The World's Grossest Food
I compiled this definitive list with two very simple rules:
a) The items mentioned below should be available to members of the paying - and no doubt occasionally insane - public
b) To qualify, the thought of each dish should make my stomach swill over, my throat seize up, my nose twitch, and my eyes rattle.
This list demonstrates that we will devour whatever we are culturally conditioned to consume, and whatever creature with the distasteful misfortune to be around us if we are hungry. Presenting my global menu for those of iron will and titanium gut:
The Sour Toe Cocktail
Lets begin in the Yukon Territory, in the long-past-its-boom town of Dawson City. The Downtown Hotel bar serves up a drink of straight whiskey, with added flavouring from a real life severed human toe. A big, gnarly one too, shrivelled and yellow, with the nail still on. I joined the Sour Toe Cocktail club, and to qualify, the toe must touch your lips. I can still feel it today, like a pickled, phantom limb. Everyone gets the same toe, and in the past, some toes have been swallowed. Feeling icky yet? Just wait…
Duck can be delicious, and eggs can be delicious, so why does it get nasty when you mix the two together? Balut, a popular delicacy in the Philippines, is a fermented duck egg, that is, an egg with a crunchy, sometimes feathery baby duck inside. You peel the shell, slurp up the embryonic fluid, add some salt, and bite hard into the crispy mushy goodness. Apparently, balut goes down really well with cold beer. Slugging back a few bottles might make this gourmet treat go down better, and for that matter, up again too.
Deep Fried Hairy Spiders
Personally, I just didn’t have the stomach for arachnoids when I was travelling by bus through Cambodia. A popular roadside snack, the large spiders are eaten in big bites, or pulled apart, leg by leg, and consumed like French fries. Black bug juice dribbles down the chin as you reach the best part of meal, the pincers and the bulbous back. All the poison is removed when the spiders are fried, and apparently the appeal lies in its crunchy-chewy texture. Along came a spider, and sat down beside her, and so Muffin just ate the damn thing.
Ox Penis Soup
Let us just be grateful that, due to conservation laws and human evolution, it’s no longer Tiger Penis Soup. Some Chinese restaurants serve up this delicacy, known for its mythical and powerfully arousing properties. The broth is serviceable, but the reality of eating ox or deer penis is that it tastes like a hard, impossibly chewy sponge. Tourists wishing to partake in this dish may find themselves forced to spit it out, or swallow it whole.
Fermented Shark (Hákarl)
Moving over to Iceland now, where they like their sharks rotten, stinky, and air-dried out for 5 months. Oozing the odour and taste of powerful ammonia (think urine-scented cleaning products), hákarl is an acquired taste, even in Iceland. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay puked on it, a common reaction for first-timers, who are advised to hold their nose to avoid detecting the disgusting stench they’re about to put in their mouths. Those who eat it are associated as being strong and brave, although I mostly just felt queasy. As someone appalled by the shark fin trade, I reckon anyone who eats the fins of these increasingly endangered fish should be forced to try this Scandinavian delicacy first.
Cats and Dogs
Widely condemned by the West and pet owners everywhere, it’s a sad fact that Fluffy and Fido are still on the menu in parts of Asia. Breeds of dog are raised specifically as food, and as a friend of mine will testify, having adopted and therefore saved one such puppy from the roast, they remain viciously tempered. Dog has been eaten in China for thousands of years, and the meat is famed for medicinal properties. Meanwhile, Singapore’s Strait Times reports that up to 10,000 cats are eaten every day in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Brings a disturbing new meaning to the concept of “cat food”. Hug your Fluffy and Fido a little closer tonight.
I’m back, and in the mood for a little insect caviar! In Mexico, escamoles refers to the larvae of the giant, particularly ferocious Liometopum ant. Its eggs are collected from agave plants, spiced, and served in tacos. Escamole has a cottage cheese texture, and a buttery finish. I’ve eaten ants and termites in various jungles, and they taste surprisingly like walnuts. Perfect for anyone into nuts, or just plain nuts too.
Those who have read this far, and therefore possessed of iron guts, will appreciate the hop over to Sardinia Italy, where we can spread some thick sheep’s cheese onto a slice of toast. Only problem here, it’s been purposely allowed to rot and gather maggots, which adds to the soapy, writhing texture. Next time you have a cheese and wine soiree, think maggots!
Three Squeak Dish
By now, I hope you’re warmed up for the really gross stuff. Although not everyone is convinced this exists, it's just too sick to make up (or leave off this list). Supposedly served in some remote parts of Asia, the Three Squeak Dish is a plate served with three pink, freshly born baby mice. The first squeak is when you pick them up with chopsticks. The second is when you dip them in soy sauce. You can guess what the third squeak is. Apparently they’re easy to chew because the bones have not hardened yet. Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom now.
Honorary Mentions: Lutifisk is a fish Norwegian weapon of mass culinary destruction. Laos Snake Whiskey is sold with farm-bred cobras at the bottom, some with scorpions for extra zing. We should also leave room for cockroaches, haggis, and cuy (deep-fried guinea pig). And how can I forget my delicious fruit bat stew in beautiful New Caledonia?
Fruit bats ready for the stewing in New Caledonia
Re-assuredly, deep fried guinea pig does not taste like chicken.
Book Review: Atlas of Untamed Places
Just when I thought I’d seen something of the world, along comes a book about 45 remarkable places… and I’ve been to exactly one of them. Chris Fitch, a senior staff writer at the Royal Geographical Society’s Geographical magazine, has assembled an impressive collection of little known spots from all seven continents, divided into sections of Extreme Environments, Untouched Lands, Human Activity, Weird Worlds, Isolated Realms and Nature’s Wilderness. Illustrated with clear maps and black and white photography, it is an atlas of destinations so remote, rugged and bizarre that many chapters could be describing locations on alien planets.
A mysterious lake appears out of nowhere in the Tunisian desert. Off the coast of Croatia, a steep rocky island consisting almost entirely of volcanic magnetite sends navigational equipment haywire, and more than few sailors to their doom. In China, the world’s largest tidal bore draws thousands of people each year to watch a wall of water racing up the Qiantang estuary. On North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, an uncontacted tribe of hostile islanders continue to shower arrows (and occasionally death) on anyone who approaches their shores. The world’s largest cave system in Georgia, an accidental coal fire that burns beneath a town in Pennsylvania, the -93°C extremes of Dome Argus Antarctica, a hidden valley of impenetrable rainforest in Borneo – most of the short chapters had me reaching for Wikipedia and falling down an online rabbit hole. Google Mount Mabu Rainforest in Mozambique, Mexico’s Cave of Crystals, or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, and try not to annoy your friends by dropping the tremendous trivia of your discoveries.
This is the kind of book that inspires lunatics like me to actually run off and find these places. Sure, it could all be researched online (along with similar books like Atlas Obscura), but it does take a twisted genius to assemble these untamed places into something cohesive, and talent to write concise chapters that explain just enough to make you scratch your head, say “Whoa!” and desire to know more. As for the one place in the book I’ve actually visited? Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation, a chapter in my own book, The Great Global Bucket List. Books like these, which belong on the coffee table of the more eclectic traveller, forever ensuring that your bucket list continues to grow.
Atlas of Untamed Places
By Chris Fitch
with maps by Martin Brown
Published by Aurum Press
US$29.99 / $38.99 CAN
Buy it on Amazon.
The World's Spiciest Food
As we've established, I usually travel with a small bottle of hot sauce. When applied liberally, it can save any meal (even boiled cabbage in Siberia, although you might need more than one bottle). Fortunately, there are some destinations where carrying my hot sauce is completely unnecessary. These are the places where the Mighty Chilli roams free, and pity the fool traveller who shows it disrespect.
The Thai’s don’t cook. They paint a masterpiece on your palate, with colours of sweet, salty, sour and spice. The chilli in question is known locally as “mouse droppings”, since it is small and shrivelled. Thailand’s famous red curry is made with these dried, crushed chillis. Yellow curry, the least spicy, is made with spices like turmeric. The most spicy is green curry, with the potent seeds left in. The Thai chilli realizes its full potential in tom yum soup, combined with lime, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass. When the ingredients are mixed just right, it will make you salivate just thinking about it for years to come (as I am doing just typing this).
A good, strong Indian curry will make your eyeballs sweat. Traditionally, the spiciest Indian dish is the vindaloo, inspired by Portuguese visitors but perfected in India with a variety of chillies and peppers. I find that drinking lightly carbonated Indian beer soothes an extra hot vindaloo’s burn to something almost bearable. But I’d still place a roll of toilet paper in the fridge before you go to bed, for it is well known that strong curries always burn twice.
The African birds-eye chilli was spread around the world by Portuguese seafarers, and for good reason. Known as peri peri, the small birds-eye releases a chemical that has been proven to trigger a sort of culinary buzz. You can’t get addicted, but after years of craving a steady fix, I believe I’ve come pretty close. You can also chase the peri-peri burn in Portugal, Brazil, and at a top notch South African franchise called Nandos Chicken worldwide.
Lets hit the bayou with a little fixin’ of some of Louisiana’s finest. Tabasco brand pepper sauce is found around the world, and “blackened Cajun” rub has become a staple in many fish restaurants. But the USA seems to have excelled in the manufacture and marketing of outrageous sauces, with quirky names like Satan’s Blood and Blair’s Mega Death Sauce. One of the world’s spiciest dishes was traced to a shrimp cocktail in Indianapolis (heavy on the horseradish), while one restaurant in Chicago insists diners sign a waiver before sampling its XXX Hot Wings. American food scientists have extracted the capsaicin compound that gives chilli peppers its kick. It’s more a weapon than a food group.
The best fish I’ve ever had was on the Jamaican south coast, spiced with the wonderful Caribbean concoction popularly known as jerk. Fish or meat is dry rubbed with a mixture of scallions, nutmeg, garlic, herbs, and the secret ingredient, the Scotch Bonnet Pepper. Closely related to the habanero, the most fierce of household chillies, the Scotch Pepper is small and unassuming, like a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. When combined in the right combination, it creates a jerk sensation, a mouth-watering blend of heat and taste.
Chinese cuisine is not afraid to use chillies, but the region most famous for its culinary heat is the Szechuan Province. Perhaps its most famous dish is the hot pot, whereby different ingredients are added to a pot until everything is just right. A locally grown “flower” pepper adds the heat the region is famous for.
Jalapeno peppers are renowned the world over, although on the Scoville Scale they barely register. Consider it has a rating of just 2500 to 8000, while the habanero lies somewhere between 100,000 and 350,000. Mexicans tamed the habanero, a monster of a pepper, now used in most gimmicky hot sauces. Fortunately it is used in Mexican kitchens sparingly, where moles (sauces) are prepared with that special combination of tomato, cilantro, lime, pepper, and sometimes chocolate.
SIDE NOTE: The World’s Spiciest Dish
Phaal curry is made from various peppers, but there’s only one you should worry about. The bhut jolokia, aka the nala jokolia, aka the ghost pepper, aka you-have-to-be-out-of- your-mind-to-eat-this-pepper pepper. It’s been certified by the Guinness Book of Records as being the strongest pepper known to man, with a Scoville rating of over 1,000,000! The thick Phaal curry is served in India and Pakistan, to diners who will shortly lose all communication with their oral cavity.
The shenanigans of summer have subsided, the seasons have changed and autumn is upon us. For many, this is the best time of year to travel. Crowds thin, prices drop, foliage explodes, and the temperature dances on the Goldilocks stage of not too hot, not too cold, aaah...just right. Maybe you should consider:
Welcome to the ultimate fall destination. They even advertise it on the flag. Visitors come from all over the world to experience the colours of our foliage as they explode into shades of red, orange and yellow. There are highlights coast to coast: Ontario’s Algonquin Park, Niagara Parkway and Bruce Peninsular. The Laurentian Mountains in Quebec. Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, New Brunswick’s Fundy Coastal Drive, the rolling forests and hills of Prince Edward Island and British Columbia – there’s no shortage of trees in Canada, and autumn is easily the best time of year to enjoy them.
The United States
Similarly, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States lights up in the colours of autumn from mid-September to the end of October. There’s plenty of charming road trips in the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, where a gentle paced traveller can appreciate the change of season through small villages, farms, and seaside towns along the way. Michigan and Wisconsin are also known for their fabulous fall colours.
I have a particular fondness for the English countryside in autumn, having enjoyed epic road trips to the New Forest, Cotswolds and Cornwall in the past. Rolling, misty countryside and quaint stone villages add a particular coziness to the adventure. Other autumn faves in the UK include the National Forest in Leicestershire, along with Beacon Hill and the supernatural sounding Outwoods. There are also great trails outside of Cardiff in Wales, and plenty of walks and bike adventures in the Scottish Highlands.
China is so vast and there’s plenty to see away from the usual tourist hot spots of Beijing and Shanghai. With temperatures cooling pleasantly, consider the south-western Sichuan province where the maple and birch trees strut their colours. Domestic Chinese tourists love visiting places like Miyalou in October to enjoy the views, along with the Juizhai Vallley, where tranquil blue lakes compliment the “kingdom of colours”.
Spain is much more than a beach holiday destination, especially as the sizzling summer temperatures begin to drop and the Mediterranean starts to cool. It’s a great time to head south where it us perfectly warm and pleasant, and the cities of Granada, Cordoba and Seville are waiting to be explored. Those summer crowds have dispensed, so it’s far easier to get around without making reservations, getting that great table on the patio instead of spending hours lining up. Further north begins to get a little chilly around October.
The forests of Bavaria are brushed from the same autumn palette, with the added bonus of the wild, 16-day Oktoberfest taking place each year in Munich. Once you’ve saturated yourself on beer, hit the Autobahn for a drive along the Rhine, taking in the Black Forest, medieval castles, and the looming Alps.
Just because things are cooling down, doesn’t mean you need to pack a coat. French Polynesia enjoys its best season in August to October, after the heat of the sweltering months, but before the rains kick in. Tahiti, Bora Bora, the Society Islands – there’s no shortage of escapes where you can find your own beach paradise. You might want to stay clear of the Disappointment Islands though. They really need to do something about that name.
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.
The World's Worst Traffic
Originally published on Sympatico.ca
Crawling along at the speed of a meat grinder, tensions flaring, congestion worse than chronic nasal flu. What can you say about gridlock? Its sheer waste of time is enough to make you sell your car and take the bus, except the bus is crammed with people, and its stuck in traffic too.
Fortunately, there is some solace, a soothing balm to comfort you the next time you find yourself in a traffic nightmare. Simply put: No matter how bad it gets, at least you don’t have to put up with the daily chaos in the cities below:
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Together with 20 million people living in greater Sao Paulo, comes the fact that there are nearly 8 million cars on the road. Every time I take a taxi from the airport, I’m boggled by the gridlock, and the deft manoeuvres drivers will perform to get out of them. Sao Paulo holds the world record for the worst traffic jam, when it was reported in May 2008 that over a quarter of all streets within the city were completely backed up. The wealthy elite has found a solution however. Sao Paulo holds the largest fleet of helicopters in the world.
Anyone who has visited Cairo will tell you about the pyramids, but first they’ll tell you about the traffic. It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and operates according to local rules of madness that include few street lights, no-lane roundabouts, and on-the-fly rules and customs. For example: If you do see a green light, it’s a mistake to believe it means “go”. The same with stopping for “red”. Locals say the trick is to make use of every space you can see, stopping only if that space is already filled, by say, a donkey cart. Somehow it works, but I pity the North American tourist who rents a car and dares to enter the fray.
Los Angeles, USA
Compared to Cairo, it's easier to navigate the vast highways of LA, although during rush hour, don’t plan on driving much. Such is the state of LA traffic, it often becomes a character in movies and TV shows, and the internet is rife with Youtube clips of people losing their marbles behind the wheel. According the American Highway Users Alliance, the US-101 highway, intersecting with the I-405, is the worst bottleneck highway in the United States, with 318,000 cars passing through daily, resulting in an estimated 27 million hours of annual delay. I don’t know how they figured that out exactly, but I’ve been stuck on the 101 and the 405, and if I can’t claim back those lost hours of my life, I guess nobody can either.
I defer to my notes, recorded on arrival in Mumbai for the first time. “Taxi driver has severe tic. Keeps snapping his head and twitching violently. Car is small and rusted. Narrowly avoid collision with cow, bus, three children, dog, motorbike, rickshaw, and a one-legged beggar – all at first intersection. Unbelievable chaos. Driver might have rigor mortis. See and feel: deep potholes, police, magazine sellers, scooters transporting family of five, trucks with loose butane tanks hanging out the back, flea markets with real fleas, holy men, bicycles, random trees in the tarmac, garbage, babies. Too much stimulation. Close eyes. Pray for safe arrival."
Traffic and the pollution it spawns were major challenges for organizers of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. They tried an odd-even scheme to clear roads of the city’s notorious traffic – rotating which cars were permitted to drive according to their license plate numbers. Crafty locals switched up cars or even bought a second car just to get around it. Locals could finally see what a blue sky looked like from their bumper-to-bumper transits, but the restrictions did not work over the long term - Beijing's air pollution continues to plague the city.
While the price of gas continues to rise the world over, in Venezuela, a litre will cost you pennies. As the world's 5th largest exporter, Venezuela has some of the cheapest gas around. But the government hasn’t offered the infrastructure to handle the subsequent explosion in car ownership, as vehicles cram onto shoddy highways and line up on potholed side streets. Road rage and violent shootouts have become common enough for the state to issue psychological advice on how to deal with the gridlock. These include reading a book, listening to music, and keeping your gun holstered.
12 million people call Bangkok home, and they all seemed to want to go to exactly to the same place I did. It didn’t take me long to forego the charms of a three-wheeled tuk-tuk for a blissfully air-conditioned and far less noisy taxi. Besides, neither tuk-tuk nor taxi was going anywhere fast, and sitting back in the taxi, I didn’t have to chew exhaust fumes and shower in sweat. It’s easy enough to get around Bangkok mind you, if you’re not in too big a rush. Just avoid rush hour, which unfortunately extends into most of the day.
Levelled by bombs during World War II, greater Tokyo evolved without much urban planning, sprawling out from the city centre into the world’s most populous metro, housing an incredible 35 million people. Even with the most extensive urban subway in the world to service it, the result is incredible road congestion, with few bypasses or highways to funnel drivers in and out the city. The Tokyo Traffic Control centre works 24 hours a day and has the power to manage traffic lights, working with typical Japanese efficiency to limit traffic jams using some 17,000 vehicle detectors. Still, the traffic remains fierce, so it’s best to navigate the spaghetti-lines of the subway below.
In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza - only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.
2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available. While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry. The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouseclick of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating: “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.” Ouch. Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.
Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge. The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan. The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us. I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.
GREAT WALL OF CHINA
There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space. Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours. I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling. From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers. Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower. Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself. Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in. Mao famously said: "You're not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall.”
THE TREASURY, PETRA
You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabataean ruin. Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever. Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.
CHRIST THE REDEEMER
This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow. On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervor, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests. On the other, there is no hotdamn way it belongs anywhere near this list. The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy. Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead. As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global center of finance.
Many years ago I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours. By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable. I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour. When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both. There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks. Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly. The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles. Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.
The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Maccu Piccu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re in Japan. It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it. Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Maccu Piccu lit up in the morning sun. Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.
THE TAJ MAHAL
It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination. A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart. I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj. Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s. Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas. To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile. “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip. Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation. Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern. Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list. Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps). After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway. This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.
Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head? Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression. In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.
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.