And that...was 2015
Ten years ago, I set out to backpack the world, chasing a dream of adventure and who-knows-what, with the what turning out to be a career of chasing a dream of adventure. 2015 saw my 10 year Travel Anniversary, and it was a year of candied cherries on the bucket list sundae. I’d publish three new books, all of which would become bestsellers, and at years end my first book would still be the #1 selling Canadian travel title, two years since publication. I’d successfully produce and tick-off a 10-city speaking tour from Toronto to St John’s, driving across the country with my Mom. In the time it took my daughter to become a full-tantrum two-year old toddler, I’d zip around the world (yet again), craft my life’s work, give presentations to hundreds of people in Canada, the US and Mexico, buy a drone, destroy a drone, and celebrate my good fortune with one final tattoo. I crossed the Northwest Passage for hell’s sake. Even a salty dog sailor would be proud.
When I started my original blog, Modern Gonzo, it was selfishly as much for my own recollections as it was for sharing stories. This particular post follows that tradition, a brief look at the year that from a global, professional, and personal perspective.
A firelight procession on New Years Eve at Sun Peaks Resort, BC
I welcome the New Year snowboarding down a mountain under the stars, holding a flare in a magical torchlight procession at Sun Peaks Resort. I was about as memorable a new years as one could hope for. In Paris, two gunmen murder 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Shockingly, this would not be the worst atrocity in Paris this year. The East Coast gets pounded with record snowfall. The West Coast is milder than hot dog mustard.
Ice sculptures on the Assiniboine River, Winnipeg
I visit Winnipeg where I tell CBC viewers that you can’t do Canada if you can’t do cold. It’s the coldest snap of the winter, but there’s always a warm welcome at the the Festival du Voyageur, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and Assinniboine Park, where I watch a polar bear stand above my head. Is it blue and black or gold and white? RIP Leonard Nimoy, along far too many innocent victims in Syria, a country that many people felt couldn’t get any worse, until it did, and didn’t stop.
Three expanded, revised regional bucket lists.
I’ve begun diligently working on The Great Global Bucket List, and planning an epic summer. Meanwhile the planet’s two biggest scumbags – ISIS and Boko Haram – make bloody goo-goo eyes at each other. 20 people are murdered by terrorists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and ISIS start blowing up Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Site treasures. A lunatic German pilot decides to commit suicide in the cockpit of a passenger plane, killing 150 people on board. Not a good month for tourism. I have to watch my TEDx talk again to remind myself that people will rather help than hurt you. By year-end, nearly 300,000 people would have done the same.
My Mom, a Mustang, and a 10-city speaking tour
A random email arrives and next thing you know CBS are flying me to New York for an interview with 60 Minutes Sports about the rise of bucket lists. The following week I’m in Saskatchewan with my brother chasing down mustard seeds and climbing up Canada’s very own Ayers Rock aka Castle Butte in the Big Muddy Badlands. The last week of the month sees my Mom and I fly into Toronto and pick up a saucy royal blue Ford Mustang. With Starwood Hotels looking after us (and by year-end, Marriott Hotels looking after Starwood), I tick off a visit to Casa Loma, surf the standing wave on the Lachine Rapids in Montreal (well attempt to anyway), and plunge in the freezing waters of the Bay of Fundy outside St John. Along the way I give talks in Indigo stores, MEC, for a packed room at World Expeditions in Ottawa, and my personal highlight, for the friendly community of Lindsay, Ontario. Meanwhile, there’s a massive 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, with over 9000 dead. Baltimore is shaking with racial tension after the first of several high profile deaths of African-Americans by police officers. Apple Watch goes on sale (wearables shmarables) and more optimistically, there’s a nuclear deal brewing with Iran and a real thawing between the US and Cuba.
Footsies on the Aria Amazon, Peru
My speaking tour continues to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and it’s wonderful to be able to show my Mom around Atlantic Canada (even if she does order tea at an Irish Bar on George St in St John’s). Back home, I get to demo Harley Davidson’s new electric motorcycle (it sounds like a Star Wars Speeder Bike) and finally bring my wife along on a mind-blowing bucket list adventure to the Peruvian Amazon on a luxury riverboat. FIFA, a corrupt excuse for a sport governing body, starts to fall apart. John Oliver, who’s weekly Youtube rants are essential, summed it up nicely. There’s a Fight of the Century in boxing, which is something of a has-been sport, with has-been boxers boring the hell out of everyone, even with a has-been scandal. Hundreds of migrants (aka refugees) drown trying to escape the quagmire of Syria, Iraq or Sudan. Even as the Conservatives stay in power in the UK, Ireland legalizes gay marriage.
Hiking bliss in Ivvavik National Park, Yukon
We didn’t have much of a winter in Vancouver, but it’s sure sweet to see summer. Back from Peru, I pack for a week of hiking and camping 200 km north of the Arctic Circle in beautiful Ivvavik National Park (more people visit Everest Base Camp each year). I also spend a few days in the Western Arctic capital of Inuvik, a frontier town built on permafrost. Showing just how far it has come (despite the Bible-thumping lunatics), the US Supreme Court votes 5-4 in favour of gay marriage. Everyone’s Facebook profile pic gets attacked by rainbows. But it’s not all love and unicorns. Mass shootings in the US continue to shock, the latest (in a Charleston church by a white supremacist) at least serving to finally force the removal of the Confederate Flag (a not-so-secret white supremacist symbol) from government buildings. After missing a debt payment, the Greek economy collapses, again. More tourists are murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in Tunisia, this time on the beach. North America is far more concerned with the fate of Jon Snow (no way he’s dead!?) and a freakshow limelight-addicted reality star changing gender. The FIFA (yuck) Women’s World Cup (yay!) kicks off in stadiums across Canada.
Stuff you see in the Galapagos
I was a little nervous to visit the Galapagos. How could it possibly live up to the expectations? Well, it did, and then some. Sailing on a luxury catamaran, snorkelling with sea lions, turtles, penguins and marine iguanas, hiking on lava – Darwin’s islands quickly became a highlight in my Global book. The US and Cuba announce full diplomatic relations. Cuba is going to change fast, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Japan didn't stand a chance in the Women’s World Cup Final, but the country does legalize military participation in foreign conflicts for the first time since World War II. For a better handle on geo-politics, this year I turned to podcasts, in particular Intelligence Squared and Dan Carlin’s Common Sense. The world goes gaga for our first glimpses of the ex-planet Pluto. It looks nice, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A douchebag dentist kills a famous lion in Zimbabwe and gets a mouthful of hate on social media. China’s stock market starts to teeter but Vancouver real estate prices respond like a honeybadger (just.don’t.care). Best viral clip of the month has champion surfer Mick Fanning tangling with a shark (and somehow keeping all his toes). More mass shootings in America (cut and paste this line for every month).
On the way to board One Ocean Expedition's Vavilov off the coast of Greenland
Two days before an epic cruise to the Arctic with One Oceans Expeditions, I get a call that sea-ice has trapped the ship and the trip is cancelled. (Tears). Instead, do I want to attempt the Northwest Passage as Writer-in-Residence? (Of. Joy). An unbelievable adventure from Greenland to Baffin Island and following the footsteps of Franklin caps the highlight chapter for my Northern Canada Bucket List. Bonus: that’s me toasting life in a hot tub with icebergs in the background in stories written by Science Editor (and Scotch tutor) Robin McKie for the UK Observer and the Guardian. Although I was on the same boat in Antarctica last December (joined again by the intrepid photographer Jeff Topham) it’s a completely different polar adventure. Having less of a maritime adventure are the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to the relative safety of Europe. It’s now the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. How different countries react to the crisis range from inspirational (Germany, and later Canada) to horrifying (Hungary, the Arab states). Also horrifying: ISIS blow up Palmyra, the most famous historical site in Syria. Also horrifying: Donald Trump leads the polls as the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. The more misogynistic, bigoted, ignorant and frightening his remarks, the more light shines on the dark, scary shadow of the United States. It’s not the best time for Jon Stewart to retire, but he does, choosing young South African comedian Trevor Noah to replace him. In Canada, tension rises for the upcoming election, with the NDP running neck and neck with the Conservative Party.
My daughter Raquel loving life at Echo Valley Ranch, BC
Let no one tell you that writing a book isn’t a lot of work. My Great Global Bucket List is a monster, so much so that I have to cut 17 chapters for space! And this month is my deadline for both the Northern and Prairie Bucket Lists too. Why write one book when you can write three? Between long writing days, I take my family to a magical place called the Echo Valley Ranch in the BC interior. For a year that includes the Amazon and Galapagos and Greenland, I fondly recall Echo Valley way more than I expected to. Beside the wingnuts lined up at the mall, who gives a crap about the new iPhone when dead kids are washing up on beaches? The world is shocked when the media publishes an image of a drowned toddler washed ashore in Turkey. The refugee crisis is truly staggering: over a million people braving terrible conditions and risks to get away from monsters, some of them arriving to find monsters trumping all over them on arrival. Meanwhile, thousands die in a stampede during the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia, and Russia starts bombing ISIS and US-backed opposition forces in Syria. Because that’s what the region needs: the possibility of igniting World War III. Volkswagen is revealed to have been cheating omissions tests with software, one of the largest cases of industrial fraud ever. At least they owned up to it. What the hell happened to the NDP? All of a sudden, strategic voting is elevating the Liberals to the neck-and-neck title. Canadian politics may be civil, but this is turning out to be an interesting election that could change the future of the country.
Showing off my maritime tattoo at the Vancouver Maritime Museum gala
It crunch time for deadlines. When you work by yourself, there’s no office mates to high five when you file a 120,000 word manuscript. Or nail a keynote at a conference on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, or on stage in Tacoma, or for the BC tourism industry annual gathering. I’m high fiving myself all over the place. On October 19, Canada goes to the polls. I vote on the way to dropping off my daughter at daycare. That afternoon I visit a tattoo artist in Strathcona to permanently ink a reminder of the year’s incredible adventures. If I don’t, I simply would not believe all these adventures had taken place at all. By the time I return home after my five hour sitting, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have somehow swept to a majority government. It’s the dawning of a new Canada, one that I believe is far more recognizable and in-line with the values of its people. The Conservatives campaigned on fear, the Liberals on hope. By the end of the month, you could taste the optimism in the air. Trudeau appointed a gender-equal cabinet. Trudeau reversed policy decisions on refugees, on climate change, on austerity. The last time I lived through a political honeymoon like this was when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. Two decades later, South African politics is in a sorry mess (#zumamustfall), but there’s no denying the “moment” while it lasts. On the world stage, Canada is back. #becauseits2015. A bomb explodes on a Russian commercial jet with 225 passengers shortly after take-off in Egypt. Putin says there will be blood, and promptly starts dropping bombs on innocent Syrian civilians. 32 people die in a Romanian nightclub fight. October 21 is the actual day Marty McFly arrives in the future in Back to the Future II. Our hoverboards have wheels. Our laces still don’t tie themselves. Damn Marty, the future ain’t what it used to be.
Diving off Lizard Island, Australia
No offence November, but you’ve always been the worst month of the Northern Hemisphere year. Winter starts biting, but the festivities of December have yet to begin. And it doesn’t help that it rains, and gets dark at 3pm, and everyone starts coming down with year-end fatigue. Fortunately, there’s always a trip to Tropical North Queensland to dive Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It was a last minute chapter in the book and an opportunity to tick off one of the world’s great natural wonders. I was driving in rental car in Gold Coast, tuned into local radio, and first heard about the massacre in Paris. The news stopped all of us in our tracks. We all know Paris (or of it). We know what it’s like to go to a concert, or chat in a coffee shop. Each attack makes us angrier, and that anger translates into action, and unfortunately, more fear of the other. It’s exactly what these rectal slimebags want. More hatred, more fear, more terror. More yahoo cowboys with bazookas in kindergartens. A religious civil war is sucking the world into its fundamentalist vortex, Allah help us. Turkey shoots down a Russian fighter jet and the old claws of NATO and the Warsaw Pact get sharpened. At least Taiwan and China seem to be moving in the right direction, with the first formal meeting of its leaders. And Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be having her Mandela moment in Burma aka Myanmar. Adele’s new album smashes records in its opening week. It’s full of heartbreak, aching and longing.
Canadian lunch at US Tour Operators Conference, Chicago
I kicked off December with a visit to Chicago to talk about the wonders of Canada to a room of US tour operators. Even more memorable than strolling beneath the Xmas lights on the Magnificent Mile was the fact that, for the first time in my life, I showed up at the airport without my passport. Yep, true story. I hopped into a cab, and with a sympathetic driver (who turned out to be a fan), pushed the limits of a Prius to somehow get home and back to the airport, through customs and security, before the plane took off. Now that was magnificent. For all the bad news in the world (another mass shooting in the US, and another) there was also optimism. For the first time, the world’s nations came together to agree on a plan to move away from fossil fuels. Implementation will be nigh on impossible, but at least there’s a global political consensus that the weather is changing, and unusual droughts, floods, storms and temperatures are not a good thing. 2015 is the hottest year recorded since records began in 1880. For all our current geo-political turmoil, at least we’re not living 12,800 years ago. A fascinating talk (and new book) by one of my favourite authors Graham Hancock convincingly suggests that impending comet strikes sent us back to the Stone Age. And probably will do so again. Oh well, one more reason to start ticking off that bucket list sooner than later.
Some of the better books I read: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; The Martian by Andy Weir; The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins; The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonassen; The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert; One More Thing by BJ Novak and Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock.
Some of the better movies and TV shows I saw: Game of Thrones; The Martian; Mad Max Fury Road; Ex Machina; Inside Out; Sicario; The Jinx; Narcos. Of course, there’s a lot I didn’t see, and regrettably. all the superhero stuff just sort of blended into one explosion.
It was a weird year for music. Normally I run through critics list and hunt new tunes and bands with impressive tenacity. This year I just didn’t get it. Everything sounded so…derivative. I must really be getting old. Some of the better songs I listened to (whether they were released in 2015 I’m not sure): 10,000 Emerald Pools by Borns; Every Other Freckle by Alt-J; Kill vs Maim/Flesh without Blood by Grimes; Generate/Mirage by Eric Prydz; Anna Sun by Walk the Moon; Kygo remixes; Trojans by Atlas Genius; Science-Visions by Chvrches; Flash Junk Mind by Milky Chance.
I'm sitting here at the gate in LAX dusting off the magic of a week cruising in the Galapagos. It's my penultimate experience before filing the manuscript for my next opus - The Great Global Bucket List - and I was a little worried about the hype. I mean, everyone has the Galapagos on their Bucket List right? Well, they should.
My chariot for the experience was Haugan Cruises' fantastic Ocean Spray catamaran, as fine a boat as one could ever hope to be a guest on. On a six night itinerary (slightly delayed because of flight mayhem courtesy Avianca), I fully realized the scale, abundance and accessibility of the archipelago. Stepping over marine iguanas, playing with giant sea turtles, snorkelling with tropical penguins and flightless cormorants and hiking on lava flows with dozens of endemic species of birds...it's like nothing else on the planet. Of course, being accompanied by wonderful people ensured a wonderful time, and so a tip of the hat to my travelling companions, and the Ocean Spray's terrific crew. Check out some of the pictures above and you'll see what all the fuss is about.
I just popped across the corridor and picked up a copy of today's Wall Street Journal. A couple weeks ago I was contacted by a writer putting together the ultimate globetrotter's bucket list. In between flights getting back from the Yukon Arctic, I emailed her some answers, and lo and behold, there's my name, upper case and bolded, leading the story. It includes an inspiring look at some personal bucket list experiences from authors, chefs, actors and media stars. An honour to be in their company, and great buzz for the Global Bucket List, which is shaping up to be a bucket list bible of sorts. For the record, here's my answers to writer Lauren Lipton's questions:
1. What not-yet-achieved travel goal do you hope to accomplish during your lifetime? This could be visiting a specific city or country, staying at a certain hotel, or seeing a particular attraction or site
I've ticked off my impossibly dreamy bucket list in over 100 countries, and it's a little like whack-a-mole: you tick one experience off the top and three more pop up at the bottom. This summer it's been the Amazon, Arctic and Galapagos. The moles that keep popping up: Indonesia, Vietnam and Morocco.
2. Why is this destination or experience personally important to you?
It seems a little ridiculous that I've explored Albania, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, but have missed these countries that blip so loudly on the global adventure radar.
3. What already accomplished travel goal would you recommend to others?
Antarctica. The expedition cruises are pricey and it is quite the adventure crossing the Drake Passage, but every human on Earth should have the opportunity to see how vast, remote and spectacular the seventh continent is. Protected by the international community, sailing alongside icebergs under the midnight sun puts a lot of things in perspective. I'd recommend One Ocean Expedition's chartered Russian research vessels for an authentic, fun and responsible experience.
4. Finally, ave you ever been disappointed by a travel experience that seemed like a good idea…but didn’t turn out that way?
I've found expectations to be the scourge of modern travel. The least you have, the better your experience will be. Traveling on a tight budget, I felt priced out by Croatia's Dalmatian Coast (which is how I ended in Albania, which was fantastic). I couldn't enjoy Cuba after a local showed me life outside the resort bubbles, dictated by a ridiculous and oppressive dual currency system. It seemed like a good idea to visit a massage therapist in Taipei who sets his patients on fire. I can still smell my burning skin. In future, I'll also think twice about accepting a cup of prized fermented horse milk from a Mongolian chieftain, or eating raw baby beluga whale in the Canadian Arctic.
The World's Best Local Food
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
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.