes for disturbing reading. MBS sounds like an ambitious guy you simply do not want to cross. He also sounds like an autocrat who will do whatever it takes to realize his goal of reaching 50% GDP from non-oil revenues by 2030. He’s also a millennial, so I wonder what show he’s currently binging on Netflix. You can go down Saudi Arabia's Vision2030 rabbithole here. The giga-projects are mind-blowing.
Huge public art exhibits line the highways, and the glitz of the Jeddah Ritz Carlton is staggering. The Royal guest house looks bigger than Buckingham Palace. We dine in fantastic restaurants, visit a floating mosque, and then skip a museum to watch Canada play Morocco on an outdoor big screen, with a pro-Morocco crowd gathering on hundreds of bean bags. The crescent moon is out, the sea breeze is warm, the mosque is lit up behind us…it’s one of those unexpected choice travel moments. Along with fellow Canadian journalists we cheer for our team, but it doesn’t help. Canada loses all three group stage matches, and crashes out of the World Cup with its beaver tail between its legs. Locals are friendly though, somewhat bewildered by the fact that a group of Canadian tourists are here in the first place. At least tonight, because we’re alongside a Formula One race track, and Jeddah already receives millions of tourists a year on their way to make the Hajj and Umrah in Mecca, located about an hour’s drive away. That’s still off limits to non-Muslims, at least for now.
For all the construction and moonshot tourism developments (check out this wild vision for The Line), my week’s highlights are the old towns of Jeddah and Riyadh, which feel more authentic with their wooden windows, mud-houses, souks, galleries and mosques. I learn about Saudi clothing, their customs, coffee ceremony, their homes and lavish feasts. Gradually, my overall discomfort with the regime gives way to the truth of all travel, which rears up whether you’re visiting a highly-controlled regime or permissive democracy: cultures are different, and not every culture wishes to emulate our own. Where we see oppression, they see tradition; where we see a gin and tonic, they see decadence. Neither has the right to judge and convict, but we all have the right to engage, listen, and learn. In sha’Allah, we can all come together – men, women and children - over coffee and glazed dates, with mutual respect and understanding of our differences.
In sha’Allah, may tourism continue to drive positive change on the planet we all call home.
Now, let’s get back to the football.
How to Hike the Lions
The mountains overlooking Vancouver have several rockstars. There are the three ski resorts, the gondolas of Grouse, and the choppy crest of Crown. Perhaps the most distinctive peaks are The Lions, named in the 1880s because they resemble two sleeping lions (and because nobody back then deferred to Indigenous names). The East and West Lion peaks (reaching 5269ft and 5400ft respectively) inspired the BC Lions football team, Lions Gate Bridge, Lions Gate Hospital, and Lions Gate Entertainment. They also inspire ambitious hikers to brave a knee-punishing ascent with a memorable day-hike or overnight trek, complete with a challenging summit free climb. I am not an ambitious hiker, but conquering the Lions has been on my bucket list for years. This year, all my excuses finally ran out.
Before we get to the hike, it’s important to recognize that these are not Lions at all, they’re actually twin sisters. According to the Squamish people, the Twin Sisters are markers of peace between the Squamish and Haida, formed by the Creator to honour a treaty, or as a result of twin Squamish sisters captured by a Haida raiding party. Dismissing Indigenous legends and name places to honour colonial heroes and symbols has fortunately run its course, so this blog post would like to acknowledge that it takes place on the unceeded territory of the Squamish people, and is grateful for the opportunity to visit the hallowed peaks that mean so much more than a great view and a hiking adventure. I’ll call them Lions moving forward, but continue to pay my respects to the Twin Sisters and their cultural legacy.
There are two ways to hike the Lions. Park at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort and hike up and across the mountains, or park in Lions Bay and hike up… and up…and up. The Cypress route adds a few kilometres and requires some parking and driving coordination, especially if you’re descending on a one-way route through Lions Bay. The Lions Bay route requires a lucky parking spot in the few public spots available at the trail head, or get ready to add some asphalt road ascent to your journey. Be on the lookout for unimpressed NIMBY Lions Head neighbours who don’t appreciate hikers visiting their secluded mountain community. At least they didn’t seem to appreciate me, perhaps because I had arranged a parking pass and my Kia brought down property values for a day. Signs at the trail head to West Lion make no mistake what’s in store: Difficulty: Strenuous. Only be attempted by properly equipped and experienced hikers. The sign states it is 15km round-trip to the summit, with a hefty 1525m elevation gain. It suggests you budget an ambitious 7 to 8 hours. There are also bears in the area, along with cougars, bobcats, coyotes, lynx and even snakes (although the local snakes are harmless). As I started up the trail, encountering any wildlife would instantly become the least of my concern.
Up we go. And up. And up. And up further still. Ah, what’s this? A flat section! Through fairy beds of green moss and lush tree tunnels, beautiful, I needed that welcome breather, and…. nope, it’s up again. And up, up, and up further still. Poles are essential, as are frequent water breaks (I slugged through 2.5 litres of water on my hike, and I don’t drink that much). Loose rocks are waiting to roll your ankle, and slippery roots waiting to trip you up. We cross a bridge over a fetching cascade, which invites a cool dip in the rock pools, but there’s no time to dally. It’s an unseasonal warm and dry October, which means a lovely cool temperature and few bugs, but also shorter days. We were on the trail by 7:45am. The parking lot, incidentally, was already full.
The West Lions is a popular hike, and everyone I passed seemed in better physical and mental shape to do it. A group of bro’s (shirtless, tanned, bleached hair, ripped, backward baseball caps) were already on their descent. These are BC’s hiking equivalent to California’s surfing dudes. I encounter groups and couples, and a quick-footed solo teenage boy with parents that should be proud and worried. Up and up, over and up, until almost 4 hours in, we crest at a viewpoint and finally see the mighty Lions up close. Solid rock (hornblende diorite for you geologists), the two peaks are more imposing and intimidating when you stand beneath them, casting a shadow into the valley below. As we continue our ascent, the rocks become bigger and more challenging, remnants of several millennia of rockslides. Tears are flowing from my knees, and I’m cursing the weight of snacks I thought I’d need in my daypack. Finally, we reach a large outcrop where most sane people stop to enjoy the incredible 360-view of the Lions, the Howe Sound, and on a clear day, Vancouver far below. Most sane people will reach this point, say they’ve hiked the West Lion, and call it a day. The rest of us might continue on the 29-kilometre Howe Sound Crest Trail from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove, or decide it’s worth the risky free-climb up the rock to the West Lion summit. Cramping legs, blistered ankles, heavy breathing, no fitness whatsoever…of course I’m going for the top.
Other than one handy rope to assist with a 5 metre drop at the start, there are no chain ladders or ropes. I had to navigate up and over sheer rock face, balancing on narrow ledges while desperately searching for rock holds, doing my best not to think about the 30m – 50m plummet below. Some hikers brought helmets and climbing shoes. I had a flask of rum. Remember: three points of contact! It’s been a while since a physical challenge intersected so concisely with my mental fear, and several times I paused to breathe, stay calm, and recollect myself in that special place we all visit sometimes. It doesn’t take very long to get to the summit, but after a challenging 5-hour ascent, it’s tough as hell. My thighs cramped up just in time to collapse in a heap by the West Lion’s rock cairn, the only sign that you are indeed, as high as you can go. Oh, and the sweeping, spectacular view that surrounds you. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I now have to scale down the dangerous rock, and then hike down a trail so steep it could snap a shock absorber.
A few Band-aids, a swig of rum, some yummy sandwiches, painkillers, candy and nuts, and we’re on our way down. It’s always much quicker hiking down than up, but it’s also hell on your knees and tricky for your ankles. Yet with fine company, fine weather, and the intangible joy that accompanies any sense of accomplishment, we slowly made our way down to Lions Bay. You do not want to descend this trail in the dark, but we timed it perfectly, arriving at the parking lot at 5:45pm. With plenty of breaks and time to enjoy the views (and factoring the state of my fitness), it was a very long, 10-hour hike, and the second most challenging hike of my life (here’s looking at you West Coast Trail).
It took a few days for me to stop walking like a stepped-on spider, and yes, it definitely would have helped to have prepared with more than just a few games of pickleball. There’s plenty of reviews of the West Lion hike on various hiking sites, and yes, I can confirm the last scramble is as challenging as everyone says it is. Unless you’re that ten-year old girl who passed us on the way down, carrying her stuffy Snow Leopard.
As I lay in bed that night groaning with stiffness, my wife asked me why on earth anybody would ever want to do this to themselves? My reply was simple: “Every time I see those Lions, I can think ‘I’ve been to the top of that!’ It’s a personal accomplishment that just keeps on giving.”
Special thanks to Jon, Revelie, Mike and Stephanie.
Slovenia - Under the Radar
Canadians know that any country sitting in the shadow of a more popular neighbour is often overlooked. Spare a thought for Slovenia, that small nation in Central Europe within sight – quite literally – of Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. While international visitors to Europe might beeline to nearby Venice or Milan, Salzburg, Budapest or even Zagreb, many would be hard pressed to locate Ljubljana on the map, much less be able to pronounce it. Slovenia lacks the attention of its more famous neighbours, but discovering its historical capital, frosted peaks, glimmering lakes and lush countryside, it’s clear this modest nation can compete with all of them.
With its central location and abundant natural beauty, Slovenia was considered a prize territory for the conquering armies of Rome, Austria-Hungary, Croatia, Germany, Serbia, Italy, and finally, the Communists who incorporated it into Yugoslavia. Claiming its independence with an impressive lack of political turmoil in 1991, Slovenia officially joined the European Union in 2004, adopting the euro but keeping its identity intact. The nation of two million people has quietly got on with the business of becoming one of the most prosperous, stable, and successful of all the post-Soviet states. It frequently ranks among Europe’s best economies, scores big in lifestyle indexes, and it really wants you to not confuse it with Slovakia, a different (and take it from me, less impressive) country altogether.
As I wander the streets and canals of old Ljubljana (say it with me: Yoo-bli-yana), I’m reminded of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest. Yet Ljubljana feels cleaner and more civilized than those capitals, immaculately maintained with arty cafes, old world architecture, copper Church steeples, ample bike lanes and manicured parks. Locals roam about, stylishly dressed in that casual, modern European manner of looking fantastic without much effort. I take care not to trip on the city’s polished cobblestone for fear of cutting myself on those striking Slavic cheekbones. Students bike across the Games of Thrones-ish Dragon Bridge and distinctive Triple Bridge, the public art is impressive, and even the urban graffiti is tasteful. Overlooked by the 900-year-old Ljubljana Castle, the capital is a template for any great European capital, with half the tourists.
I expect to find more visitor’s at Slovenia’s premier tourist attraction, historic Lake Bled. Sitting at the foothills of the towering Julian Alps, you might have seen images of the lake on screensavers or Instagram or any platform hoping to illicit a ‘wow, where the hell is that?’ response. It had taken me less than an hour to drive the smooth highway from Ljubljana, and ‘WOW’ got cap-locked when Lake Bled came into view. Framed by mountains and thick forest, the placid, emerald-coloured water has a small island in the centre with a notable European landmark. The gothic Church of Mary the Queen was first consecrated in the twelfth century, and restored to its current state in the seventeenth century. “Europe,” as Eddie Izzard remarks, “where History comes from.” Long before the island became a site of Christian pilgrimage, it was a cult centre for Slavs to worship the Goddess of Love and Fertility. Fittingly, couples flock from around Europe for destination weddings in one of several grand lakeside hotels, the remains of former royal palaces. Tradition holds that grooms must carry their bride up ninety-nine steps to the chapel, and ring the famous bell three times for good luck. Judging by the strain I see on the flummoxed faces of several men, carrying anyone up ninety-nine steep steps and then ringing a heavy bell is more difficult than it appears. The rest of us will just fall in love with the warm, azure water, four-hundred-year-old rowboat transportation (called pletnas), lovely ambiance and a location so striking you’d think it had been airbrushed onto the cover of a romance novel.
Visitors to Slovenia often complain they should have allotted more time. More time to explore the notably affordable all-season mountain resorts. More time to hike, fish, bike, raft, and enjoy the country’s abundant outdoor splendor. More time to visit Lipica, the ‘cradle of the race’ of the unicorn-white Lipizzaner horse that have dazzled dressage events for centuries. More time for show caves, the world’s deepest underground canyon, the robber-thief Predjama Castle, or visits to old churches and abbeys. The country is compact and easy to get around, English is widely spoken, and the local cuisine draws heavily on the best traditions of its neighbours: outstanding beer influenced by Hungary; pizza, gelato and coffee by Italy; schnitzels and pastries by Austria.
Yes, we know all about living in the rain shadow of a more famous country that soaks up the world’s attention. This is why Canadians will particularly appreciate that quiet, overlooked and underrated Slovenia might just be the most enticing country in all of Europe – east, west, and otherwise.
Classic Car Rally 101
We’re just minutes into the rally, and I’m clutching onto some key advice:
Dave, my rally Obi-Wan, is a case in point. A successful businessman living in West Vancouver, he’s the owner of over a dozen classic cars, including a pre-war Bentley and Rolls Royce. That’s pre-World War 1. A 20-year rally veteran, Dave’s run the Peking to Paris (twice), along with rallies in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. For this year’s Northwest Classic, open to pre-1981 collector cars, Dave’s selected his reliable 356 Porsche. He explains it will allow him to focus on the race, as opposed to keeping the car going. Race is not exactly the right word. It’s more like a Sunday drive, with two hundred good friends, and a purpose.
Crawling along the I5 to Portland, Dave gives me the basics of time-speed-distance rallying. Drivers and navigators are given instructions that must be followed to the letter, and to the second. Each car is spaced one minute apart, driving at suggested speeds to enable us to reach, say, a particular stop sign in exactly 2:43 seconds, or a right turn at 7:29. Teams calibrate their odometers, and must factor traffic and rally rules. We never exceed the speed limit, unless we’re running late, in which case, well, these are classic sport cars.
The Rally Master adds traps designed to bamboozle even the most alert navigator, steering us off course, resulting in time penalties or lost minutes. Each day might feature up to 10 stages, comprised of a start, finish, and time check by a team of volunteer marshals hidden somewhere along the route. Dave warns me that it doesn’t help to follow the car in front of us. They could just as easily lead us off a cliff as to the next checkpoint.
As a virgin navigator, I am determined not to let my driver down. Dave’s wife, who normally takes the navigator role, has already warned me: “whatever is said in the car doesn’t count.” Things can get heated when the pressure is on, and a slight navigator omission can send our car rallying down the rankings. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek award, the Flying Clipboard, for the team most notably cracking at the seams.
Still, don’t hold your breath waiting for road rage. Vintage rallies are first and foremost about the cars, the driving, and the community it brings together. Owners come from all walks of life, taking pride in their aging Alpha Romeos, MG’s, Fords, Mercs, Saabs, Porches and other models. The average car at the race might cost around $30K - $50K, but there are some standouts, like a 1963 AC Cobra, worth a cool half a million dollars. Laurie and Verna Fraser from Langley own a dozen collector cars. “I got my first MG at 21 years old, and it was all downhill from there,” explains Laurie. Vintage cars sound like an addiction. Another racer from Coquitlam tells me there are two events he would never miss: The Northwest Classic, and BC’s Spring Thaw. He speaks of them with the reverence of a family Christmas.
I’ve nicknamed Dave’s Porsche ‘The Silver Bullet’ because its classic, capsule-shaped, and could probably kill a werewolf. With a 1600cc engine with 90 horsepower, it’s no speed demon, but that’s why Dave likes it. It’s not about getting from A to B on an air-conditioned cloud. The Porsche has no computers, plush leather, or cruise control. We sit low to the ground, on worn leather, feeling the growl of the engine. 50 mph never felt so cool.
As we scoot around Oregon’s coastal farm roads, I tick off checkpoints, calculate our times, watching out for traps. I’ve had to familiarize myself with rally terminology: CAST: Change Average Speed To. SAP: Straight as Possible. ITIS: If There Is Such. At the close of the first day, we’ve lost just 2 minutes off the pace, placing 16th out of a field of 113. I’m a rally virgin kicking butt, but nobody is too impressed. “Last year, we got totally lost,” laughs one competitor. “It was great! You just can’t take it too seriously.”
During stage 6 on the final day, Dave repeats these words when I confuse an ONTO/TOWARD instruction and lead us straight into a trap. He remains supernaturally zen about my screw-up, even as we slip down the rankings to finish 31st overall. At least we didn’t receive The Hook, awarded to the car that needs a tow truck. That honour belongs to another Porsche 356, not quite as reliable as our Silver Bullet.
The Northwest Classic is just one of dozens of rallies that take place around the continent, drawing collectors, enthusiasts, and members of various motor clubs. Some are competitive, others more social. When we line up our cars – on a downtown street or stage meeting lot – crowds gather to ogle at rows of spit-polished cars on display. Owners get an obvious buzz showing off their pride and joy, and might even barter for new acquisitions. War stories are traded, from those that have braved the gruelling frozen roads of the legendary ALCAN 5000, to the pot-holed corruption of South American rallies. Road trips have always been one the best ways to see a country, especially in your favourite car. You’ll definitely find yourself on roads less travelled.
I notice that many teams are husband/wife couples, or retirees enjoying the good-life adventure. “We’re all growing old,” says Dave, “together with our cars”. Younger drivers are definitely welcome, so long as they have a qualifying car and a driver’s license. Rally entrance fees range from the low hundreds to the thousands, so you don’t have to be a millionaire to participate, or even a competitor. Many rallies now have touring groups with no rules or time trials.
Dave lets me take the wheel on our long drive back to Vancouver. This time, we’re taking the longer, scenic route to avoid the traffic on the highway. The Porsche hums along the coast, reflecting tree tunnels, turning heads. There’s no power steering, no air con, and no CD Player to distract me from the act of driving itself. Classic cars are all about the experience, much like the rally events that bring them together.
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.
Last Chance to See
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.
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.