Posts Tagged With: Galapagos

My Seven Wonders of the World

At some point all of us have fallen into the quicksand powers of Who doesn’t want to put off _____________________(insert any task of importance) in favour of scrolling through gauzy photos of the world’s best beaches or caves you can sleep in? I’m a sucker for all those treehouse and igloo hotels. I can’t get enough of the sunsetty images that channel humidity and kick up that inner well of travel-induced adrenalin. It’s nice to put our brains on slide show mode and dream from the comfort of our home and pajamas.


Every time I distractify I’m eager to see how many of the coveted places I’ve been to. It’s like a scavenger hunt I didn’t even know I was actively a part of. On a recent post of 41 Secretly Incredible Travel Destinations I felt an inner glow to see the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt included. Ohhh, and Giant’s Causeway in Ireland! Been there! And Grindavik, Iceland. But having scored only 3 out of 41 destinations I thought I should create my own list. Because what’s secretly incredible to me didn’t make that list and wherever we choose to travel, it’s like love and our devotion to certain coffee beans or dog breeds or Sons of Anarchy. It’s deeply personal but the neat part is in the sharing and finding overlaps with each other. Surprisingly, album-creeping on Facebook has presented unexpected travel ideas and networking—from lattes at D’Espresso in New York to a $100-a-plate fish and chip joint in the Yukon to the merits of running a marathon in France.

In no particular order, I’ve flushed out my personal seven wonders of the world. With time, I’m sure this list will be revised again and replaced with more marvelous encounters, but at this very moment—these places are deeply embedded in my mind. Come see why.

1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

I’ve always been enamoured with Dian Fossey’s brave and brazen attempt to protect the mountain gorillas of the Virungas from poachers. I have the January 1979 issue of National Geographic that refers to her as “Miss Fossey” throughout. In tandem, Miss Fossey and Jane Goodall brought Africa to my bedroom in Brantford, Ontario. Of course, just as every 10-year-old envisions a fancy marine biologist or vet career, I thought I might be a primatologist and observe gorillas eating bamboo all day long. Somehow I became a massage therapist instead (and sometimes massage backs as hairy as gorillas I suppose), but, for one surreal moment, I slept in those verdant mountains of Fossey’s tuned into the echoes of life and death.


Only 32 $500 US permits are issued per day at Bwindi. Our permits were included in a package with G Adventures—otherwise, they are issued on a lottery basis. The encounters with the gorillas are strictly timed to ensure that they are not inundated with human distraction. The hour begins upon the first sighting and armed rangers are quick to get the group moving out of the area immediately. You can’t help but feel Dian Fossey’s presence, struggle and the patience in her passion.
But that hour? That musky smell of gorilla deep in your nose? The wet jungle, hot piss and humidity stays with you. Being spitting-distance away from a docile silverback and youngsters somersaulting about is a pure wonder. Have you ever held your breath for an hour? Have you ever been so transfixed by your surroundings that the trance feels like a super drug you might not be able to shake? This is Bwindi.

2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

The guide book warned us that sometimes startled drivers slam on brakes or skid off the road when they come over the rise and see the lagoon for the first time. Despite expecting it, and realizing that we were nearing the lagoon, the sudden appearance of sheer dream-like icebergs bobbing along stops everything dead in its tracks. Your conversation, your mind, the rental vehicle. Wow.

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On the edge of Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland the 18 square kilometre lagoon is full of calved icebergs making a silent procession towards the Atlantic. The layers of sky blue and black ice make for a photo frenzy. Unfortunately, we had 160km an hour winds whipping off the lagoon and threatening to blow us into the Atlantic as well.
The lagoon has been a Hollywood star, providing the setting for James Bond, Batman and Tomb Raider flicks. On a side note, in the wind shelter of the nearby cafe, we sucked back perhaps the best latte on the island. Though, the view over the latte froth might have greatly influenced us.
Even with gale force winds and bare skin pelted with fine gravel and debris, the magic of that lagoon still shakes my marvel meter.

3. The White Desert, Egypt

We were already high on life after staying at a Shali fortress in the Siwa Oasis. We’d spent days traveling around by donkey, watched the sunrise over the salt flats, drank hibiscus tea and smoked the sheesha pipe by a fire after being buried in a traditional sand sauna. We had eaten camel stew on the rooftop of the fortress under a bazillion stars, soaked in cold springs and discovered a thermal lake. Yes, we were fully spoiled by the makings of a very dreamy time in Egypt already.


Of course, we already had knotted stomachs and daily blasts of diarrhea, but, travel can’t be 100% sunshine and lollipops. Oh wait, we did have 100% sunshine and 100 degree days. It was the desert after all. After barreling along unmarked ‘roads’ ( I use the term as loosely as our bowels), we entered the White Desert. The alien landscape is 200 square kilometers of bone-white natural sculptures that resemble hawks, hearts, mushrooms and pythons. Without a guide, you would never find your way out. The silence here is almost overwhelming. Far from any source of light or noise pollution, the White Desert is a retreat for all your senses.


After hours of being awe-struck, the pink and tangerine hues that dusk brings upon the stone and sand makes way for an incredible cosmic show. Here, you sleep under the stars and remember how tiny and insignificant your presence is.

4. Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

I had five solid Jeopardy categories that dominated my childhood. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birds of North America, Pop Tarts and The Galapagos. I made sure my dreams came true the year I turned 30. I was headstrong about seeing the blue-footed boobies, frigates and tortoises that I had become consumed with.

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When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (flights depart from Quito to Puerto Ayora—a 1,000km flight west to the Pacific isles), I met a charming Aussie who insisted we drink pisco sours and try guinea pig. Something went sour in my gut and I’m not sure who or what to blame. The following morning I had a bowl of entirely raw eggs, so, whether it was the pig, the pisco, the Aussie or the eggs, I’ll never know. Add a huge, rolling Pacific to that mix and I was throwing up most days of the nine day trip. But, despite heaving overboard, I was stunned for nine days straight.
The boobies and the frigates performed and displayed. The animals and birds of the Galapagos have no predators, and, incredibly there is no fear of humans. You can be mere feet from sea lions and iguanas. I was in birding la-la land.

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Bartolome was probably the island that struck me with the biggest wow wave. Like Neil Armstrong said, it’s the closest landscape to the moon that you’ll find on earth. The hardened lava tubes and windswept harshness is nearly unsettling. Barren and beautiful—a sharp contrast to the chain of islands that are alive and vibrating with bird life.

5. Michamvi Peninsula, East Zanzibar

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a postcard? The beaches are icing sugar white. The water is so many shades of blue that a paint company could find a whole new line of Indian Ocean tints.
It’s breezy and soupy with African heat. The sky is an opposing mix of brilliant blues and sometimes it’s difficult to determine the ocean from the sky. Sunrises here made me want to write poetry and smoke long menthol cigarettes (not really Mom).

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The tide tables were erratic and amazing to witness. At night, the ghostly roar of the waves pushing back in woke Kim up, even with ear plugs. Watching the tide pull out was like listening to the ocean funnel down a far away drain. It was a torrent of water rushing reverse through the tidal beds.
We spent hours squatting by the pools, looking at the black urchins and tiny starfish. Some of the pools were hot tub hot by noon. The water was as clear as the Perrier I’m drinking—no guff.
Here, life revolves around the tides and the flux of fisherman and women collecting seaweed were indicators of this balance. After heading to the Rock for a beer, we learned quite quickly of the speed and power of the ocean as we high-stepped it back to our lodge. The coral cliffs and coral underfooting made for a nervous and grateful walk back. Inlet to inlet the level of water pushing into shore proved that Mother Nature is boss.
Whether you find yourself on a dhow at a distance, on the balcony of the Rock, having a blue marlin burger at Ras Mchamvi or distracted from your book at Kichanga Lodge, the Indian Ocean and its ever-changing “oh-my-god-look-at-it-now” beauty has established the benchmark for all oceans.

6. Masai Mara National Park, Kenya


It’s Out of Africa in 3D. It’s blonde savannah, blurs of zebras, trumpeting elephants and sun-bathing lions. I had binoculars fixed to my eyes until dark. And at night? Falling asleep in a tent with Masaai keeping watch by a snapping fire and hearing a cheetah in the distance (think of a log being sawn in half—that’s how they sound). This is the good Green Hills of Africa-esque Hemingway life. In the morning the flies are incessant jerks though, swarming your milky tea and dive-bombing the surface until you have a pool of 30 flies in your mug. Oh, and their fly friends are buzzing in your ears and hanging off your eyelashes.


But, if you can surrender to the fly annoyance and forget about all the red dirt up your nose (where the flies are sometimes too), a safari in Kenya is a bonanza of animals. It’s a full time job to take in all the meerkats and water buffalo and dik diks and impala without rest. Because you don’t see just one—you are bombarded with fauna.


Before VCRs were invented (or, maybe they were and we were just unaware, content with the old TV aerial and snowy five channels in the country), I used to record Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness on my tape deck. I’d listen to old episodes about this very view in my lower bunkbed. The real thing will make you want to return—physically and mentally whenever you close your eyes.
I can’t tell you how many about-Africa books I’ve read since I’ve been to Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. But, to get in the groove—shortlist these:

The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight—Alexandra Fuller
West With the Night—Beryl Markham
Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda—Rosamond Halsey Carr

7. Caye Caulker, Belize


There are no cars here and this is so refreshing. And, the fact that there is ‘nothing’ to do (hurray!). Kim and I get so lusty thinking about a Belizean retirement. The beach shacks are simple, life is simple and the curries are outstanding. Every single thing we ate on Caulker was instagram-worthy. I’m talking tangy shrimp ceviche, ham and Cheese Whiz waffles, perfect fried chicken and fire-breathing curry from Fran’s. Oh, and then there are the panty-ripper rum drinks to enhance the sunsets where everyone gathers for an applause-worthy show.


We spent time on the mainland (Placencia, Cahal Pech and Hopkins Village) and zoomed out on a choppy ride to see the Blue Lagoon and the red-footed booby colony on Lighthouse Caye, but memories of the coral island just 8km by 1.6km wide resonate bigger and brighter.
If you want a break from the wi-fi and masses of people, you can truly live here barefoot. No shirt, no shoes is really no problem. Ever.


Okay, so now I get why those distractify lists are always 40+ destinations long. At seven wonders, I’m cutting myself short. My best advice? Travel with someone you adore and can’t get enough of. And, advice to myself? Buy a new hoodie and hat already!


Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gin Confessions, Tip Taps and How to Make Your Life’s Documentary

October 20, 2008
Gin is the perfect stimulant for late night confessions. In fact, it wasn’t even that late, but the gin was warm in our heads as we sat on the veranda of the Kaniyo-Pabidi Eco-Tourist lodge in the Budongo Forest. We had covered Obama, chimp sex (in graphic detail) and Brian’s travels as a freelance documentary film producer from the Arctic to Guatemala. Crickets were trying to outdo each other with volume levels, and a hyrax (a strange guniea pig/groundhog cross) was screaming like a damsel in distress from the dark depths of the forest.
Jacques,the Roots & Shoots program coordinator at the Jane Goodall Institute, admitted she needed to cut back on her coffee and Coca-Cola addictions. She was confident that she could kick the habit, after all, she had stopped eating clay four years ago. Clay? Her eyes glazed over as she reminisced about the fights she had with her sister over the termite hill close to their home. This was where she found the freshest, finest, powdery clay to eat. Clay? I had heard of pica—a medical disorder where individuals crave coal, soil, chalk, glass and soap. It’s most commonly seen with autism, brain injured children, epileptics and some pregnant women (when dill pickles and dulce de leche Haagen Dazs just aren’t cutting it). Pica cravings also include paint chips, burnt match heads, cornstarch, coffee grounds and buttons. Everyone loves a good button now and again!
The clay confession had me on a Google search as soon as we reached an Internet café in Masindi. I simply typed in “people who eat clay” and discovered that Jacques and her sister fighting over a termite hill was commonplace in places like Africa and the southern United States, and that the clay fetish was better known as “geophagy.” Apparently clay and chalk provide a slam-dunk source of zinc, sulphur, potassium, magnesium, copper and calcium. In some places vendors actually sell earth for consumption. Aboriginals in California and Peru ate earth with acorns and potatoes to help neutralize harmful akaloids (I would choose a syrah with nice legs).Even Italians in Sardinia were incorporating it into their loaves of freshly baked acorn bread.
Mary Lou, who manages the Budongo lodge, told me that pregnant women in the local village often lick the walls of their mud homes. It suddenly seems odd that in North America we moan about our cravings for lime Tostitos, Big Macs with salty fries, butter-saturated movie theatre popcorn and sticky chicken wings at the pub. I wonder if I can create a dirt wave of popularity when I return home? Why haven’t the protein bar makers capitalized on this? Clif bars could reach a whole new market with a Clif Dirt bar. Really, who would want unoriginal flavours like carrot cake and oatmeal raisin when you could bite into genuine African Rift Valley earth?
Naturally, Jacques had to endure our non-stop clay comments for the rest of the week as we would muse over a breakfast of banana muffins and granola, “these muffins are good, but, if they had a little clay in them…”
I seized the opportunity to return to the Budongo Forest (and lodge with the best hot rainwater showers) with Jacques and Brian Knappenberger who was filming a piece for the Discovery Channel on “Eco-Heroes.” A teacher in the Masindi District had created quite a stir when he introduced the concept of the “tiptap” to his school and community after seeing a similar practice in another part of Uganda. The tiptap is a hands-free hand-washing system that is constructed from two sticks, a jerry can and rope. In this area, typhoid, cholera and malaria are rampant, and sanitation is an ever-present issue. At St. Mary’s Biisu Primary School where we would be filming, the “toilets” were pit latrines, which are holes in the ground that you squat and hover over. Toilet paper? Hah, such a luxury. There’s not even enough paper for the kids to do schoolwork assignments. The stench of urine from boys still practicing their aim is the kind that doubles you over.
At St. Mary’s, many of the children walk 5km (one way) to school. They suck on sugarcane for lunch (if anything), or, if they do go home on their lunch break, they often don’t come back. This school of six grades has 688 enrolled students. The classrooms are dark and tired with graffiti on the walls and beat-up desks. There are no text books, no colourful maps of the world, no posters reminding kids of hot dog day on Friday. At recess (which they seem to be on all day), 75 kids chase after a soccer ball made of knotted up banana fiber. There are no swings or hop-scotch or basketball nets. At one point I watch about 20 kids cutting swaths of grass with machetes under a teacher’s supervision.Visiting this school makes me want to tour Canada and visit every elementary school with photos to tell any little unappreciative buggers how good they have it. I watch as barefoot kids line up to drink from a rain barrel with a communal plastic cup. The tiptap is a step forward, but 688 kids sharing the same cup is about five steps back.
Brian interviews five of the most outspoken kids, while a hundred others stand on their tiptoes trying to peer into the classroom windows to see what the mizungos with cameras are doing. Brian and I are like zoo animals. When I step outside the classroom I am stared at by 600 blank eyes, unsure what to make of me and my tattoos. I laugh now thinking of the job interview I had at the Fairmont Royal York where I shared my profound moment of volunteering in the jungles of Costa Rica for three months. I said to Heidi, the health club manager, “the kids in this Alto Cuen village had never seen a person with blue hair and blonde eyes.” Remarkably, I landed the job, despite my blue hair faux pas. However, in the middle of this village, the experience was identical, and I really did feel like my hair was blue and my eyes were blonde! By day’s end, the kids had warmed to us and stampeded Brian (or took off in terror, it was a mixed reaction), whenever he lifted his camera lens.
I am curious to see how Brian will refine three full days of filming into three minutes. But, I suppose this is what we do in life. The places and faces that we meet are constantly condensed into an cell phone call, email, a photograph or a postcard. We live for 80 years (if we are so lucky) and can really only take the very best moments with us. The golden stories that we repeat, those shiver moments (Oprah has aha! moments, I have shiver moments –where the emotional and physical thrill of the moment makes your blood as fizzy as shook-up champagne, and goosepimples race across your skin like fast-moving snakes).
I have four distinct shiver moments that I can instantly define — where I was standing, the smells in my nose, and the pounding of my heart in my ribcage can’t be forgotten. You know that feeling, when you are so stunned with what you see and feel that your eyes burn with hot tears? I was 18 and standing on the dusty logging road of Clayoquot Sound when the logging trucks started their slow grind towards the protesters, headlights and shadows like ghosts in heavy blanket of dark before dawn. Walking into the Monteverde Cloud forest in Costa Rica, toucans shrill above my head as I left the world I knew and stepped into the dripping green of a humming rainforest for the first time. Flying 1,000 km west into the Pacific to touch down on the Galapagos Islands, the place I had dreamed of since I was six: blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, barking seals and tortoises as big as coffee tables. And then, the first scream and pant-hoot of a chimp community, their voices ringing in my ears, the thumping of a chimp as he pounds on an ironwood tree and the canopies above my head swaying with chimpanzees. Their smell, so primal and distinct will stay with me forever.
Africa is certainly taking up a lot of my life’s documentary minutes and I’m okay with that. I haven’t even mentioned the sugarcane fields and the expanse of the Rift Valley that stretches so far my eyes strain to see the other side of the world. Have I described the bruised sky at night with fine veins of lightning splitting the atmosphere between the heavens and earth? Or, hearing the sound of Puvel’s illadopses, a tiny bird that is only found in the Budongo forest? For some birders, the illadopses is their pinnacle. This is their life’s documentary coming to a tidy, satisfied close.
As I let Africa rub its way into deep into my skin, I feel a raw ache for those I wish I could share these moments with. As we drove through the sugarcane fields to Masindi, I imagined my grandfather, his soiled hat tipped to the side, hand on his tired hip as he looked out at the crop. He would talk to the farmer about fertilizers, the desperate need for rain that year, the soil. The life of a farmer is universal, a tug-of-war toil with the weather with years that offer reassurance, and seasons that end in disappointment. My grandmother would love the birds, the brilliant bee-eaters and sunbirds. She would marvel at the spider lilies and sausage trees. I will show her my Africa in photos when I return, but, if only for a day she could walk beside me.
My mother should be here, drinking a warm beer on the verandah overlooking Lake Victoria. She would have binoculars permanently trained on the treetops for colobus and vervet monkeys… and we’d send my dad to the Entebbe Golf Club.
My sister Kiley will see Africa, because she has the incessant travel bugs that bite away at me too. I hope my brother does. I know Dax all too well, he would be up early, drinking black coffee outside and then quietly sneaking off to paddle a kayak around the lake alone. He would come back as the sun was going down, ravenous and exploding with stories.
Wanda will arrive in December to share this world with me, and this brings me comfort. I think of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild (spoiler here) about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless bravely deciding to walk into the woods of Alaska, away from civilization and the ills of society. He survived a harsh winter of solitude in the North, but realized as he was dying of starvation that “Happiness is best shared.” He carved his last tragic words into the permanency of wood with his knife.
And this is the responsibility I have, to share. Go out and create the documentary that will leave you sitting in the audience (because you are the audience) stunned with what you have seen and done with your life.
Artwork by Tuguinie Sharon whose work will appear in the book The Tribes and Totems of Uganda, the project I have been working on inbetween chimp treks and eating termites.
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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