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.  

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!

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.

Visit the New Seven Wonders of the World

In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World.   These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza – only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.

2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the new7wonders.com domain name was still available.  While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry.  The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouse-click of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi.  UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating:  “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”  Ouch.  Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.

Chichen Itsa

Chichen Itsa

Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge.     The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan.   The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us.   I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.

Great Wall of China


Great Wall of China

There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space.   Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours.  I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling.  From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers.   Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower.  Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself.  Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in.  Mao famously said:  “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.”

Petra’s Treasury

The Treasury in Petra

You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabatean ruin.   Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever.   Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.

Chris the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow.  On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervour, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests.  On the other, there is no hot-damn way it belongs anywhere near this list.  The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy.  Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead.   As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global centre of finance.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum 

Many years ago  I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours.   By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable.   I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour.   When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both.  There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks.   Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly.   The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles.  Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

 

The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re  in Japan.   It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it.  Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Machu Picchu lit up in the morning sun.  Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination.  A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart.  I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj.   Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s.   Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas.   To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile.   “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip.   Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation.  Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern.   Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.

Giza, Cairo

Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list.   Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps).  After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be   “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway.  This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.

***

Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head?    Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression.    In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.   

 

 

The Best Dives in Kauai



Divemaster Sabine Templeton, a native of Washington DC, surveys the spacious lower deck of the 48ft Anela Kai. She’s been working for Seasport Divers – a multiple award-winning dive shop headquartered in Kauai’s Poipu Beach – for three years. As usual, it’s a mostly male affair, with 11 guys from the mainland, a fellow divermaster Ryan, and Captain Andrew, a skipper who has navigated these warm Pacific waters for over 16 years. I amble up to Sabine:
“I might not look like it, but I’m actually a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Those girls are awesome,” she replies excitedly, “but wait, you’re a guy!”
“Maybe, but since Margo and Stephanie taught me everything I know underwater, I dive like a Scuba Diver Girl.”
“Oh, then you’ll have more fun then.”


It takes 2.5 hours with the swell for the boat to make its way along the west Kauai coastline towards the islands Ni’ihau and Lehua. Fellow divers tell me that it doesn’t get any better in all Hawaii. Some of them are repeat customers from years past. The islands and reef have few indigenous inhabitants, and are protected and revered. Seascape only runs excursions to Ni’ihau from late spring to early fall, when the swells and currents get too strong. Today is the last run of the season, and due to surge, entry and exit will be drift dives. Everyone will be using Nitrox, allowing us to go longer and deeper than normal air. It’s both my first drift and Nitrox dive, and I couldn’t wait to get underwater.




First site, the Lehua Ledge, sitting off the small island Lehua adjacent to the much larger Niihau. Seconds in the water, I’m being stared at by a large monk seal, an endangered pinniped that lives around these waters. As I descend, I encounter a huge school of colorful Pyramid Butterfly Fish. Below me on the shelf, I see the shadow of a large Sand Bar shark, gracefully vanishing into the shadows. Other highlights on the first dive: A Yellow Margin Moray, Tritan’s Trumpet, a Crown of Thorns, and endemic Bandit Angels.


The next dive is at a pinnacle known as Vertical Awareness. My Nitrox is at 32%, and I am relieved that it tastes just like regular air. I descend to 90ft, making my way around the large outcrop. Sabine had told me to expect amazing topography, and she wasn’t fibbing. We see Pennant Butterflies, a Stout Moray, a huge Titan Scorpion Fish, an endemic Hawaiian Lionfish, and a cool red-striped nudibranch. Although the water is a comfy 79 degrees, I pass through some cold thermoclines, as a powerful surge sweeps me along. There’s a reason why this dive is seasonal. Captain Andrew sees me not far from Sabine’s bright orange safety sausage, and picks me up as divers continue to pop up all over the surface.




Lunch is a fresh spread of meats, veggies and salads, as divers share obligatory tales. Sabine tells me she’s had some clients who look down on a female divemaster, but that everyone is usually respectful when it comes down to it.




The best is saved for last, a drift dive to a spot called Pu’u Mu’u. It’s my introduction to underwater caves, and while one diver ends his dive early with claustrophobia, I absolutely love it. Reflective bubbles of air gather on the cave ceiling like mercury, as my flashlight reveals so much life and color. Black coral hangs from the walls, along with Cauliflower and Leather coral. Deeper into the rock, Purple Spiny Lobster and big Tiger Cowry shells are amazing to see, as I ebb towards a series of spectacular swimthroughs. It has not been long since the SDG introduced me to the life aquatic in Papua New Guinea, but I’m continually amazed at the diversity and inspiration every dive seems to deliver.


The swells pick up as we return to Poipu, even as Bottlenose and Spinner dolphins gather around the boat. It will be another season before Seasport resume this incredible dive, but there’s plenty of others on Kauai to keep them, and us, busy in the meantime.


Seasport Divers are located on in Poipu Beach, on the southern side of Kauai. They have been in operation for 25 years, and founder Marvin Otsuji is a local diving legend. Dives to Ni’ihau run twice a week late spring to early autumn.


Robin used the following gear:

Scuba Pro Classic BC with Air II

MK25 – A700 Scuba Pro Regulator

Oceanic Veo NX Computer

Atomic Full Foot Split Fins

Aqualung Look 2 Mask

10 Tips for Healthy Travel in India

If the thought of squatting over a hole for days on end is holding you back on one of the most incredible journeys of your life, I urge you to read this. For it is possible to travel extensively in India and not get a case of Delhi (or Rishikesh, or Anjuna, or anywhere) Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent a month in the country, and while travellers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy. This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. Our digestive system just isn’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the sub-continent. Over time, it will adjust, but for travellers, here’s Robin’s 10-step plan to prevent a messy disaster:

1. Don’t drink tap water: Obviously, enough said. Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists buy bottled water straight out of the tap. Most packaged water is fine, just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And importantly, watch out for ice in drinks.

2. Don’t eat meat: India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking vegetables has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork or chicken, even though it is widely available. Relish the veggie curries, and stay clear of potentially contaminated meats.

3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese:  Cheese is heaven for nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice. Paneer is fine – it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be OK, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.

4. Don’t eat eggs:  Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will probably tie your intestine into a sailor knot.

5. Don’t drink milk:  For some reason, most travellers deal well with lassi, the delicious yoghurt-based drink. It has been known to be mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgement. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour, take your coffee black.

6. Don’t eat fish unless you see it caught and cooked: On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make sure that’s the case first. Uncooked or fish left standing in the heat too long is going to mount an all out attack on your immune system.

7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables, peel your fruit: Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical. Peeling fruit is a wise choice. If you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.

8. Eat in restaurants that cater to tourists/wealthier Indians: A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself recommended in the guidebooks. When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who have come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine. I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals, just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.

9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and especially before eating: Just like your momma taught you.

10. Trust Your Gut: You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you can meet travellers who don’t follow any of this and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of having an awesome experience. India is no place for Nervous Nellies. The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.

Swimming in the Devil’s Pool over Victoria Falls

Credit: Flickr CC Joep yrek-Flickr-CC—flic.kr_p_dDAkks

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: Where is the capital of Zimbabwe? Geneva.

I’d love to illustrate this post with an 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. Unfortunately, much like Zimbabwe’s economy, that travel journal mysteriously vanished, along with the photo in question (and so many more), the writing, and contacts of new travel friends. 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 on this site, although you might want to keep an online blog and back up your photos all the same.

Submerge in Colombia’s Mud Volcano of Youth

by Robin Esrock

This is one is straight out of Willy Wonka’s sweet imagination. About an hour’s drive outside of Cartagena lies a natural phenomenon known as the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, a mud volcano with thick, mineral-rich chocolate-textured mud bubbling in its crater. Formed by various geological forces, mud volcanoes are found around the world, free of hot lava, but saturated with sedimentary sludge. There are several volcanoes featured in this book, and Bucket Listers should take great care not to fall into their craters. This particular volcano, on the other hand, wants us to jump right in.

Locals have long enjoyed the benefits of El Totumo. Lately the crater has been seeing a lot more foreign bodies, making the journey from the cruise port of Cartagena. First, dispel the image of Mount Doom. This is no lava-crackling cone towering in the distance, shooting gases and molten rock into the sky. In fact, when you first encounter the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, it looks like an overgrown termite hill, or a fifteen metre-high pile of elephant dung. More than one Bucket Lister will shake his or her head disappointed, wondering if this is just another tourist scam, a two-bit natural wax museum. Well don’t judge a book by its cover, a volcano by its lava, or a Colombian taxi driver by his choice of car (trust me on that last one).

I climb a slippery path to the top, holding onto rickety wooden beams, quickly ascending high enough to gaze across lush tropical vegetation and a tranquil lagoon below. Several thatch huts at the base offer blessed shade from a scorching equatorial sun. Volcan de Lodo is operated by an association from a nearby village, the villagers rotating duties of collecting entrance fees, selling water, offering massages (for tips) or lagoon rinses (for more tips). The crater itself is the size of a small pool, if you can imagine a small pool full of dark, creamy mousse. I arrive early, before the crowds, and a single villager beckons me in. The sun is already beating down hard, so I hang my shirt on the wood, and eagerly immerse myself in the cool, thick slop. I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original, not the remake) and I’ve always fantasized about swimming in a pool of milk chocolate. Not anymore. This mud is so thick it suspends my body like a hair gel, comfortably invading my pores with natural mineral goodness. Solid enough to lie back and support my head, the crater is deep enough to stretch out in every direction and relax every muscle in my body. Within seconds I’m a mud creature, the unexposed pink skin around my eyes resembling shortcake in a chocolate pie. A mousse masseuse effortlessly spins me over and roughly exfoliates my back by rubbing his hands up and down. Like most Colombians I have met, he is only too eager to share his culture’s genuine hospitality.

Refreshingly cool in the mid-morning sun, the mud envelops my body like liquid black latex. Buses of tourists arrive, and the small crater quickly fills up, a bowl of black-bean soup with floating white potatoes. A splash of mud gets in my eye, but fortunately another villager is on hand to wipe it away with some tissue paper. Tugging on our arms and legs, the masseuse parks us around the crater, making sure everyone gets a spot. After thirty minutes, the mud has sucked up whatever toxins it could find, and I begin to feel lightheaded. Emerging from the silt porridge, I make my way down to the adjacent lagoon where village women await with tin bowls for the messy clean up. My rinse-lady is fearless. She dunks me into the warm lagoon, scrubs me with her hands, and before I know it she’s ripped off my shorts too. Female tourists yelp as they cling to their bikinis for dear life. Within seconds, I’m mud-free and, after awkwardly replacing my shorts beneath the water, emerge from the lagoon with rejuvenated skin glistening in the sunshine.

Local legend calls this the “Volcano of Youth”, where a fifty year-old might enter the crater, and leave twenty years younger. Whatever the medical or mythical benefits of this volcano may be, it’s most certainly one for the Global Bucket List.