Here’s an actual conversation with my six-year-old on the final day of our eventful spring break.
“Well, what was your favourite part of our trip? Was it visiting the Statue of Liberty that you so desperately wanted to see? Was it the American Museum of Natural History, or that hilarious show we saw on Broadway? Was it hanging out with your aunt in Central Park, or taking the busy subway around the city? Was it spending a week playing in the big waves of Copacabana? Was it the cable car to Sugar Loaf Mountain to get that incredible view of Rio? Maybe it was the Wishing Tree and the monkeys we saw at the top of the mountain? Was it climbing on massive floats and dressing up in carnival costumes to dance with a beautiful samba princess? Maybe it was the sharks and stingrays we saw at the aquarium, or eating beach corn, grilled queijo and drinking coconuts at the beach? Playing with your cute Brazilian cousins, riding a bike along the beach, or spending time with your grandparents who spoiled you rotten with candy and cakes?”
Galileo thought about all this for a half a second, and replied:
“My favourite part was taking the airplane.”
I write these words during our final flight home after two-and-a-half weeks abroad. After a ten-hour overnight leg from Rio to Houston, we spent 90 minutes in line-ups to clear US customs and airport security. Removing friction from travel is a primary driver for tourism growth. Adding friction and making life difficult for passengers is the domain of government security and regulations, which has built nonsensical layers of procedure atop unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that make no sense to anyone. Are we still removing our shoes because one idiot unsuccessfully tried to blow up a plane with his shoelaces twenty-five years ago? Are we still confiscating perfume because liquids over 100ml are deadly? Are we still getting grilled by customs while connecting through a transit bubble, and going through security again even though we never left the sealed-off arrivals hall? Which is why, if you have anything less than a two-hour international connection these days, you’re playing with fire. All this said, our planes took off on time, United Airlines staff have been lovely, and even though they misplaced one of our suitcases for 48 hours, the system somehow worked well enough for little Galileo to have the time of his life, both on the plane and off it.
I’ve never been a particular fan of New York. I’ve visited the city a half dozen times, mostly for professional reasons, and I've always got the sense it's a frenetic place for those in ivory towers, and the overworked masses who support them. How does it go: Live in New York but leave before you become too hard, and live in LA but leave before you become too soft. New York tends to be city utterly swept up in the sense of its own self-importance. This is not the centre of the Earth (geographically that’s somewhere in Turkey). Being rude to strangers is not charming, it’s just being rude. Perhaps when I was in my twenties, I’d have more fire and energy to take on The Big Apple, a zest I’d exhausted in late 1990’s London (The Big Smoke). Age has now mellowed me, and nature holds infinitely more appeal than nightclubs or fancy restaurants. On this trip, I found the subways exhausting, the line-ups at the attractions intense, the people brusque. Times Square was a violent display of overwhelming advertising and grift. I certainly enjoyed visiting the Statue of Liberty and American Museum of Natural History with my kids. Both world-class attractions are transitioning from Covid protocols and were somewhat chaotic. We used a CityPASS which saved us a few bucks, and a company called TodayTix to get heavily discounted Broadway show tickets. I took the family to see The Play That Goes Wrong, which had all ages in stitches and was the perfect family-friendly live theatre experience, especially for kids who have never seen this level of professional theatre before. We caught a lovely sunny day at Central Park, and my daughter’s birthday present was a visit to the goopy Sloomoo Institute, which will get its own sloppy sticky story in due course. We stayed with relatives downtown, and as always, reconnecting with family proved to be the best highlight of all.
It's been almost a decade since I visited Rio de Janeiro, presently emerging with the rest of Brazil from dark political days. Just about all my time would be spent with family in Copacabana, staying with my in-laws who live one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world. Heading into fall, the weather was spectacular: 30℃ blue skies, crashing waves, not a drop of rain in a month that could just as easily be a washout. Little stalls along the beach offer chairs, umbrellas, drinks and food, and with a caipirinha in hand I was content to watch the kids play in the waves while an endless stream of touts made the rounds offering everything from bolinho de bacalhau (cod fish cakes) to loud shirts and Bluetooth speakers. I don’t recall Copacabana being this clean, lovely and safe, especially in the evening. New waste treatment plants have made the water safe to swim in, tourism police and lifeguards patrol the shores, locals wear their teeny-weenie bathing suits, and you can happily spend all day doing nothing (the Brazilian way). The neighbourhood was also noticeably LGBTQ-friendly. My kids got to know some local characters, relished their acai bowls, street food, Brazilian family, shopping excursions and night markets (the Canadian dollar goes far here).
Of course, we still had time for the sensational views atop Sugar Loaf Mountain and the AquaRio, the largest aquarium in South America. We also took a braziliant tour called Carnaval Experience, taking us backstage at Samba City to learn about the city’s legendary festival. Staying relatively put – by my standards anyway – I was reminded of the months my family spent in Chiang Mai and Hoi An, which allowed us to get under the skin of a different place and culture. Like New York, the traffic and chaos of Rio can get a little much, but since my goals were modest, it was a joy to reconnect with our Brazilian family on these too-few, too-rare occasions, allowing the kids to immerse themselves in the culture of their mother’s heritage. Ipanema, Santa Theresa, Lapa, heck the rest of Brazil would have been fantastic. Maybe next time... or maybe I won’t get too far from the beach again. Either way, the friction of six airports, the white-knuckle taxis, the financial expense, the subways, the heat, the rain, the packing, the crowds, the jetlag…it’s all worth it, and it always is.
Into the Abyss
It was easy enough to rappel 30 stories into the cavernous abyss, watching a faint glimmer of light reflecting off a crystal clear pool at the bottom. By now I’ve rappelled on several continents, and just the day before, I had lowered myself 90 metres alongside a spectacular waterfall known as the Mouth of the Puma. But the Abismo Anhumas, sheltering a subterranean water wonderland, comes with a neat little twist. If I was ever to walk again beneath the glorious sun, I had to climb back up the very rope I rappelled down. Hand over hand, inch by inch, breath by breath.
Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. A huge compression in the earth’s crust has created a 150,000km [squared] freshwater floodplain, stretching into Bolivia and Paraguay. With so much water, the Pantanal is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, a birdwatcher and animal lover’s paradise. It has also been under threat, since over 95% of the land is privately owned, and rich waters make the wetland fertile for crops, cattle, and of course, mosquitoes. On the other side of the mountains that frame the wetland, a small town named Bonito has reinvented itself to become one of the most important eco-tourism destinations in South America. Besides wildlife trips into the Pantanal - where tourists can enjoy night safaris, river cruises, hikes and horse rides in protected areas – Bonito is also a launch pad for caves, waterfalls, and several tasty adventures. These include unusual dishes in the local restaurants, like grilled caiman and piranha stew.
After years of destruction in the Amazon, Brazil has committed to protecting this fragile environment. New laws have been passed, tourism standards created, and farm owners have increasingly begun to see the value of eco-tourism over traditional cattle breeding. Take Rio da Prata, where 80% of the farm’s revenue comes from its extraordinary attraction. In limited groups, we are handed wetsuits and snorkels to float on our bellies down a crystal blue spring, amongst thousands of freshwater fish. With a current ebbing us along, there’s no need to kick, or swim. The visibility is breathtaking. I’m relaxed in awe floating past schools of large fish, like the golden Dorado, which is big and ugly enough to demand a wide berth. It was an incredible experience, but I was looking forward to dropping into the abyss.
Although there are daily tours into the abyss, guides test their clients the day before to see if they can hack it. After all, anyone can be lowered down, but climbing up a 72m rope through a narrow rock shaft requires an adventurous kind of stamina. Don’t worry, if you can scale up their 7m high in-store platform, you’re set. Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. While your typical spectacular stalactites drip from above, some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall. The descent is easy enough, in that terrifying “I’m only alive because of this wet rope” kind of a way. Once I arrive on the bottom, I put on a wetsuit, and with a flashlight in hand, float weightlessly above the alien world, a scene from a movie, a waking dream.
The tranquillity is shattered when I am strapped into a belay device to begin the long climb back. The modified harness cuts into my water-softened flesh, as I heave with my legs, and steady with my arms. After ten minutes, muscles are burning, but if I need incentive, all I need to do is look down. Suddenly, the darkness below looks like a watery grave. Connected as a backup to my climbing partner, the rope shakes as he quakes with fear. But each thrust brings more light, until finally, after squeezing through an unassuming crack the rock, we reach the top. Having spent a few hours in the cool abyss, floating in its calm water, the heat and humidity of western Brazil is like a punch in the gut. Next time, I’ll rent the scuba gear and enjoy the abyss just a little bit longer.
The Abismo Anhumas is located 27km from Bonito, an eco-tourism hotspot in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Tours leave daily but due to the ascent are limited to 16 people. Only 4 scuba dives are allowed each day, and you must have Open Water certificate. Equipment and guides are provided. Visitors are assessed and trained beforehand in the Visitor Centre. More info at: http://www.abismoanhumas.com.br
Many Rivers to Cross
When the going gets tough, the tough get wet. Presenting 10 of the world's mightiest rivers for bucket list rafters. Paddle up, there's rapids ahead!
The Nahanni, Canada
Rafting UNESCO’s first ever World Heritage Site is one of the grand Canadian adventures. From Virginia Falls, where a 90m cascade plummets in to the river, canoe and kayak trips typically spend a week paddling downriver through huge canyons and pristine wilderness.
The Colorado, USA
Spend a week in a motorized raft (or two weeks with paddles) floating down the Colorado River, through one the world’s true natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. Thrilling rapids, epic geology, waterfalls, creeks and companionship await.
The Zambezi, Zimbabwe
Regarded as perhaps the world’s best one-day whitewater rafting experience, conquer the mighty Zambezi River at the foot of Victoria Falls. The most thrilling runs take place during low water between February and July, when the rapids are so rough as to be almost unpassable. Do your best to stay on board, and watch out for the small (harmless) crocodiles.
Enjoy the staggering scenery of Patagonia aboard a whitewater raft, as you navigate the Class 3 to 5 rapids of the Futaleufu River. You don’t have to rough it during this week-long journey: Earth River Expeditions have permanent camps with hot showers, stone hot tubs and comfortable beds.
The Ganges, India
Raft the Ganges from outside the town of Rishikesh, as the river bursts forth from the Himalayas, safe from the pollution it gathers further down. Rafting trips run from hours to days, starting October through June, although it can get pretty chilly around December/January.
White Nile, Uganda
Flowing through the heart of Africa, the Nile is a mystical river with a storied history. Its source was the subject of doomed expeditions and controversy. You won’t be thinking about any of it as you crash through a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids. Half and full day tours depart from the town of Jinja, located about 80km northeast of Kampala.
Kaituna, New Zealand
It’s not the Ganges or the Nile, but the lush Kaituna River does allow you to experience the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. There’s a 50/50 chance your raft will flip as you plummet over the 7m high falls, but that’s all part of the fun.
The Yangtze, Nepal
The Big Bend of China’s Yangtze River flows through a dramatic 10,000 foot deep gorge. That’s almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. A 10-day rafting tour runs 120 miles through the bend, crossing Class 4 rapids aplenty. Along the way you’ll get the chance to explore rural villages, and do some serious hiking too.
The Saint Lawrence River, Quebec
You don’t have to travel far to challenge the Saint Lawrence. Located close to downtown Montreal adjacent to Habitat 67, the Lachine rapids offer some of the world’s largest standing waves. Various class of rapids means even kids can conquer this mighty river.
Sharing its borders with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Iguazu is well known for its spectacular waterfalls. You can also climb into a raft to conquer the river from below, spending an hour crossing Class 3 rapids amidst the dense vegetation and exotic wildlife found in Iguazu National Park.
The World's Best Urban Beaches
To find the best beaches, you usually have to get as far out of urban centres as possible. But some cities are blessed with amazing beaches of their own. These are cities with large populations, business, traffic – and long golden sandy stretches that make you feel like you’ve entered a holiday resort. Here’s my favourites:
Ipanema, Rio de Janiero
White sand and blue water frames Rio’s most famous neighbourhoods, Copacabana and Ipanema. While Copacabana enjoyed much of the world’s attention in the past, it has been surpassed by the energy of Ipanema. Ipanema Beach is signposted by the famous “postos” lifeguard stations, which helps find your way on a beach that is generally packed all year round. Stroll up, rent a chair and umbrella, and have your own beach waiter serve you cold beer, fresh fruit, and snacks throughout the day. Striking mountains rise further down the beach, and there’s usually a friendly game of volleyball on the go (or foot volleyball, which is terrific fun to watch). There’s also a parading flea market as polite vendors roll through selling bikinis, hats, and towels. With so much skin and beauty on display, it’s no wonder Ipanema is one of Rio’s most expensive neighbourhoods. An interesting note: topless bathing is prohibited.
Clifton, Cape Town
Cape Town is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty, and it’s best beaches are in the upmarket suburb of Clifton. Driving up from Sea Point, cars line the side of the road early, and parking is seldom easy. It’s a walk down the stairs until you hit the fine white sand. There are four beaches in Clifton, separated by rocks, and attracting different crowds. All four beaches are protected by rocks and spared the strong winds that blow through the city. As a teenager I used to walk between beaches to see where the action was. Today, the most popular beach is Fourth Beach, which has the calmest waves. First Beach gets the biggest waves and is popular with surfers. Third Beach is a popular gay hangout. Second beach continues to attract teenagers and students on the prowl for love. Capetonians and tourists soak up the sun, and since the water is a frisky 12-16C, a dip in the sea is truly refreshing.
Bondi Beach, Sydney
During my first visit to Bondi Beach, the temperature in Sydney cracked 50C. Bondi Beach, a beach that has spawned a hit TV series (Bondi Rescue) was absolutely chockers (full). The odd part was there was nigh an umbrella in sight, here in a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world. Sydney is surrounded by fantastic beaches, but Bondi is its flagship. A perfect 1km crescent, reliable waves for surfing and body boarding, pubs, shops and cheap eats right across the road. It attracts the city’s most beautiful people, showing off their most beautiful bodies. With Sydney’s weather, there’s always people on the beach, with crowds picking up in the afternoon post work, and young couples pushing babies on the promenade. When people fall in love with Sydney, it’s usually Bondi on their mind.
In the late 1990’s, my brother and I decided to immigrate to Vancouver. He went first, putting in his papers, without visiting the city first. I was working in England at the time, and the mountains, forests and beaches of British Columbia were very far away. I had a good job, and was second guessing Canada, until one day, my brother sent me an email with a picture from Kitsalano. He had found a two-bedroom apartment two blocks from the beach, and summer was in full swing. The subject was: Wish You Were Here. The sand wasn’t fine and white, but it was fine enough. People were stacked up against scattered logs. In this distance was a towering mountain, the tree tops of Stanley Park, and some of the apartment blocks of English Bay. Having grown up in a big, landlocked city, I couldn’t believe people could live in a city like this. I wished I was there too. Six months later, I arrived as an immigrant and beelined straight for Kitsalano.
Photo: jenschapter 3
Waikiki Beach, Honolulu
The surf is usually up at Waikiki Beach, once the playden of Hawaiian royalty, now a hotel and surfing mecca. Waikiki has attracted all the major hotel chains and serves as a centre of tourism in Hawaii, but lets not forget it’s also a terrific beach, with a great view of the striking Diamond Head - all that’s left of a massive volcano and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Waikiki actually refers to several beaches chained together, usually crowded with tourists pouring out the adjacent hotels. A good chunk of the beach is reserved strictly for surfers. The neighbourhood is abuzz with open-air bars, restaurants, volleyball and beach sport, and most days it’s just a perfect spot to watch yet another gorgeous sunset.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
What I love most about Venice Beach is its sheer character. Only Los Angeles could churn out the bizarre folks who seem to hang around the Venice Beach Ocean Front Walk. There’s weird guy with the guitar, punky guy with the Mohawk, body building guy on rollerblades – each seemingly the star of their own mental TV show. You might catch the stars on the promenade too: Nicholas Cage, Christian Bale, Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson are all residents of Venice. Regardless, there’s plenty of eye candy to look at. The streetball on Venice Beach is reported to be the best in the country, the starting block for future NBA stars. Hard bodies pump iron at the outdoor gymnasium on Muscle Beach, and there’s great surfing off the piers. If the whole thing looks like a TV show, it’s because Baywatch was set and sometimes filmed here. Who knew a show featuring actors in red bathing suits running in slow motion would become the most watched TV show in history?
South Beach, Miami
The beaches of Miami vibrate with action, and South Beach (or SoBe) is its heart. With hundreds of clubs, bars and restaurants, South Beach is the city’s entertainment district, popular with locals and tourists alike. There’s a real multicultural element to the neighbourhood. Brazilians, Cubans, Israelis, people from the Caribbean, and a large contingent of Canadians too, escaping the northern winter. Famous Art Deco hotels look over the white sandy beach, one of the reasons why SoBe is also known as the American Riviera. Picture flashy cars cruising past flashy shops, while toned bodies run along the water. The atmosphere is festive year round.
Metzitzim Beach, Tel Aviv
Not many people know that Tel Aviv is a true beach city. Fine sand, decent waves, clean water, all in a city that never sleeps. The promenade even resembles the Copacabana, with its mosaic patterns. There are several beaches along the strip, but Metzitzim, also known as the Sheraton Beach, consistently wins the accolades as the city’s best beach. It’s definitely the most trendy, a place for fit young Israelis to bare their olive skin (as opposed to Nordau Beach further down, which is where religious Jews go for the separate male and female areas). Metzitzim, which means “peeking” in Hebrew, is close to the Old Port which has recently been upgraded into a hip area of restaurants, bars and clubs
Barceloneta Beach, Barcelona
Sticking to the Mediterranean, Barcelona is blessed with 4.2km of golden beaches, close to the city centre. Barceloneta, the first beach along the boardwalk, has long been called one of the best urban beaches in the world. Besides its wide open space, it has a vibrant atmosphere and gets packed with locals and tourists. While it is Barcelona’s most popular beach, thanks largely to its location, it does get some criticism for the quality of sand, which some say is mixed with cement. But the weird artwork, atmosphere, local characters and buzz make up for it. Close to the port, it's also the best place for fresh seafood in the city.
Scarborough Beach, Perth
Perth may be amongst the most isolated major cities in the world, but it consistently ranks in the Top 10 for lifestyle and quality of life polls. That might have something do with its beautiful beaches located a short drive from the city centre, like Scarborough, 15 minutes away. The sand is white, the Indian Ocean is a clear blue, and the weather sizzling. Restaurants, hotels, ice cream shops bars and clubs attract locals and tourists, giving Scarborough a famously laid back coastal holiday town atmosphere. Families picnic in adjacent grass areas, enjoying the clear views all the way to an island 20km away. Perth has other well-known city beaches nearby, like Trigg and Cottesloe, but “Scarbie” remains a local favourite
8 Exotic Places for Lovers
During the course of my travels, I’ve chanced upon some places so romantically charged that I could hear the blues tugging on my heartstrings. Since it’s my job to share my secrets, I present a gallery, alternatively titled: 8 Places I Really Did Not Want to be Travelling Single.
Sunset from the Rose Garden, Cappadocia, Turkey
It’s a remarkable view over a remarkable landscape. Thousands of strange rock formations can be found in this region of central Turkey, where people have lived in caves for thousands of years, and “fairy chimneys” pointing at the sky give an alien charm. A popular sunset spot called the Rose Garden is a short drive from the main town of Gorome. Here, the rocks glow as pink as the cheeks of the lovers enjoying the moment. The fairy chimneys are also undeniably phallic, just in case you needed something to stroke your imagination.
Drifting Amongst the Firebugs, Malaysia
Picture the scene: You’re floating down a river just after dusk, the silence broken by wooden oars dipping into the still water. An old man rows in the traditional fashion – standing at the bow, his back towards you, his leathered arms in perfect rhythm with each stroke. The night is young, the air is warm. All of sudden, you see a tiny flash of light, then another, then another. Rounding a bend, your jaw drops as the trees on either side of the river look like lights in a disco, pulsing with thousands upon thousands of tiny neon flashes. Firebugs glow as part of their mating ritual, and the romance of such a moment is thick. I turn to my guide: “You’re a great guy Mr Kabir, but right now, I kind of wish you were a single girl.”
To which he replies: “No offence Mr Robin, but I wish the same.” Unfortunately, firebugs hate posing for photos, so here’s the river before the disco opens.
Overnight in a Bedouin Tent, Wadi Rum, Jordan
Deserts are hot places to be, just like our most feverish romantic dreams. In Wadi Rum - a desolate but beautiful valley of sand, punctuated by mountains of rock - it is possible to ride into the desert on camel, and spend the night in a traditional Bedouin tent. A gourmet meal is cooked in ancient fashion; by baking meats and vegetables beneath the hot sand, served with pita, salad, humus, and all the delicious trimmings. You’re free to explore the surrounding rock hills, feeling the dry air blowing in your hair, listen to the crackle of the fire while shooting stars spray across the clear night sky. It was an incredible night, pity I was being filmed by the Word Travels crew, and, with no one to cuddle with, picked up a nasty cold.
Bled Island, Bled, Slovenia
Slovenia is a jewel of a country in central Europe, and the waters of Lake Bled shimmer with an emerald glow. European aristocrats have always flocked to its quiet summer shores, and in the middle of the lake rests the country’s only natural island, a striking view for the first-time visitor. The first church was built here in the 11th century, the current steeple dates to the 1500’s, and 99 steps lead up to sanctuary. Legend has it that if a groom can carry his bride up the stairs, it will be a lasting and successful marriage. It might be too much a feat in this day and age, but the romance and beauty of the island, coupled with the surrounding Julian Alps, are better than flowers and a box of chocolates.
Blackwater Rafting, Waitomo, New Zealand
Somewhat similar to our Malaysia experience, only this time, we’re in the water, underground, and floating through caves on a rubber tube. It’s a typically adventurous activity for visitors to New Zealand, so how does this end up on my Romance list? Deep in the caves, it is pitch dark save for the light of your headlamp. A wetsuit keeps you warm, but the cool underground stream rushing over your skin cannot help but get the goose bumps flaring. Eventually, you make your way to a cavern where you sit in a big, black rubber tube, link your legs around your partner, and float downstream like waterproof doughnuts. Your guide asks you to switch off your light, and then you see them: a milky way of stars, deep in the earth. Phosphorus glow worms twinkle, and all you can hear is the drip of water, and the breathless sigh of those around you.
The Locks of the 3 Gorges Dam, China
It’s been described as the most ambitious engineering project in history, a marvel of science, the redesign of nature by man. China has damned the Yangzte, the third biggest river in the world, and the 3 Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, will generate the equivalent energy of 18 nuclear power plants upon completion. Cruises have been operating for years, and sit outside, in the early morning humidity, while massive transfer and cargo ships make their way through the five immense locks. Intelligence, power, size and ambition are all aphrodisiacs, and they all meet right here, as your ship drops metres at a time, protected from disaster by the ominous gates that hold back the floods. It’s a surreal experience, and oddly enough, an exotically romantic one too.
Ilha Grande, Brazil
This photo was taken in Ilha Grande, but to be honest, it could be anywhere in Brazil. Anywhere in a country where couples will randomly start dancing on old cobblestone, sometimes to music that’s only playing in their heads. Public displays of affection don’t go down in Canada too well, but in Brazil, and throughout Latin America, it is common sight to see couples smooching their lips off, at the dinner table, on the streets, hell, even in a bank meeting. And it’s not just the young folks either. Elderly lovers are as into it as the teenagers. The result is an undeniable atmosphere of romance, where love is proudly on display, and if you feel like you need to watch, well, then, go ahead.
Badeschiff Bar, Berlin, Germany
Why swim in the river, when you can swim in a swimming pool in the river? Another warm summer night, and the hip beach bars that have sprung up alongside Berlin’s Spree River are starting to get busy. DJ’s are playing some smooth jazzy beats, the cocktails have umbrellas, and it’s the perfect time to strip down and take a dip in the pool. Swimming over water is a weirdly romantic, not to mention wet, surprise, here in the heart of the Berlin.
Credit: Flickr CC: Richard Rydge
Rio de Janeiro / Sydney / Cape Town
Come December, these are the world’s three most beautiful cities, the cool kids at the back of Planet Earth’s bus. They all have pristine beaches basking in the glow of a gorgeous summer, fuelled by an urban population all shook up and ready to pop, not to mention thousands of foreign invaders with no other purpose than to party their tans off. In Rio, it is traditional to wear all white on the Copacabana, where around two million people gather to watch the fireworks. Cape Town has its own smaller carnival, as thousands flock to the streets and beaches for outdoor parties, raves, and live music. I’ve witnessed the fireworks spectacle in Sydney on New Years Eve, duplicated at various points along the inlet, observing how locals excitedly judge the annual theme and pyro performance. Hold on to your purse and wallets, take a deep breath, and dive right in.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
It’s New Years Eve, and I find myself at a traditional ceremony, in which I become the subject of a tribal mating dance. It’s awkward enough for me being at a club and watching girls do the bump and grind, but tonight, the intensity and eroticism of the ritual gives me the clear impression that if I react in the wrong manner, I might wake up with a wife, a chicken, and three goats. It was approaching midnight by the time I left the compound, shaken but not stirred, and I found myself walking alongside a thick iron gate. Making sure the coast was clear, my friends and I climbed over it, and walked quietly amongst the giant marble columns of this former Sultan’s palace. Coconut trees ushered in the warm sea breeze, the clock struck 12, and we toasted to health, peace and safe travel, on the stairway of the House of Wonders.
Credit: Flickr CC: Bill Larkin
Times Square (New York) / Trafalgar Square (London)
Millions will gather on this frigid, bone chilling night, celebrating the end of yet another year in which humanity somehow avoided destroying itself. It all looks very fun on television at home, where you can gather with your friends in comfort, refuel your eggnog from the kitchen, and use a bathroom without strategies and maps. My own memories of Trafalgar Square on New Years Eve recall extreme cold, overwhelming crowds, belligerent Scandinavians, and tons of garbage. Sure, it’s great to be in the world’s most hip and happening cities on New Years Eve, but as with all the suggestions on this list, your immediate company makes all the difference when the ball drops. Unlike the summer beach cities, it’s a more tense in the northern hemisphere, so dress warm, smile lots, and be sure to empty your bladder whenever you get the chance.
All the amenities and attractions that make cruise ships such a luscious holiday option double on New Years Eve. Together with the guests (and crew), it’s a massive floating house party, where every detail has been thought of, and every whim catered to. The food buffet, enough to feed a mid-sized town in Botswana, is stocked with festive treats, as are the various bars around the ship. For the crew in charge of entertainment, they’ve no doubt planned something special – confetti, balloons, bad 80’s music. Everyone’s dressed up, couples in their love bubble, singles relaxed by the fact they can always blame their behaviour on New Years shenanigans. Tropical skies and strobe-light stars are just a few feet away, and the best part of the whole lot: you don’t have to drive anywhere. In fact, in stark contrast to navigating the immense crowds and traffic of a major city, when it comes to a cruise ship on New Years Eve, you don’t have to worry about much at all.
This is a true story. It’s New Years Eve, I’m backpacking alone, with a horrific case of flu. Woe is the traveller who feels sorry for himself, so I haul my sorry butt over to Temple Bar, Dublin’s rocking entertainment district. Like many other bars, Eamonn Dorans has an incredible Irish band burning the roof, raising my spirits, confirming that it’s no accident U2 come from these parts. At midnight, a cute girl approaches and tells me that it is tradition for girls to ask guys to kiss them on New Years Eve. Then another. Then another. This is why Dublin has found its place on my list, even if I did wake up in a strange bed with a stranger woman, hours outside of Dublin, a demolition crew wrecking havoc in my skull, and no recollection of how I ended up there. Bless me leprechauns!
Your Friend’s Place / In the Lounge with Your Family
Much like our other commoditized joys for celebration, the spirit of New Years Eve has been waning in recent years. It is a time to come together with friends, reflect on the joys, sorrows, triumphs and highlights of the previous year, and make blessings for the year to come. You can find an excuse to go clubbing (or party to excess) on any night of the year, but tonight, as the 08 rolls into the 09, we have a closet to hang all we that have to be grateful for. We have an opportunity to share our thoughts and dreams with those who matter most. Take it from me: If you are with the people you love, you are not missing anything, anywhere on New Years Eve. Wherever you are is exactly where you’re meant to be.
Here's to another inspiring, fun and safe year of travel.
Xmas Traditions Around the World
I'm posting this from the domestic airport in Buenos Aires in early December, and like the Christmas decorations are up. This got me thinking: How is Christmas celebrated around the world? Never one to let a question go unanswered, let's begin in:
Japan has only a small percentage of religious Christians, but many Japanese enjoy the spirit of gift-giving and decorating home and stores in tribute to the seasonal festivities. Instead of Santa Claus, Japanese children look to a legendary Buddhist monk named Hotei-osho, known for bringing children gifts, and making sure they behave.
Ethiopia’s calendar differs from our western calendar, which is why they celebrated the year 2000 seven years after we did, and why Christmas takes place on January 7th. They also have a different clock, but that’s another story. Christianity in the country dates back to the 4th century AD, and its famous rock churches were built as a new Jerusalem by Ethiopian kings. The Xmas church ceremony has three rings of prayer: men and boys sit inside a ring of women and girls, with a choir on the outside circle. Candles in hand, worshippers also walk around the church three times during mass. Instead of turkey dinners, traditional feasts involve injera (the pancake-like bread of Ethiopia) and various stews and curries.
Many North American Xmas traditions derive from Scandinavia, with Santa Clause living in Greenland or Finland, depending on whom you speak to. Millions of people have written letters and posted it to Santa’s address, just outside of Rovaniemi on the Finnish Arctic Circle (write to: Santa Claus' Main Post Office, Santa Village, FIN-96930 NAPAPIIRI). Yuletide has always had special significance in the Scandinavia, where traditions were formed to hold off the dark, cold days of winter. The Yule log was an entire tree, fed into the fire over the course of the winter, with much ceremony. In Finland, Xmas dinner is preceded by a visit to the sauna to bathe and clean for the meal. Candles are important throughout the region as a means of ushering in the warmth of light during a dark time of year.
The Bulgarian Christmas Eve dinner consists of 12 courses, with each course representing a month of the year. Made with nuts, beans, vegetables and sweets, no meat is served. Tradition has the family seated on straw, and sitting down and getting up at the same time. In the past, boys and single men would visit houses singing carols for the health of the families (and maybe the eye of a maiden too).
Around the country, in churches, homes and shops, many Brazilians set up nativity scenes called Presèpio, named after the bed of straw Jesus slept on in Bethlehem. Father Christmas is known as Papa Noel, flying in from Greenland to pass out gifts, dressed in silk because it’s too hot to be robed in furs. Religious Catholics head to Missa do Galo, the midnight mass named after the rooster that announces the coming day. Even the streets of Rio de Janeiro are quiet on Christmas Eve, as families gather for their Ceia de Natal feast. Like most days in Rio, Christmas Day is a perfect time to hit the beach.
The only major Christian nation in Asia also celebrates its Misa do Galo, a tradition dating to its Spanish occupation. Unlike Brazil however, this mass takes place nine days before Christmas, and involves reading the story of Jesus. On Christmas Day, masses are held hourly so that everyone has a chance to attend. Pastore are plays based on the birth of Christ, performed at many religious services. Children go carolling for tips and treats and setting off fireworks, with another tradition being the making of lanterns, a symbol of the guiding star. Xmas dinner involves a lavish feast, often started after midnight when the family returns from midnight mass.
The inspiration of Santa Claus, St Nicholas, holds a special place in the heart of Russians. Revered as a saint since the 11th century, his name adorns many churches, and is commonly passed onto Russian boys. During the communist era, the role St Nick was transformed into Grandfather Frost, enabling traditions to be kept without antagonizing the atheist principles of the time. Similarly, Christmas trees became New Year’s Trees, although both traditions have reverted with the fall of the Soviet Union. Russians also talk about Babouschka, a woman who roams the countryside in search of Christ, giving gifts to children as she does so. Eastern Orthodox Russians customarily fast until after the first church service on Christmas Eve, and their feast contains no meat. One traditional dish is called kutya, a sweet porridge symbolizing hope and happiness, eaten from a common dish.
Christians are a minority in Vietnam, but Christmas is celebrated as one of the four major holidays of the year (along with New Year, the Buddha’s birthday, and the mid-autumn festival). Jesus Christ is known as Kito, and Christmas is a big cause for celebration, although this was not always the case. During communist rule, Christmas was relegated to the home and was not the public spectacle. As the country modernized and liberalized, Xmas has returned with a bang, with the usual lights and decorum proudly displayed throughout cities, shops, villages and homes.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and all the best for the silly season!
Many people are amazed to discover that I am fluent in just two languages. English, and the one that gets me through just about any situation: bullshit. Granted, I have become proficient in charade-ish, able to use my appendages, tongue, eyes, and head to convey phrases like “I am looking for the bathroom” and also “Are you sure this bus can withstand a head-on collision with that truck?” I have also had fine conversations in drunkanese, the universal language of long slurs and emotional expressions that ends in tears or violence. Speaking only English has not deterred me from my travels, and should not prohibit you from yours. Yet I recall travelling in Europe with a multilingual French guy, and how richer his experience appeared to be. Spanish, French, English, Italian, Portuguese – Philippe sparked up friendships while I was often reduced to awkward silences. We were both steamrolling through Europe, but his steamroller had an accelerator.
I was travelling in Brazil with a friend, and over dinner in a Rio pizzeria, a beautiful young girl sitting opposite us handed him a note on her way out. The waiter translated it: something about giving her a call because he could be the love of her life. My very single friend naturally responded to the invitation, called her up, and drove into a brick wall. She could not speak a word of English, and it would have been all Greek to him, except she spoke Portuguese. The waiter helped with some translation, but his English wasn’t too great either, and so the stunning potential soul mate eventually hung up on him in frustration.
At the airport on the way home, I noticed a store selling a language learning software called Rosetta Stone. If I ever hoped to avoid my friend’s fate, perhaps it was time to learn a new language. I’m not passing up the love of my life simply because I can’t say “lets have coffee tomorrow at 8pm?” A few weeks later, Brazilian Portuguese Levels 1, 2 and 3 arrived in a bright yellow box, promising a whole new world.
“He was a farm boy, she was an Italian supermodel…” reads a magazine advertisement for Rosetta Stone, a company that offers easy to use, computer-based language courses in over two dozen languages. Named after the famous archaeological discovery that enabled historians to first translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, its technique is simple: using images, text, and sound, it immerses the student into a new language with no translation, creating a wholly visual world to mimic the way a child discovers a native tongue. Level 1 is broken down into various sections, such as Language Basics, Greetings and Introductions, Work and School, and Shopping. Each 30 minute Core Lesson is then broken down into 5 and 10-minute tutorials that take you through the lesson in more detail, emphasizing vocabulary, writing, listening and grammar. For the busy worker bee, the time-conscious nature of the program makes it easy to schedule, and initially, becomes quite addictive.
A photo of a woman appears. A voice says: mulher. I repeat the word, see how it is spelled, and get rewarded with the green tick and sound of success. If I get it wrong, I get an X and the sound of a boo-boo. Should I make enough boo-boos, the software advises me to repeat the section. Gradually proceeding through the levels, it gets more difficult, as phrases and sentences take form. According to the box, the student will learn naturally, engage interactively, speak confidently, and have fun. Three months later, fate sent me a lovely Brazilian girlfriend, but I still couldn’t string a correctly pronounced sentence of Portuguese together.
While Rosetta Stone is a successful, publicly traded company, with high profile clients like the US military and affording a spokesman in Olympic superstar Michael Phelps, it has also been the target of much criticism online. Not surprisingly, its harshest critics appear to be traditional language schools. Yet there are also blog posts from users who have complained that using the system is too slow, too expensive, lacking in useful phrases, and insensitive to local customs. Indeed, the same photos and learning formula is used across all the languages on offer, a universality that has its limitations in practical use. After three months of using Rosetta Stone almost daily, I could understand some words, but stammered trying to put together a cohesive phrase. It doesn’t help that Brazilians crack up at my pronunciation, or my old-fashioned terms and tone. That being said, I like the game-play quality of the software, its portability and interactivity, and well, I’m probably a very slow learner. But I can tell the bom (good) from the ruim (bad), and best of all, my girlfriend appreciated my continuing effort. So much so that she agreed to marry me a few years later. When it comes to learning a language, things click together faster when you’re in the actual country, immersing yourself in the language, people and culture.
Whether you study in an intensive language school, buy a tutorial book, order a copy of Rosetta Stone, or use combination of the above (which seems to be the going advice from language students online), whatever system keeps you enthusiastic about learning that new language, is ultimately the one that works. In the meantime, I’ll keep hacking away in drunkanese.
Some friends of mine are going to Rio for the World Cup, and with just a few days in the city, they asked me for advice what they should see and do.
Here's my suggestions:
Here are some cool insider tips of other suggestions to keep you busy: 10 Best Things to Do in Rio
Definitely take your common sense with you. Don't carry too much unnecessary cash (just about everywhere takes credit card, leave a back-up at the hotel). Make sure the taxis look official (have phone numbers, licenses). If someone puts peanuts on your table, don't eat them unless you want to buy them (If you leave them, they'll just take them away). Don't stray too far from well-lit, busy areas at night. Traffic can be intense so try not to be in a rush to get anywhere, and give yourself plenty of time to get where you're going.
Besides being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rio has an energy all its own. Whether you're there for Carnival, the World Cup, Olympics, New Years, or any other time of year - you can't really go wrong.
The World's Best Caves
Over the years, I've found myself in some dark, deep caverns. I'm not talking about the heavily trafficked tourist attractions where a red gel light illuminates some rock that may or may not look like a breastfeeding alligator. No, these are the caves where you truly get a sense of the subterranean world, too dark for a sliver of light, so quiet you can hear the blood rushing past your eardrums. Some caves have been holy, others have been wet, while others somehow host life, like glow worms, bats, and butt-ugly blind scorpion spiders. Here are some of my pics and experiences from Turkey, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Hungary and beyond.
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.