You can Yucatan

In which our writer exits a snake pit in search of authentic Mexico….

Apparently, some posh hotels in Cancun will tell you that Cancun means “end of the rainbow.”  In Mayan, Cancun actually means “snake pit”, and I can see why.   My airport shuttle scuttles past major brand resorts and a dozen hotels that look exactly like them (although one did look tremendously, and somewhat appropriately, phallic). In my airport transfer van are four couples on honeymoon.  Using non-existent Spanish, I ask the driver if he knows the weather forecast. This involves me making splashing sounds, blowing wind, and pretending to sunbathe, badly. My fellow passengers do their best to ignore me. “Senor,” says Jose, for that is the name on his badge, ” it will rain for 11 days.” The shuttle lovers react like someone has punched them in the armpit. “Good thing I’m leaving in the morning then,” I say proudly, irritating the lovers no end.    No disrespect to the desires of honeymooners, but this month, I came to experience some real Mexico.

I want to see the Yucatan, and the real Yucatan is out of Cancun.   You’ll get a small taste of it when you get on an air-conditioned bus, blown away by the  badly dubbed American action movie blaring at top volume.   Then you’ll stop at the global bucket list landmark of Chichen Itsa: that giant Mayan pyramid sitting in a jungle clearing as an incredibly accurate cosmic calendar.   We’re in Mayan country, still the largest indigenous group in Mexico, although a shadow of the mighty empire that ruled these parts before the Spanish invasion.     Besides their astronomy, city-states, and massive stone temples, Mayans also invented a precursor to soccer, basketball, and tennis called Pok-Atok –  the sound of a ball against their long, walled ball courts.   The captain of the winning team would be sacrificed, a rather strange incentive to compete. They also sacrificed children born on August 6-10, once they reached the age of 4 to 12.  Happy birthday, now… we rip your heart out!  

Pok-Atok: a precursor to basketball, with less bounce and more human sacrifice

Human sacrifice was viewed by Mayans as an honour, but history points to a large, lowly population working for an elite class of priests who forbade them to look at the stars (they had to use mirror pools of water) or even to use the wheel. Sacrifice kept the masses in place, with lucky heads rolling down the steps of the pyramids, and evidence suggests that bodies dumped into the nearby water sinkholes, or cenotes, ultimately poisoned the community’s drinking supply.  People were dying, so to appease the gods more people were sacrificed, their bodies dumped into the wells, and soon enough everyone is either dying or being sacrificed, and it’s hasta luego to the powerful empire that once ruled Chichen Itsa. 

Any visit to the region has to include the other cenotes, found outside the disarmingly charming colonial city of Merida.   These cave pools are sparklingly clean, and outrageously fun to swim in.  To find them, I take a one-hour bus ride, passing small Mayan villages where heat bakes the earth, and toothy kids play traditional games in the streets.   Nobody appears taller than 5ft, and the tallest buildings are bright, white churches.     From the bus stop, it’s an adventurous horse ride along a narrow gauge rail to the first sinkhole, warm and clear, where I see catfish swimming below.  A wooden platform lets visitors dive into the blue water, as deep and bright as if someone has poured in that colour therapy bath stuff you buy at hippy stores.    I visit three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling.  Giant roots from a tree above descend through the limestone, and one cave has a small opening for a 12m plummet into the dark water below. Perfect for thrill-seeking and rock jumping, just mind your cajones!

Merida at night

Montezuma’s Revenge be damned! Tacos, enchiladas, milanesas, hundreds of varieties of chili, and you can’t go wrong with food in the Yucatan. I finally learn the difference between a burrito and an enchilada. Enchiladas are made with corn wraps and burritos with flour wraps. Now you know too.

Compared to Chichen Itsa, the jungle ruins of Palenque feel more authentic, a tad more Indiana Jones, a little less Disney. The view of the surrounding jungle from atop Palenque sets it apart.  Here I learn more about Mayan rituals and practices, including head flattening, and the Mongolian Spot – a birthmark linking Mayans to Mongolian nomads.  Another loud bus ride drops me off in St Cristobal de las Casas, once a volatile Zapatista stronghold, now a leafy, colourful postcard.  This is the launch pad to visit the Mayan villages of Chamula and Zinacantan for a fascinating cultural encounter.   Where else will you see live chickens sacrificed in a church, or Coca-Cola worshipped along with the Saints?    The bizarre evolution and integration of Christianity into Mayan paganism has created a spectacle, to be witnessed respectfully (or else shamans will confiscate your cameras).

The ruins of Palenque

Late night salsa dancing in the bars, taco-gorging in cheap taco-joints – you can drown me in swamps of guacamole and flash-floods of lime-soaked beer, but not in the Rio Grande.   One final adventure has me speeding its waters on a boat beneath the 1km high cliffs of the dramatic Sumidero Canyon.  Mayans once jumped off the edges here rather than being slaves to the Spanish, and it’s a long, long way down.   I see a large crocodile swimming just 50m upriver from children playing in the river. The cocodrillo is clearly not into Mexican food the way I am.  A guide is machine-gunning facts in Spanish, so I sit back, and just appreciate that I’m out of the hotel bubble, exposed to a culture unique to the world, and surrounded by a beauty that is authentically, and distinctly, Mexico.

Visit The Little Mermaid

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

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

Top 10 Experiences in Copenhagen

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

Meanwhile, in Canada…

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

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.

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.

Statues and Circus in Riga

Eight hundred thousand people live in the Latvian capital of Riga, and just about all of them dress like rock stars. Besides the stylish leather boots and new-wave haircuts, it’s as if someone poured a bucket of blonde paint over their heads, etched in sharp angles for cheekbones, and used only the tallest canvas for the portrait of a typical Latvian. If the locals look good, the buildings do too. Riga is the capital of Art Nouveau, the 18th century art and architecture movement that aspired to break rules. Although much was damaged during World War II, today the city has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere. I’ve never been a massive building nut, so my expectations were less than stellar when I heard that legendary Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein’s dad built one of the most ambitious Art Nouveau buildings ever. Until I saw it.

What possesses a Victorian-era aristocrat to design a building with such unusual vision, laden with science-fiction motifs amongst archways and sculptures time-warped in from the future?   What made him sculpt the large heads of a King and Queen, staring into opposite corners, sitting above the building as if it were merely a chess piece? And who, in their right mind, would pony up the cash for this grand, far-fetched creative endeavour? I’m awed by the modern architectural thought behind Dubai’s developments, but they don’t compete with the sheer wackiness on display in Riga. On Albert Street, admiring the attention to detail caused my neck to ache, staring at the sphinxes, naked muses, or even faces screaming in agony. With the right lighting, Albert Street would be a perfect set for Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Metropolis and Batman – at the same time, without changing any of the facades. As it stands, many of these buildings are mere apartment blocks, with “For Rent” sales displayed outside. Some are crumbling with time; some are magnificently restored (including the Irish, French and Russian Embassies). Building-watching provides a good morning out, only slightly eclipsed by that other passion of mine – people watching.

A great place for that was at one of the world’s oldest running circuses.   For well over a century, the Riga Circus has been housed in a somewhat decrepit old building permeated with a century of laughter, acrobatics, and animal tricks.   It’s not very politically correct to talk about the circus these days, but I believe there are bad people and there are good people, and there are bad circuses and there are good circuses, the latter treating what few animals they still employ with utmost love and respect in a mutually beneficial relationship. The only way I could find out if Riga Circus fits into this category was to go and see it.

A highlight was meeting Aleksandrs Slaugotnis, a legendary Russian clown who has been wearing face paint for 37 years. He was trained by Oleg Popov, which in Clown World is the equivalent of saying you were trained by Michelangelo. Watching Aleksandrs apply his smile and red makeup to his nose (“I don’t need a clown’s nose, my face is funny enough,” he tells me) was a special, privileged glimpse into the mysterious shadow world of the circus. A man in full Arabian prince regalia walks past, together with a breathtaking blonde woman in a matching pink outfit. The King and Queen of the Carnival are a regal sight to behold.

Soon enough, the ringmaster announces the performance, and a sizeable crowd has gathered, mostly local kids with their parents. Together we laugh and yell and ooh and aah, eat peanut crepes and stare at mammoth hairy camels. Despite the age of the circus, the dogs, llamas, camels and monkeys glow with health and enthusiasm, and the two-hour show is awash in laughs and thrills. Aleksandrs is particularly a hit, as deft with slapstick as he is on a tightrope. High-pitched blonde kids scream in approval. It’s as Aleksandrs says: “People will always need clowns, and people will always need the circus.”

Robin’s famous Gonzo jump in Riga

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 Drinking Club with a Running Problem

When it comes to social gatherings in foreign countries, think hash. Not the potatoes you have with your eggs, nor sticky illegal marijuana resin. Introducing the Hash House Harriers, the “drinking club with a running problem”, an informal, open-to-all quasi-athletic club that has sprung up in over 178 countries. Hash House Harriers (or H3) might sound like an alliterative joke, but it is a genuine social phenomenon. With nearly 2000 groups operating in just about every major city worldwide, including Hong Kong, Hashers come together to run, drink, and be merry. To find out more, I strapped on my running shoes and decided to join the Hashers in Bucharest, Romania’s bustling capital. Forget vampire museums, it was time to see the city, make some friends, and earn the name that will be with me for life.

Essentially a twist on the old hare versus hound game, a human “hare” is selected to plan a route that the pack must follow. Using paper, chalk, or in our case flour, the hare marks the trail with a series of dots, splits, circles, red herrings and checks, to make it challenging for the pack to find their way home. Winning the race is inconsequential, for the real purpose of Hashing is for people to gather, talk, drink, run, and have some fun. Anyone of any age is welcome, and the only thing you’ll require to partake is a sense of ribald humour.

We meet at a park in downtown Bucharest, where a member named Crash Test Dummy welcomes regulars and “Virgins.” Hashers refer to each other by their Hash Name, which is assigned to Virgins by the group in due course. I quickly realize that Hashers have their own unique “mis-management” titles, and distinct vocabulary. Crash Test Dummy, an English engineer who has lived in Bucharest for two years, is the Religious Advisor, charged with blessing the circle. A crusty Scot named Pie Eyed Piper, the Grandmaster, is the ceremonial leader. Materhorny, who works in the Swiss Embassy, is the Cash Hash and in charge of financial affairs. Moby Dick is from Los Angeles, Gutentight is from Germany, and the Hare today has the distinctive Hash name of Tampon Jelly. Two things are immediately obvious: Hashers are defined by a bawdy schoolyard sense of humour, and are mostly made up of members of the expat community. In this, little has changed from its roots when the first Hashers formed over 70 years ago.

The first Hash took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1938, as a casual exercise for British office workers to run out their weekend hangovers. Following a paper trail that would inevitably lead to a pub, the group became popular enough to register as a society, the name arguably chosen to reflect the seriousness of its intention. After World War II, with original members spread around the globe, new clubs (or kennels) were started in expat communities, and since the 1970’s, have exploded in popularity. Today, there are family hash events, gender-specific events, large gatherings like the Eurohash or Interhash, even a club in Antarctica. With no central leadership, no membership requirements, and no chance of taking itself seriously, Hashing pre-dates online social networking as a means to instantly make friends and get contacts in a foreign country. “It’s a great way to travel and meet people,” says Holefinger, an American agricultural consultant. “Wherever you go, you’ll always find a hash.”

The circle meet in a downtown Bucharest park, where introductions were made, and basic pointers explained. Using a tennis ball dipped in flour, the Hare had marked a trail through the embassy neighbourhood. Together the pack would chase down these dots, like a game of Pacman, until we reach a circle and have to fan out to find the next trail. A circle indicates a change in direction, an X a false trail. The FRB (or Front Running Bastard) calls out “On On!” to indicate he or she has found the next dot and everyone follows.

It is a warm, humid late afternoon, and the race is on. Gutentight blows his horn, and locals look on curiously, bemused at an eclectic, eccentric group running about shouting and laughing. Midnight Itch, a local “Harriette” who discovered hashing through her ex-employers, is the FRB, setting the pace. We dodge traffic and stray dogs, and it doesn’t take long before we approach a Beer Check. Congregating outside a neighbourhood shop, we crack open cold beers, and discuss the course, dirty jokes, Hash war stories from clubs near and far. There’s a couple Hashers from Texas, Australia, Scotland, and a few Hashers new to Bucharest who are accepted like old mates. I learn that drinking violations come in the form of quirks, like running with new shoes, or pointing with fingers. Each club makes up their own rules, careful to reiterate that of course, there are no rules.

“On On” and we’re off again, back on the trail. Around the bend I notice we have been led in a circle, the dust of the environmentally friendly flour pulling us through the streets. Hashes typically take place in forests, parks, streets, wherever the Hare chooses, and the length of the course, and number of beer checks, can vary. Finally, we arrive back at the park, where the Grandmaster forms everyone in a circle to cool down, and congratulate the Hare for his efforts. A round of drinks are consumed. The running club shifts to the drinking club, as barroom ditties are sung to accompany the tradition of “down downs”. The Virgins are called into the circle, handed a cup of beer, and roasted like celebrities. We are given the choice between a joke, a song, or flashing a body part. It typically takes a Virgin five races before they are named, but in a stroke of journalistic exuberance, I had let the hare out of the bag. When I was researching the Hashers, I came across the name Big Wanker, which I assumed to be yet another important H3 title. I asked Crash Test Dummy who is the Big Wanker. “When somebody asks a stupid question like that, they can only, from this day forth, be known as Big Wanker. Down down down…” and before I know it, I am tossing off a mug of beer straight down my throat. As I do so, my fellow Hashers pour their beer over my head, and douse me in flour. I have been in Bucharest less than 24 hours, and already I have made friends with a dozen interesting characters, sharing the kind of experience you’ll laugh about for years to come.

With the ceremony over and with more beers to consume, the group heads over to a pub where an evening of hysterical Hash songs ensues. Hash hymns are loyally kept in tattered books, and most are crude, rude, and easy to remember. I make the mistake of removing a shoe under the table, another drinking violation. The “down down” takes place using my sweaty shoe as a vessel. I slurp the heel and the next dirty limerick starts up. These are professionals, young and old, singles and couples, indulging in the time honoured tradition of socializing, over good exercise, gamesmanship, beer and food. Most are foreign to these Romanian shores, finding support, advice and friendship in the process. If you need to know where to buy a car, which bank to use, how things work, everyone here has been in the same boat, and wants to help.

For a drinking club with a running problem, steeped in dirty jokes and bad taste, the Hash House Harriers are a remarkably noble and well-intentioned group, destined to run “on on” as their membership grows around the world.

Most Hash House clubs have their own websites, detailing upcoming hashes, and contact details. All you need to do is show up to join in the fun. You can search a world directory and find out more information at the World Hash House Harriers page at http://www.gthhh.com/

Live on the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival

Fortunately, I have only slept on a park bench once, the result of a poor decision to visit the world’s largest arts spectacle at a moment’s notice. Hotels, hostels, B&B’s and converted school dorms are booked out months in advance for a festival that features over two thousand artists from 28 countries, putting on nearly two hundred performances in just two weeks. Oh, and this doesn’t include the Fringe Festival, which runs alongside the main festival and is three times the size. Over half a million people pour into Edinburgh, and it appeared almost all of them had prior reservations.

Arriving on an atypically sunny day, I am swallowed by a crowd that never seems to dissipate. Fortunately I had met a group of student volunteers on the train from London who gave me free tickets to several shows, sending me in the direction of Princess Street. Picnic blankets litter the adjacent park, all the way to the rocky hill of the imposing Edinburgh Castle. Actors, or friends of actors, are dishing out handbills everywhere, urging the merits of their show as opposed to the hundreds of others competing for your attention. Due to the to sheer volume of handbills, they cover the streets like confetti. Bagpipes blast from authentic Braveheart-clad buskers complete with blue face-paint, safe from street vents a la Marilyn Monroe. I walk up (everything is up or down in the old city) to High Street, which is in itself one big theatre. Every year, street buskers come from around the world to juggle, eat fire, or turn themselves into human kebabs. Mime, music, circus tricks – it’s an intoxicating cacophony of culture, only slightly tainted by promotional teams dispensing free products like cigarettes and tampons.

After several unsuccessful attempts to secure lodging (one receptionist actually laughed at my planning ineptitude), I make my way to the old Film House to see a collection of the year’s best music videos. Some of the directors are in the room to speak about their work, and it is this opportunity to connect with creators that makes any arts festival so worthwhile. Everywhere I go, people are discussing some show or another, and thus word-of-mouth establishes the Festival’s must-sees. I buy a ticket to show whose name had come up a few times, and although critically acclaimed, it left me colder than the pint I followed it with. Walking back towards High Street, I bump into an old friend who is promoting an award-winning play, cheerfully giving me a pass to what became one of the highlights of the festival. If you bounce around like a pinball long enough, you’re bound to hit the bonus bell. With no place to stay and having seen a half dozen shows throughout the day, Edinburgh might seem like a penniless traveller’s dream. Especially when one can fortuitously bump into folks like the train volunteers I had met earlier, who offered a welcome wooden floor for the night. No complaints whatsoever, with the bonus of receiving an authentic Scottish welcome, meeting the locals, and all the other stuff guidebooks swear are essential for any legitimate travel experience.

The next morning, my creaking bones catch a bus to the Modern Art Galley, which seems like a very cultural thing to do. A Surrealism Exhibition features dozens of masterful Magrittes, painting the perfect warped landscape for the rest of my day. By the time I get to Edinburgh castle, it is shrouded in mist. I explore the grounds, accidentally wandering into a play taking place in a closet, and soak up the history with a few drams of Scotch. Tickets to shows range from cheap to expensive, and for the most part, it seems that you get what you pay for. Still, talent has to start somewhere, and they can be encouraged that the homeless, the lost and the crazy will be there to support them.

An accent can often bluff one into events – usually events that originate from wherever one’s accent originates. I found myself at a South African show featuring township jive mixed with techno. It all pays off with an invitation to the press bar, where members of the media gather late at night to discuss the day’s events, but mostly just to get drunk. A transvestite performer crashes the party, screaming about her show that everyone must attend. Security quickly escorts her out. By three in the morning, the bar has emptied and only then do I realize I have no idea how to find the volunteers who gave me a floor last night. It would have been smart to got a phone number, but thinking ahead never entered my Edinburgh equation. And thus I find myself at the other end of a policeman’s baton, shivering under a light drizzle, attempting to sleep on a concrete bench at the foot of a castle. Wet, broke, hungry and hung-over, but chock full of culture.

My train was due to depart that evening, and despite the lack of sleep, I manage to catch a fantastic show by a troupe of French mimes, answering the age-old question: If you shoot a mime, do you use a silencer? The Festival itself was winding down, although offshoots like the Children’s Festival and Comedy Festival and Children’s Comedy Festival would continue for weeks to come. A Bucket List festival with something for everyone, Edinburgh’s cultural kilt brims with life. And should you wind up scunnered on a bonnie park bench, remember to keep ya heid.

A Rocinha Favela Tour in Rio de Janeiro

While tanned sunbathers soak up the sun on the infamous beaches of Ipanema and Cocacabana, the other side of Rio de Janeiro rises up into the surrounding mountains. An estimated 750 favelas, or shanty towns, are found inside and around the city – the poor, crowded masses that service the city’s wealthy elite and thriving tourism industry. Some 20% of the Rio’s population live in favelas, and in a country with one of the highest income gaps in the world, favelas are impossible for locals or tourists to ignore. Drug violence and poor social conditions inside have been likened to an urban civil war.

With the introduction of walking tours designed to expose tourists to this world, an increasing amount of visitors are heading into the slums, entering high crime zones where few locals would dare to tread. Some argue that these tours have merely created a human zoo. Others feel it is essential to truly appreciate the city. To figure out who is exploiting whom, I decided to go see for myself.

A row of moto-taxis greet us at the bottom of the hill. Rocinha, the biggest of all favelas, is also considered the largest and most infamous slum in Latin America. Narrow alleyways and open sewers separate square-shaped cement living quarters. Painted or plain, they are jammed atop one another, sprawling up the hill like a house of cards. Be-a-Local has been offering favela tours for six years, and is the only company that offers walking tours through the alleys of Rocinha. Other tour companies prefer the safety and ease of a minibus.

Each member of my group, made up of mostly budget travellers, gets on the back of a motorcycle, which promptly speeds off into chaotic traffic up the main road. It’s a white-knuckle ride, as the moto-taxis narrowly slip between trucks and buses. We are all unaccustomed to the speed, traffic, or riding without helmets. Five exhilarating minutes later, we are deposited at the top of the hill, and our guide Marcio tells us the basic rules. “If you see someone with a walkie-talkie or machine gun, please, no photographs,” he says. We do not need to be reminded. Rio’s favelas control a massive drug trade, with entire slums patrolled by armed gangsters, ruled by drug kingpins, and off-limits to even the police.

While favelas are largely a no-go zone for both tourists and locals, these group tours are deemed completely safe, operating under the protection and one would assume with the blessings of the ruling drug lords. “For ten years, I have been bringing tourists here,” explains my guide Marcio. “I know everyone, they know me, there has never been any problems.” He explains that some children might ask for money, but we should refrain from giving it to them. 40% of the company’s profits go directly into Rocinha community projects, and Marcio proudly points out day-care programs and schools sponsored by the company.

We cross the main road, the artery that feeds Rocinha, and slip single file into the alleys. The further the living quarters are located from the road, the cheaper they are to buy or rent. Hole-in-the-wall shops offer groceries, hair salons, Internet, and pharmacies. With an estimated 150,000 people, everything the local population needs is catered for by enterprising tenants.

I hear a firework, a sudden explosion that makes me jump. Young children set these off to warn drug dealers if any police or outsiders are approaching, an entry-level task for children entering the violent, bullet-riddled world of the favela. But amongst the drugs and crime, there are also hardworking honest citizens, living the best they can, sending their children to one of four schools. Huge knots of wires hang above us, the power largely hijacked by makeshift electrical engineers. Although Rocinha has open sewers, the community has its own garbage control, postal system, and governing authority. Compared to slums I’ve seen in India or Africa, conditions are not nearly as bad as I imagined they would be. People flash their famous Brazilian smiles.

When I told local friends in Rio I would visit Rocinha, they could not understand why. Favelas are associated with danger, not with tourists. “Some people say this is voyeurism, but it’s essential if you want to try and understand both sides of the city,” says a traveller on holiday from South Africa. “You can really get a sense of community here.”

We visit a local artist, who sells some paintings to an American in our group. Backpackers are not the only ones interested in favela tours. We stop off at a grocer who sells some pastries, one of which he calls a “Kravitz” after the singer Lenny Kravitz, who once visited his store.

Today, I don’t encounter any guns, and not once do I feel threatened. While some may challenge the ethical value of visiting a slum, there’s no doubt it sheds a fascinating insight on an important component of Rio, and South America in general. Anything that brings people together, across the income or cultural gap, can only be a good thing.