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.

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.

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.

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.