Finding Myself Lost in the Atacama

Lost among the pink volcanoes of the Atacama.

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

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

That road has to be here somewhere…

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

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

Top of the World, Top of the List

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

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

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

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

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

Visit The Little Mermaid

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

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

Top 10 Experiences in Copenhagen

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

Meanwhile, in Canada…

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

Swim in the Devil’s Pool

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for more information about visiting Victoria Falls.

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

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.

A World of Bucket List Spa Experiences

For thousands of years, people have been travelling for the therapeutic benefits of spas, springs and massage therapies. Today, just about every major resort offers spa services, for relaxation, sport injuries, or romance. Over the years, I’ve had some unusual spa treatments. Perhaps these will inspire you to do the same.

The Goa Rub Down

A cramped, overnight train ride from Mumbai resulted in stiff muscles and one achy Esrock. Walking on a dusty road in the village of Arambol, I saw a sign: Ayurvedic Massage, 1 Hour, $8. Anytime I see a massage that cheap, I pay attention. I was ushered into a small, steaming room. Three men poured a bucket of warm, herbal oil over me, and got to work. Kneading, squeezing, and rubbing my skin with such concentration that sweat dripped from their brows. For thousands of years, Ayurvedic medicine and massage has helped people in India, and now around the world. One thing is for sure: An hour later, I was relaxed, loosened up, and in the perfect mood to explore the beautiful beach towns of Goa.

The Fire Doctor of Taiwan

In Taipei, I found myself sprawled on a massage bench in the office of Master Hsieh Ching-long. For more than a dozen years, this fire doctor has been using open flame to untie the knots and heal the muscles of Taiwanese sports and movie stars. He tells me it took years of martial arts training to channel his inner energy so he can use his hands like iron. Lying on my stomach, he pasted herbal goo on my back, doused it with alcohol, and took out a blowtorch. I felt a quick burst of heat, after which the Fire Doctor used his bare hands to spread the flame around. Something smelled like burning skin. My burning skin! Still, with his iron fists, the Fire Doctor hammered out my stiff worries, creaked here, twisted there, and wished me well. Out of the frying pan, and into a scorching summer Taipei day.

Balinese Massage

Balinese massage is a mix of aromatherapy, acupressure, stretches, kneading and skin rolling. At the fantastic Hotel Nikko in Bali, we were treated to a family spa that relaxed our muscles, put big smiles on your faces, and literally head-massaged my youngest into a blissful slumber. While friendly attendants painted my five year old daughter’s nails, my wife and I became puddles during our couples massage, and while little Gali continued to dream, we transferred him to the bench and us to the large adjacent outdoor bubble bath.

The Communal Thai

In Thailand, massages are as a cheap as a beer back home. Small, lithe masseuses twist and crack joints, often chattering away as they do so. Off Khao San Road, where thousands of backpackers flock to cheap hotels, bars and markets, the massage shops might pack a dozen clients into a single room. Here you can chat to your friends too, in a rather social environment, all the while having your body subjected to the type of pain and discomfort that can only be good for you. Thai massages are heavy on the elbows and knees, penetrating deep into the tissue. Off resort, at $6 to $10 an hour, the price is always right, especially on the beach.

The Georgian Backwalk

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, you must visit the famous 17th century Orbeliani bathhouses. Blue tile lines old eggshell domes, housing hot sulfur springs that have been revered for their healing properties for centuries. After my dip, I was shown to an adjacent room and told to lie down naked on a marble slab. A man wearing naught but a small towel came over in the steam and poured a barrel of boiling water over me. He then proceeded to give me a rub down using rough hessian rope, scraping away layers of skin with a thick, foamy soap. It hurt, but not as bad as the sulfuric water poured on afterwards, or when he started walking up and down my back. There is a separate bathhouse for women, but not, alas, for the Georgian Rugby Team, who joined me in the baths shortly afterwards.

Something afoot in Shanghai

I had wandered a couple blocks from my hotel looking to experience traditional Chinese acupressure. Based on the same idea as acupuncture, acupressure uses hands, elbows or props to stimulate various pressure points, which help with circulation and energy balance. In a small shop, I was shown to a chair. My feet were scrubbed clean, and then a tiny lady with iron clamps for hands got to work. Pushing and probing, she honed in on my sensitive pressure points, and proceeded to punish them with vigour. My ears were throbbing, my lower back was sweating, my armpits were singing – I don’t know what she was doing, but when she finally stopped, the relief was well worth the agony.

Hungarian Healing

Budapest sits above a sea of natural thermal baths, which Turk conquerors once developed into exquisite palaces of swimming pools. There are still several enormous bathing complexes, exhibiting grand architecture, and well-maintained baths. For about $15 you get a locker, and access to dozens of baths of various temperatures, along with saunas, spas, whirlpools, showers, and for a few bucks more, massages. I spent the afternoon at the Szechenayi Baths, amazed there could be so many options to enjoy. Hot, cold, big, small, indoors, outdoors. A large, sour masseuse however, ensured my massage was as tranquil as a Soviet prison.

A Spa for Two

Occasionally I’m lucky enough to travel with my wife. Many resorts offer couples spas as relaxing alternatives to long walks on the beach, or in the mountains. The wonderful Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs offers various couples packages, encompassing rose-infused side-by-side scrubs, rubs, and baths. In South Africa, we soaked up our pampering at the luxurious Gary Player Health Spa, getting matching facials to enhance our romantic glow. You don’t have to be on your honeymoon to treat yourself to a couples massage. Although after you experience one, you’ll feel like it anyway.

Submerge in Colombia’s Mud Volcano of Youth

by Robin Esrock

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

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

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

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

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

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/