Thursday, August 27, 2015

Around the world with burgers - where's your favourite burger joint?

"I'll gladly pay you Tuesday, for a hamburger today."
-  J. Wellington Wimpy
Those who really known me know I love burgers. I'm always on the lookout for a good burger and in Vancouver I'm always looking for new burger joints.

In the past month, I've found two new ones, one just last week.

That lunch last week got me thinking about my quest for burgers. I travel a lot, so I obviously got to thinking of all the places in the world where I've enjoyed a burger outside of Vancouver. While it is a North American dish, it is sold internationally - although you wouldn't expect the best burgers would be easily found in other countries.

The site of my first international burger, outside Belmopan.
However, I have enjoyed my share of burgers internationally as well as around Canada and the United States.

My first "out-of-country" burger was in Belize, my first out-of-country trip (aside from the U.S., which I'd been travelling in and out of, since I was seven)

We'd been kayaking, caving, exploring ruins and horseback riding in the jungles and highlands of that country for close to two weeks - all on a diet of seafood, chicken, rice-and-beans, and vegetarian fare.

So we were C-R-A-V-I-N-G some burgers in the worst possible way. Luckily, on our last day of the trip we were able to feed that craving, and feed it twice: once at the Belize Rodeo, and once at JB's Watering Hole, near the capital of Belmopan. They probably weren't the best burgers, but sitting in JB's, quaffing a cool one and munching on a burger was like heaven.

After Belize, the trips began to pile up, but I don't remember eating burgers in Africa, Ecuador, or any place else, until I went to the Rainforest Music Festival on Borneo, in Malaysia. And I have to confess, I didn't eat a "Malaysian burger."

A burger at BK in Bangkok.
I ate at Burger King.

After 17 days of really good local food, I was craving a burger. So, at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, the day I was leaving, I purchased a burger. I never eat at BK at home, but there it seemed like burger heaven (nothing like the place in New Westminster, B.C. though!)

That little dining adventure eventually became a tradition for me: when leaving a foreign country, eat a burger at BK in the airport. I repeated that in Thailand a few years later.

I tried to do it earlier this year when exiting from Mexico, but there was no BK to be found in the Puerto Vallarta airport. So I ate at Johnny Rocket's. Probably better than BK, but the next time I exit from another foreign airport, I will try to find a BK (tradition, you know?)

I've enjoyed many, many burgers in the U.S. A few memorable ones include the signature burger at The Saltwater Cowboy on St. Simon's Island, Georgia; the signature burger at A Cheeseburger in Parrotdise in the Little Torch Key, Florida (both since closed, unfortunately) - not to mention the burger named after Jimmy Buffet's classic song at his restaurant in Key West; and the Market Square Burger at Winghart's in Pittsburgh.

As far as Canada goes...

Who's up for a poutine burger?
Since this is where I've live, this is obviously we're I've enjoyed the most burgers. I've had my share of burgers from fast food outlets in almost every province I've lived in and visited: the Yukon, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia- but not PEI or Newfoundland. (I've been to PEI, but not long enough for a burger, and I have yet to see Newfoundland.)

I've visited so many burger joints, I can't really recall them all.

Ones that do come to mind immediately are the Cabo Diablo burger at Relish Gourmet Burgers, in Fredericton, NB; the "Lieutenant Burger" at Burgernator in Toronto's Kensington Market area; and several in B.C., including any burger at the aforementioned Burger Heaven; the poutine burger at Tap and Barrel; and burgers at the Two Parrots Bar and Grill; the Blue Canoe Waterfront Restaurant; the Flying Beaver Bar and Grill; the Howe Sound Brewpub; and the Rod and Gun Bar & Grill.

Hopefully in the years to come, as I continue to travel the world, I'll be able to add to my list of international burgers enjoyed.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a song that could've been written as my theme song...

Sing it, Jimmy!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Campfire magic connects us

A campfire always seems to be the perfect way to end a day spent in the outdoors. 
Nothing like a good campfire to warm the hands - and the soul.

Gathering around a campfire for stories and songs, conversation and reflection, follows an old tradition that started eons ago in the days when campfires provided much more than a place for a social gathering. 

At one time in humankind's history, they were needed in order to cook, to stay warm and to keep predators at bay. The evening fire was the focal point for a gathering of the clan or tribe and developed into a social event as a secondary function.

As man evolved over the centuries, the need for such fires became less and less crucial, and in the final months of the 20th century, it is largely symbolic. It is still a gathering place, but it takes its place along side other social facilitators such as the office water cooler, the local pub, the neighborhood coffee shop, the church picnic and countless other commonplace gathering places. Like the evening fire, they all serve to bring people together and provide opportunity to socialize.

There is one main difference, though. One thing separates the fire from all the others.

All the rest are man-made functions. A fire, is, at its heart, a natural element. Man does not create it, although man can produce conditions under which this element can spring into life.

It is that elemental aspect, that magical difference about an evening fire, whether it is a fire in a hearth shared by two old friends or a roaring bonfire that brings together a whole group of people from different backgrounds and beliefs, that makes it so special.

Can't beat campfire-roasted marshmallows.
Who has not sat in front of a fire in the woods at night, listening to the cry of the loon, the howl of the wolf, the whistle of the whippoorwill and not felt that primeval shiver, followed by a primeval comfort to be found only in the light and heat emanating from the campfire? That shiver, that comfort, they serve to remind us that we are human. And while we have created a whole world of facilities and institutions to separate us from Mother Nature, we are still part of Her, not above Her. As much as we may like to think it, we are not invincible, not immune to Nature's whims.

The evening campfire restores to us that part of our humanity that we have forgotten, or at least, neglected. It gives us back the magic we have distanced ourselves from with our overrated technology. It helps us touch the souls of our ancestors in a way that no faded photographs or crumbling gravestones can.


Sometimes, a desire for a campfire is so great,
even a propane-fuelled fire works.

If you take time to stop talking and quiet the voices in your head, if you listen - really listen! - to the crackle of the flames, the sound of your breath, the pulse of the blood in your veins, you may feel a million years of mankind's souls touching with your own, however briefly.

Treasure it, revel in it, soak it up like a thirsty coyote laps up the water in a desert oasis. It is pure magic; not the kind provided by flashy video showman or sly-handed carnival hucksters, but the real magic of the Universal mind. It is the collective soul of humanity connecting with your own being, connecting you with Eternity.

It is usually a fleeting moment, this connection. But in that moment, we can attain the most profound peace we are liable to experience on this planet, even in this second decade of our still-new third millennium.

Does one ever tire of a campfire?
All too soon, all too easily, we lose that connection. The crackle and pop of the fire stirs us from our reverie, bringing us back to the present moment, back to the physical reality of our being. But we need fret not; for it is always there, always waiting for us in the flames of a campfire, in the whisper of the wind through the trees, or in the billion stars that shine down upon us, winking at us, as if to tell us they know something of the Universal mind that we do not.

They wink, but there is no secret, really; it is always there, waiting for us to reach out and connect. 

We simply need to remember to take time to acknowledge it, and it will come to us. The fire of the stars, or the fire from our camp hearth, it is all the same: the light is the key that connects us, gives us the power to reach back to what we were, and what we, in essence, still are.

It is also a source of profound but simple wisdom, wisdom with a message. We need to heed its message; because just as the fire dies if not properly tended, our world will die, if not properly tended. We can choose to let the earth expire. Or we can choose to be proper caretakers, and ensure that it does not. The choice is ours to make, but if we find that connection, it is an easy one to make.

We simply have to choose life over death.                                                    

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Gearing up: What's in your average travel writer's suitcase?

As a travel writer, many people often ask me: "What exactly do you pack for a trip?"
Travel writing: it's more than just keeping a journal.

Of course, they're not asking me for tips about packing general stuff like clothing, toiletries, etc. Besides, the type of clothing that I take will always depend on where I'm going and can vary widely. For example,  if I'm going to the Arctic, I'll pack much different clothing than what I would for a trip to the Amazon.

That's pretty no-brainer staff. But what they really wonder about is, what I take as a travel writer, different from all that. If they were thinking about maybe trying their hand at travel writing, they like to know what kind of gear they should take.

Now in this day and age, we've gone way past the standard paper-and-cardboard cover travel journals, pens and camera gear.  In the digital age we have to have different kinds of equipment  - in some cases there is more gear, in some cases, less.

A lot of what we take depends on what else a particular travel writer does in terms of work. Some travel writers also have other writing gigs on the side or media consulting work that may not involve travel writing  - but they have to keep performing those particular functions while on the road.

That brings us to our first piece of equipment that has only become part of a travel writer's equipment in the last 10 or 15 years.

1. Laptop computer. This is essential. Again, depending on how you operate as a travel writer, you may be expected to blog about your days' activities while you're on a particular trip. You can't do that without a laptop computer of some kind. Also, more and more, travel writers on a trip are expected to be able to post photos, videos, or at the very least a few comments on social media platforms while they're traveling, even if it's just to the two biggies, Facebook and Twitter. Now some of that can be done with a smart phone.

These days, a travel writer is lost without a laptop.
Aside from blogging while on the road, laptops are also used for storage of the day's photos and videos. If you're an extended trip, you may end up using all the cards before your trip is over. So you have to be able to download them into a laptop, and perhaps from there, onto a portable hard drive.

The other thing a laptop does it provide you with easy access to your email. You may have other story pitches out there, and while you're traveling, a magazine editor may be trying to reach you with an assignment.  You really cannot afford to wait two weeks, most editors need to know in a day or two that you can write the story that you pitched them by their required deadline.

None of this is really possible without a laptop.

2. Smart phone. The last five years, I've found my iPhone becoming an increasingly valuable resource. Obviously, it's nice to be able to keep in touch with tour operators and tourism boards on the ground in any particular location, but that's just a tiny fraction of the use I make of it.

With the increased stress on posting  to social media - some hard copy magazines even require it, if you want to write for them! - I find it absolutely essential to take photos and video to post on Facebook, Twitter Google Plus and even on my blog.
Smartphone: communicator, back-up camera. 

Most of the photos and videos you see in this blog were shot with an iPhone; I also have a Canon DSLR, but the images I take with that are the ones I use for publication in newspapers and magazines.

To show you how invaluable a smart phone is, I have even had some photos I've taken with my iPhone published in glossy magazines, shots I didn't get with my DSLR, but captured with the iPhone.

It also acts as a back-up, in case something goes wrong with my big camera.

Last but not least, it's the easiest way to post on social media. If you've taken a photo or video with your iPhone, it's a lot quicker and easier to post it on a social media app on the phone rather than transfer it over to a laptop and then upload it.

3. A good quality DSLR camera.  I've shot with two camera brands, in both SLR and DSLR photography. I learned to shoot 35 mm film with a Pentax;  my next camera was a Canon.  I went back to Pentax for my first DSLR but I really didn't the images I shot with it, so when it was time to get a new camera I went back to Canon.  Most professionals use either Canon or Nikon DSLRs.  I prefer a Canon because it's a little less expensive for the same kind of camera features and I'm used to it.
My current camera of choice: a Canon t5i
Something else to consider these days is a DSLR with video capability.  More and more emphasis has been placed on the ability to acquire video for online publication of travel stories, so it really helps to have a good quality product.

4. Photography accessories. This may include a really long zoom lens if you want to shoot wildlife or a a little shorter zoom if you don't.  Other accessories: a tripod or monopod for steadying a camera when shooting (pretty much a must for any kind of video), lens cleaning fluid and tissues, batteries, a battery recharger, photo cards, cable release - and a bag to carry it all.

If you have a lot of photo gear you need to have a really good quality camera backpack. Don't skimp on the quality - you may end up regretting that if you have really expensive camera gear in a cheap bag and the bag rips or breaks or gets wet too easily and ruins your camera.  I've been using a LowePro camera bag since 2000; I've had to replace a few of the zippers from time to time, but other than at, it's help up very well.

Love my LowePro camera bag.
5. Wall socket converters.  If you travel to South America or Central America or Africa or Europe or Asia, you're going to find any kind of electrical appliance you have will not plug into the wall sockets there.

That's because the wall sockets for accessing electricity are different, so you need converters to fit over your plug and overcome this. You can get them at any travel store, like Wanderlust or The Travel Bug or any store that specializes in travel products.

Don't leave home without it.

6. A suitcase. This may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but all suitcases are not created equal. Five years ago I purchased a suitcase - fairly large, fairly durable - and one that's guaranteed for 20 years.

If it breaks or loses a wheel, or gets a hole in it, they replace it, no charge.


Around the globe with Geary! A suitcase no one can miss.

Another thing to think about when purchasing a suitcase: get one that stands out a little bit. Mine looks like a map of the world and as you don't see many of those come off the luggage racks in airports, it's hard for someone to mistake it for their own. Plus, it's a great conversation starter; I've rarely I picked it up at an airport and NOT have somebody remark about it.

7. A suitable hat. This is not crucial if you're going to spend most of you time in museums, restaurants, or a lot of indoor cultural/historical sites that protect you from the elements. But if you spend any time outdoors - and most of my travel writing revolves around ecotourism and adventure - you need to have a good hat. Maybe two, in case you lose one. I've had a Tilley hat for 10 years now and I hope to continue using it for least another 10.

 A man without a hat ... is a man whose head is sunburned.

8. A passport. Unless you're going to travel only in your own country, you have to have one of these. Make sure it's up-to-date - and be aware of "transition periods" that are part of a passport's  documentation. By that, I mean if there are less than three months to go until your passport expires, even though it's still good, you may be denied access into a country. It almost happened to me going to Alabama in 2014.

Make sure it's signed, too. (Yep, guilty!)

9. A Nexus card. This card is a godsend if you travel more than once a year. With increased security and long lineups through checkpoints in airports, this can really help speed the process up. It's good for crossing the border between Canada in the U.S. if you're driving, too. It also helps speeds up lines domestically in Canada.

Take note, it's only good between Canada and U.S. Getting one does require a fee and a security check by both U.S. and Canadian officials. But if you haven't done anything illegal, you should not have any problem.

10. Pens, notepads, and journals. Yep. I know I said earlier that this is the digital age, but even though you've got your laptop and your iPhone and your DSLR, it still doesn't hurt to take along a notepad and/or a journal and some pens and pencils. At some point, you may need to write stuff down or maybe you're at an event or tour where you have to take notes and it might be impossible to pull out your laptop and start typing about what a guide or speaker is saying.

So there are still some uses for old school travel writing tools, after all.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wildlife vacations: it's tough to pick a top 5 - what are yours?

There are numerous reasons for travel.
A silverback gorilla climbs down from
a tree in Kahuzi Biega.

Sometimes, travel takes you to a new job. Other times, we travel just to get away for a while from our jobs, or our routines, to get out of a rut.

Then there are the dream vacations, travel to be pampered in luxury, to de-stress while others look after your every need.

Sometimes we travel to explore - a new place, a new activity, or even to explore ourselves.

I've travelled for all these reasons and more. One of my favourite reasons, my main focus to travel, is see and experience wildlife in its natural settings.

I've been very lucky, I've enjoyed some incredible wildlife experiences around the world. And some, right here in my backyard, in B.C., Alberta, and other parts of Canada.

So in trying to come up with a "top five" out of all my experiences, I was really hard-pressed to keep it to that number. But, here goes, in no particular order (if you think limiting myself to five was hard, try to pick the best of the best!)

  • Looking for the "Big Five" on Africa's Serengeti plains. In Serengeti National Park, you may be lucky enough to see a leopard in a tree or listen to the roaring of lions in the bush at night while sleeping in your camp tent. In the Ngorongoro Crater, you'll probably get much closer to some of the wildlife - maybe too close if a rhino charges your jeep or if a lion saunters past and bumps it while you're popped up through the sunroof taking photos. They're only half a day's drive apart, so you'll want to see both when visiting Tanzania. Oh, the other members of the "big five" can also be seen there: Cape buffalo and elephants.
  • Gorilla viewing in Central Africa. Hiking through the Congo rainforest, tracking gorillas, avoiding columns of soldier ants, fighting off hordes of disease-carrying Tsetse flies and mosquitoes, keeping your eyes peeled for poisonous snakes, to say nothing of the leopards and other creatures that would like to eat you, stomp you or just plain obliterate you, - if this is your idea of fun, then  you'll be right at home in Kahuzi Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  But it'll all be worth it when you get your first glimpse of the silverback patriarch, or see a mother gorilla nursing a baby in the middle of the jungle. (If you've been to the Serengeti, and you're all "Africa'ed-Out," you can enjoy a similar and also incredible wild primate experience viewing orangutans in Borneo.)


It's definitely gator country in the Okefenokee.
  • Paddling with alligators in the Okefenokee. Otherwise known as "the swamp," the Okefenokee National Wildlife Reserve in Georgia, U.S.A. offers a wilderness opportunity unlike most others. The reserve is mostly water, so you can only access the heart of it by canoe or kayak. Although you can do it on your own, you're probably safer to hire a licensed outfitter to make sure you don't get lost between the camping platforms placed along the water trails. You do get really close to gators; it's also a great place for birders.
A Grand Cayman parrot, perched in a tree on the Mastic Trail.
  • Snorkeling with wild dolphins in Hawaii. I'm not talking about going to see tame dolphins like some of the resorts offer; this experience involves going out onto the ocean several miles offshore, with a reputable tour operator, locating a resident wild pod and then jumping in the ocean and going for a snorkel. You never approach them - they come to you. And when you can hear them echo locating underwater then one comes up to you and looks you over, it's an incredible feeling.
  • Gazing at wild parrots in Latin America. I've had the opportunity to experience on several occasions, but my two favourite trips took me to the Heath River Wildlife Centre on the Peru-Bolivia border and on the Mastic Trail on Grand Cayman Island. At Heath River, you sit in a floating blind on the river to watch scores of parrots and macaws congregating on a jungle clay lick. In the Caymans, they're tougher to see, as there is no lick - you have to hike through the jungle and hope you get lucky. In either case, you'll hear them long before you see them.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Five of Canada's Best Kept Secrets

Entering Winnipeg's French Quarter.
I started the month with a blog post about cool stuff to do in Canada. Now I'll finish the month with another Canadian-themed topic. If you're not from Canada, some of these might surprise you. And a few might surprise you even if you are from Canada.

1. Calgary: not just another word for “Cowtown.” While the Calgary Stampede is second to none when it comes to rodeos, the southern Alberta city offers more than just cowboy culture - it is also home to some top-notch, world-class museums. Leading the way is the Glenbow Museum, a museum, art gallery, library and archives all rolled into one facility. Military history buffs will certainly enjoy the Museum of the Regiments or the Naval Museum of Alberta. If you’re into aviation and aerospace, check out the Aero Space Museum of Calgary. Calgary also honors firefighters with its Firefighters Museum.

2. Quebec is not the only place in Canada to experience French-Canadian culture. The city of Winnipeg, Manitoba can also provide plenty of authentic Franco flavor. Winnipegcontains western Canada’s largest French-Canadian population. A visit to St. Boniface - a section of the city often referred to as the “French Quarter” - might lead you to think you’ve been airlifted and dropped into some place other than Western Canada. The area’s biggest annual celebration reflects this heritage: the 10-day Festival du Voyageur held every February, highlights Canada’s fur trade era with entertaining shows, delicious traditional food and numerous exhibits.

3. Saskatchewan is not just flat land and wheat fields. Head into the northern half of the prairie province, and you’ll find yourself in some of the best fishing and canoeing country in North America. (Sigurd Olson certainly thought so, or he wouldn’t have spent weeks paddling the province’s wilderness, then written The Lonely Land.) One of the province’s gems is Prince Albert National Park, the final home for Grey Owl, portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 film of the same name. The park offers excellent canoe routes as well as hiking and mountain biking trails. In the winter, outdoor enthusiasts trade in their paddles and bikes for cross-country skis and snowshoes.

Grey Owl's cabin in Saskatchewan.
4. Vancouver: think “Little India” – not just Chinatown. The west coast city is world-renowned for the incredible diversity of Asian cultures. Its Chinatown is Canada’s largest and best known; however, the Little India section is often overlooked. 

While the East Indian influence is everywhere in the city, the culture’s most concentrated gathering lies along a five-block section of Main Street, centered around 49th Avenue. 

A daytime stroll provides a potpourri of colourful sights, sounds and smells. Women of all ages often sport colorful saris. The strains of Hindi music blare from the many shops along the street. The aromas of curry constantly waft through the air to tantalize you as you pass some of the area’s eateries.

5. Edmonton: City of Festivals. Often referred to as “City of Champions” (a reference to the glory days of the NHL’s Oilers and CFL’s Eskimos), the Alberta capital could easily be called the “City of Festivals.” Its International Fringe Theatre Festival attracts artists and patrons from across Canada and around the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia. Other summer festivals include international jazz and folk music festivals, a dragon boat festival and Klondike Days. In the spring, visitors can be entertained at the Northern Alberta International Children’s Festival. The Canadian Finals Rodeo rides into town every November. Winter celebrations include the Festival of Trees, a Yuletide event; and the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival, the largest classical North American Nordic ski festival.

Things are really hopping at K-Days in Edmonton. (Time lapse by Jesse Nash)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Should we revive the bygone travel tradition of postcards?

Postcards from pals.
I was going through some boxes, sorting through some old photographs the other day, reminders of what photography was like in the pre-digital days.

While sifting through the piles of old prints, I stumbled upon some items I'd almost forgotten I had. I found postcards sent to me from vacationing friends during my elementary school days. One was from Jamaica, with a picture of a map of the island on the front. Another showed a man dressed in a native costume in front of a tepee from Keswick, Ontario.

Digging further, I found postcards my mom sent me from Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Colombia, and several other places from around the Western Hemisphere.

I also discovered several unused postcards purchased during my very first trip to Algonquin Park in Ontario. We used to buy them to be sure to have some really good print images to go along with the ones we shot with our Kodak Instamatics and Duaflex's because back then, the odds of getting a good shot of deer or a bear with those kinds of cameras were slim-to-none. In fact, I remember when starting out on our very first hike, my dad told me, "Now if you see a bear, don't stop to take its picture!"

So I have postcards of bears, deer, wolves, skunks, and raccoons from Algonquin.

Not only had I forgotten about those postcards, I'd almost forgotten that postcards existed, period. I mean, the last time I sent postcards from anywhere was from Africa back in the 90's.

In this age of Skype and I-M, Google Talk and Face Time, texting and email, postcards seem like a quaint reminder of yesteryear, something vacationers used to use to share their trip with their loved ones.

From what I can ascertain, the production of postcards began, at least in North America, in the mid-19th century, about the same time the science of photography took off and transportation advances made postal service more reliable.

As leisure time increased, the postcard industry took off. Pretty soon, any gift shop at any kind of tourist facility sold them. They became a regular part of any travel routine that lasted more than a few days. Some would go into photo albums, as even today deltiology - the collection of postcards - is quite a popular hobby.

Others would end up in the mail. People took address books with them when they travelled so they could send a quick note back to their friends and families via the postal service. Kind of a pre-Internet version of Twitter or Instagram.

Unlike the Internet though, and depending on how long one vacationed, the postcards often arrived to their desired destination after you'd already returned home. Rather than annoy people though, that became part of a running joke.

Postcards for a collection.
Once the Internet arrived, and I started travelling professionally, I stopped taking vacation snapshots and I certainly didn't have time to send postcards. I basically stopped being aware of them. They might be there at the counter as I was paying for pack of gum or a bottle of water, but I wouldn't even notice them.

I only know they still exist, because someone actually gave me a postcard this past June. It was kind of a cool idea: a fellow travel blogger, Fabiano Maciel, ironically enough, purchased postcards for all the participants in a travel blogging press trip in Ontario, writing little notes on the back of each card.

I thought that was a really nice gesture, and it really speaks to what postcards are all about.

Reading those written thoughts from the past from childhood friends on the back of the postcards I'd re-discovered instantly transported me back to those days. They brought back many warm memories, those short notes freezing those moments in time. They wielded a power that no email or text message could ever hope to invoke. Does anyone save emails or text messages? Very, very rarely I would wager - and then the emails have to be printed out.

On the other hand, I'd saved those postcards, those messages and images from the past because they meant something to me emotionally. The images actually didn't mean much, but the messages certainly did.

Especially the cards from my mom, since she passed away several years ago.

Saved postcards are like instant time machines that depend on no technology, whisking us back in time - something no electronic tweet or post can do a decade down the road.

So maybe the next time you go on holidays, buy a postcard or two, send it to the people you care about.

You might be giving them a time machine of their own, one they ride some day in the future and recall the warm memories of your relationship.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Travel mishaps often make the best stories

View of the Rio Shiripuno from our Day 3 camp.
If you travel enough, eventually you're going to encounter some oddball circumstances. Especially if you travel outside of North America, and away from the main travel routes.

However, if you've had good luck for quite a few trips, the caca hits the fan from all sorts of different sources, all at once.

Like that time in Ecuador...

What began as a leisurely morning paddle on a jungle river had turned into a race against time and the Fates - and it looked like the two of them were going to whip our butts.

When we arose that morning, our final day of a five-day kayak trip on Ecuador’s Rio Shiripuno, we knew we couldn’t lollygag along the river, as we had to be off the river and on the road in time for a noon flight out of Coca, back to Quito. Still, there was no rush, no sense of emergency as we paddled downstream after breaking camp. 

After all, we wanted to enjoy the jungle one last time, we wanted to try and stretch out our final hour on the water. Our guides assured us as long as we kept a steady pace, and didn’t take too much longer than an hour, there would be no difficulties.

Famous last words.
Maybe we should have paddled faster...
We arrived at our takeout where we had left the van that was to drive us back to the airport, about a three-hour trip down mainly rural dirt roads. We packed everything in, but when Ricardo, one of the guides, tried to start the engine, there was nothing but silence. It was dead.

Okay…so while the guides worked furiously, trying to figure out what was wrong and how it might be fixed, we had to prepare ourselves for the possibility of missing that flight. I mean, we’re miles from any town or service station, and there was nothing resembling cell coverage out there in the Oriente.

After half-an-hour of sweating and swearing in Spanish, they managed to get the engine started. But now we really had to boogie if we wanted to make that flight.

We were all aboard, ready to roll – except one of our fellow travelers, a lady from New York, decided to go around and say some drawn-out good-byes to the Huaorani natives who had accompanied us. “C’mon, Susan,” our head guide Alfredo said in an exasperated voice. “We really need to get going…”

Off we went down the road. We’d be okay.

Twenty minutes down the road, as we were driving past a farm, a group of four or five cows decided to wait until we were 10 feet away before crossing the road. We stopped in time to avoid hitting them, but then they just stopped in the middle of the road and stood there looking at us. And stood there. And stood there. It’s like these cows had it in for us – they really did not want us to make our flight. Ricardo honked the horn, Alfredo leaned out and yelled, waving his arms, we all started to yell at them, some of us in English, some in Spanish. When we started to make threats about turning them into hamburger for an impromptu barbecue, they finally decided to saunter the rest of the way across the road to the greenery on the other side.

Okay, that was just a short five or ten-minute delay. No problem, right? We’ll still make it. As long as we don’t experience any further delays.

Well, delays seemed to be our lot, that day.

Twenty minutes later, we came to a long, single-track bridge crossing a deep chasm with a river at the bottom. And par for the course, there were two large transport trucks parked in the middle of it, nose to nose, with two guys yelling at each other and shaking their fists. Apparently, they’d both arrived at the middle of the bridge at the same time, and neither would back up to let the other go across first. It looked like one of those Ecuadoran standoffs you always hear so much about.

As neither truck had its engine turned on, it was pretty obvious to anyone watching that neither of these guys intended to back down and move for the other one any time soon.

Ricardo turned put the brake and emergency brake on (we didn’t dare turn the engine off for fear it wouldn’t start up again), then ran down to the bridge to try to negotiate some kind of deal so we could get across.

We could've used a blowgun to break up the battle
on the bridge - but we didn't need to. This time.
We couldn’t hear what was said, and maybe some money exchanged hands, but he came running back to tell us after he’d explained about the van full of turistas (well, five turistas, anyway), our need to get to the airport and make our flight, the drivers had agreed to move in order to let us past.

So they both backed up, simultaneously, clearing space for the van to drive across the bridge, and we continued on our way.
Our van cleared the bridge and waved to the one driver, and as we drove up the hilly road, I looked back and saw the two trucks jockeying back into position on the bridge to continue their standoff. Maybe they’re still there. Or maybe they figured their operation was a good way to generate extra income, and decided to charge a toll to everyone who wanted across.

We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, at least I didn’t. Me, I was trying to focus on visualizing us actually getting to the airport on time, after all these delays. Don’t give the alternative any energy…

Okay, so we’re rolling along, we should still be able to make it on time for our flight. If nothing else goes wrong. Of course, no one would say anything like that, no one wanted to give it any energy. We actually were starting to enjoy the ride through the countryside after we were able to drive for 30 minutes without anything else happening.

That’s when we got a flat tire.

Oh well, it gave us a chance to get out, stretch our legs, check out the scenery, since the guides had to remove some of our equipment to get at the spare tire.

The tire change only took 10 minutes, but we were starting to inch past the point of no return for having enough time left to get to the airport in Coca.

We couldn't even call for roadside assistance, like this guy.
We had to change our own tires! And there was no cold beer waiting for us!

Ricardo put the pedal to the metal, and drove as fast as he could and still be safe on the dirt roads – and not lose another tire, since we had no more spares and another flat would doom us. Not that we weren’t already starting to feel a bit put upon…

But, what else could happen? We’d already encountered and dealt with engine trouble, stubborn cows, stubborn drivers and a flat tire – surely the Fates had dished out everything they could, right?

For the longest time, the rest of the drive went smoothly. When we got to within about 30 minutes of Coca, we started to see more traffic on the road. Not a big deal. We started to feel hope, we started to relax and thought, maybe we’ll get there on time, after all.

That hope continued to grow - until we happened to come across some hot dog who obviously had no real schedule and nothing better to do than play a slightly different form of “chicken” on the road.

We came up behind a pick-up truck full of locals, mainly young men and one older, matronly-looking woman riding in the back. The cab was full as well, filled by the driver and two others.

The road was still a dirt road, and there was some room to pass, as long it was done carefully. The guy driving the pick-up saw we wanted to pass, so he motioned us to do so and slowed down a bit.

As soon as Ricardo sped up and began to pull over into the other lane, the truck ahead sped up, forcing us to slow down. Ricardo swore, only partially under his breath.

We could see the driver of the other vehicle laughing. We could see the guys in the cab laughing. We could see the guys in the back of the truck laughing. They all thought it was hilarious. It was so hilarious in fact, the driver decided an encore performance was necessary. He slowed down, then motioned us, several times, and finally Ricardo started to try to pass – and the truck ahead immediately sped up.

This time we all swore.

This is how it continued for the next few minutes, a pick-up truck and a van zooming down the road, laughter pealing from one vehicle, expletives in Spanish and English flying out of the other one.

Where was a jungle traffic cop when you needed him?

Hmmm, we might be sleeping another night in tents.
This happened several more times before Fate joined the game once again, this time in the person of the matronly woman in the back of the pick-up who had apparently decided enough was enough.

The cab had an open top, as if someone had decided a sun-roof would be a good idea and cut a hole in it but never put any glass in the opening. Lucky for us.

The lady – who obviously was the REAL boss of this bunch – leaned in through the opening and started just hammering the driver with her bag, repeatedly. You could see her yelling at him, pointing to the side of the road – and it didn’t take long for him to slow down and pull right over to let us by.

She waved at us, as if to say, “Sorry for this idiot driver!” and we waved back as we zipped by and down the road.

It was really going to be touch-and-go at this point.

We got into town, and of course, encountered plenty of traffic. Nothing abnormal, but enough to make sure we had to drive the speed limit.

We pulled into the airport parking lot and piled out, grabbing our gear and rushing into the airport. We had about 10 minutes before our flight was to leave, but we still had to check in, go through security, all the usual airport pre-flight boarding protocols. We were hoping since it was a small airport and a small plane, the process might be quick enough that we could still catch it.

We got in and saw Alfredo, who had been checking at the counter, turn around shaking his head, which was facing down toward the floor.

Uh-oh. That’s not usually a good sign.

Then his head came up and we saw a grin on his face.

“The plane coming in from Quito was late leaving,” he said. “Our departure has been delayed for at least 45 minutes.”

There have probably been other announcements about flight delays that created the kind of reaction it did with our group, but I doubt if any group was ever so ecstatic about being told they’d have to wait an extra 45 minutes. We high-fived each other, hugged each other, breathed in huge sighs of relief that we would not have to say in Coca for the night, or worse – take the dreaded South American bus trip – back over the mountains and into Ecuador’s capital.

The Fates, as it turned out, were just toying with us, keeping us busy so we wouldn’t have to sit in the airport for an extra hour, just making sure we had a real travel story to tell to augment the ones we’d tell about our ecological and cultural adventures in the Oriente.

And maybe they needed a good laugh, albeit at our expense. I would imagine the Fates get bored some time, too.

I just hope they never get this bored on one of my trips, again.

Not every trip into the Huaorani jungle ends like ours. Mostly, they're more like this.