Drinking in the World
My favourite, and not-so-favourite cocktails from around the globe.
Peru and Chile have long battled over who owns the Pisco Sour, but regardless of its origins, anyone who gets the chance to enjoy it is a winner. The cocktail is made from the clear distilled grape brandy pisco, blended with fresh lemon or lime, egg whites, syrup or sugar, and a dash of bitters. It’s refreshing yet a little sour, much like a margarita, and served in a short whiskey glass, any time of day. The Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru, who claim that Chile stole the recipe from them during a war in the 1800’s. That being said, the best Pisco Sour I had was in Santiago, from a homemade Chilean recipe. Perhaps it’s time both countries sit down and discuss the issue over a cocktail.
In many parts of the world, locals forego major liquor brands for their own homemade moonshine. Such is the case with raki in Albania. Raki is also found in Turkey, and known as arak in North Africa and the Middle East. Every year in Albania, there are cases of people going blind, or even losing their lives after consuming a particular nasty batch of raki, which is distilled from grapes and flavoured with aniseed. Not that you’ll be able to taste much, as this traditional aperitif disintegrates everything it touches in your mouth and throat. In Albania, homemade raki served in a glass decanter made my mouth burn and my nose run, but fortunately, left my eyesight in tact.
Georgians don’t know which came first: Wine, or the people to drink it. Archaeologists have discovered traces of wine in jars that date back 8000 years, implying that tiny Georgia, bordered by Turkey, Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, is the birthplace of wine the world over. The country has 200 endemic species of grape, producing many types of wine that are found nowhere else. Toastmasting is a proud tradition, as is the cultivation and production of wine in underground casks that date back generations. Saperavi is its most famous red wine, along with the white Rkatsitelli. Both are sweet, almost dessert-like wines, high in sugar and alcohol. At a traditional dinner, I watch four men pour out their lauded toasts, draining at least a dozen bottles without tipping over. France and Italy may make the finest wine, but little known Georgia lives and breathes it.
Legend has it that the powerfully strong mampoer is an able substitute should you run out of battery acid. Known as a type of peach brandy, mampoer can be made from any fruit, including apricots, plums, figs, prickly pear, pineapples and marula. Its origins go back to the Dutch settlers of South Africa, who allowed soft, sweet fruit to rot in barrels for three weeks, before boiling it up a couple times to distil the alcohol from the mash. Mampoer, which is still made by many farmers in South Africa, has an alcohol volume between 60 to 80%. No word on whether they use it to power their tractors.
A drink can only be called tequila if it is produced in the region of Jalisco, in and around the town of Tequila itself. Mexico’s national drink has its roots with the Aztecs, who produced a fermented drink called pulque from the agave plant. When Spanish conquistadors ran dry of their imported liquor, they adopted the native drink to produce mescal, the name still given to a variety of liquor produced from the agave. Tequila is a type of mescal produced only in one region, refined, and perfected, much like cognac is to brandy. Jose Cuervo began production in 1795, and its La Rojena distillery is still in operation today, the oldest in Latin America. Here you can see how tequila is made, learn about its correct consumption (sipped, never shot), and drink from the family’s private cellar, where the smooth, rich sample has the fragrance of tequila, but goes down like liquid velvet.
Fermented Horse Milk
The chief of the nomadic tribe calls me into his traditional circular ger tent. It’s pretty spacious considering it can be dismantled and packed onto horses in just a couple hours. On the walls, made of fabric, are pictures of famous Mongolian wrestlers, embroidery, and cracked mirrors. We sit at a table, and from a porcelain jug, he pours into a small wooden cup some of his most treasured elixir. I smile, maintaining eye contact, and bring the cup to my mouth. A sour odour reaches my nose, the eye-watering stench of ammonia. The liquid touches my lips, burns, the tartness stretching my tongue and forcing a muffled gag reflex. I shoot it back, closing my eyes, somehow keeping it down. I regain focus, breathe out a noxious gas, and silently congratulate myself. The chief is so impressed, he immediately pours me another cup.
There’s nothing quite like seeing South Korean businessmen on a soju binge. This vodka-like drink, produced from rice or other starches like potato or wheat, is poured into a shot glass, and after a toast, consumed in one gulp. Etiquette dictates that you must not fill your own glass, that it must be held with one or two hands depending on status, and poured and received in a particular manner too. With all the rules, dating back to the 1300’s, it’s odd to see basic courtesy go out the window as the soju takes hold, and men descend into a state of alcoholic madness. I saw suits and ties passed out in the bushes on Seoul, or carried unconscious over the shoulder by colleagues, all on a weeknight! Korea’a Alcohol and Liquor Industry reckons each Korean adult drinks more than 90 bottles of soju a year, where it is viewed as a positive energy source for the country.
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.
My Great Global Bucket List summer kicked off with a truly remarkable sailing down the Amazon river. I've skirted the Amazon a couple times, but I wanted a deep jungle experience, and I wanted it in style. That's how I found Aqua Expeditions, and their Aria luxury riverboat. It's like a floating five star hotel in one of the world's most hostile environments.
King size beds, rainshowers, air conditioning, stocked bar, a Jacuzzi, sundeck, viewing lounge, dining room and all with floor to ceiling windows. There are 16 luxury suites catering for up to 32 guests, with 24 crew catering to your every need. The whole time I'm thinking: This is the Amazon?
Before I get to the jungle I have to get to the food. The menu was created by one of Peru's rock star chefs, and executed to perfection. All local Amazonian fare like catfish and plantain and chili marshmallows and fruits you've never heard of. Every meal is a tasty adventure, served with complimentary (and well selected) wines from Chile.
There are two to three excursions a day, the passengers split into one of four skiffs, heading into the tributaries in search of wildlife. We saw sloth, monkeys, unbelievable varieties of birdlife, river dolphins, and also the many communities of people that call this part of the world their home.
Below was taken from a short walk on terra firma (land that does not flood) where I had a poison dart frog crawl up my leg, watched a local hold a huge hairy tarantula, dodged bullet ants, and felt the intense jungle heat and humidity. Although Brazil gets most of the attention (it holds 60% of the Amazon basin) the Peruvian Amazon is the size of Spain.
A boa constrictor doing it's thing during the jungle walk. Life is abundant and everywhere but you could walk right past it.
Mimosas at sunset, shortly before a night excursion to look for (and successfully grab hold of) caimans. There were 24 guests on my sailing from the USA, UK, Australia, Austria and Japan. Everyone got a long splendidly.
My wife joined me for this trip (we left our two year old with her grandparents) which made it an extra special assignment. This is the view of the Amazon from our cabin. At night, we watched the stars, during siestas, we watched the world float by.
You'll be able to read all about my adventures on the Aria and in the Amazon in my opus, The Great Global Bucket List, which will be on bookshelves in fall 2016. Special thanks to Aqua Expeditions and LAN Airlines for helping me tick this one off the list!
Next up: The Galapagos and the Arctic!
Fresh and rotten in time for Halloween, here’s a gallery of the places that blasted chills down my spine. Haunted, sinister, evil or just plain weird, for those that dream about travelling the world, welcome to your nightmare.
The Bone Church of Kutna Hora
Some time in the 13th century, a monk brought sand from Jerusalem to this small ossuary in central Europe. Suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there, but soon enough, space ran out. The monks collected and stored the bones. Several hundred years later, a local woodcarver decided he’d get creative with the surplus skeletons. Using the bones of some 40,000 people, he created wall art, columns, even a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. Today you can visit this small bizarre church, marvel at its morbid creativity, and literally stare death in the face.
San Franciscan Monastery
Sticking with the bone theme (“the hip bone’s connected to the…thigh bone”), the 17th century San Franciscan Monastery in the Peruvian capital of Lima is high on most visitors list. It looks amazing from the outside, but head inside and below to the narrow, creepy catacombs. You’ll find carefully geometrically arranged skeletons of some 25,000 has-beens. Built using bricks of guano, the air is dense, lit with a distinct atmosphere of spookiness, as opposed to the intended religious devotion. One catacomb is piled head-high in skulls. With the low ceilings, you might want to watch your head too.
The Killing Fields
There is creepy and there is spooky, and then there is just plain evil. Nothing makes your hair stand up, your throat parch, your nerves collapse and your faith in humanity shatter like the physical site of genocide. And yet, sickening places like the killing fields of Cambodia, the Nazi death camps in Europe, and the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda are vital to understand the horrors of the past, and make sure they never happen again. It is beyond comprehension to picture mass graves, murdered skulls piled 30ft high, or pools of human ashes. It is also beyond the tone of a column of this nature. And yet I’ll continue to draw attention to historical acts of genocide, the importance that travellers acknowledge them, and the fact that even today, the horror of mass murder continues to exist.
The Museum of Medieval Torture
My head is on the chopping block. This actual piece of wood above was used in dozens of decapitations, which believe it or not, is one of the kinder punishments you’ll find in this gruesome collection of authentic medieval torture instruments. This bizarre museum, located off the main square of Tallinn’s old town, has wooden, iron and spiked contraptions that date back to the inquisition. Accused of being a witch? They’d lower you on a giant wooden spike and split you in two. Spanish Tickle Torture was a device used to strip flesh from bones. You can see the genuine rack, used to split a body in in two, thumbscrews, and iron contraptions designed to expire the victim in unbelievable agony. I’m not sure what’s sicker: The wicked contraptions, that someone has actually collected them, or that I paid good money to visit the museum in the first place.
Transylvania is the birthplace of modern horror. At least in books and movies. Fictional Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless leader who enjoyed the sight of his Turkish enemies being skewered. “Dracula’s Castle” is in Romania, but it’s a renowned hokey tourist joint. Hang on, aren’t the hills of Transylvania perfect roaming grounds for werewolves. Nobody has seen one of them in ages, in fact, nobody has ever seen one outside of a movie theatre. What you will see in Transylvania are small villages alive with traditional music and cuisine. You’ll visit the capital of Cluj Napoca (above), full of cool bars, frequented by hip students listening to dance music or reggae. There’s nothing particularly creepy about Transylvania at all, other than the fact that, hey, it’s Transylvania. I’m not walking alone in those woods, pal.
Lamanai Mayan Ruins
Most ancient ruins up the creep factor, which is why they frequently feature in horror movies. Some Mayan ruins have the added bonus of having been the setting for human sacrifice, where decapitated heads echoed off the jungle as they bounced down the steps of temple pyramids. Found throughout Central America, the fate of Mayan civilization remains steeped in mystery. Why and how did one of the most powerful empires in history suddenly disappear? It is uncertain if human sacrifices took place here in Lamanai as it did in other later Mayan temples, although blood-letting sacrifices almost certainly did. I walk up the blackened stairs, soak up the mystery, with silence so spooky it could break my fall.
Chernobyl and Prypiat
Site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, it didn’t feel that weird standing outside reactor number 4. That’s because radiation is a silent killer, and sure enough the Geiger counter was reading levels dozens of times higher than in the nearest major city of Kiev. The true creep only sets when you visit the nearby deserted city of Prypiat. Residents had just hours to leave, abandoning everything, including their pets. A quarter century later, the city is a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. Dead silence, school books flapping in the wind, buildings cracking with time. Since everything inside the 30km Zone of Alienation is considered nuclear waste, there they will remain. Including this haunting doll, one of many to be found in an eerily silent school.
The Kataragama Festival
Hang on, there’s nothing creepy about the Katharagama Festival! It’s an incredible, peaceful and unforgettable celebration of faith, as three major religions congregate in worship and respect. Still, when I stumbled on this unique Muslim ceremony, I witnessed a spectacle soaked in blood and wide-eyed fear. Holy men had gathered in a circle, and to demonstrate the intensity and extent of their faith, proceeded to stab themselves with knives and spears. To the chant of voices and the beat of drums, the holy man pictured jammed two knives deep in his skull, slashed his tongue and chest, but seemed to recover perfectly with a dab of ash on the wounds. Filming an episode of Word Travels, the reaction of our sound guy Paul (look right) speaks volumes.
Bonus: Introducing The Creepiest Guy I Ever Met. In Ethiopia's Southern Omo Valley. Oh, he was holding an AK-47. I believe I complimented him on his hair style, maintained eye contact, and backed away, very, very slowly....
In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza - only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.
2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available. While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry. The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouseclick of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating: “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.” Ouch. Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.
Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge. The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan. The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us. I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.
GREAT WALL OF CHINA
There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space. Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours. I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling. From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers. Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower. Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself. Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in. Mao famously said: "You're not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall.”
THE TREASURY, PETRA
You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabataean ruin. Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever. Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.
CHRIST THE REDEEMER
This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow. On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervor, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests. On the other, there is no hotdamn way it belongs anywhere near this list. The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy. Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead. As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global center of finance.
Many years ago I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours. By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable. I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour. When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both. There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks. Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly. The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles. Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.
The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Maccu Piccu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re in Japan. It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it. Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Maccu Piccu lit up in the morning sun. Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.
THE TAJ MAHAL
It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination. A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart. I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj. Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s. Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas. To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile. “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip. Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation. Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern. Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.
THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA
Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list. Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps). After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway. This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.
Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head? Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression. In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.
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 love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.