Travel’s appeal is broad and encompasses varied experiences -adventure, food, history, romance – but I’ve always felt it keenest with the sense of discovery, of being absorbed in unfamiliarity. It’s personally invigorating to have to decipher a new set of rules, laws and cultural norms. Locals around us seem perfectly at ease, but we can’t shake the feeling that we are other, visitors, not from around these parts. Travelling alone further isolates us outside our comfort zones, as there’s nobody to share our experience with, no one to point out the wonders and absurdities. Disorientation can be challenging and difficult, which is why it’s not for everybody. I recall quite vividly my first few steps within it, in London 1997. I’d moved to the city on a two-year work permit with lofty ambitions to excel in online media. Tubing around, just another faceless face in a sea of commuters, I’d never felt so empowered and helpless at the same time. Several years prior, I had bought a small Robin the Boy Wonder figurine at a flea market in Grahamstown, South Africa (now Makhanda). Bashed, scarred and a little bashed and bruised, it quickly became a lucky charm and has joined me in the over one hundred countries I’ve visited since.
Alone in London, I popped into a pub near Angel to steel myself with a flat pint and escape the sensation of being overwhelmed. In my daypack was a little black notebook with addresses of companies to drop off my resume, and the Boy Wonder of course, anything to increase my odds. For reassurance, I grasped my figurine and noticed that Boy Wonder was pointing to his eye, as if to say: “open your eyes, look around, observe.” And so I did: noting the sticky carpet beneath my feet, pot lights reflecting off brass beer taps, the clientele of day-drinkers and office skirters. I penned these observations in my notebook, which I still have somewhere, and a travel writer was born. I now have dozens of these same little black notebooks (bought from the CNA newsagent in South Africa, others just don't cut the mustard) filled with scribblings and interviews, observations and thoughts. Viewers around the world have seen me writing in these same books in almost every episode of my TV show (Word Travels is now available on Prime Video in Canada). This week, I finally went travelling again, but I had forgotten my black notebook, its virgin pages eager to capture thoughts as I wandered about aimlessly. I was opening my eyes in a new world that felt alien and awkward yet fascinating and alluring at the same time. Most bizarre of all, this strange new destination was downtown Vancouver, the city where I live.
It’s been well over a year since I strolled the blocks of Granville, Davie, Hornby and Howe. This used to be my hood. In a former life I could tell you the names of most of the stores, and a funny anecdote to go along with them (I think I snogged someone in the alley behind The Moose / that’s the joint where I ate late-night soft-shell crab with a rock band, etc). These days I live and work 25 minutes’ drive away in a forested suburb, and even if Covid hadn’t come along, there’d be little reason to visit the music venues, offices, restaurants and coffee shops that line these particular blocks. Since leaving my apartment downtown, I’ve been harbouring an image of downtown Vancouver’s urban liveliness: it’s vibrant streets jiving with crowds and colour. Today, I found an inner city ravaged by the pandemic. Almost every third store was boarded up, tagged with graffiti or heartbreaking farewells from its broken proprietors. Homeless were sleeping in shoddy entranceways (wasn’t that an upmarket restaurant? wasn’t that a boutique?) some were shooting up as I walked by. Coffee shops were open but empty, except for the Starbucks on Howe which was boarded up and gone for good (a Starbucks closing, in Vancouver?)
There was an unusual abundance of street parking, and the few people walking around – some masked, some not - carried a heaviness about them, a sense of sorrow and guilt. Among this decay towered proud new condos that didn’t exist a year ago. Unlike Toronto or Montreal, construction has never ceased in development-mad Vancouver. The hip art gallery and cheap-eat restaurants on the corner of Robson and Seymour have been bulldozed, awaiting another glass tower jammed with million-dollar 600 square-foot studios. Opposite the city library - looking even more ancient than its bold Coliseum-influenced design - new buildings are transforming the city’s skyline, including a massive development in the former post office to ironically house a new headquarters for Amazon. The streets were familiar, but everything else? I may as well be walking Doha or Dallas or Derby or any other modern city I’ve yet to visit.
Tragic as it was discovering the cracking shell of my own city, I was nonetheless jolted by the nostalgia of discovering some place new, alone and lost, with only my thoughts for company. I may not be going anywhere for some time yet, but even if Boy Wonder is gathering dust on top of my bookcase, it continues to remind me, and all of us, to keep our eyes open as we observe the changing world around us.
Get over Jaws. Sharks rarely attack humans, are vital to the marine eco-system, and as any diver will tell you, a thrill to meet in their natural habitat. With rampant shark finning, the entire species is at risk. Encounter them underwater, and you’ll quickly realize just how beautiful, and harmless sharks really are.
Mossel Bay, South Africa, Great White
The coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape is full of Great White Sharks, the most feared predator in the ocean. Cage diving is popular and while thrilling, is completely safe. Years later, I can still see that Great White coming towards me, literally rattling my cage.
Malapascua Island, Philippines, Threshers
A stunning tropical island, Malapascua is the only place where you can dive with thresher sharks every day, due to “cleaning stations” that attract the sharks in nearby Monad Shoal. Shy around divers, threshers are known for their distinctive tail.
Shark Reef, Fiji
For those looking for variety, Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve has a regular shark population of 8 different species: Whitetip Reef, Blacktip Reef, Grey Reef, Tawny Nurse, Sicklefin Lemon, Silvertip, Bull and Tiger sharks are all found in the reserve.
Galapagos Islands,, Hammerheads
During the December to May season, divers on live-aboards yachts around Darwin and Wolf Islands can find themselves in the water with thousands of hammerheads. Aggressive predators for marine life , hammerheads do not attack humans unless provoked.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico, Whale sharks
From June to September, hundreds of whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, gather north of Isla Mujeres to feed in waters rich with plankton. Tour companies let you snorkel with the sharks, although you are not allowed to touch them.
Flora Islet BC, Six Gill Sharks
Divers hope to encounter elusive six gill sharks in the emerald waters off Vancouver Island. Typically found in deeper waters these ancient-looking sharks can grow to over 6m in length. Thanks to the Scuba Diver Girls for this great video of a sevengill shark dive off La Jolla Cove, California.
Grand Bahama, Tiger Sharks
Fierce Tiger sharks gather by the hundreds in the warm, clear waters of “Tiger Beach”, a dive site popular with cage diving operators. Experienced, less timid divers can leave the cage and be surrounded by Tigers, who are not afraid to get up close and personal.
Credit: Klaus Steifel/Flickr
Palau – Reef sharks
With 50 metre plus visibility clear Palau is renowned as one of the best diving locations in the world. Since establishing the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2001, it’s also one of the best places to dive with sharks.
When it comes to packing, we tend to overthink it. Too many clothes, too many things, and in the end, too much stress. It took me a few continents to nail it, but my packing technique has become a well-oiled machine. Forsaking the obvious (passport, credit cards, toothbrush), all my gear is divided into the Essentials, and the Specialists.
The Alarm Clock
Wake-up calls are as reliable as your memories of college. Trust them at your peril. A reliable travel alarm clock ensures you never miss a flight, a meeting, or an opportunity to nap for 23 minutes before the taxi arrives. Finding the right alarm clock isn’t easy. It’s got to be small, easy to use, a good volume on the alarm, sleep function, and easy battery replacement. When I lose a favourite alarm clock, it’s like losing a friend. My longtime companion: A Timex Travel Alarm Clock with a built in flashlight, digital display, and handy lock option.
I believe bags have karma. You treat them right, and they always come out the conveyer belt. Backpacking, I currently alternate between my Tatonka Great Escape and my trusted Karrimor warhorse (over 60 countries and counting!) For my suitcase, I go with wheeled duffels, which say: “I travel hard, but not too hard!” I used a Crumpler Freestanding Edwardian for a few years but was disappointed that it broke a couple times - too much flash, not enough form. Far more reliable has been a Pathfinder, which is approaching 30 countries without a tear. My daypack is an aptly-named Eddie Bauer Adventurer, which has a convenient side-zip to quickly access my laptop (particularly handy at airports).
Do you know what it’s like when your friend’s photos always look better than your own? That happened to me all the time, until years ago I tried a Panasonic DMC-ZS3. It felt great to be that guy with the small, light camera whose pictures pop off the display screen to everyone’s envy. Bonus points for crisp HD video too. Years later I'm using the updated DMC-ZS15 (the latest model is a ZS20). The stills are good but it struggles with the light somewhat. I took a DSLR Canon Rebel on a recent canoe trip and barely used it. Too heavy and cumbersome for a good adventure. Remember: it's easy to take incredible pictures when you visit incredible places.
I always travel with my Macbook. Over 100 countries, and my laptop has never been lost, stolen or crashed (please, find the nearest piece of wood around you, and touch it on my behalf). My latest Macbook Pro is more than just my writing tool. It’s my Road Entertainment System, my Communication Tower, my Photo Lab, my Research Hub. My old iPod road warrior soundtracked a million foreign walkabouts , but has since been replaced with my iPhone. A couple USB sticks tend to come in handy on the road. If I'm staying in hotels with access to daily chargers, I'll usually bring my iPad as well, along with a Kindle.
I always take one good pair, which is comfortable, waterproof, sturdy, and able to pass as easily in a nightclub as it does on hiking trails. I’ve been using Keen Targhee II’s since my first round the world expedition in 2005. They’ve held up remarkably well, considering I’ve put them through active volcanoes, frozen lakes, muddy rainforests and scorching deserts. The Travellers Rule of Clothing: Wear different clothes and stay in the same place, or wear the same clothes, but change your location daily.
I only use one belt, on and off the road. Tilley Endurables created a woven stretch men’s belt that always fits, no matter what pair of trousers you wear. Lose weight, gain weight – without holes, this leather trimmed webbed stretch belt always keeps the trousers up, a triumph of practicality in menswear. Unfortunately it looks like they no longer sell it. My belt has lasted me five years and counting.
For the traveller, a good hat is more important than Arthur Dent’s Towel. My last faithful travel hat turned green after I spent a night in Chernobyl. My current go-to is a crushable wool felt Stetson Explorer, procured from Vancouver's Edie Hats. Shade from the heat, shelter from the rain, and always style in a pinch. For wilderness expeditions, I typically use my black Baileys Trinidad. Every time I grab my hat off my cannonball hat stand, I feel like Indiana Jones embarking on a new adventure.
Certain trips require that something extra, a little bit of thought to ease the hardship:
If it’s too hot for a sleeping bag, or you don’t quite trust the sheets you’ll be sleeping on, a sleep sheet comes to the rescue. My mom stitched together two bed sheets, or you can buy silk and fleece bag liners off the shelf. Bring along an empty pillowcase too, which can always be stuffed with clothing if your wafer thin hotel pillow needs some help.
No power. No gadgets. Handy tip: Bring a power bar that can charge multiple devices off one power source. It saves on those adaptors, which have a knack for disappearing along with pens, chargers and lighters.
More than a camping accessory, I use a head lamp as a personal reading lamp, especially if I’m sharing accommodation with others, or crashing in someone’s living room.
Unnecessary in Central America or South Asia, but absolutely vital in Eastern Europe, and especially Russia. On the Trans-Siberia Railway, my bottle of Tabasco was worth its weight in gold. A few drops of hot sauce turns bland, boiled food into something worth salivating over.
Never travelled without my lucky Boywonder charm. Bring a water bottle if you're going to need it. My wallet is made out of incredibly endurable stingray hide. I like to tell myself the stingray lived a long and fruitful life before dying peacefully surrounded by friends and family. Headphones, sunglasses, business cards, and occasionally, a kangaroo scrotum bottle opener. One never knows when you need a good conversation piece.
Managua, Nicaragua: The garbage is piled thirty feet high, and walking amongst it, I see four little girls, pushing an old wooden cart of salvaged trash. Soweto, South Africa: I enter a small tin shack where I meet a mother of eight, scratching out her existence, infected with HIV. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: I stroll through the narrow alleys of the biggest slum in South America, keeping an eye out for men with machine guns.
Each visit above was part of a tour, an increasingly popular and controversial genre of travel known as Poverty Tourism. Each visit left a profound impact, and each had me wondering whether I was at the forefront of an important new travel trend, or a mutually exploitative human zoo. It is estimated that over 830 million people live in urban slums, most below the breadline, in appalling conditions. I’m going to guestimate that international leisure tourists make up zero percent of that population. An encounter between the two groups is unprecedented and certainly unusual, but is it beneficial?
La Chureca is the name of Managua’s city garbage dump, a burning post-apocalyptic nightmare covered in shapeless grey muck. Over 175 families live here, surviving on as little as $1-$2 a day, by turning in plastic for recycling, or salvaging goods of value. Malnutrition is rife, sanitation non-existent, and many kids are hooked on glue. NGO’s are working with the families to improve the situation. Nica Hope helps take children out the dump, to put them in school, teach them skills, and show them a way out. Deanna Ford, an American who founded Nica Hope takes me into La Chureca to show me exactly what she’s up against. The air is acrid, and the flow of garbage trucks constant. On the ground, I walk amongst plastics, bones, rotting food, candy wrappers, broken syringes. Children caked in dirt are barefoot, but two boys play with marbles, like boys anywhere. Deanna takes groups here in the hope they will donate to her cause, sponsor a child, and learn about the realities of this urban slum. “I am aware of tour companies bringing groups in, where they stay in the car, take photos and leave,” she tells me. The human zoo helps nobody, and exploits everyone. Watching Deanna play with the kids, showing them respect, and selflessly doing anything she can to help, I realize that even amongst all this trash, she embodies the most valuable treasure of all: compassion and hope.
In Rio de Janiero, Be-a-Local is a tour operator that markets its Rocinha favela tours directly to tourists, mostly backpackers. Several companies offer a similar service, but Be-a-Local is the only one that takes you out the bus and to the top of the slum, letting you walk all the way down. Locals, even police, do not step inside Rocinha. It is just too dangerous, ruled by heavily armed drug gangs, known to explode with bloody violence. With the unspoken blessing of the drug lords, tourists are however allowed welcomed, instructed to put away cameras when they see armed men or boys, and not to wander off. A moto-taxi ride drops us at the top, and as we walk through the crowded, narrow dirt alleys, a new side of Brazil emerges; the real side. Kids playing computer games, little shops catering to the community, men tasked to take away garbage, as there are no municipal services. Rio has over 750 slums, snaking into the surrounding hills, with views of the famous beaches, and luxury high-rise beachfront condos. Be-a-Local donates 40% of the company’s profits to community projects, supporting schools and a day care centre. “Some people say this is voyeurism, but it’s essential if you want to try and understand both sides of the city,” says Laurian Clemence, a traveller on holiday from South Africa.
Over a million people live in Soweto, the largest township outside Johannesburg. Tourists have been coming here for years, visiting Nelson Mandela’s old house, important sites of Apartheid history, the excellent Apartheid Museum. At one point, our mini-van stops and we are allowed to walk amongst shacks of corrugated iron, with aggressive kids peddling all manner of crafts and trinkets. The look of a women inside a shack appears hopeless, the desperation acute. Tourists with cameras do not belong here, in this space, throwing a couple dollars at those given valuable permission to interact with them. While attention is thrown to worthy projects and charities within the township, I cannot but feel this particular stop is an exhibit in some deranged zoo, where poor kids peer out behind rusty fences, amongst bone thin dogs, both begging for scraps.
Poverty tours run the gamut of taste and function, depending on the company or organization, the people you’re with, and the place you’re visiting. While some may challenge the ethical value of visiting a foreign slum, there’s no doubt it sheds a fascinating insight on a shocking component of urban reality. In the end, anything that brings people together, across the widest of income or cultural gaps, can only be a good thing.
Soweto, South Africa
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 love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.