Here’s an actual conversation with my six-year-old on the final day of our eventful spring break.
“Well, what was your favourite part of our trip? Was it visiting the Statue of Liberty that you so desperately wanted to see? Was it the American Museum of Natural History, or that hilarious show we saw on Broadway? Was it hanging out with your aunt in Central Park, or taking the busy subway around the city? Was it spending a week playing in the big waves of Copacabana? Was it the cable car to Sugar Loaf Mountain to get that incredible view of Rio? Maybe it was the Wishing Tree and the monkeys we saw at the top of the mountain? Was it climbing on massive floats and dressing up in carnival costumes to dance with a beautiful samba princess? Maybe it was the sharks and stingrays we saw at the aquarium, or eating beach corn, grilled queijo and drinking coconuts at the beach? Playing with your cute Brazilian cousins, riding a bike along the beach, or spending time with your grandparents who spoiled you rotten with candy and cakes?”
Galileo thought about all this for a half a second, and replied:
“My favourite part was taking the airplane.”
I write these words during our final flight home after two-and-a-half weeks abroad. After a ten-hour overnight leg from Rio to Houston, we spent 90 minutes in line-ups to clear US customs and airport security. Removing friction from travel is a primary driver for tourism growth. Adding friction and making life difficult for passengers is the domain of government security and regulations, which has built nonsensical layers of procedure atop unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that make no sense to anyone. Are we still removing our shoes because one idiot unsuccessfully tried to blow up a plane with his shoelaces twenty-five years ago? Are we still confiscating perfume because liquids over 100ml are deadly? Are we still getting grilled by customs while connecting through a transit bubble, and going through security again even though we never left the sealed-off arrivals hall? Which is why, if you have anything less than a two-hour international connection these days, you’re playing with fire. All this said, our planes took off on time, United Airlines staff have been lovely, and even though they misplaced one of our suitcases for 48 hours, the system somehow worked well enough for little Galileo to have the time of his life, both on the plane and off it.
I’ve never been a particular fan of New York. I’ve visited the city a half dozen times, mostly for professional reasons, and I've always got the sense it's a frenetic place for those in ivory towers, and the overworked masses who support them. How does it go: Live in New York but leave before you become too hard, and live in LA but leave before you become too soft. New York tends to be city utterly swept up in the sense of its own self-importance. This is not the centre of the Earth (geographically that’s somewhere in Turkey). Being rude to strangers is not charming, it’s just being rude. Perhaps when I was in my twenties, I’d have more fire and energy to take on The Big Apple, a zest I’d exhausted in late 1990’s London (The Big Smoke). Age has now mellowed me, and nature holds infinitely more appeal than nightclubs or fancy restaurants. On this trip, I found the subways exhausting, the line-ups at the attractions intense, the people brusque. Times Square was a violent display of overwhelming advertising and grift. I certainly enjoyed visiting the Statue of Liberty and American Museum of Natural History with my kids. Both world-class attractions are transitioning from Covid protocols and were somewhat chaotic. We used a CityPASS which saved us a few bucks, and a company called TodayTix to get heavily discounted Broadway show tickets. I took the family to see The Play That Goes Wrong, which had all ages in stitches and was the perfect family-friendly live theatre experience, especially for kids who have never seen this level of professional theatre before. We caught a lovely sunny day at Central Park, and my daughter’s birthday present was a visit to the goopy Sloomoo Institute, which will get its own sloppy sticky story in due course. We stayed with relatives downtown, and as always, reconnecting with family proved to be the best highlight of all.
It's been almost a decade since I visited Rio de Janeiro, presently emerging with the rest of Brazil from dark political days. Just about all my time would be spent with family in Copacabana, staying with my in-laws who live one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world. Heading into fall, the weather was spectacular: 30℃ blue skies, crashing waves, not a drop of rain in a month that could just as easily be a washout. Little stalls along the beach offer chairs, umbrellas, drinks and food, and with a caipirinha in hand I was content to watch the kids play in the waves while an endless stream of touts made the rounds offering everything from bolinho de bacalhau (cod fish cakes) to loud shirts and Bluetooth speakers. I don’t recall Copacabana being this clean, lovely and safe, especially in the evening. New waste treatment plants have made the water safe to swim in, tourism police and lifeguards patrol the shores, locals wear their teeny-weenie bathing suits, and you can happily spend all day doing nothing (the Brazilian way). The neighbourhood was also noticeably LGBTQ-friendly. My kids got to know some local characters, relished their acai bowls, street food, Brazilian family, shopping excursions and night markets (the Canadian dollar goes far here).
Of course, we still had time for the sensational views atop Sugar Loaf Mountain and the AquaRio, the largest aquarium in South America. We also took a braziliant tour called Carnaval Experience, taking us backstage at Samba City to learn about the city’s legendary festival. Staying relatively put – by my standards anyway – I was reminded of the months my family spent in Chiang Mai and Hoi An, which allowed us to get under the skin of a different place and culture. Like New York, the traffic and chaos of Rio can get a little much, but since my goals were modest, it was a joy to reconnect with our Brazilian family on these too-few, too-rare occasions, allowing the kids to immerse themselves in the culture of their mother’s heritage. Ipanema, Santa Theresa, Lapa, heck the rest of Brazil would have been fantastic. Maybe next time... or maybe I won’t get too far from the beach again. Either way, the friction of six airports, the white-knuckle taxis, the financial expense, the subways, the heat, the rain, the packing, the crowds, the jetlag…it’s all worth it, and it always is.
Three hours drive from the Chilean capital of Santiago is a ski resort without any shops, malls, or promenades. There are no restaurants, bars or hotels either. There’s not even a ski lift. Yet it still attracts clients from around the world, and for good reason. Ski Arpa is the dream of a lifelong ski instructor who scrapped and saved over three decades to open a mountain for anyone in love with stunning views, and untracked snow. Here, two Pisten Bully Snowcats shepherd up to 22 skiers to the top of the mountain, where they have mind-boggling access to 4000 acres of skiable terrain.
Toni Sponar, a veteran ski-instructor of Aspen, Banff, and number of South American ski resorts, bought 5000 acres of land back in 1983. At just $5000, it was a bargain even for a ski instructor. The location was ideal. From atop the peak of Alto del Arpa you can see the Pacific Ocean to the west, and Mount Aconagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, to the east. The south facing slopes receive plenty of sun, protected from harsh winds, with chutes forming in natural abundance. Surrounding you is the Andes mountain range in all its glory - so different from the view in the Rockies, or the Alps.
A year after his dream purchase, Toni installed a ski lift and set to work creating an 8km switchback road to the base lodge. Then disaster struck. A massive storm dumped metres of snow, causing an avalanche that wiped out the lift, the lodge, and all of Toni’s savings in the process. He would still visit his mountain with friends over the years, but it would take another 20 years before he could resurrect his dream of a skier’s ski resort. He purchased two Snowcats, aligned with booking and marketing agents, and finally created the most rewarding catskiing operation on the continent. Clients visit from around the world for the powder, the sweeping vista, and the unlimited fresh tracks.
As we slowly make our way up the switchbacks, the van abruptly stops and one of my fellow passengers throws up. It’s a rough road, which Toni maintains himself, zig-zagging 600m up the valley. I’m feeling a little queasy from the altitude, but the excitement seems to settle my stomach. I only discovered the joy of snow when I moved to Canada in my twenties. When I was 6 years old, a once-a-century freak snowstorm hit Johannesburg. My schoolteacher, having never seen snow, made the class hide under our desks. She thought it was nuclear fall out.
I was retelling the story in the van as the switchbacks became ever steeper. Finally, our Swiss driver announces we have arrived. Next to the parking clearing is a humble, rustic building, built deliberately into the hill to avoid being wiped out by an avalanche like its predecessor. I am blessed with perfect conditions – the sky is clear and blue, and a 20cm of snow fell overnight. I sign a waiver, and get handed an avalanche transmitter by Anton, Toni’s son and partner in the operation. There are a dozen clients today, made up of Americans from Colorado, some French, some German. This is not Whistler or St Moritz or Aspen. We have all packed our own lunch, and accept the simplicity of the amenities. We have come for the snow, not the glitz.
It takes 45 minutes for the powerful snowcat to make its way up the mountain. I am standing at the back of the outdoor passenger area, watching Toni and another skier being towed behind us. The snowcat eats the steepest of inclines, charging like a tank up towards the peak. The air gets thinner and colder, and suddenly, the full might of the Andes appear on the horizon, a true alpine wonderland. After a final push from the powerful cat, my back against its protective rails at a near 45-degree angle, we arrive on the peak and dismount. The groups split up respectively, choosing a wild multitude of lines. Mount Aconagua, nearly 7000m high and dividing the Argentinean and Chilean border, beckons me forward. I let out a Wilhelm Scream, for if you can’t scream at the top of the world, where can you? Within seconds, I begin carving this mountain like a Thanksgiving turkey.
A full day with Ski Arpa includes four runs with a guide. By my third run, I am feeling braver, dropping into a gully to attempt an unsuccessful launch through a chute. It takes a while to dig myself out. Toni joins me on the next run, rocketing down his mountain, enjoying the start of another stellar season in Chile. He whips down so gracefully I find it hard to believe he’s old enough to be my grandfather. Meanwhile his clients are bonding over fat smiles and white powder. Warming up in the sun outside the base hut, we all agree: Who needs malls and promenades when you have a 1000m vertical descent on some of the best powder in the world? Especially when you have it all to yourself.
Ski Arpa is located near the village of Los Andes, 108km from Chile’s capital city Santiago.
Santiago Adventures (http://www.santiagoadventures.com/) provide hotel pick-up and guide service. If you drive, a 4 X 4 vehicle is essential. Reasonably priced gear rental is available through Santiago’s KL Adventures (http://www.kladventure.com) en-route. Ski Arpa’s season typically runs mid-June to mid-October.
Swimming with Piranhas
Karl, the facially scarred East German barman, had three teeth missing, and a grin full of mischief. Four days into an epic adventure up the tributaries of the Orinoco Delta, I am convinced he is mixing more than just rum into my stiff Cuba Libres. I had been warned that after a couple nights sleeping in a hammock wrapped inside a mosquito net, this high up in the northern Venezuelan jungle, chancing upon a remote lodge with a well stocked bar could lead to some vicious tropical jungle juju. Defined as: Taking the barman on the speedboat to view the sunset, and ultimately, diving into a river widely known to contain flesh-chewing piranhas. No sooner had we entered the water, than a rare pink dolphin leaped into the air, her skin glistening with all the colours of the rainbow. OK, I don’t know if it was a female dolphin, but only a pink lady could look that beautiful. According to the indigenous Warao Indians, seeing a pink dolphin is a sign of immense luck. This explains why I am able to climb back on board, at loss for words from the experience, but fortunately with all digits in place.
With teeth like razors and skin like barbwire, piranhas have the sunny disposition of a Filipino death squad. Sharks may be the grunt soldiers of aquatic terror, but South American piranhas are riverside hit men, shredding their prey with efficient ferocity. Found within rivers from Argentina to Colombia, they hunt in large packs, sending out scouts to locate the prey before initiating a feeding frenzy characterized by a scene of boiling water. Kayaking through piranha infested waters along the Orinoco sounds more like an adventure tourism sales plug than a reality, until my Warao guide Pina hands me a stick, some gut wire, and a crudely fashioned hook. Rather alarmingly, all I need to do is splash my stick on the water surface to attract the beasties, and within seconds, my bait has vanished. The combination of heat, storms of mosquitoes, and inhuman humidity make me want to dive into the river, but the combination of bloodthirsty carnivorous piranhas make me want to stay on shore more. Although they only grow to 2ft long, nature has equipped piranhas with deadly tools, from interlocked teeth to excellent hearing and unparalleled teamwork. Each fish takes a mighty munch and instantly moves out of the way for his pal. Theodore Roosevelt, on an expedition to Brazil in 1913, described a horrifying scene of a cow being attacked and stripped to the bone in minutes.
Eat me? Eat you! I am determined to catch a piranha, both as a challenge, and to reaffirm my place in the food chain. With dark clouds of mosquitoes raining down on my neck and a skinny loyal Warao dog at my side, I persist, constantly replacing the bait that seems to vanish seconds once it hits the water. Finally, I tug up at the right time, and a small, sharp, and thoroughly bemused piranha is on my hook. A hot makeshift grill, a dash of strong lime, some trusty Tabasco (I always travel with a bottle), and I have to confess: piranha is a tasty, albeit bony fish. It’s not enough to quench a major hunger, but at least you’re on the right side of the fork.
Cut to: The following day. For hours, a torrential downpour dumps its moist guilt on our twin-engine open-roof speedboat. I’m excited at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed tonight in a rustic shack so much more attractive than another wrapped up buggy night in a hammock. Large tapirs are running up and down the wooden boardwalks in this remote jungle lodge, while banana-beaked toucans and chirpy macaws rest on the tables at the bar. Drinks flow. Hey, lets go watch the sunset at the congruence of three tributaries! Hey, let’s bring our sketchy free pouring barman along! Swimming with piranha: a good idea at the time. Of course, the local Warao swim, drink and bathe in the same waters, and in truth have more problems with rabid vampire bats than bloodthirsty piranhas. For piranhas tend to attack weak fish first, and healthy humans last. Still, how big a thrill is a jungle adventure in the Orinoco Delta? As big as a piranha’s appetite.
Fire and Ice in Chile
I once found myself being interviewed by Chilean TV News as the Villarica volcano threatened to blow its load all over the town and the stupid gringo tourists, like myself, threatening to climb it as it did so. Villarica was on the front page of the newspaper that day due to sudden eruptions threatening to ruin my adventure, along with the popular holiday town of Pucon. The town looks like an Austrian ski village, full of red wooden cabins and the smell of fireplace. It serves as a popular Chilean lake resort in cabin country, but the gringos flock in their droves to see lava spew in the air, and discuss this experience in detail at the popular bars that line Bernado O’Higgins Street. “The Chileans come for the lake, the gringos for the volcano, and neither seem to want the other,” says William, one of the tour operators. That’s because Chileans have smarts, which gringos don’t, which is why at 8am the following morning, I was on my way to climb a volcano in the midst of a seismic orgasm.
As we approached this frosted, upside-down ice-cream cone of potential death, the clouds burned off to reveal a perfect, sunny day. Sol y Nieve, the tour operator, provided boots, backpacks, razor sharp crampons, an ice pick, waterproof gear and a helmet, to stop the lava burning your hair when it runs over your body. We suited up, and mercifully caught a ski lift up the first couple hundred meters, revealing a magical view of mountains, the huge lake near Pucon, granite rivers where lava once flowed, and another volcano cone in this distance. The hike began in ashen granite rock, heading up towards the icing sugar snowline. Crampons turned my puss-in-boots into big cat monsters, with sharp teeth ready to tear apart any squirrel unfortunate to venture too close. Zigzagging single-file up the steep icy banks, putting one foot in front of another, required supreme effort, but simply turning my head to the side revealed a staggering view. Contrary to the media's depiction of Villarica as Mount Doom, the volcano seemed peaceful. Then I reached the top, where we had to ditch our bags and make a hasty final ascent. Our guide Oscar, who has been doing this for ten years and is a member of the Chilean Mountain Rescue squad, looked nervous. We could hear booms from above us, and helicopters were circling overhead. Still, we'd come so far, so we powered up the last 300m to the crater edge. Exhausted, I had to concentrate really hard to not pee in my waterproofs. The loud, primal scream of an erupting volcano is, frankly, the scariest audio my one good ear has ever had to process. It is like a lion roaring in your face shortly before it eats you. It is the sound of a tidal wave destroying an Empire State Building made of ceramic. It is the roar of a jet fighter taking off in your sphincter.
Contrary to our expectations, there was not a river of red cherry lava at the top, but rather a chocolate rocky filling letting off steam like a geyser. It would erupt, spewing lava and ash about 50 metres in the air with a tremendous roar. Then it would cool off for a few seconds, deciding whether now is the time to kill everybody in proximity. I nervously took some pictures, and made a cowardly retreat as fast as my rubbery legs would take me. Villarica was not happy, and I didn’t need to read the newspapers to believe it.
Fortunately, getting down the volcano is the most fun you can have on two ass cheeks. Narrow channels had been carved out for our bums to bob-sleigh down, reaching serious speed as we flew down the banks using ice-picks as brakes. After a 2-hour ascent, it only took about twenty minutes for this frozen water slide to deliver us to the bottom. I stuffed my inflatable travel pillow (101 uses) in my pants for a smoother ride, but still managed some spectacular wipeouts, fortunately without impaling myself on my ice-pick.
Villarica didn't end up destroying Pucon that day, or any day since. She continues to grumble, but tourists in Chile continue to climb her, as well they should. Icy-hot fun for the adventurous soul.
The World's Best Local Food
When people talk about travelling for" the food", this is what they're referring to.
Nasi Kander - Malaysia
Nasi Kander is a northern Malaysian dish that combines a variety of elements – meat, rice, vegetables – and smothers it with various types of sweet-spicy curry sauces. Served in buffet-type street stalls, the result is a gift to
your taste buds. Eggplant, beef, chicken, squid, peppers, and okra are all flooded with flavour, soaked up by coconut rice and scooped with the right hand.
Ceviche - Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica
You can get ceviche around the world, but not the way they make it here. Raw fish, shrimp and calamari are drowned in limejuice, herbs and spices. The acidity of the lime cooks the fish, creating a mouthwatering delicacy that is served in the finest restaurants, all the way to roadside shacks. In Peru, it is often served with giant corn, and people sometimes order the leftover juice on its own, called Tiger Juice. In Ecuador, and other parts of the continent, ceviche is served with crackers. My favourite ceviche of all time is served out of a big tub in a tiny ice-cream store in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.
Borscht - Russia
I struggled with the food in the Russia, easily reaching my limit of boiled meat and potato. One thing I never got tired of however was the borscht – a soup made of beetroot, with meats, dill and sour cream. Considering how bland Russian cuisine can be, the complexity of taste in well-prepared borscht is staggering. Sweet, sour, tangy, and always ready to warm you up on a cold day. My favourite borscht was served in Irkutsk, Siberia, where a vegetarian friend and I ordered borscht without the mystery meat, and it still knocked our socks off.
Biltong - South Africa
The easiest way to describe biltong is to compare it to beef jerky, but that’s like comparing a Prius to a Porsche. South Africans have been making biltong for hundreds of years, spicing, salting and hanging strips of raw meat until it dries out, but not too much. No sugar, no preservatives, no neat wafer thin slices. Biltong is served in chunks, sometimes wet (rarer) and sometimes dry (tough). It can be salty, spicy, fatty or lean. Choosing the right piece is part of the fun. It makes the perfect accompaniment to any sports game or road trip.
Farofa - Brazil
If you visit a Brazilian churrascaria, where a never-ending stream of meat is served until you’re ready to explode, you might notice a bowl on the table of something that looks like breadcrumbs. Brazilians eat it with everything – meat, fish, stews, roasts. It’s not breadcrumbs, but rather manioc flour, fried with butter. Somehow it adds something to the dish – more substance, certainly, but also a way to carry the taste a few yards further. It took me a while to get used to it, but these days, when the BBQ is firing, there’s always a bowl of farofa on my dinner table.
Ika Mata - Cook Islands
Cook Islanders have created their own little slice of culinary heaven, using a resource that surrounds them in abundance - fish and coconuts. Similar to ceviche, raw fish is marinated in limejuice and spices, with the addition of coconut milk. It’s not quite as tangy as ceviche, but just as fresh. The coconut milk softens the spices and also tenderizes the fish. It goes down smooth on a hot island day, a rich treat available just about everywhere you go on the islands.
Awaze Tibs and Injera - Ethiopia
Awaze tibs is a lamb or beef stew, cooked with onions, peppers and spiced with awazare, also known as berbere. Berbere, which features in many Ethiopian dishes, is a ground spice made of garlic, chili, ginger, basil, pepper, and fenugreek. The stew is slow cooked and served with injera, a spongy pancake-like flat bread made with teff flour, the taste almost sour. Using your hands, you scoop up the meat and sauce with the injera, creating a perfect blend of flavour.
Pide - Turkey
Kebab shops around the world now serve pide and for good reason. A thin oval bread is covered with ground lamb, and seasoned with tomato paste, red peppers, garlic and spices. It might be topped with eggs, fresh mint, and lemon juice. The pide is baked much like a pizza until the crust is crispy, and cut into strips. It’s so good it’s hard to order only one. Meat, bread and tasty vegetables in every bite.
Roo Burgers - Australia
It’s sometimes difficult for tourists to understand, but kangaroos can be quite a problem for Australians. They breed like rabbits, destroy the countryside, and are often referred to as pests. No surprise then that kangaroo features on the menu, meat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. It tastes gamey, kind of like venison with a touch of rabbit mixed in there as well. Much like ostrich meat, kangaroo meat is healthy and lean. If only they didn’t look so damn cute.
Photo: Renee S
Meat Pies - New Zealand
In New Zealand, every garage station, bakery or corner store sells savory meat pies. They’re cheap, they’re tasty, and they come in surprising varieties: Tandoori Chicken, Bacon and Egg, Thai Beef. With flaky crusts and thick filling, pies are a sense of pride across New Zealand. There are various competitions for the Best Pie, and intense customer loyalty for bakeries and brands. All for under a fiver.
Photos: Robbi Baba
All Aboard the Gringo Trail
My younger brother is off to Southeast Asia in a couple weeks. He was asking for advice on where to go from Bangkok, and I told him it will be really easy to just follow the Gringo Trail. Technically, I'm referring to the Banana Pancake Trail. Along with the "Hippie Trail, these "trails" are well established backpacker routes through Central and South America, SE Asia and India/Nepal. Typically this means there will be easy modes of transport (frequent shared mini-vans, buses), a huge variety of budget hotels and restaurants, likeminded travellers with a similar goals to tick similar boxes, and occasional encounters with people wearing loose fitting clothes who long ago fell off the tour bus of reality. The trails make independent travel much easier, and certainly more social. Some might argue they also flood the same places with too many people, much like the "Lonely Planet" effect. Personally, I'm all for it. You're still on your own, making your own decisions, and seeing the best these regions have to offer. If you're trying to beat a different path, there's plenty of opportunities to do so, and move at your own pace. If you're trying to avoid other travellers, don't go to Southeast Asia, Central America, or India!
This December I'd Love to Be In...
Ilha Grande, Brazil. That's where I took this photo a few years back, around mid-December. It's a lovely little island located a few hours south from Rio, a protected state park where no cars are allowed, and you can head out on all-day hikes along pristine forests and talcum beaches. Like Lopes Mendes, one of the world's great beaches. You typically hike in and boat out late afternoon, but the reward for your morning efforts are worth it, including readily available inexpensive surf boards to rent. During the hike, I met a woman who had been sailing around the world for 30 years, a decade of those on her own. You meet all sorts of inspiring people when you travel in Brazil. Perhaps what I love most about the country is that people will spontaneously dance in the streets, like these folks above, enjoying the warm, fragrant night, and a little moment of December paradise.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.