Back in Delhi after another completely eventful train journey (there’s no other kind in India), I packed my bags and headed for the airport. India, this world within a world within a world, had won me over. I remember what a traveller told me when I first arrived. “No matter what you've read, seen or heard about India, wherever you go, it is nothing at all like what you expect."
It was important to stay awake on the overcrowded night train to Dharamshala. If I missed my stop I would end up north at the Pakistani border, where there are enough problems without a confused hack stumbling about. I was scheduled to arrive in a small town called Chakkebank at 3am, which, translated into Indian time, meant anywhere between last Wednesday and the coming of the messiah. Due to a festival, the train was steaming with people, but my sticky-vinyl top bunk afforded some distance from the disjointed beggars, the transsexuals who bring luck for a buck, and the tea guy who somehow managed to get through the throng every ten minutes screaming “Chaaiiiii!!” without inflicting third degree burns with his thermal. I dozed off and awoke to discover two guys had scaled my upper bunk and somehow positioned themselves between my open-scissor legs. When a third tried to join them, I put my foot down. Literally, on his head. I made my station, waited two hours for the bumpy dawn bus into the mountains, and finally arrived in Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Like cigarettes, I’m convinced this journey took years off my life.
It felt like I had arrived in another country, and in a sense I had. A traveller today can experience more Tibetan culture in Dharamshala than they can in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Along with Tibetan refugees, thousands arrive monthly from all over the world to study Buddhism, get involved in various Tibetan movements, catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama when he is in town, or just enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the surrounding mountains. The cold, wet narrow streets were lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing stalls, internet cafes, offices of Tibetan institutions, and too many westerners wrapped in blankets as opposed to their usual Gore-Tex jackets.
“It’s not so much a question of ‘Free Tibet’, so much as ‘Save Tibet’,” explains Tenzin from the Central Tibetan Authority. The Dalai Lama was in town and I was trying to arrange a camera permit, in the process learning something about Tibet’s current status. Decades of Chinese investment and migration has fundamentally changed the face of Tibet, so the Tibetans are now focused on preserving their identity as opposed to regaining independence. Like other world hotspots, religious and political boundaries are blurred in the conflict, and at the centre meditates the Dalai Lama himself – the political and religious head of a nation. His non-violent “Middle Way” solution continues to make Tibet a popular Western cause. Whatever happens, I am told it is all karma.
I did manage to see the Dalai Lama, and sat in on a Buddhist class. I walked the lovely Lingkhor path around the temple, spun the colorful mani wheels, chanted mantras, ate traditional dumpling-like momos, and lost my breath at sunset, staring out at the mountains and valley from the peaceful confines of the Tsuglagkhang temple complex. In lower Dharamshala, the Indian community gathered for the annual Dusehra festival, in which giant effigies were blown up to rid the year of evil. Huge fireworks lit up the snowy peaks, as crowds of happy Indians shook my hand and wanted me in their photographs. I could have soaked up this atmosphere for weeks, but my time in India was just about up. There was just one more thing needed to complete my Indian experience, and fortunately, it did not involve dysentery.
The Taj Mahal is the world’s most breathtaking and romantic mausoleum, built in 17th century to honor a sultan’s second wife, who died at childbirth. It is located in Agra, about three-sorry-four-oops-five hours by train from Delhi, and is India’s busiest tourist destination. It took me three hours just to arrange my return ticket, but by now I had learnt the most crucial lesson for successful travelling in India. Never be in a hurry to get anywhere! Certainly I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to my roach “hotel” - a prison cell with a crusty Hello Kitty bedsheet, creating a colorful, if disturbing touch. So off I went to the Taj, where tourists are happily fleeced and touts, taxi drivers and beggars jostle for pole position. When I arrived in India for my month of travel, I dreaded this scenario. Now my skin is hardened, my wits sharpened, and it’s just paneer for the course.
After dealing with massive lines, corrupt guards, confiscated cameras and a hefty foreign tourist entry fee, I finally got into the complex. The late afternoon sun glittered across the white marble of the Taj Mahal, silently reflecting in the ponds and floating like a fairytale palace. Was the day’s journey not a symbol of travelling in India itself? The frustration, the stress, the scams, the sweat, and finally, the magic that somehow made it all worthwhile. The Taj Mahal is truly as magical as it looks in the photos.
Back in Delhi after another completely eventful train journey (there’s no other kind in India), I packed my bags and headed for the airport. India, this world within a world within a world, had won me over. I remember what a traveller told me when I first arrived. “No matter what you've read, seen or heard about India, wherever you go, it is nothing at all like what you expect."
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.
Modern travellers have developed an insatiable thirst for jet fuel, much to the detriment of previous modes of travel: ships and trains. While ships have evolved into cruising palaces, trains have far more limitations when it comes to the size of their carriages. Yet as a means to discover a new destination in a comfortable, relaxing pace, I'm a sucker for an epic train journey. Sit back and watch the world pass you by as we track down the world’s best train journeys.
The Blue Train
It’s amazing how much comfort you can cram into a carriage rolling along a gauge just 3ft and 6 inches wide. South Africa’s Blue Train is rightly regarded as perhaps the world’s most luxurious rail journey. Butler service, en-suite soundproofed compartments (with gold tinted windows), double beds with down duvets, marble-tiled bathrooms (many with full bath tubs), panoramic observation lounges, gourmet meals – no wonder its known as a moving five star hotel. There are two trains in operation - one catering to 74 guests in 37 suites, the other for 58 guests in 29 suites – operating on the main scheduled route from the administrative capital of Pretoria to Cape Town. Travelling at 90 km/hr, enjoy 27 pampered hours and spectacular scenery until you reach your final station. The Blue Train also operates two other routes: to Durban, and to the malaria-free Pilansberg National Park.
Not to be outdone, India’s Maharajas Express treats its 88 passengers like royalty, literally in the case of the presidential suite, which spans a whole carriage. Recalling an era where India’s grand Maharajas built their own lines to shepherd them in lavish carriages, the Express combines old world luxury with modern conveniences like a business centre, spa and gym. It offers five itineraries, ranging from the seven night Heritage of India, Indian Splendor and Indian Panorama to the three night Treasures and Gems of India. All visit destinations like Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My own rail journeys in India (in packed, sticky 2nd Class Sleepers) were memorable, but not for the right reasons. If you’re willing to pay, oh, several thousand times more for a ticket, why not treat yourself like a king?
We live in a large country, but when I took the 4-night, 3-day VIA Rail Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, I could finally see just how large we’re talking about. Travelling 4466km through the Rockies and Prairies, expect to roll through four time zones, not seeing any signs of civilization for hours. The train’s weekly configuration changes depending on demand, but always has panoramic and double-story panoramic dome cars, excellent meals, clean bathrooms, fun activities and friendly staff. Recalling the 1950’s glory years, the stainless steel carriages have the pastels and feel of another era, especially the rear Park Car, with its distinctive dome and view of the tracks you leave behind. Currently undergoing refurbishments as part of VIA Rail’s almost $1 billion investment, The Canadian is rightly a national treasure, popular with both locals and international visitors.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express / Eastern and Oriental Express
Although these are two separate train journeys exploring two different continents, I’ve put them together because the same company owns them, and once you hear the word “Orient”, it’s easy to get confused. More so since there was an actual train known as the Orient Express, running between Strasbourg and Vienna, but that ceased operation in 2009. The Venice-Simplon is a luxury train operating from London to Venice, in vintage carriages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Restored to their former glory, cabin suites are heavy on the polished wood, with washbasins, banquette sofas and ever-attentive stewards. Swap out Europe for lush jungles and exotic temples, and hop aboard the more modern The Eastern and Oriental Express, which journeys between Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Laos. With its in-suite bathrooms and airy teak observation cars, itineraries range from 2 to 6 nights, offering various opportunities for temple visits and other excursions.
With its vast distances and sparse population, Australia is tailor made for an epic train journey. The Ghan, named after the late 19th century Afghan cameleers that created the route, traverses almost 3000 kilometres north to south and vice-versa from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. The 3 day/2 night crossing caters to a range of budgets, from the twin Red Service Sleeper Cabins with their compact lounge chairs (folding into sleeping berths), to the 25 en-suite Platinum Cabins, with in-cabin dining, attentive stewards and twin or double beds. Beginning with the ridges and plains of South Australia, the landscape transforms into the red earth and sweeping skies of the Central Australian outback. Day or multi-day excursions are on offer from Alice Springs, before continuing into the more tropical regions of Northern Australia. The train runs twice a week in each direction June to August, and once a week during the remainder of the year.
China boasts the world’s fastest passenger train, the CRH380A running from Shanghai to Nanjing and Hangzhou at an astonishing 480 km/hr. Think more rollercoaster and less leisurely train journey. For less of a blur but all the thrills, consider the Qinghai-Tibet, an engineering marvel that connects the city of Xining to Lhasa, Tibet. It’s the first railway to navigate the mountains and treacherous terrain that encompasses Tibet. Once you cross the Tanggula Pass at 5072 metres above sea level, you’re officially on the world’s highest railway, rolling through the world’s highest tunnel, and stopping at the world’s highest railway station. With stunning views across the mountains and permafrost, the journey is literally breathtaking. At this altitude, breathing can become an issue, but the cold-resistant carriages were built for such challenging environments, and carry oxygen supplies on board for each passenger, along with an onboard doctor.
The Rocky Mountaineer
Repeatedly named as one of the world’s great train journeys by everyone from National Geographic to Conde Nast Traveler, The Rocky Mountaineer belongs to North America’s largest private rail service, running 1000 km through some of the world’s best scenery. Unlike VIA’s Canadian, which continues onto Toronto, the Rocky Mountaineer is designed to showcase the glorious Rockies in all their glory, with guests seated in two-level glass-domed panoramic dome cars, while interpreters point out wildlife and sites of interest. Guests spend the night in the company’s hotel in Kamloops before continuing their journey from Banff/Jasper to Vancouver, or vice versa. Along with the outstanding meals, let the cocktails flow!
The Trans-Siberia / Trans Mongolian Railway
When creating this list, I erred on this side of luxury, only because I’ve spent many days travelling on some of the world’s more challenging train rides, and while the memories are precious, I wouldn’t necessarily wish them on my readers. Trains are great, but not when they’re scary, like the time I peed at gunpoint on the Russian-Mongolian border. It took me three weeks to journey from Beijing to St Petersburg on two of the world’s most legendary rail networks. Along the way I raced horses in Mongolia, swam in the world’s deepest lake, and was almost tasered by some corrupt cops. Rudimentary carriages were OK, even if the attendants were smuggling starched clothing in our pillows. Meals consisted of instant noodles, instant mash, and anything else we could whip up with graciously provided hot water. I grew to appreciate the sneer of the attendants, and the taste of vodka, which was cheap and plentiful. An incredible adventure, definitely. But not for everyone.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, more affectionately known as El ChePe, carries locals and tourists over 400 miles through the Sierra Madre mountains and the magnificent Copper Canyon. Departing Los Mochis in the morning and arriving in Chihuahua late in the evening, the train crosses 36 bridges (one at over 1000 feet) and 87 tunnels. It stops at 13 stations along the way, allowing travellers to hop on and off to explore the region. There are two classes to choose from, with the Primero Express offering a dining car as opposed to the Economico’s snack bar, but it’s the scenery that provides the tastiest fodder. Mexico’s most scenic train chugs alongside stunning jungle, mountains, canyons waterfalls, and even high desert.
The Royal Scotsman
The Scottish Highlands are yours for the taking. By yours, I refer to the 36 guests pampered in absolute luxury aboard the Royal Scotsman. The train offers 2 to 7 night itineraries that take in the majestic Highlands, along with themed trips like the 4-night Classic Whisky Journey in conjunction with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Enjoy gourmet bliss in the mahogany-panelled dining car, and make sure to pack a kilt for alternating formal nights (if you forget, you can still hire one). Twin, Double and Single cabins are equipped with in-suite bathrooms, with the plush sofas in the observation car perfect to watch quaint villages and medieval castles pass you by.
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.
It is said we should not judge a book by its cover, nor a day by its weather. Well whoever said that never spent a week in Fiji during a tropical monsoon. Bad weather blows. It kills a romantic walk on the beach, it cancels once-in-a-lifetime adventures, but worst of all, it infects you with the “if only’s”. If only it wasn’t raining, we’d go boating to those the islands. If only it wasn’t hailing, we’d be able to spend the day at the beach. And my most frequent, and personal favourite “if only it wasn’t a washed-out mudpit, this outdoor music festival might actually rock.” On a recent trip to New Zealand, bad weather cancelled four straight days of adventure, including hot air ballooning, heli-hiking, canyoning, and a scenic flight through the Siberia Valley. I will never get the chance to do them again. Kick and scream all you want about disasters with hotels and airlines, but bad weather has no customer service line. You can't blame a celestial travel agent. Fortunately, there is a way out, a pill that makes it easier to swallow.
Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, talks about perceived happiness vs. actual happiness. Scientifically, your brain cannot tell the difference between actual happiness, and when you tell yourself that you are in fact, happy. Self help gurus throughout the ages got it right when they advised that being positive has a powerful effect on our reality. Everyone knows that weather is out of our control. How we choose to deal with it is not. My own mantra is: Wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be. I’m not to the first nut to crack that open, but the message applies particularly to travel. So many decisions, so many roads to choose, so little time to choose them in. The best bet is to make a decision, shrug off that which you have no control over, and move forward. Looking back, as the Bible so graphically illustrates, turns people into salt.
If the weather sucks, and you’re in a city, fear not. If you have time, play with your itinerary, so that day for shopping at the end moves up. Most cities have excellent museums, restaurants or pubs you’ve never heard, or wouldn’t think about visiting. Bad weather is an excuse to ask locals what they would do. I was once washed out in the Malaysian city of Khota Baru. The beaches were a no go. When life deals you rain, wear a raincoat. I explored the streets, wet as they were, and discovered hole-in-the-wall eateries serving some of the best food I’ve ever had. I remember the frustration of that day, walking around looking for salvation, and finding it in a bowl of saucy nasi kander. I wonder if I would remember a typical day on the beach as much as I remember finding that meal, and chatting with the friendly locals who served it.
Rained out on a beach is not as simple. No museums, limited shopping and restaurants. Take a breath. Travel is a go-go-go affair, but it also coincides with something we call a holiday. Relax. Recharge. Sleep in, guilt free. Read a book, take an afternoon nap. Rained in for a few days in Goa, I managed to find a little shack selling DVD’s. I watched the Godfather trilogy start to finish, read a book about Hinduism, ate at the closest fish shack. Emerging from my shell, I felt happier, wiser, and eager to connect with other travellers. Bad weather might keep you from the beach, but it has a habit of bringing people together.
Life is not a tourist brochure. It was never supposed to be one. Very often, the best moments of a journey are not planned, falling outside the lines and beyond the borders of our expectations. Wherever your journey takes you, acknowledge that each day is a gift, and can be opened up to reveal something special. Rain or shine.
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.
If the thought of squatting over a hole for days on end is holding you back on one of the most incredible journeys of your life, I urge you to read this. It is possible to travel extensively in India and not get a case of Delhi (or Rishikesh, or Anjuna, or anywhere) Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent a month in the country, and while travellers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy. This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. Our digestive system just isn’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the sub-continent. Over time, it will adjust, but for travellers, here’s my plan to prevent a messy disaster:
1. Don’t drink tap water
Obviously, enough said. Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists buy bottled water straight out of the tap. Packaged water is fine, just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And importantly, watch out for ice in drinks.
2. Don’t eat meat
India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking vegetables has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork or chicken, even though it is widely available. Relish the veggie curries, and stay clear of potentially contaminated meats. There are plenty of live cows running about to keep you close to the beef you love.
3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese
Cheese is heaven for nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice. Paneer is fine – it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be OK, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.
4. Don’t eat eggs
Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will tie your intestine into a sailor knot.
5. Don’t drink milk
For some reason, most travellers deal well with lassi, the delicious yoghurt-based drink. It has been known to be mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgement. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour, take your coffee black.
6. Don’t eat fish unless you see it caught and cooked
On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make sure that’s the case first. Uncooked or fish left standing in the heat too long is going to swim in and out of you faster than Michael Phelps.
7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables, peel your fruit
Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical. Peeling fruit is a wise choice. If you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.
8. Eat in restaurants that cater to tourists/wealthier Indians
A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself recommended in the guidebooks. When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who have come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine. I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals, just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.
9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and especially before eating
Just like your momma taught you.
10. Trust Your Gut
You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you can meet travellers who don’t follow any of this and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of having an awesome experience. India is no place for Nervous Nellies. The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes, things don't go exactly as planned
The Bus Ride from Tirana to Dhermi, Albania
It was supposed to take four hours, but it took eight, and every of them was an attack on my shattered nerves. The bus, possibly held together by elastics, could barely make its way up steep mountain hills, while rusted springs stuck through the vinyl seats and poked in my butt (think marshmallows on a sharp twig). The driver’s buddy thoughtfully came around to collect all the trash, and promptly through it out the window. The surface of Mars is in better condition than most Albanian highways, but that didn’t stop the driver from playing chicken with the approaching trucks. Wrecks lined the road to prove head-on collisions were common, just in case I thought he knew what he was doing.
The Flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela, Ethiopia
While we’re in Africa, lets check into the only flight I’ve ever been on that broke down mid-flight No sooner had we taken off from one of many stops along the way than the twin prop Fokker pulled a U-turn and landed back on the runway, the result of engine/wing/equipment/something trouble. Four hours later, another plane arrived, also experiencing technical difficulties. The passengers from that flight transferred over to our plane, which all of a sudden worked, and took off, leaving us still on the tarmac. Another four hours later, another plane arrived that may or may not have been in working order, but since it was a choice between a night on a runway or arrival amongst legendary 11th century rock churches, survival seemed like a small price to pay.
The Tazara Rail from Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam
It’s one of the great African train adventures, 38 hours through scorched wilderness. Sounds great, now lets crank the heat, overcrowd the cabin, blast bad music through distorted speakers, obscure the windows with thick layers of dust, cross the wildlife reserves at night when you can’t see anything, charge $10US for soggy eggs that nobody in their right mind would eat, and depart once a week (maybe) from a train station that is only slightly cleaner than an open pit toilet after a school trip. Not that I’m complaining.
The Rickshaw in Puno, Peru
Pedal-power rickshaws can be a charming, cheap way to get around bustling cities in the developing world. In the southern Peruvian town of Puno, the driver is located behind the carriage, as opposed to the front of the carriage in India, or the side, as found in Malaysia. My rickshaw took a corner and the carriage suddenly came to an abrupt halt. I turned around and saw my driver had somehow lodged himself underneath a car. How he did this is beyond me, as it quite possibly defied the laws of physics. The rickshaw rider seemed OK, especially after he received a wad of notes from the car’s frantic driver. I hopped into another rickshaw, but insisted the driver get in the carriage so I could pedal off safely myself.
The Train from Rishikesh to Chakkebank, India
Having waited two hours in a steaming carriage before the departure, I was exhausted from fending off beggars, and a maniac selling hot chai. Finally, we left the station, travelled ten minutes through an open sewer, stopped, and spent another two hours waiting for Godot. Due to a festival, the second-class sleeper carriage was crammed with people. I dozed off on my top bunk and woke up to find two guys sitting in the gap between my legs. When a third guy tried to join the party, I put my foot down, literally, on his head.
The Slow Boat down the Mekong River, Laos
The 48-hour slow boat resembles a long, wooden coffin, which is why I felt like death after the journey. The engine is deafening, the wooden seats narrow, providing ample legroom for five-year old dwarfs. Noise, heat, splinters, smells - it’s almost, but not quite, enough to spoil the incredible views I passed along the way
The Ferry from Salvador to Morro de Sao Paulo, Brazil Serious ocean storms are nothing to be sniggered at, even in a large catamaran designed to pounce over huge swells. On this 90-minute ferry ride, I had two choices. Go outside, get soaking wet and hang on for dear life, or stay inside and fill up a barf bag with yesterday’s beef stew. It felt like the Perfect Storm, with more fear, and no life jackets. Inside, the puke was gushing up and down the aisles.
The Metro to Budapest Airport, Hungary
With a terrible hangover, I had two hours to get to the airport for my flight from Budapest to Istanbul. Due to construction on the metro, I took a bus shuttle to the nearest station, which locals informed me was complimentary. Not according to an overzealous ticket inspector, who let me off a considerable fine after much begging, but still confiscated my remaining metro ticket in spite. Nervously, I rode the metro without a ticket to the last stop, only to realize I had gone in the wrong direction. Time was ticking, my head was exploding. All the way back in the opposite direction, I arrived just in time for the airport shuttle driver to slam the door in my face. I just made the flight, with no help whatsoever to the Budapest transit system along the way.
The Arctic Night Bus in Sweltering Brazil
Night buses are my bane, but often provide the only way to get from A to B. What made this bus special was the driver cranking the air-con so high that icicles were forming on the edge of my nose. Outside, it was a warm and pleasant tropical evening, but inside the bus, the Arctic Circle was blowing a snowstorm. With all my gear inaccessibly packed way in the storage beneath me, I was only wearing shorts and a T-shirt, spending the long, painful night shivering and shaking. The only advantage to all this was being able to flick the frozen mosquitoes off my legs.
Originally published on Sympatico.ca