Finding Myself Lost in the Atacama

Lost among the pink volcanoes of the Atacama.

It is said there are three simple steps to happiness: find something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.  I might add: find yourself a bike.  One day, on my way to the office, an unlicensed driver ignored a stop sign, drove through an intersection, and crashed into my bike.  I hobbled away with a broken knee-cap, a $20,000 insurance settlement, and the powerful reminder that life is precious, time is limited, and I’ll really miss my knees when they’re gone. I quite my job and went travelling around the world on a Quixotic quest to tick off my bucket list.  All of which brings me to the dusty Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama.  For an outpost on the edge of the world’s driest non-polar desert, the town offers fine hotels, gourmet restaurants, and excursions into a truly remarkable slice of South America.  One such activity is to rent a bike and peddle thirteen kilometres west into the Valley of the Moon, a protected nature sanctuary famous for its stark, lunar landscape.   I arrive at the park gates with my front tire wobbling with all the stability of a Central African government.  Parched for oil, my chain clatters in desperation.  I make a note that from now on I will check the condition of any bike before I rent it.  Sound advice, and I could have used some more, for example: under no circumstances must you leave your bike on the side of the road to hike around looking for better views of the volcanoes.  Soon enough, I am lost in the desert without any form of communication, directions, food, or warmth. It is late afternoon in March, and the baking day will soon transform into a chilly night.   My last update to my family was last week in Bolivia. Not a single person on the planet knows where I am.

Before I set out on my journey, a friend asked what I hoped to achieve.  My mates were settling down, building careers and starting families, so why would I choose to be that one older guy you typically meet in backpacker hostels?  You know, the one who looks a little out of joint, has great stories, and often smells like Marmite.    My reply:  at some point during my adventure I will stumble into a transcendent moment of pure isolation, a challenge that can only be surmounted with deep soul-searching, and personal inner strength. My friend looked at me askew, so I followed up with:  there will also be copious amounts of beer and beautiful women.   

That road has to be here somewhere…

Just a few months after that conversation, there is neither beer nor babe for miles as I desperately scan the sprawling Atacama Desert for my rickety rental bike. Panic begins to tickle my throat.  It appears that my Moment of Zen has arrived. I sit down on a slab of rock and breathe it in. The dusky sun casts a pink glow over perfect pyramid-shaped volcanoes.  Early evening stars begin to glitter.  A cool breeze sprouts goosebumps on the back of my neck, along with my long-awaited epiphany.  I am here for a reasonEverything happens for a reason.   The bike accident, the decision to travel, the dodgy rental bike, the walk into the desert.  Wherever I am, is where I am supposed to be.  Slowly, I relax into the fear and excitement, slipping into the moment the way one cautiously eases into a too-hot bubble bath.   Then I hear a voice.  A Japanese backpacker had seen my bike on the side of the road and figured there must be something to see.  Soon enough, he got lost too, but somehow he found me just as I was busy finding myself.  As the night sky vanquished the peach-fuzz sunset, we see headlights in the distance. Relieved, we find our way to the road, recover our bikes, and pedal in darkness back to San Pedro.  That night we get blindingly drunk to celebrate our good fortune, and I have my second epiphany: it is the people we meet who create the paradise we find. 

Ten years and one hundred countries later, there have several other moments of life-affirming clarity.  As for those three simple steps, they sorted themselves out beyond my wildest dreams.  Whenever I find myself lost, at home or on the road, I simply remind myself:  wherever you are, is where you’re supposed to be.

Top of the World, Top of the List

In 2019, a UK lottery company surveyed two thousand people about what experiences top their bucket list.   Number 1:   see the Northern Lights.     What makes this interesting is that a similar survey held by a different company in 2013 came to the same conclusion, as did another media survey in 2017.   Travel tastes may change and destinations flow in and out of fashion, but the aurora borealis endures as the numero uno-big kahuna-grandaddy of sought-after peak experiences.   

Canadians don’t have to fly halfway around the world to see these legendary polar flares, just north to the capital of the Northwest Territories.   Yellowknife sits beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where fall and winter conditions are ideal for a particularly bright and intense show.    With few geographical obstructions, minimal precipitation and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the lights here are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April, which is high season of aurora viewing.  The further one travels from city lights or physical obstructions, the greater your chances of seeing nature’s fireworks.   Having ventured north nearly a dozen times in the winter months, I can’t overstate the importance of stacking the odds in your favour.   For there’s no guarantee you’ll witness brilliant hues in the night sky any more than there’s a guarantee you’ll see lions hunt gazelle while you’re on safari.   Nature operates on its own time and with its own pace, and each aurora adventure will undoubtedly be as unique as the lights themselves.    

An aspect of aurora viewing that is often overlooked is physical comfort.  Remember, you’ll be heading north during a frigid, dark time of year. What’s more, the northern lights typically pop in the early hours of the morning.   Great Canadian Trails’ Northern Lights Eco-Escape takes all this and so much more into consideration.  For starters, it whisks you away by bush-plane to an eco-lodge far removed from light pollution or buildings.  As I learned one year in Hay’s River, even a street lamp can diminish the experience!   Immersing you in pristine northern wilderness, your aurora-viewing lodge is accessible by plane only, operating off-grid and powered primarily by solar and wind.  Expansive, open sky views surround you, which means you’ll be able to see the lights from the deck, the lounge, your room, and even the hot tub (talk about physical comfort!)  Depending on the season, your short days might be filled with snowshoeing, skating, skiing, igloo-building or fat biking, but you’re really here for the nights.  Rested, satiated on a delicious meal, and warmed up by bubbles or bubbly, the show is about to begin.

Beyond its heat and light, the sun also blasts solar winds across the galaxy, humming with the energy of protons and electrons.  If the solar winds are strong enough, they slam into the Earth’s magnetic field, funneled to the north and south poles by forces of magnetism.  Once these winds interact with gases and particles in our atmosphere, they release energy that results in shimmering displays of light.  We call this the aurora borealis in the north, and the lesser known (and harder to access) aurora australis in the south.    While we may think of a kaleidoscope of colours, it really depends on what gases are prominent in the atmosphere, as well as the overall strength of the solar wind.  Oxygen results in the reds and greens, while nitrogen causes a blue light.  Of all the colours on the spectrum, our eyes are adapted to see green more clearly, which is why it’s most common to experience the northern lights as a green, ghostly hue.   It’s also why aurora operators vigorously consult solar wind and weather reports:  the stronger the winds and the clearer the skies, the bigger the spectacle. 

One of the most important tips of travel advice anyone can ever give you is this:  temper your expectations.  Forget Instagram photos that took days or weeks to capture, or those epic magazine images that relied on a slow-shutter and specialized equipment.  There are all sorts of tips and techniques for capturing the northern lights on camera, patience being the biggest one.   If the lights are firing with enthusiasm, you’ll have plenty of time to snap your proof, although as with images of fireworks, a photo does little justice.  First and foremost, my advice is to take a breath.  Let your eyes accustom to the sky.  You’ll see lights that appear organic, like flames licking around a campfire, or ocean waves washing upon a shore.   Appearing with no warning, ghostly clouds will flicker and dance, playing tricks on your mind in the icy temperatures of the northern night. Flying back to Yellowknife, and then onwards still, one can be forgiven if the entire experience feels like a dream.  Although the next time you read a survey about the world’s most sought-after experiences, you’ll know exactly why the northern lights top many a list. The aurora borealis may be ephemeral, but our desire to see them remains strong as steel.  Along with the comforts of a bush lodge eco-adventure, your northern escape is waiting.  

Visit The Little Mermaid

Once upon a time, a Danish writer named Hans Christian Anderson entertained Scandinavian children with fantastic stories.  Some of these: The Emperor’s New Clothes, Princess and the Pea, The Tin Soldier became so popular they soon spread around the world.  His most popular story however was The Little Mermaid, a story about a mermaid who falls in love with a man.  So celebrated was this tale (and the tail itself) that in 1913, the city of Copenhagen dedicated a small statue to its honour.  Sitting just 4ft on an unremarkable rock off the Langelinie promenade, The Little Mermaid has become an icon of the city. 75% of all visitors to the city pay her a visit, especially on her birthday on August 23.    This year she turns 100 years old.  Although it has been vandalized and restored many times, the statue continues to symbolize the dream of love, and lonely it is to be a fish out of water. 

  • Quick Facts: Best Time to Visit:  June to August
  • Worst Time to Visit: January to March
  • Do:  Watch the sunset from the Langelinie promenade.  
  • Don’t: Expect to see Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid.

Top 10 Experiences in Copenhagen

  1. Visit Th Little Mermaid at sunset
  2. Take a ride inside the famous Tivoli Gardens
  3. Enjoy the shopping at Strøget, the world’s longest pedestrian street.
  4. Watch the guards on duty at the royal Amalienborg Palace
  5. Ride the wooden rollercoaster at Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park
  6. With over 3000 animals, Copenhagen’s Zoo is one of the world’s best
  7. Watch the stars from the Round Tower observatory, built in 1642
  8. Roam the colourful streets of Christiania
  9. Visit Noma, rated in 2021 as the world’s best restaurant
  10. Rent a bike to explore the city.

Meanwhile, in Canada…

Inspired by The Little Mermaid, Vancouver has its own girl perched on a harbour rock.  The Girl in the Wetsuit is located on the north side of Stanley Park.   Inspired by The Little Mermaid, sculptor Elek Imredy’s statue was unveiled in 1972.

The World’s Best Islands

Choosing the world’s best islands is like choosing the best songs of the 20th century.   There are so many hits, and there are so many incredible islands, blessed with fine white powder sand, turquoise water, pin-up palm trees.   Many are unoccupied or scarcely visited, while others, jammed with tourists, hold an unforgettable charm in our memories.  I selected these islands because they’re exquisite, unique, popular, and would do in any Greatest Island Hits compilation.    Post-Covid, it will be interesting to see how these destinations recover, and what other islands will make it onto the list.

Bali, Indonesia

It’s a small island with a big reputation for beauty, atmosphere, beaches, and cultural ceremonies.   Incredibly popular until the tragic terrorist attacks in 2002, Bali has thankfully recovered (2008 saw record numbers of visitors) because its people are optimistic, and you just can’t keep a good island down.   Blessed with terrific weather and a history that goes back 4000 years, the temples and rituals of the islands predominantly Hindu population are intoxicatingly exotic.   Beaches throughout the island, like the long stretch of Sanur located just minutes from the capital of Denpasar, offer a true glimpse of paradise.

Santorini, Greece

Greece presents many images, but none stay so firmly in my mind as the view over the nearby sunken volcanic island from my small, chalky-white hotel.  The most famed and most beautiful of the Greek Islands,  a big sky radiates off blue-domed churches and narrow streets, the smell of olive oil, wine, lavender and mint in the air. With a cheap bottle of good wine, I’d sit on my little deck and watch a perfect sunset every evening, a bouzouki playing in the distance, the wind warm and nourishing.  Crammed into the steep volcanic hills, there are thousands of such decks and tiny, excellent hotels in Santorini, and somehow privacy and romance is perfectly maintained.  Never mind its history, cuisine or beaches.  You come to Santorini for the views, and your heart stays for a lifetime. 

Kauai

Kauai, Hawaii

Those who love Hawaii will argue for their personal favourites, the less discovered isles, those that might be more dynamic.   Either way you cannot exclude Hawaii on this list, and according the various polls, Kauai beats out Maui, but only just.   Whenever I meet someone from Hawaii, there’s this twang of jealousy.   I grew up watching Magnum PI, and figured everyone must drive a red Ferarri, have hairy chests, and jet around in helicopters.    Not so the case, but the oldest of Hawaii’s islands does have an unparalleled reputation for lifestyle and beauty.  Striking canyons and mountains in the interior, surrounded with soft sandy beaches, the island might not have the bustle of Maui, but even Higgins would approve. 

New Caledonia

The South Pacific is littered with paradise islands.   Palm trees and squeaky white beaches, turquoise water, feasts of seafood – the only real difference between one or the other is where you’ve actually been, and the experience you’ve had.  I spent a week in New Caledonia, which is governed out of Paris as a department of France, and is therefore uniquely French.   Something about coupling freshly baked baguettes and Bordeaux wine (cheap, given the transport costs) with reggae-inspired views and tropical island beauty made me wonder:   If you can live in paradise (where everything works), earn a strong currency pegged to the euro (for freedom to travel), and live a lifestyle pegged to Robinson Crusoe (because we all need 18 hours of sleep a day), isn’t that epitome of island life?

Galapagos

How could I not include the Galapagos Islands, 1000km west of Ecuador, in a list such as this?   The entire chain, straddling the equator, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, heaving with animal and marine life you’ll find nowhere else on the planet.  It’s famously said that animals in the Galapagos have not evolved a natural fear of man, and the approachability of its natural species – from giant tortoises to hammerhead sharks – suggests a world where nature and man are finally in harmony.   Only one of the 14 islands allows is open to human habitation, and the preservation and protection of Darwin’s playground has ensured that anyone who visits, especially children, will leave inspired and profoundly connected to the natural world. 

Easter Island

As islands go, few hold the mystery and fascination of Rapa Nui, an island in the southeast Pacific, once home to a rich and prosperous civilization of the same name.   The monuments of their decline are the massive stone statues (moai) that peer eerily across the barren landscape, a landscape that was once lush and fertile.   As Jared Diamond argues in his excellent book Collapse, if we paid heed to the lessons of Easter Island, we can see how a society disintegrates due to greed, war, superstition, and most importantly, misuse of abundant natural resources.  For those lucky enough to visit the island, a territory of Chile, standing amongst the spooky, eternal moai is not only brazenly exotic, it forces us to think about the very traits that shape our humanity.  

Bermuda

Tropical islands attract the mega-rich, and the mega rich have long been attracted to Bermuda.   St John, St Lucia, Nevis, Anguilla, and other islands in the Caribbean island don’t slack in the wealth department either, but Bermuda’s history, offshore financial havens, and influx of tourism gives it one of the highest gross national incomes in the world. With no taxes, the cost of living here is amongst the highest in the world too.  But they did give us Bermuda shorts!    Home to numerous celebrities, the island offers the pre-requisite stunning pink-sand beaches, fine diving, fine dining, hotels , fishing and golf, with the old school colonial charm in the Town of St George. Is Bermuda better than other islands in the Caribbean?  Probably not, but it certainly aspires to be. 

Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada

With all these tropical islands, it’s telling that our own Vancouver Island and Cape Breton Island repeatedly make it into high-end travel magazines.  Conde Nast Traveler readers have ranked Vancouver Island as the top North American island since 2000, and it’s not because all their readers live in Victoria.   The size, remoteness, pristine tranquility and infrastructure of Canada’s best known islands set them apart, so while there’s always room for white sandy stretches, you’ll be hard pressed to find something as incredible as storm watching on Tofino’s Long Beach. Not to be outdone, Cape Breton topped Travel + Leisure’s Best Island to Visit in the USA/Canada in 2008, drawn to its natural character, wealth of outdoors activities, and unmistakable local colour.

Zanzibar

I stood outside the modest stone apartment where Freddie Mercury was born, and Stone Town, like the island itself, had rocked me indeed.   Located off the coast of Tanzania, this large island has a turbulent history, including the world’s shortest war, and being the centre of the spice and slave trade.  Ruled by Sultans from their magnificent House of Wonders, the lush tropical islands offer the modern visitor gorgeous beaches, spices, fruits, and more than a pepper shaker of African chaos.  Stone Town’s narrow streets feel like a movie set, the grime of a sordid yet rich history adding to the adventure. Before hotels and resorts took hold, I was able to camp in the northern powder beach of Nungwi, spending hours in the bath warm Indian Ocean, soaking up its unique spice-infused atmosphere. 

El Nido

Not so much an island as a chain of 45 limestone jewels, El Nido sits at the north of the province of Palawan, the largest island in the island nation known as the Philippines.  This is the region that inspired the movie and book “The Beach” even though both were set in Thailand.   With some of the world’s best diving, crystal water ,and environmentally friendly hotels, El Nido is an affordable paradise.  Best of all, you can sea kayak or get dropped off by traditional boat at your own island for a day.   Your own island?  Surely that’s one that will quickly race to the top of your own list of the World’s Best Islands. 

A big Esrock shout out to  to:  Bora Bora, Langkawi (Malaysia), Borneo, Hvar (Croatia), the Seychelles, Roatan (Honduras), Sicily (Italy), Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef Islands (Australia), Phi Phi (Thailand), and the Maldives!

Travel Books that Take You Places

Robin Esrock's favourite travel books

Until the vaccines win the race against the virus, we’re not going to be travelling like we could.  But we can travel in our imaginations, and certainly through the pages of some of my favourite all-time travel books. Although isn’t every book a “travel book?”   Transporting us to places near and far, across dimensions in time and space?   I confess my library is not nearly the wealth of knowledge it should be, but hopefully this will inspire just the start of your journey into the world of travel literature. 

Travel Books to Make You Laugh

Molvania – A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Stitch

Anyone who has ever clutched a Lonely Planet will wet themselves visiting the fictitious eastern European country of Molvania.  This Spinal Tap for guidebooks looks at hotels (“what it lacks in charm it makes up in concrete”), towns (“Vajana is a small city divided into quarters, of which there are three”), food  (“this thick liquor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, unless you’ve swallowed fabric conditioner”) and activities.   A follow up guidebook,Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring roasts a Southeast Asian country in similar fashion, as does San Sombrero which skewers Latin America .   Hilarious.

Our Dumb World – The Onion Atlas of the Planet Earth / The Daily Show Presents: Earth
Every country in the world gets punished in this gut-busting atlas and compendium that crunches stereotypes with typical Onion and Daily Show wit.  Politically incorrect at its best, we learn and laugh at the world, including the “Countries you thought were in Africa”, Czech Republic (Where People Go to Say They’ve Been), and Canada, which in the Onion Atlas is titled: “For the United States, See Pages 9-22.”  Sharp, ruthless, and essential humour with a global twist.


Travel Books to Understand a New World

A Fine Balance – By Rohinton Mistry
Midnight’s Children – By Salman Rushdie
Shantaram – By Gregory David Roberts

India is such an immense place, bursting with stories and sagas that define the human condition. There is a vast cannon of fantastic Indian literature, but my three favourite books are these above, drowning in characters that tunnel into your mind and heart. All epic in scope, by the time you put down these pages you will have transported your senses into the sub-continent, taste its spice on your tongue, smell the stenches in your nostrils. It’s not always fun, and the novels often take tragic twists that bring tears to the eyes, but the reward is the hope and unlikely beauty that manages to stay alive, on the pages, and in India itself.

Travel Books for the Adventurous

Dark Summit – By Nick Heil,
For everyone who enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (and there’s a lot of you), the true-life drama atop Mount Everest continues in this excellent read, recounting the eventful 2006 season in which more lives were tragically lost. Heil paints a stark mountain that seduces characters from around the world – seeking adventure, but receiving more than they bargained for. As more climbers continue to challenge Everest every year, gripping books like this bring us along for the journey, thankfully removed from the frostbite, avalanches, and dirty mountain politics.

The Beach – By Alex Garland
There’s a reason this book spawned a hit movie with Leonardo di Caprio. An English backpacker (Americanized for the movie) gets swept up in the search for the last untouched paradise island, a backpacker utopia, hidden from the masses. As we follow Richard’s adventure into love and life, things begin to unravel into a Lords-of-the-Flies-like mess, complete with psycho leaders, armed drug runners, hungry sharks and jealous boyfriends. Inspired by the islands in the Philippines, it has the fun edge of a thriller, while tapping into our desire to leave the beaten path, and go wherever the adventure leads us. Alex Garland has moved on and is now an accomplished film director, behind the thought-provoking sci-fi hits Ex Machina, Sunshine and Annihilation.

Full Moon over Noah’s Ark – By Rick Antonson
I live in a neighbourhood that’s inspired by explorers (with names like Cartier, Champlain, Explorers Walk, Compass Point etc). Across the road from me lived Rick Antonson, formerly the CEO of Tourism Vancouver, but these days a very well travelled and accomplished travel writer. Rick’s a fine and affable literary guide to take you on a journey to Timbuktu, Route 66, or in his latest book, Mount Ararat and beyond. Sadly, Rick moved out the neighbourhood a few years ago, but I’ll diligently hold his beer until he returns.

 

Travel Books to Inspire Knowledge

A Short History of Nearly Everything – By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most popular and beloved travel writers today, and you can’t really go wrong picking up any of his books. He’s also a terrific linguistics teacher (see his Mother Tongue), and a wonderful science teacher in this all-encompassing love letter to knowledge. Trust a travel writer to make learning about biology, geography, astronomy and other sciences accessible, engaging, and full of quirky characters. This book was a deserved hit years ago, but if you still haven’t read it, it’s well worth doing so.

Magicians of the Gods / The Sign and the Seal – By Graham Hancock
If there’s any one writer I have to credit with making me want to learn about the world, it’s this modern day academic Indiana Jones. A former writer for the Economist, Hancock has always been held in skeptic esteem for his bestselling theories about ancient civilizations (Magicians of the Gods / Fingerprints of the Gods), and the search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant (Sign and the Seal). Reading about his adventures, following his interviews and thorough research, it fired me up to want to visit South America and Ethiopia. Many historians scoff at Hancock’s theories of an “alternative history”, but he has inspired millions to learn more, challenge conventional wisdom, and book tickets to exotic destinations to find out more for ourselves. Myself very much included.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
A monster non-fiction hit, an Israeli professor unpacks the history of humanity with a striking clarity of thought, explaining big history and bigger concepts in a clear, concise and jarringly direct fashion (all the more remarkable since Harari is writing in his second language). If aliens land in the distant future and find this book buried in the ashes of what was once our civilization, it will likely explain everything. His follow up books, Homo Deux and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century are excellent reads too.

The Silk Road – By Peter Frankopan
I read a lot of history, and that’s another post altogether. The Silk Road makes it onto this list because it explains how geo-politics plays the long game, putting our current and brief time on Earth in a bigger context. Trade is being re-organized and powers are waxing and waning. China’s incredibly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is going to re-score the soundtrack of our planet. But it all has its routes on an ancient trade route that led to the birth and explosion of civilization as we know it. A terrific read.

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach
If you’ve yet to come across Mary Roach, you’re in for a treat. Writing first person with a breezy wit and insatiable curiosity (something I can truly appreciate), Mary has tackled some fascinating topics with her various books, including Bonk (sex), Stiff (human cadavers), Grunt (war) and Spook (the afterlife). Packing for Mars unpacks the nuts and bolts reality of space travel, which isn’t nearly as Star Trek as you imagine, and wilder than you’d think. Mary interviews experts and characters, digs deep into space poo and practicalities, and should be required reading for anyone with their head in the stars.

 

Travel Books to Escape

Jitterbug Perfume / Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas – By Tom Robbins
Put me on a long hot journey into some wild, parched land. Give me some water, a charged iPod, and a beaten Tom Robbins paperback, and you’ve rocked the Esrock.  With his unique approach to language, sharp wit, profound wisdom, and devotion to not taking things too seriously, Robbins is one of my favourite writers. His books usually follow a similar template: a brave (usually sexy) soul heads into the world to discover about life, the universe and anything, with aid from thinly disguised gurus, gods, and in some cases, inanimate objects. Creativity bursts from his pages, the turns of phrase stop you in your literal tracks. Wherever I find myself, reading and re-reading a Robbins novels inspires me to read more, write more, and most importantly, live more.

100 Years of Solitude / Love in the Time of Cholera – By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maybe it’s cliché to throw in these classics of South American magic realism, and if I had space I’d certainly add some Paulo Coelho and more Salman Rushdie. I’d pop in Kerouac’s On the Road for its impact on road trips, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and include some gifted modern travel writers like Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Rolf Potts, Tim Moore, and Colin Angus. Robert Kaplan, Glenn Dixon, Jules Verne, hell, throw in Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries while we’re there. And where on this list is space for two of my biggest travel writing influences, Hunter S Thompson and PJ O’ Rourke?

Writing any book is no easy task. I salute the efforts of anyone who strives to write about exciting new worlds, and to all those that choose to read their hard-spun efforts.
And since we’re on the topic, I should also suggest my favourite all time, most inspiring, life-changing travel books. I include them here without any bias whatsoever. Maybe a little.

The Evolution of Homesick

​It was December 25th, and we were exploring a beachside village on the island of Zanzibar. The weather was perfect, the sandy beach endless, the sunset epic, and I remember my girlfriend at the time being utterly miserable. It was Christmas Day in paradise, but she was homesick. Literally: feeling ill in her longing for the comfort of her home and family.

Homesickness doesn’t impact every traveller, but those that suffer from it can do so acutely. It accentuates the strangeness and uneasiness of being in a foreign place, causing mild distress to full-blown depression. There have been few academic studies about the topic, mostly addressing the situation of college students leaving home, or with the aim to help immigrants or expats adjust and settle. In the world of tourism, the fail-safe remedy is shoulder-shrug obvious: if you get homesick easily, don’t leave home. Still, homesickness can ambush even veteran travellers from one day to the next, onset by family events and occasions, guilt, and even weather. Away from the sunshine of the nest, it’s easy to idealize family gatherings, the embrace of a parent, or the warm taste of home-cooking. Life-long travellers with ants in their underpants (myself included) certainly miss home, but tend to view its absence as the cost of adventure. Like any endeavour into the unknown, sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not.

Like so many other cultural phenomena, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the concept of homesickness inside out. Confined to our homes and immediate localities, it’s understandable that many of us are now getting sick of staying home. We’ve binge watched Netflix and read books, completed the long-delayed home renovation, transformed cluttered dens into exercise, yoga, meditation or reading nooks. We’ve acquired pets, puzzles, games, and creative projects. We’ve explored nearby urban parks, camped in the woods, ordered in, baked bread, picked up an instrument, banged pots, and gone a little overboard with holiday lights and Halloween decorations. We’ve painted and potted, minimized and maximized, shopped for deals and donated old furniture. We’ve made craft pickles, played cards, slam-dunked a three-pointer in wastebasket basketball, and let loose in our living room discos. There’s been board games, bored games, and borrowed games. Zoom drinks and Zoom birthdays, Zoom conferences and Zoom concerts. Our homes have transformed, having to accommodate an increasingly restless desire to get out and do something already. These past twelve months may have been heaven for homebodies, but once the novelty wore off, the compass is pointing further south for the rest of us.

Homesick has a new definition: we’re no longer feeling sick for the longing of home, but rather, we’re sick of spending too much time at home. As winter settles into its longest stretch, my desire for a change of scenery is becoming acute, and my memories of travels – from the Amazon to Zanzibar – fade and fog. It’s just one of the reasons why I believe the 20’s are going to roar louder than many a decade that has come before. We will soon take our first tentative steps into the post-pandemic world, and once we feel the ground as solid as we remember it, expect confetti to explode. Few will pine to go Home for a Rest, rather: we’ll flee with unabashed glee, chasing the Spirit of the West, East, North and South. And while we’ll always long for the comfort and familiarity of our homes, reversing the meaning of the word “homesick” may ultimately end up being the best treatment for those who still suffer from it.

Swim in the Devil’s Pool

Before the advent of blogs or digital photos, my travel journals contained:

  • Random thoughts and observations
  • Flight stubs and train tickets
  • Napkins with names and address of people I’d never see again
  • Stickers, brochures and hand-outs
  • Printed photographs
  • A smattering of ketchup (hopefully) or blood (likely)

I once travelled with a guy who kept the same journal for almost a decade. He’d tape additional books together and write in tiny script. This impressive travel diary was his Bible, an invaluable historical record of his complete life adventures.   It was stolen, along with his backpack, off the roof of a bus somewhere between Transylvania and Budapest.     What the hell does this have to do with Victoria Falls?   Well, I once had a journal, and it contained the most incredible photograph of me jumping off the very lip of the world’s largest waterfall. Twice the height and width of Niagara Falls, more water falls into the chasm dividing Zambia and Zimbabwe than anywhere else.   It’s not the world’s highest waterfall (that’s Angel Falls in Venezuela), nor even the widest (that’s Khone Falls, Laos).   Yet the sheer volume of the mighty Zambezi has attracted Bucket Listers for centuries, drawn to a place the locals call “the smoke that thunders”. Traditionally, most tourists to Vic Falls stay in colonial hotels on the Zimbabwean side, but with the country’s political and economic collapse, many now prefer the Zambian side. Hotels and tour operators in both countries are known to gouge their guests for the privilege of seeing this natural wonder, including a day-visa which allows you to cross borders for the views, at a price of around 40,000 Zambian kwachas, or ten gazillion Zimbabwe dollars.   Actually, Zimbabwe’s currency was abandoned altogether, rendering all its notes worthless. Inflation reached 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000% in 2008.   And I didn’t even make that number up.   In both countries, where the US greenback goes very far, you’ll pay up to $80 just to see Victoria Falls. No more bitching about prices to cruise under Horseshoe Falls in Niagara.

I visited the Zambian side in December, the tail end of dry season. With the Zambezi flowing at low volume, you can walk to Livingstone Island, and then make your way to the Devil’s Pool.   Here, a rock barrier creates a pool right at the very edge of the falls. Much to the horror of tourists on the Zimbabwe side, you can even go rock jumping. Across the chasm, tourists can’t see the pool, and must therefore watch what appear to be tourists committing suicide.   This close to the edge, you don’t have to worry about crocodiles or strong currents, although the occasional tourist has gotten a bit overzealous, missed the pool, and found themselves visiting Zimbabwe without a visa, or a heartbeat. If swimming to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall isn’t enough of a thrill, you can also bungee jump 111-metres off Victoria Falls Bridge, once the highest commercial bungee in the world.   Or spend $500 a night at the Royal Livingstone, a hotel bill that is sure to give you a heart attack. Zimbabwe is a country with abundant natural resources, and a country that once promised much hope for sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, a corrupt, crackpot dictator bled it dry. A common joke in South Africa: Where is the capital of Zimbabwe?   Geneva.

I’d love to illustrate this chapter with that epic, once-in-a-lifetime photo of me rock jumping into the Devil’s Pool. We set it up so it looks like I’m actually leaping off Victoria Falls itself. Much like Zimbabwe’s economy, that travel journal mysteriously vanished, along with the photos, the writing, contacts and splotches of ketchup.   It pains me to even think about it. Fortunately, you’ll never forget Victoria Falls, even if you do lose your journal. Nor should you forget any of the Bucket List adventures in this book, although you might want to keep an online blog and back up your photos all the same.

Click here for more information about visiting Victoria Falls.

10 Underrated European Cities

Europe can get pretty crowded in summer, especially that Europe.  You know, the Europe that is getting tons of heat because of record-breaking heat waves, and record-breaking tourism.  Crowds jamming into Paris and Dubrovnik and Venice and Barcelona leading to hot-topic debates about overtourism and the impact of people travelling the world, ticking off their bucket lists.   But not all Europe gets overly crowded.  There’s plenty of gems that don’t lie too far off the beaten track.  Places that are a lot less crowded, often a lot cheaper, but just as accessible.  Take a gander with me to these 10 underrated European cities, and you’ll see what I mean.

Image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay

Bergen, Norway

A city located in the south of Norway, Bergen has a thriving arts, music and cultural scene. Hosting one of the world’s first symphony orchestras, various galleries and theatres, it is surrounded by seven mountains and some of Norway’s most breathtaking fjords. The old harbour, Bryggen, is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and its Hanseatic buildings are one of Norway’s most recognizable landmarks. Medieval churches and buildings abound, and with its narrow streets and alleyways the city still has a small-town atmosphere. Students and locals fill the cafes, bars and coffee shops, especially in the summer months.   There are direct flights from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Image by Pablo Valerio from Pixabay

Cadiz, Spain

This city in southern Spain is one of the oldest in all Europe, with a history stretching back 3000 years. Resting on a peninsular that juts into the Bay of Cadiz, it’s a terrific walking city, with an easygoing atmosphere. The Old Town is located all within blocks of the coastline, and is packed with people and connecting plazas, the most beautiful being the 19th century Plaza de Mina.   Besides old churches, watchtowers and even a Roman theatre, Cadiz also has some gorgeous beaches.   La Playa de la Caleta is amongst the most popular, located in the Old Town between two old castles.   With its prominent boulevard, you might mistake it for the malecon in Havana. In fact, the two cities share much in common, and Cadiz has even doubled for Havana in the movies.

Image by Carina Chen from Pixabay

Galway, Ireland

On the west coast of Ireland is one of the country’s fastest growing city, Galway. With a long history stretching back to medieval times, the city is called Ireland’s Cultural Heart and hosts year-round festivals and celebrations.   Traditional Irish music bursts from taverns and pubs, and nearly 10% of the city speaks the traditional Irish Gaeltacht language. This is one of the reasons it is known as being the most Irish of all cities. With two large universities, student as well as Irish culture spills onto the streets, parks and markets. There are some striking old churches, most notably the Galway Cathedral and Church of St Nicholas, and several old castles, towers and homesteads in the vicinity.

Image by randyjournalism from Pixabay

Cluj Napoca, Romania

The unofficial capital of Transylvania and 4th largest city in Romania, the history of Cluj Napoca dates back to the 2nd century AD. Today, it is a vibrant university and cultural town, centred around the gothic St Michael’s Church built in the 14th century. Cluj, along with Transylvania itself, has historically been caught between Romanian and Hungarian cultures, and both cultures are prevalent.   Besides a strong art and performance scene, Cluj has a rocking nightlife and live music scene, enjoyed by the largest student population in the country. One smoky bar I visited had the kind of art and avant-garde music that reminded me of New York. Don’t miss the short walk up Fortress Hill, for a fantastic view over the city, and a cold beer in one of the outdoor cafes.

Image by 680451 from Pixabay

Tallinn, Estonia

The Baltic capitals don’t get nearly as much attention as they should, especially in the summer.   Latvia’s Riga, Lithuania’s Vilnius and especially Tallinn are the essence of old world European charm.  Tallinn’s old town is exceptionally well preserved, its cobblestone alleys and squares a sharp contrast to the Soviet-era new town (indeed, its ferry terminal to nearby Helsinki looks like a concrete bunker). Besides exploring the arts, crafts, bars and shops in the old town, there’s some interesting museums like the Museum of Occupation, recalling life under Soviet rule, and the rather morbid Museum of Medieval Torture. There’s also an open-air museum, various parks and beaches, and excellent traditional restaurants, particularly around Raekoja plats.

Image by Martin Lazarov from Pixabay

Sofia, Bulgaria

The Bulgarian capital is another city that bears evidence of millennia old history mixed with Communist-era functionality. Most of its iconic attractions can be discovered on foot, radiating out from the central traffic hub towards the inner ring road.   Sofia’s most famous attractions are the St Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, the 11th century Boyana Church and the early Byzantium Church of St Sofia.   Sofianites enjoy their large, forested parklands, the oldest and best known being Tsar Boris’s Garden.   The city also is also close to a fully developed ski resort on Vitosha Mountain, which provides a striking backdrop to the city, and is popular with hikers and mountain bikers in the summer months.

Image by O12 from Pixabay

Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic

Much like the more famous Czech capital Prague, Ceský Krumlov boasts a fairy-tale old town, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 300 protected medieval buildings, the town is built around its famous 13th century Ceský Krumlov Castle. The castle complex consists of 40 buildings and palaces, with beautiful gardens, courtyards and a moat. Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture line the streets of the town, which feature museums, galleries and bars serving that famous Czech beer. During summer, take a boat or kayak on the adjacent Vltava River, or if you’re feeling adventurous, head further up river for some white river rafting.

Image by falco from Pixabay

Tbilisi, Georgia

The capital of Georgia is much like the country itself: off-the-beaten-track, fascinating, and exceptionally welcoming. The Old City has been restored and is lined with funky bars and restaurants. Georgian cuisine is something to experience – hot cheese breads, eggplant, meats, herb salads, and plenty of homemade wine to wash it down with.   Overlooking the city is the medieval Narikala Fortress, which has a great view of the city and adjacent Mtkvari River. There’s a number of striking cathedrals and squares, and a metro system to get around. Don’t miss the Abanotubani Sulfur Baths, which date back hundreds of years, and sit beneath picturesque egg-shell domes.

Image by traveldudes from Pixabay

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Little Slovenia is an undiscovered gem in Central Europe, and its capital city of Ljubljana is one of the smallest capital cities on the continent. Ljubljana is quintessentially European – cobblestones, churches, squares, canals, outdoor cafes, parks, bicycle lanes – with a tiny dash of an alternative art scene, and thousands of well dressed students. Parts of the city, pronounced Yoobli-yana, reminded me of St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest.  In summer, outdoor cafés along the Ljubljanica river canal are full, with people crossing over lovely archway bridges. The Old Town is well preserved and a great place to explore local artisans. Check out the Dragon Bridge, and the views from Ljubljana Castle.   It’s easy city to get around. Rent a bike and enjoy the ample bike lanes and parks.

Image by Martin Lazarov from Pixabay

Skopje, North Macedonia

Skopje is the capital and heart of the little known (and newly christened) Republic of North Macedonia. Prized for its strategic location by empires throughout the ages, the city was all but destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1963, and feels like it has never stopped rebuilding. There is still a strong legacy of Communist-style concrete buildings, but also medieval fortresses, bridges and churches. The Stone Bridge, built in the 1400’s, connects the busy Macedonia Square to the Old Bazaar. The Old Town is a blend of East and West, featuring churches, mosques, Turkish baths, and a vibrant market that dates back to the 15h century. There are also various statues and museums dedicated to Mother Theresa, who was born in the city.

Magic in Tokyo

 

So Tokyo.

In the largest urban area in the world, 38 million people run riot in a pop culture explosion, and everyone dresses absolutely, utterly, fantastic.  With my backpack and jeans, I felt like I crashed a wedding, but instead, I had just arrived in Tokyo.

As the airport bus made its way over snaking bridge highways into the city, I peered into the square windows of endless office buildings.   Every floor was full of desks, and every desk was full of people. Uniforms of black suits and ties looked mandatory. Even with its bizarre, techno-fantasy sub-cultures, with haircuts that ascend to works of art, the Japanese are distinctly homogenous.  Everyone I met seemed to loved baseball, vending machines, gadgets, toilets with buttons, and soy sauce.

Instead of Bill Murray advertising Suntory Whiskey (as he did in the movie Lost in Translation) I saw billboards plastered with an airbrushed, distinguished Richard Gere peddling a hotel chain.    Taxi drivers wore white gloves, opened the door for me, and turned off the meter if they got lost.   People donned surgical masks because they have colds, and don’t want others to get their germs.  For the bustling, busiest city on earth, it is bewildering to discover how considerate everyone is.    No garbage, no horns, no rough-shouldering, low crime.   Nobody makes eye contact, except for foreigners, who kept looking at me like I’d stumbled into a restaurant above my station.      Politeness, calm, order, Tokyo offers every modern convenience you can think of, and all the ones you can’t.

Subway Spaghetti

After an earthquake practically destroyed the city in 1923, the rebuilt Tokyo was practically destroyed again by US bombers in WW2.  Modern Tokyo spawned forth with little planning and direction, as buildings sprung up wherever there was space, although this time, most were equipped to deal with another earthquake.   As such, the Tokyo skyline is full of random skyscrapers, and you’re just as likely to find a Vivian Westwood boutique in an alley as a garbage dump.   This makes exploring the city so much fun; from the intensely crowded boulevards to the narrow streets that cut behind the buildings, you can stumble across anything. Galleries, restaurants, gadget shops, boutiques, hair-stylists, markets, “men’s clubs” – all carefully designed, well-lit, modern and addicted to neon signage.

The Harajuku Girls and Me

Tokyo’s subway system is famously labyrinthine, and at rush hour it felt like all 26 million people were trying to get on the same train. Conductors physically cram people into the carriage before the train pulls off. I decided to visit the famous Harajuku girls, who come in from the suburbs dressed in their finest gothic-S&M-punkware. Unabashed creative expression was everywhere; leather-clad dancing Elvis’s, teenage bands at Yoyogi Park, pom-pom schoolgirls, not to mention the thousands of themed karaoke bars.   Even the ubiquitous vending machines looked like colorful forms of public art. Tradition is still on display at beautiful temples around the city, the oldest being the Sensoji Temple, built in 628. The Emperor’s Palace meanwhile, is a green lung breathing zen tranquility into the urban mayhem that surrounds it.

The Dancing Elvis’s

Buildings have floors of bars, restaurants and private clubs, many off-limits to geijins, as foreigners are called. I discovered one linen closet called the Joker Bar, in which the bar staff performed magic tricks for a tiny rotating clientele.  The cover charge was only slightly more than a ticket to see David Copperfield in Vegas.  With space at a premium, Tokyo doesn’t come cheap. And good luck with asking for help in English. You would think the language barrier would be low in such a cosmopolitan city, but I found most signs, menus, and people, to be strictly Japanese.

Magic at the Joker Bar

While they have adopted many customs of the west and are clearly fascinated with American culture in particular, the Japanese have added their quirks and beliefs to create a modern, stylish world unlike any other. Next visit however, I’ll make sure to dress for the occasion.