I compiled this definitive list with two very simple rules:
a) The items mentioned below should be available to members of the paying - and no doubt occasionally insane - public
b) To qualify, the thought of each dish should make my stomach swill over, my throat seize up, my nose twitch, and my eyes rattle.
This list demonstrates that we will devour whatever we are culturally conditioned to consume, and whatever creature with the distasteful misfortune to be around us if we are hungry. Presenting my global menu for those of iron will and titanium gut:
The Sour Toe Cocktail
Lets begin in the Yukon Territory, in the long-past-its-boom town of Dawson City. The Downtown Hotel bar serves up a drink of straight whiskey, with added flavouring from a real life severed human toe. A big, gnarly one too, shrivelled and yellow, with the nail still on. I joined the Sour Toe Cocktail club, and to qualify, the toe must touch your lips. I can still feel it today, like a pickled, phantom limb. Everyone gets the same toe, and in the past, some toes have been swallowed. Feeling icky yet? Just wait…
Duck can be delicious, and eggs can be delicious, so why does it get nasty when you mix the two together? Balut, a popular delicacy in the Philippines, is a fermented duck egg, that is, an egg with a crunchy, sometimes feathery baby duck inside. You peel the shell, slurp up the embryonic fluid, add some salt, and bite hard into the crispy mushy goodness. Apparently, balut goes down really well with cold beer. Slugging back a few bottles might make this gourmet treat go down better, and for that matter, up again too.
Deep Fried Hairy Spiders
Personally, I just didn’t have the stomach for arachnoids when I was travelling by bus through Cambodia. A popular roadside snack, the large spiders are eaten in big bites, or pulled apart, leg by leg, and consumed like French fries. Black bug juice dribbles down the chin as you reach the best part of meal, the pincers and the bulbous back. All the poison is removed when the spiders are fried, and apparently the appeal lies in its crunchy-chewy texture. Along came a spider, and sat down beside her, and so Muffin just ate the damn thing.
Ox Penis Soup
Let us just be grateful that, due to conservation laws and human evolution, it’s no longer Tiger Penis Soup. Some Chinese restaurants serve up this delicacy, known for its mythical and powerfully arousing properties. The broth is serviceable, but the reality of eating ox or deer penis is that it tastes like a hard, impossibly chewy sponge. Tourists wishing to partake in this dish may find themselves forced to spit it out, or swallow it whole.
Fermented Shark (Hákarl)
Moving over to Iceland now, where they like their sharks rotten, stinky, and air-dried out for 5 months. Oozing the odour and taste of powerful ammonia (think urine-scented cleaning products), hákarl is an acquired taste, even in Iceland. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay puked on it, a common reaction for first-timers, who are advised to hold their nose to avoid detecting the disgusting stench they’re about to put in their mouths. Those who eat it are associated as being strong and brave, although I mostly just felt queasy. As someone appalled by the shark fin trade, I reckon anyone who eats the fins of these increasingly endangered fish should be forced to try this Scandinavian delicacy first.
Cats and Dogs
Widely condemned by the West and pet owners everywhere, it’s a sad fact that Fluffy and Fido are still on the menu in parts of Asia. Breeds of dog are raised specifically as food, and as a friend of mine will testify, having adopted and therefore saved one such puppy from the roast, they remain viciously tempered. Dog has been eaten in China for thousands of years, and the meat is famed for medicinal properties. Meanwhile, Singapore’s Strait Times reports that up to 10,000 cats are eaten every day in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Brings a disturbing new meaning to the concept of “cat food”. Hug your Fluffy and Fido a little closer tonight.
I’m back, and in the mood for a little insect caviar! In Mexico, escamoles refers to the larvae of the giant, particularly ferocious Liometopum ant. Its eggs are collected from agave plants, spiced, and served in tacos. Escamole has a cottage cheese texture, and a buttery finish. I’ve eaten ants and termites in various jungles, and they taste surprisingly like walnuts. Perfect for anyone into nuts, or just plain nuts too.
Those who have read this far, and therefore possessed of iron guts, will appreciate the hop over to Sardinia Italy, where we can spread some thick sheep’s cheese onto a slice of toast. Only problem here, it’s been purposely allowed to rot and gather maggots, which adds to the soapy, writhing texture. Next time you have a cheese and wine soiree, think maggots!
Three Squeak Dish
By now, I hope you’re warmed up for the really gross stuff. Although not everyone is convinced this exists, it's just too sick to make up (or leave off this list). Supposedly served in some remote parts of Asia, the Three Squeak Dish is a plate served with three pink, freshly born baby mice. The first squeak is when you pick them up with chopsticks. The second is when you dip them in soy sauce. You can guess what the third squeak is. Apparently they’re easy to chew because the bones have not hardened yet. Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom now.
Honorary Mentions: Lutifisk is a fish Norwegian weapon of mass culinary destruction. Laos Snake Whiskey is sold with farm-bred cobras at the bottom, some with scorpions for extra zing. We should also leave room for cockroaches, haggis, and cuy (deep-fried guinea pig). And how can I forget my delicious fruit bat stew in beautiful New Caledonia?
Fruit bats ready for the stewing in New Caledonia
Re-assuredly, deep fried guinea pig does not taste like chicken.
In a while, crocodile. Cango Wildlife Park, South Africa
have entered a cage four times to stare into the eyeballs of four famously dangerous creatures that one is strongly advised – and I cannot emphasize this enough - not to stare into the eyeballs of. Psychologists could unpack a fascinating study behind the motivations behind the people who choose, willingly and with good money, to get close to animals like sharks, crocodiles and lions. Not that such a study has ever been commissioned, since scientists of all ilk are currently laundering lab coats for more pressing concerns. Since we live in an age of misinformation, I may as well just invent one. According to global peer reviewed research study (*that was neither peer-reviewed, researched nor studied), thousands of people choose to cage-dive with dangerous animals because:
Curiously, 63% of these non-existent participants said they harboured a deep and unexplainable fear of the above-mentioned animals, and 12% said they only signed up having felt guilty for entering the booking office with the sole intention of using the toilet. Whatever floats your boat, and that's where we'll begin, bobbing off the east coast of South Africa on the lookout for man-eating Great White Sharks. Since they are widely known for bearing progressive and egalitarian natures, the Great Whites eat women too.
Nice fishy: Mossel Bay, South Africa
When I entered the cage, I was still between the teeth of the shark phobia that had plagued me since watching Jaws on a hotel movie channel as a 6-year-old on his first beach holiday. Fast forward a few decades, and I’d seen far better movies which highlighted the vital role sharks play in the eco-system, the horrific carnage behind their hunting for shark-fin soup, and their overall misunderstanding within popular culture. Fact is (and this is a real fact): Sharks are amazing. If they wanted to eat people, hundreds of us would be attacked every day, all around the world. In reality, you have more chance of struck by lightning or drowning in a bathtub (this is also true). I jumped into the cage, and had a life-changing experience with a rather large great white who could have attacked me from beneath (where the thick cage inexplicably and unnervingly morphed into a wire-hangar-thin mesh). From that moment, I resolved to learn how to scuba dive, and have since shared an underwater, cage-free space with sharks from Hawaii to the Papua New Guinea. That first cage dive truly changed my life for the better. If you insist and persist on eating shark-fin soup, please look at yourself in the mirror, then jump out a high window. Millions of sharks needlessly massacred each year will thank you.
Swimming with Salties: Crocosaurus Cove, Australia.
Crocodiles are an entirely different beast. For starters, they simply want to eat you. No curiosity here, no meeting of creatures or confusion because you look like a seal. To a crocodile, we look like lunch, which is why they quickly surrounded me in the pool. At Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa, I entered a steel cage and was lowered into a pool. At Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin, northern Australia, I was inside a cylindrical Perspex tube with a few too many croc teeth scrapes for comfort. The Nile and Saltwater dinosaurs that decided I looked too delicious to pass up bumped me around a bit, their large orange reptilian eyes gazing deep into my soul. 17% of our fictional survey participants mentioned they enjoyed the sensation of feeling like prey. I, for one, did not. While my shark cage encounter made me want to dive with (admittedly less fierce) sharks in the wild, the croc cages left me twitchy about the Crocodile Warning signs I later encountered at popular swimming holes outside of Darwin and in tropical north Queensland. The mere thought of saltwater crocs patrolling the coast keeps locals off the beaches, and one taxi driver told me about a pet dog that ran to the beach, jumped into the water, and was promptly gobbled up by a lurking croc. According to a BBC Report, the best tip for surviving a crocodile attack is to avoid getting attacked. That's one helpful report, I don't know what we'd do without it.
Somewhere in Bohol, Philippines.
The Burmese python acting as a living sofa above was a roadside in attraction I passed somewhere in the Philippines. Entering its cage seemed like something to do. Once I was seated, I started questioning what on earth they could be feeding this thing. The answer, I hoped, was not dumb tourists who enter snake cages at roadside attractions
Lions 360 at Monarto Zoo, South Australia
Finally, I should mention that I once got into a cage surrounded by hungry lions. Inspired by shark cage dives, the Monarto Zoo in South Australia offers a Lions 360 experience, with feeding time for the zoo’s female pride coinciding with lucky tourists paying a little extra to be in a caged enclosure. The lions, which roam in a very large space that resembles the African bush, get to walk on the cage feet above your head, and close enough for you to smell their aroma, breath, and, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, their urine. My daughter was five years old at the time, and the lions paid special attention to her, recognizing our group’s weakest link. As well fed as they were, I had little doubt they would have gladly added a curly-haired dessert to their carefully monitored intake of horse (or perhaps kangaroo) meat. For further insight, here's a little video of Lions360 that I made about that experience.
Lions, crocs, snakes, sharks…getting close to dangerous wild animals is always memorable, especially when you’re in an environment designed to ensure you’ll live long enough for the memories. I’ve had close encounters in the wild with hippos (which kill far more people than crocs in Africa), grizzly bears, polar bears, piranha, elephants, orca, cheetahs, baboons, snakes, scorpions, spiders, and far too many mosquitoes (which kill many, many more people each year than any of the above). Every experience left me in awe of nature and the creatures we share this planet with. Except the mosquitoes. Those bastards just left me itchy.
Six months ago, I wrote a blog post that we are officially living in the best of times, and the worst of times. This balance has almost certainly tipped. For fifteen years I’ve believed in the power of travel to spread inspiration, connection, and knowledge. COVID-19 didn’t just come for my industry, it came for everyone. There have however been winners. The System (sometimes known as The Man or The Matrix) has long fought against citizens who are inspired, connected and knowledgeable. It distracts us with sport, bamboozles us with Terms and Conditions, divides us with electoral colleges and by ethnicity, and builds high walls of exclusivity around the increasingly inaccessible rich and powerful. Over the years, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, and so if you’re tuning in for paradise, I hope you’ll forgive me this one post of protest.
On his best day, the most powerful man in the world is a narcissistic, racist imbecile with the intellect and self-control of a three-year-old. The tech genius who created our most powerful platform of modern communication believes it’s morally acceptable and better for shareholders to spread false information that incites violence, massacres, fear and discrimination. Herd immunity didn’t work out as nearly as well as herd mentality when it came to dealing with a pandemic that experts have been warning governments about for years. An understandable rush to avoid the worst has resulted in the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs, a crippled global economy, and the utter devastation of one of the few industries that creates a net positive for human experience, namely, tourism. A billion-plus school-kids have been forced home, adapting to dystopian and enforced social distancing, germaphobic neurosis, and a new normal of 24-hour tracking that will never, pinkie-promise, be used for nefarious purposes. Formally stable geo-political forces are being undermined, resulting in democratic abuses, political disappearances, suspicious arrests, bold assassinations, and previously unimaginable calls for state independence and annexations. Racist and anti-Semitic attacks have dramatically increased, with the ignorant emboldened by deeply flawed leadership, grotesque echo-chamber information bubbles, and our own ever-present reptilian dark side of humanity. Unarmed people of colour are being routinely targeted by law enforcement forces operating above the law, while the important fifth estate of journalism has been targeted by those in power even as the traditional media model suffers an economic meltdown. All the while, cyclones and monsoons, floods, wild-fires, melting icecaps and acidic oceans continue to fester unabated. Society has been locked down, pressure cooked, and force-fed non-stop inflammatory misinformation. We are spilling into the streets with a new level of frustration, anger, rage and confusion.
Yes, SpaceX and NASA just launched humans into space at a fraction of the cost, but there was the bigot Trump, staining the occasion like the repulsive spores of a reeking mushroom fart. Celebrities banded together to remind us we’re all in this together, albeit not all in large, opulent mansions with Jacuzzis and cigars (I really think it’s time for Arnold Schwarzenegger to not be back). Neighbourhoods and communities have banded together to flatten the curve with impressive dedication and devotion, considering we long ago stopped wondering why Winnipeg is not Montreal, Vancouver not New York, or what the curve was about in the first place. Front line workers showed us the colour of true heroes, and just about all of them don't carry weapons.
Believe me, this is not the post I thought I’d be writing at the gateway to summer, 2020. I was expecting to be planning an epic family adventure much like last summer’s incredible journey to Atlantic Canada. Perhaps the fact that the small-ship company we sailed with went bankrupt shortly afterward amid accusations of fraud - and later sunk a Venezuelan navy vessel - was a warning shot over the bow of the year to come. A year of drowned dreams and dashed prospects. At least half a year of it, anyway.
And so today, I put my intention forward for the next six months. Being honest to myself, I can’t imagine how things will improve in the short term. I can’t imagine how, given the civil unrest, fear and unemployment, there will be much to celebrate this summer. My plan is to take two spontaneous road-trips into some of my favourite regions of British Columbia, and hope for the best. I predict a rejuvenated sense of local, provincial and state pride, because unlike banks getting government bail-outs under the auspices of being too-big-to-fail (and cashing it all the way into executive bonuses), the small businesses that drive the tourist economy are too important to fail, and we won’t let them.
By the fall, the true cost of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic panic that accompanied it, will come home to roost. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be short-lived. Because come November, Americans beyond the 35% of rabid Trump supporters (the people who wouldn’t believe he was guilty even if Trump stood with a smoking gun over their own bullet-ridden bodies) will vote the idiot out. And while Biden doesn’t quite bring with him the fresh hope of a new era, he does represent a return to the day when adults were left in charge of nuclear arsenals. The new president, supported by a blue Congress, will dismantle four years of Trump in a matter of months. Laws will be passed at a breakneck pace restoring environmental regulations, restricting unchecked industry, and funding vital social programs. And while this is all great for Americans, the impact will flow across the border into Canada, and around the world. Progressive and inclusive ideas will flood the world with such force it will sweep away the last of the despots. The caged tigers of Russia and China won’t be put back in their cages, instead they will be invited to participate under international rules of law that are fair, free, and enforced. It will be the honeymoon of Obama's first term, only this time, liberal progressives won’t eat nearly as much shit, and they will know how low the other party is willing to sink. For Trump didn’t drain the swamp of Washington, he increased the size of the corrupt swamp to cover much of the known world. The pace of 2021’s land reclamation will be both invigorating for the economy, and re-energize the global soul.
And we will awake as if from a dream, having learned vital lessons about the empty promises of tanned vanities, the nauseous cost of exploiting both environment and consumers, and just how important it is to know how information is gathered, verified and disseminated. Perhaps above all else, we will recognize the importance of washing our goddamn hands, and not going out when we're sick.
I’ll check back with you in six months to see how it all panned out.
Be grateful you’re not a chef-owner who’s worked tirelessly to recently open a restaurant.
Be grateful you’re not a server at that, or any other restaurant.
Be grateful you’re not a school kid hoping to improve your grades for college.
Be grateful you’re not a college kid, in debt, hoping to graduate into a hungry job market.
Be grateful you’re not a museum, aquarium, zoo, or tourist attraction.
Be grateful you’re not a tourist guide, tour operator, or concierge.
Be grateful you have nothing to do with the hotel industry.
Be grateful you’re not a band on tour.
Be grateful you’re not a concert promoter.
Be grateful you’re not involved with a folk, arts or music festival.
Be grateful you’re not a sports professional.
Be grateful you haven’t spent your whole career training for the 2020 Olympics
Be grateful you haven’t spent your whole career training for the 2020 anything.
Be grateful you don’t work in a hair or nail salon.
Be grateful you don’t have lots of children to school, entertain and feed.
Be grateful you’re not single and alone.
Be grateful you don’t own a martial arts studio.
Be grateful you don’t own a book shop, gift shop, or boutique.
Be grateful you don’t need to visit the Emergency Room.
Be grateful you're not a massage or physiotherapist.
Be grateful you’re not an artist who landed a big gallery break.
Be grateful you’re not a gallery.
Be grateful you don’t pay an exorbitant amount of commercial rent.
Be grateful you don’t have an unmanageable mortgage.
Be grateful you don’t live month to month, or week to week.
Be grateful you’re not supporting your family who live in another country.
Be grateful you’re not a refugee.
Be grateful you’re not completely invested in the stock market.
Be grateful you’re not caught up in a civil war, locust plague or ethnic violence.
Be grateful you’re not a filmmaker stalled in production.
Be grateful you’re not a retail store.
Be grateful you’re not an event or wedding planner.
Be grateful you’re not in recruitment.
Be grateful you’re not working in media.
Be grateful you don’t work in the casino industry.
Be grateful you don’t work in the cinema industry.
Be grateful you’re not in the fashion retail industry.
Be grateful you’re not in the convention industry.
Be grateful you don’t have to sell advertising.
Be grateful you don’t work in a crisis-hit senior’s home.
Be grateful you don’t work in a stadium or venue.
Be grateful you don’t work in the oil industry.
Be grateful you don’t work in the airline or airport industry.
Be grateful you’re not neurotic or obsessed with conspiracy theories.
Be grateful you don’t own a gun, or see any reason to do so.
Be grateful you don’t have to worry about starving.
Be grateful you don’t have to worry about being cold.
Be grateful you don’t believe everything you read.
Be grateful you are not a professional speaker, or own a speaking agency.
Be grateful you are not a travel writer.
Be grateful your wedding or family event wasn’t planned for spring or summer 2020.
Be grateful your graduation wasn’t scheduled in 2020.
Be grateful you’re not in theatre, dance, comedy, or public performance.
Be grateful you don’t work on a cruise ship.
Be grateful you’re not stuck on a cruise ship.
Be grateful your finances are not dependent on tourism or oil.
Be grateful you don’t work in catering.
Be grateful you are not in construction.
Be grateful you are not homeless.
Be grateful you do not live in a household with domestic abuse.
Be grateful you do not suffer from addiction.
Be grateful you are not a magician or a wrestler.
Be grateful you are not a professional busker.
Be grateful you haven’t had to lay anybody off.
Be grateful you haven’t had to shut anything down.
Be grateful you haven’t had to cancel the whole damn thing.
Be grateful you are not vulnerable.
Be grateful you have not lost a loved one to COVID-19.
Be grateful you are not a pessimist.
And while you’re at it, or even in it:
Be grateful you are physically and mentally healthy.
Be grateful you love someone, and someone loves you.
Be grateful you live in a country with a social net.
Be grateful there are people that care.
Be grateful that there are adults in the room (most of the time).
Be grateful for science.
Be grateful for entertainment.
Be grateful for innovation.
Be grateful that level-headed, rational and empathetic politicians exist.
Be grateful for the global logistical supply chain.
Be grateful for technology.
Be grateful for fresh drinking water on demand.
Be grateful for streaming.
Be grateful there is food on the shelves.
Be grateful for your neighbours and community.
Be grateful there is a number you can call.
Be grateful there is help.
Be grateful there is soap.
Be grateful for online banking.
Be grateful for online shopping.
Be grateful you still have a job.
Be grateful for respectful discussion, critical thinking, and debate.
Be grateful educators are figuring something out.
Be grateful for vaccinations.
Be grateful for the commitment and diligence of doctors and nurses.
Be grateful for people who show up for work when others don’t have to.
Be grateful for the weather.
Be grateful for the things you have seen and done.
Be grateful for fresh air.
Be grating for deliveries.
Be grateful for the tenacity of society.
Be grateful we will be better prepared for COVID-20.
Be grateful the environment has had a brief pause to breathe.
Be grateful tourism will resume locally and more sustainably.
Be grateful there are more people who love than people who hate.
Be grateful the virus does not discriminate the way people do.
Be grateful we are in this together.
Be grateful for optimism.
Travel bucket lists suddenly belong to another era, like a monocle, or camera film, or more recently, over-tourism. After a decade of rampant tourism growth - buoyed by cheap flights, sophisticated marketing, digital, broadcast and print storytelling – it has all come to a crashing halt. Nobody is going anywhere. It’s over folks, and life can not and will not return to normal. We are slowly being conditioned into sterile states of isolation, detachment, and alienation. I took my kids for a walk in the forest – a legal activity at time of writing – and we watched a middle-aged lady jump into the trees to avoid crossing our path. My 6-year-old thought it was funny, but it broke my heart. For all the positive, heartwarming stories shared on social media, there remains deep Orwellian undertones beneath the phrase “social distancing” and the spectre of constant dread. Next week, our neighbours are sticking birthday wishes on their doors for my daughter. I’m going to walk her around the ghost town of our once thriving townhouse complex, and we'll wave to the faces behind windows. It’s doubtful her cancelled birthday party would have proved nearly as memorable.
As with many of you, I’ve been asking a lot of questions about the cost of social distancing. There’s so much we don’t know about this pandemic, but a global narrative has emerged of the vital importance to “flatten the curve.” World-renowned scientists, economists and journalists risk their careers arguing otherwise, while an over-abundance of caution feels prudent. Politicians are crushed between too many rocks and more hard places; damned if they shut down their countries, damned if they don’t. A choice between economy and lives? A disputed testing methodology? Political opportunism? The last stand of democracy? So many questions, few answers, horrific fear-mongering, and of course ravenous media feeding our addiction for information relentlessly splattered across our bruised news feeds. Did a viral cat spook our cultural elephant and make Dumbo jump off a cliff? Did the planet figure out a way to make our political leaders act in a manner that will prove decisive when it comes to the real existential human threat of climate change? Do I believe the frustrated Stanford epidemiologist who says we’re doing too much, or the professor from Wuhan who says we’re doing too little? How did Italy and New York not turn out like Germany and Washington State? What crimes and disasters are flying under the radar while we obsess over mortality reports and daily infection numbers? Meanwhile, there's Zoom drinks, Zoom dinners, Zoom classes, Zoom romances. Zoom is no substitute for human connection, and humans are social creatures above all else. Millions out of work, billions in emergency war-time aid, fights over toilet paper, and we haven’t even got to the social unrest yet, when the economic and social consequences really come home to roost. It’s hard to think about anything else, which is why this opening is about six times longer than I wanted it to be. Because I need to make one important point above all else: amidst all this thinking, we need to start dreaming.
Bucket Lists are very special kinds of Dreams. We stop thinking about money, time and logistics, choosing instead to project ourselves into an unspecified future to fulfill a personal longing. When people tell me what’s on their bucket list, I often ask why. What do you expect will happen when you finally stand at the foot of the Great Pyramids, jump out of a plane, or sail in the Galapagos? Take it from me, reality is often too vivid – hot, bumpy, weird and overwhelming – to fully appreciate the moment until much later. It’s the dream that counts, much like a lottery ticket. One day…one day…one day, and now more than ever, we need as many “one days” as we can muster. We need to identify, capture, and hold onto those dreams, for it is dreams that will shine a light into the dark days to come.
Covid-19, and the measures that have been put in place to combat its spread, have ruptured society as we know it. The notion of one people living in a global village, one that is already under threat from rising nationalism and a refugee crisis, is in tatters. Our bonds have been sliced apart, our walls raised, our webs untangled. Success against the spread has been attributed to the kind of surveillance, control and social conditioning we'd read about in a dystopian nightmare. What incentives do governments have to return such tools to the box? Wait…I’m thinking too much again. Weight is creeping up on my shoulders. So, I close my eyes and dream again…of wild horses on the dunes of Sable Island; of sharing a purple fuzz sunset with my Dad in Algonquin Park; of floating with salmon as they swim upstream in Vancouver Island. I dream of the mighty Rockies and golden prairies, of the Maritimes and Magdalen Island winds. I close my eyes again, and I dream of Canada.
Travel in the future might involve medical tests and health passports, banned countries and demographic restrictions. We will miss the freedoms we once knew. Now we are confined to our homes, and soon, we we will be confined to our cities, provinces, and country. If your dreams must be restricted to one nation, there are far worse places than the world’s second largest country, jammed with abundant resources, unique experiences, inspiring people and extraordinary space. To be in Canada is a stroke of undeniable good fortune, a winning geographic lottery ticket. When we’re finally released, I hope we remember that people need hugs and handshakes. That it’s perfectly safe to share a beer, campsite chow, a hostel dorm or dining table. That large crowds at events and festivals are not dangerous, and that kisses were romantic long before they became viral weapons. I hope we remember that we share a desire for adventure, experience, community, romance, history, culture and natural beauty. I hope we remember the dream that was once The Great Canadian Bucket List.
I’m relieved, reassured, and deeply grateful to live in this country. Canada’s admired social, medical and economic net is being reinforced, emboldened, and strung up across all 10 provinces and 3 territories. No further evidence is needed to see that we live in a special country going through remarkable times. My heart breaks for all the people I’ve met around the world who will not be nearly so lucky.
Remember when times were just...interesting? Ah, the good old days! When quarantine sounded like an exotic nectarine and we didn't keep a running score on how many people got sick and died every day. We're not going to beat this virus, but we will flatten the curve so our health services can cope, even if we have to drive the economy at high speed into a steel cliff to do it. Of course, all this is good practice for the true zombie apocalypse, and plenty of anxious quality family time ahead. Watching the world react has been the most insightful reality show ever produced. Wouldn't it be ironic if Donald Trump was brought down by a virus from China with the name of a Mexican beer? Wouldn't it be strange if a pandemic put the breaks on our excessive materialism, global emissions, and political absurdity? It's certainly taken care of the Overtourism conversation...although I don't think Venice, Dubrovnik and Iceland will have to worry once the virus inevitably subsides due to media fatigue, vaccines and whatever virus awaits the next time someone gets kinky with a horny armadillo. For this will happen again. And again.
A global crisis will either bring the world together, or tear us even further apart. As I write, there are plenty of people and organizations working hard to make both scenarios a reality. No sports, concerts, events, festivals? No cruise ships, parades, parties, schools or restaurants? No offices, no staff meetings, no touching, no looking, no French kisses or Italian hugs? How much can the economy take? Will it snap back with vengeance, or evolve into something altogether different? When the curtains drop, and the Coronovirus circus ends, will humanity celebrate with a debauchery the planet has never seen before? There's a scene in the prescient Kathryn Bigelow film, Strange Days, that shows a city combusting. You're not quite sure if the masses are rioting, protesting, destroying or celebrating. That's what we can look forward to when this is all over. Business as unusual. Meanwhile, as icecaps melt and forests burn, scientists are beseeching the world to do something already about climate change, a call to arms that mustered but a fraction of the response to the latest pandemic. To use another entertainment analogy, I can't help but wonder if the coronavirus is akin to the politics of Kings Landing in Game of Thrones, while the larger existential threat of the White Walkers marches ever closer. Climate change won't just target the vulnerable elderly: it's coming for us all. Forgive me, I've just been streaming too much.
Speaking of which, I'm delighted to share news that my show (the most misspelt title in the history of television) WORD TRAVELS is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. That's all three beautiful seasons, filmed in 36 countries, visiting spectacular locations to tick off incredible adventures that will inspire dreamers of all ages and interests. Since it's likely most of the world is going to be in quarantine for a while, I hope you'll continue to feed your travel bug, keeping that poor, battered creature nourished within the insulated warmth of your soul. Rest assured, the planes will once again take off, the ships and trains will depart, the museums will open, and the world will be a better place soon. I know this, because it has always been so.
Note from the Future: The post below was written just a few months ago, and already it is a time capsule. The full onslaught of Orwellian-sounding "social distancing" had yet to be implemented, perhaps because authorities were still counting on people taking their initial "low-risk" measures seriously. Too many people didn't. It's always harder to motivate with a pretty-please as opposed to the fear of big sticks. I believe many aspects of the measures to combat COVID-19 are still way over-the-top and based more on a political-charged narrative than empirical data. Wearing a bottle on your head is still as stupid today as it was back then. Still, I acknowledge there's a reckless flippancy to the below, and apologize if it causes offence accordingly. Some posts are indicative of the time in which they were written. Unfortunately, a pandemic of ignorance will continue to remain as relevant as it ever was.
Someone needs to just come out and say it: We have full-scale pandemic of unprecedented proportions! Scientists have now proven that if someone even looks at you askew in 2020 - and that someone happens to have neighbours with distant relatives in remote Pingxiang - it’s pretty much guaranteed your cranium will machine-gun mucous from your double-barrel nostrils and vaporize everyone within a fifty-two-mile radius. Oh, how we look back fondly on Ebola, which conveniently only killed people in Central Africa, victims that never gave us anything remotely as delicious as Balsamic vinegar. Remember how Zika deformed that entire generation of children? No joke is it, sitting behind millions of kids at the movies with their ginormous, misshapen, screen-blocking heads. Flus from birds and swine killed hundreds of millions across the galaxy, but somehow we endured, and let’s face it, waiting on hold for internet support is more manageable as a result. Humanity is nothing if not tenaciously opportunistic. We endure and survive and thrive in the face of asteroids and dinosaurs and cancelled Series A football matches. At least until the Coronavirus came along, this deadly contagion that spreads at the speed of light by sound, light, fluid, metal, thought, and more alarmingly, urine-hued Mexican beer.
Vigilance must be practiced. All schools must shut indefinitely so we can return to healthy states of stupidity. All social, religious and trade events must cease so we can withdraw into fear-crazed paranoid isolation (don’t worry, Amazon deliveries will continue unabated, Jeff Bezos will take care of that). It is necessary to close all the factories, shops, stores and businesses, because the virus can’t get us if we’re unemployed and starving to death during an economic Armageddon. Ground all boats, trains and planes, which are the true super disease carriers, transporting viruses under the finger nails and poorly disinfected toilet seats. And ban all Chinese nationals, I mean all of them, even the ones who have absolutely nothing to do with any of it, because although racism is a virus too, some viruses must thrive for others to wither.
There is now a 99.9% certainty that you will die within the next one hundred years. There’s simply no escaping it: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. So please don’t judge imbeciles buying three tonnes of toilet paper and locking themselves up in quarantine because they sprained a toe. Celebrate their vast concern for the community, even as they run you over with their overflowing Costco cart and water bottles on their heads.
As an abundance of caution, urban surveyors are now scouting caves, preferably ones with smooth walls to hold the rock art that will replace Netflix and Disney+. Anyone know how to scrawl a pangolin with a burnt stick? Your career is looking a whole lot more promising than mine. At least according to the media, which is doing a cracker job keeping the score charts ticking over. Every morning I wake up and can’t wait to see how many more are infected, and how many more are dead. Is South Korea threatening China’s dominance? Is Northern Italy giving Iran a run for its money. Europe v South America? It’s the World Virus Cup. As we count the beans, who has time to worry about gun deaths or drug wars or Syrian refugees or the Big Mango inviting oil and gas consortiums to drill for gold in the San Diego Zoo. Cheetoh Mussolini is obviously taking this seriously, appointing a Vice Presidential robot in charge, a bureaucrat who doesn’t believe in science, evolution, the dangers of smoking, or women. COVID-19 is just where we want it, shaking on its microscopic knees. Over in China, doctors are incentivized to raise future health alarms with one-way tickets to hard labour Kashgar re-education camps. In Russia, anyone claiming the weather is too warm is permanently Putin-dipped into frozen Lake Baikal. Fortunately North Korea is quite content, as the more of its people who die of COVID-19, the less mouths there are to not feed. As for travel? Well, we’ve been freaking out about overtourism for a while, the impact of relentless masses descending on places that used be great when we went there, but now that you’re going there, isn’t so great anymore. Since the only Chinese person still travelling is a mid-level pantsuit designer from Chongqing, overtourism has fast being relegated to history, along with other formerly pressing issues, like Rachel’s haircut, and Justin Trudeau’s fancy dress. It’s a rough, tough time to be selling meaningful global interaction, or any interaction at all.
It’s a pandemic all right. A pandemic of fear and ignorance. A pandemic of media saturation and headline baiting. A pandemic of economic uncertainty and distrust. And while you have more chances of being stung to death by earthworms than dying of the coronavirus, I understand your feverish concerns, the media that fuels them, and why the economy must collapse so we can return to a simpler, more Stone-Age-like time. A glorious age when it was normal and encouraged to spit in our palms and shake our hands in trust. In the meantime, please don’t read this. Your eyes on my words will make me sick.
When I was a teenager, my parents gave me an “islands of the world” calendar featuring 12 months of impossibly turquoise water. You know, the ones with coconut trees bending over a white sandy beaches. I’d cut out the photos, taping them to the walls on my bedroom, dreamily staring at them long after the months ran out, and a new calendar arrived. The islands had wonderfully exotic sounding names: The Maldives, Tahiti, Seychelles, and my favourite, Mauritius. Something about the way it rolled off the tongue.
It was no short flight to get to Mauritius. Located 900km east of Madagascar, it is a tear drop tropical island home to 1.2 million people, mostly descendants of Indians brought over by the British to work on sugarcane plantations. Since independence in 1968, the official language of Mauritius is English, everyone speaks Creole, and reads and writes in French, a throwback to its French colonial days. Not that I paid too much attention, soaking in my first warm summer night, and an all-night Creole celebration outside the capital of Port Louis. At last, I was invading those dog-eared photos on my old bedroom wall.
As one the most popular honeymoon and holiday destinations for French, German and British tourists, the island has around 100 resorts, primarily congregated in the north and west. I headed south, a region that is slowly shifting away from sugarcane into exclusive golf courses and luxury villas. Like other tropical islands, Mauritius is refocusing its resources on tourism to offset declining sugar prices. The Heritage Le Telfair Resort is part of four properties developed under the same locally-owned hotel group, oozing old world service. Every night, I dug my toes in the sand watching a picture perfect sunset, as one is prone to do on island escapes. A short golf cart ride away is the Villas Valriche, where foreigners can purchase luxury 4 bedroom villas overlooking a stunning 27-hole golf course. While you can expect to shell out a couple million dollars for the privilege, it comes with handy Mauritian citizenship. Sell your villa however, and you lose your passport.
On a boat cruise to the nearby Ile de Coco, a pod of Spinner dolphins are practicing their aerial gymnastics. In the distance, I see a mountain called Le Morne, where escaped slaves took refuge, and preferred to jump to their death rather than be captured. The captain plucks spiny sea urchins off the shallow lagoon floor, cuts them open, cleaned them out, and hands them to me with a dash of white wine and lemon juice. Seafood never tasted so good. Like other Mauritians I’d met, the Captain was cheery and good-natured, sporting a white toothy watermelon smile. He tells me about Snake Island (which is round and has no snakes) and Round Island (which has snakes and isn’t round). That people here leave their religion at home, which is how Hindus, Muslims and Christians co-exist peacefully. How 70% of the staff in the resorts springing up in the south are from neighbouring villages. Creole pop music is blasting from the speakers. I crack another cold Stag beer, knowing it can’t be that simple. A small white minority own most of the land, there are traffic jams every day inside Port Louis, and basic goods can be pricey, imported from as far away as Australia and South Africa.
I took a break from the beach to visit a roadside attraction called Casela, a bird and safari park, where I petted lion cubs and drifted amongst zebra on an offroad Segway. Around me were honeymooners and families, the Euros loving their ultimate tropical island getaway. I could drive from south to north in just three hours, leaving the mountains for the traffic of Port Louis, and the more developed north. Here I found resorts with rows of couples facing each other over candlelight at poolside restaurants. Fortunately, my wife was with me, because this is really not an island you want to experience on your own (nor does it appear to cater much to singles or backpackers).
At this time of year, there are enough snowflakes falling in Canada to inspire a visit to any tropical island. Unless you fly via hubs like Dubai, Paris or London, Mauritius might yet remain one of those elusive calendar dreams, brightening up an office wall. Perhaps, if we dream big enough, we might one day yet find ourselves under the shade of a coconut tree.
From the Archives of Modern Gonzo: A descent into conspiracy theory at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London.
The Fortean Times is a highly entertaining magazine that features in-depth investigations into all things bizarre and wonderful, all creatures great and small, and the "World's Weirdest News". The term "Fortean" arises from one Charles Hoy Fort, a sort of Victorian Fox Mulder who set out to prove that all scientific data was biased and could not explain phenomena which fell outside its realms. His "I want to believe" dictum was "One measures a circle beginning anywhere" - but that doesn't quite have the appeal of tacky poster in a forgotten 1990's FBI basement. Still, the man kicked alien butt, and Forteana now refers to all the bits and pieces that those in control (pesky Illuminati!)would rather you didn't think about. Like a giant "Thunderbird" that was shot and killed in Arizona in the 1800's, or who (if anyone) really took out Princess Diana, and how they did it. Split over the three floors of the University of London University Union, the Unconvention featured guests who write books that you always want to read but are too worried others will think you're being silly. Which is not to say they are silly. There was a renowned anthropologist, an internationally recognized biologist and a speaker named Peter Brookesmith who was so paranoid his picture was in silhouette. These are the people who I am told spend years dedicated to finding out what really happens in this magic show we call life. As Einstein said, "reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one."
I am not afraid of Men In Black, especially after Hollywood joined forces with the government to paint a picture of fun lovin' dudes with slick shades and big ears. I am not afraid of ghosts, because they're just spirits who turned left when they should have turned right. I am not even afraid of dragons, because they're probably quite cuddly if you're into that sort of thing. I am however petrified of Lunatics, and there was no shortage of them at the Unconvention. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy wearing blood stained Marilyn Manson T-shirts as much as the next guy, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with having frizzy long hair and a beard that comes straight out of the ZZ Top wardrobe. It's the eyes, man, the eyes. Beady, and "funny lookin", like "we're out to get you", which, if truth be known, I suppose they are. It was this kind of unnerving energy that filled the hall when a speaker proceeded to explain that most of conspiracy theory is not unlike extra-terrestrial turd. Something stinks, but no-one knows what exactly it is, nor how to clean it up. Bringing in a dose of reality (who's I'm not sure), he proceeded to elaborate how conspiracy theory is a mechanism for people to deal with events that make no sense. Like JFK's assassination and Diana the Princess Deceased. Evidence is often flimsy and unsupported. Witnesses are mostly goofballs. The surge in popularity of all things odd have led to increasingly desperate and dubious attempts to exploit the public's fascination. For every legitimate UFO sighting, there's the "Jesus appeared in my tomato."
Evidence that Paul is Dead is everywhere on the cover of Sgt Peppers. Obviously.
Paul McCartney is dead, and has been for decades. It's all there in the last few Beatles record covers. Only and somewhat rather inconveniently, nobody told Paul McCartney. The next speaker examined conspiracy theory from a media studies perspective, examining how facts can have a Medusa's head full of meaning. Semiotics, point's of view, changing ideologies, fake news. One man's abstract art is another woman's blood vial on the cover of the latest Metallica album. Conspiracy theory rests heavily on interpretation, and if you want to believe something enough, then the truth really is out there. Blogs and publications have content to fill, somehow, but as long as absurdity can nestle between the "Royal Family are Drug Lords" and the "Sex-god alien fathered my child", it will always be greeted with a certain amount of scepticism.
After a few beers and a Jesus-was-really-a-nasty-fellow-who-murdered- his-political-rival John-the-Baptist-as-proven-by-Leonardo da Vinci afternoon banter, I felt more settled. The scary characters were innocuous folk who seemed to go about their thing like anyone else. There was this one woman though, about 4ft 8, with oversize almond eye and stretched skin that looked like it belonged to someone else. She was no doubt, a representative from the notorious Grey alien clan. She fitted in well.
I almost trampled over the host of Who's Line is it Anyway in my rush to get to the Princess Diana Conspiracy lecture. I was not alone. Everyone packed into the hall to hear what really happened. All conspiracy theory has its roots in inconsistencies. There are "facts" that just don't add up. Like the JFK assassination, like CIA mind experiments, like Gulf War veteran sickness. Well, we are told, it just so happens that with Diana, there are loads of inconsistencies. Like why the 17 cameras in the tunnel weren't working that night. Like who were the other two paparazzi that no-one knew, and why were these mysterious photographers the only ones to escape being arrested? Like, why was a braking mechanism in the Mercedes removed 6 weeks earlier? Like why did the ambulance take 2 hours to drive through a 45 minute route to the hospital? There were dozens more that ran the gamut between psychotic fascination and libel. I'm not going to get into how they did it (another cabal of CIA drug-runners altogether), but these are some of the ideas expressed as to who did it.
1) The Royal Family: Diana was rumoured to be 6 weeks pregnant, marriage to a Muslim arms dealer by the future king's mother would destroy the monarchy. Diana was meddling in politics, an inconvenient time bomb. MI5 and the CIA assisted in the hit. The paparazzi were a convenient scapegoat to divert attention to some blatant inconsistencies in the investigation.
2) The Chinese Arms industry: Diana had just cost the biggest land mine manufacturers in the world billions. She was taking on a very dangerous industry, and had to be stopped, much like a car is stopped when it crashes into a concrete wall.
3) Drug lords: Dodi was the hit, Diana was the message ("we don't care who you are"). A vial of cocaine was confirmed to be found in her bag. Bet you didn't hear that in the press, but it's in the police report (allegedly). Dodi reeked of Bad Karma with drug dealers, arms dealers, poker dealers, you name it. Not the kind of guy a popular princess should be running about with.
4) Satanic ritual: The car crashed into the 13th pillar, on a site that has been a Satanic hot spot for centuries. She was the princess that had to be sacrificed, and the whole plot was organized by those drug-peddling Royals who are seriously into their black magic and witchcraft. Yep.
5) Elton John: his career was flagging. Candle in the Wind (the Diana version) was heard before her death! Someone, somewhere swears it. And don't forget the UK Floral Association. Yes, now it all makes sense.
There were other theories, most of which received a laugh. Even weird folk maintain some tennis grip on reality.
This House was Not telepathized into my brain
Outside, vendors were selling all sorts of alternative spew, from The Church of SubGenius to Satanic decor, alien coffee mugs to Druidic jewelry. The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomolous Phenomena (ASSAP) hijacked a room and funnelled crowds through a range of experiments, testing ESP, remote viewing and water diving among other cool bar tricks. I tried to tip the scales with my mind, but all I got was a headache. And the image of a house that was telepathized into my brain was supposed to be noughts-and-crosses, but show me divining rods and I'll part the Red Sea.
If Conspiracy is really just Paranoia's girlfriend, aliens a muddle of dreams, and hallucinations the side effect of some haywire CIA mind experiment, then it's a pretty safe guess that life is far simpler than we think it is. We are born, and we die. We are awake, and we sleep. We never have dark, dangerous thoughts because it's wrong. We never do bad things because that would be naughty. Angels are playing the harps up in heaven, and Father Christmas is ho-ho-ho-ing somewhere up North with the Easter Bunny. It all makes sense. Unless you choose to believe the US Government has not told us a fraction of everything it knows regarding assassinations and aliens. Unless you choose to believe it is all lies. What if disinformation is a kind of phlegm in the froggy throat of our perceptions of reality. Ignoring it is to be blissfully ignorant, and yet to fight it is to be labelled paranoid, crazy, and neurotic. Somewhere in the middle lies curiosity and awareness, which is what brought me to the event in the first place. An old Greek proverb says it all: "When you hear there are plenty of cherries, always carry a small basket." When you visit an Unconvention, always be sure to leave plenty of room in your head.
Another year and another decade have passed, another year and another decade we won’t get back. Despite all the indicators to the contrary (I highly suggest reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now) it certainly feels like we’re living in particularly turbulent times. Brexit, Trump, ISIS, Facebook…the 2010’s have repeatedly been called the Decade of Crisis. It was also a decade that took us into science fiction more than one would think. Consider arriving in January 1, 2010, and telling a person on the street:
What the hell are you talking about? And this is just a fraction of the global fizzle-pop martini that has shaken and stirred over the past ten years. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens wrote that timeless line in 1859. There is always political, cultural and economic turbulence, although this decade frequent environmental disasters joined the party. Unprecedented droughts (South Africa, Argentina, Australia), floods (India, Louisiana, Oklahoma), hurricanes (Bahamas, Puerto Rico), storms (Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Irene), heatwaves, wildfires (Australia, California, BC), the melting Arctic, city-sized icebergs breaking off Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula. And facing this global challenge are a bunch of world leaders not too removed from comic book villains.
There have always been high season and low season, but overtourism – best represented by poster children like Barcelona and the Louvre, Venice and Dubrovnik - proved canaries in the coalmine for the onslaught of travellers benefitting from cheap airfare, growing middle classes and an obsession with social media validation. I’ve had to question my own role in all of this, as this decade saw me transform from a freelance writer and television host into the bestselling author of a half dozen “bucket list” themed books. Not to mention a husband and father. What hasn’t changed is the core of what set me off fifteen years ago: an insatiable curiosity, and the desire to share what I discover with others in the hope that it inspires them as much as it has inspired me.
My latest book is about the joys, trials, hilarity and wonders when travelling with kids across Australia. Gone are the days of intense budget travel, and I’m a little long in the tooth to be sharing dorms in hostels (plus kids under six are not the best bunk mates). But they do demand and instigate new adventures all the time. We’re kicking off 2020 with a true bucket list road trip adventure, visiting three incredible BC ski resorts to learn – as a family – how to embrace the Canadian winter, and make it down a mountain on skis. Having warmed up for a recent Vancouver Sun story about Whistler, we’re kicking off on the powder of RED Mountain, revving up for Revelstoke, and with any luck we will get a thumbs up from Olympic legend Nancy Greene on the slopes of Sun Peaks. As usual, I hope to inspire other families to do the same, and at the very least, avoid visits to the hospital (my ER visit in Whistler to saw off my wedding ring was enough, thanks).
Whatever happens in the year and decade to come, may the weather prove fair and your health fairer. May our challenges be met and our smiles frequent. I hope we continue to appreciate the incredible benefits of our privilege, and empathize with those who want nothing more than to share a piece of it. Every year that passes is a year we won’t get back. Regardless of what we might be telling ourselves in 2030, let’s continue to make them count.
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.