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Confessions of a Budget Traveler

Richard Drake

Chai Wallah © Richard Drake

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together ”. Thus sang John Lennon in 1967 with his irreverent yet profound comment on cosmic consciousness. I had some such vague notion when I set out on a journey that was to change my life. But I wasn't aware of that then. In fact, I was not aware of very much other than a strong desire to shed my former life for something new, but as yet unknown.

India had beckoned me with its siren song for as long as I could remember. From my father's interminable war stories of brave men dressed in turbans, to tales of the drug-soaked hippie trail of the 1960s, I was steeped in its mysteries. And so it was that I found myself in Delhi on a sweltering September day in the early part of the 21st century. I had quit my job of 12 years and rented out my house indefinitely. I told anyone who cared to listen in the small town in which I had spent the previous 20 years that I probably would not be coming back. Little did I know that the “I” of whom I spoke indeed would not return.

My spiritual immersion into the mysteries of India started off badly. Enlightenment in my case was indeed the shedding of worldly things; however, it was unintentionally achieved by having my belongings removed the first day I was in Delhi by a nimble-fingered thief. As a naive and rather unsuspecting tourist of the Western variety, I normally am quite a trusting chap. Thoughts of thieves, brigands and other undesirable rogues do not occupy large chunks of my consciousness. So it came as a brutal awakening to find I had become a statistic: yet another sucker who found himself bereft of documents – such as passports, return plane tickets and travelers cheques – so useful when traveling to far flung and exotic countries. “Why me?” was the first selfish and useless question that entered my mind as I came round from an unexpected jetlag-induced nap on the cool, green grass of the Red Fort. This was something that always happened to those less cautious, unprepared and, of course, more stupid than I. Or so I thought. How was it that I had unwittingly become a target for the less scrupulous elements of the Indian population?

Snakewoman © Richard Drake

It was odd being stateless: suspended between worlds and unable to travel, or book a hotel, or cash travelers cheques. I left to join the insane consulate game. I ricocheted from one imposing building to the next – fired like so much cannon fodder to another featureless waiting room where I was usually told a) I didn't have the right papers; b) I was in the wrong place; c) I was a smelly foreigner and they didn't like me (intimated but not spoken). Fortunately, the average traveler never experiences being at the mercy of that grinding impersonal bureaucracy.

This incredible country is like no other; it either gets under your skin, or you are back on the next plane out, recoiling in horror from the unexpected, unplanned, and unorganized. India is not for the faint of heart: this visceral experience transcends the order and predictability that we take for granted in the Western world. Perhaps this challenging environment is the necessary precursor to letting go of many dearly held beliefs in order to achieve inner transformation, the un-glueing of certainty.

I made good the time awaiting the replacement of my oh-so-valuable documentation. While suspended in the twilight zone of statelessness, I made a beeline for the euphemistically named “cyber cafes. ” These dark caverns consisted of dank cubicles, where dozens of Indians and Westerners alike bashed away at keyboards, composing emails or commiting other dubious activities. I recounted my tales of stupidity and woe to my unbelieving friends back home.

During this uninvited interlude, I availed myself of the dubious delights of Delhi. This included many near-death experiences of transportation India-style. My vehicle of choice was the auto rickshaw, a mutant variation of the ubiquitous Asian three-wheeler. I would marvel as my dare-devil driver weaved a serpentine route between buses belching clouds of diesel fumes, which bore down malevolently upon my flimsy carriage; my driver eagerly playing chicken until the last heart-stopping moment.

All this traffic performed a dance of great intricacy. Every driver seemed to know unconsciously his or her part. They instantly calculated how many thousandths of an inch were required as clearance between their vehicles and death.

Boat Boys © Richard Drake

A cacophony of horns surrounded us. Many vehicles post a polite request: “Horn Please. ” This chaos is actually a very sophisticated warning system. Heaven help a deaf driver! The TATA Company makes most of the buses and trucks in the subcontinent, and there is a good chance of being mown down by one of these vehicles. One fellow traveler decided that her epitaph would be inscribed with one word, which would likely be the last that she would see before exiting this world: TATA.

A month later I escaped the Delhi underbelly clutching my new documentation, headed for my next destination, Dharamsala. This trip involved a train and then a bus. Trains crisscross The Great Subcontinent, delivering a stunning 25 million passengers to their destinations daily. After the train, the next adventure in transportation was the bus referred to as the Dharamsala Express. Although buses in India occasionally resemble ones in the West in that they have an engine, seats, four sets of wheels and a driver, the similarities stop there. The Pathankot Bus Station resembled a cross between Beirut on a bad day – craters and all – and some kind of manic construction zone. Buses lurched through massive mud-filled potholes, backing out at full speed, with ticket-collectors-come-carnival-shills shouting at the tops of their voices, exhorting any timid passengers to hop on, if they dared.

Guard © Richard Drake

The Express was alarmingly well named. As soon as we set off, the heavens opened, and torrential rain rendered visibility to near zero. This incidental fact did not deter our driver. Like most Indian drivers, he considered it his mission to overtake anything and everything on the road ahead. Usually I avoided sitting too close to the front, in case I became too aware of impending disaster. However, it was obvious that this road was barely negotiable. As we climbed up into the mountains, great floods swept fresh debris across the road that had now become a river. Occasional glimpses revealed whole portions of the roadbed that were missing, and whatever was left was rapidly disappearing.

As the bus ground up and up, the scenery became more spectacular, accompanied by ever-increasing precipitous drop-offs. I decided to adopt an Eastern attitude: if death was meant to take me here, so be it. Hopefully, it would not be lingering and painful. Once I had this focus, the fact that we might plunge over a ravine any minute seemed, well, a detail. Everyone else seemed to adopt the same attitude, or by rights they would have all been screaming by then.

Wool Seller © Richard Drake

I took a smaller bus the final eight kilometres to Mcleodganj, the upper level of Dharamsala that hangs suspended 5,000 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas. At first glance, the bus appeared to be full; however, I was mistaken. Although every seat was occupied, further quantities of humanity were not discouraged and continued to squeeze into every last available spot. When I thought that there couldn't possibly be more room, the ticket collector started banging on the side of the bus, yelling for other would-be passengers to join the intimate group grope. The driver's skill in traversing the washed-out sections was breathtaking. At one section, he was literally one coat of paint away from the inside cliff, with the outside wheels just about in space. The whole lot looked like it could give way at any minute. Very few road repairs, if any, seemed to have been done since the last landslide.

Infrastructure appeared almost non-existent in Daramsella. Whoever built the place left and forgot to come back for any maintenance. On the road up, there were quaint signs warning of “Damaged Road Ahead, ” a euphemism for a massive crater left after the last truck-swallowing washout. Equally ineffective warnings against speeding (“Dashing Means Danger”) were ignored by all except hapless pedestrians, who risked being mown down any second by a careening truck hell-bent on finding a few inches of traction on the remnants of the road.

Eventually my journey transformed from the ridiculous to the sublime. I met my destiny, which was to visit His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. To witness the Divine, in the form of a small, smiling, bent man, and the very essence of humility, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My body might have been in an alien-seeming environment, but my soul was at peace. Travel trauma to transcendence in the blink of an eyelid. I was finally home.





Richard Drake grew up in England where his father was a writer and broadcaster. From a young age he was surrounded by words. He has been writing for as long as he can remember. In his teens he discovered travel. A chance encounter led him to the western shores of Canada, which became his new home. He was always destined to travel to India, growing up steeped in its mysteries with his father's tales of his wartime experiences there. A two-year round-the-world trip that was to change his life took him to Delhi, where he had everything stolen on the first day there. That unfortunate experience became the raw material for his book Nirvana by Installments. Currently he documents his travels through writing and photographs for his blog nirvanabyinstallments.com. All his diverse parts can be found at richarddrake.net.





Daytrip Liberation: Red Flags are for Feminists

Miriam Matejova

Aaron © Cheryl R Cowtan

“Today's a red flag day, ” says the girl at Island Lake Conservation Area when we pull up to her booth. “ The waves are really choppy.  Are you going to launch your boat? ”

I'm disappointed. We're here with the boat at this Orangeville, Ontario lake so I can take the dogs out, while my husband Chris and my son Aaron kayak. If we don't launch the boat, I'll be left on shore with two rangy, unpredictable German shepherds. Regardless of the warning, I sneak a peek out the front windshield at the lake. It's choppy, but there is only the occasional white cap. I can handle that. I grew up on an Ontario shoreline resort. I've got some skills.

The dogs balk at the edge of the dock. They don't want to get into the rocking aluminum boat. I am trying to get the oars in the locks, but the waves keep moving the targets. Chris pulls the dogs in by their scruffs. They whine as their weight tips the boat back and forth. I wrap their leashes around my thigh and push them into the front.

“Are you sure you don't want the electric motor? ” Chris asks.

I say, “No, ” wanting to test my soft mommy-body against the waves.

Chris reaches down from the dock and gives the boat a shove. I see the fishermen on shore watching me from under their caps. I remember similar looks from fishermen in my childhood at Loch Arran Resort—years of men moving in to take the axe or boat motor out of my hand, or stepping in front of me to take over waving in a boat launch. I grip the oars with the same determination I had 30 years ago, and I dip the golden wood deep into the grey water.

At first it's hard: it's been a while. The wind is trying to push the front end of the boat into the long dock, and I drag my left oar to help turn out the front. Then my feet find their place at the base of the seat in front of me. I bend forward, dip and lean back, pulling the oars hard through the water. Dip and lean, dip and lean. The wind whips my hair against my face, blinding me, but it doesn't matter: I'm facing the dock, not the open water. One of the fishermen smiles as I pass him by. 

Ballast © Cheryl R Cowtan

“God mom! You almost ran over me! ” Aaron has paddled his yellow kayak into my rowing space. I hold the oar up in the air and let him pass under it. He's smiling with exhilaration as he maneuvers over the rough water, trying to catch up to his dad, who is in the bigger, orange kayak.

Chris calls out and points to a small island covered in brush. We point our crafts in that direction. The wind keeps picking up the front of my boat and pushing it off course. I remember the pail of rocks my dad used to put in the front of rental canoes as makeshift ballast, when there was only one passenger. I try to push the dogs up front, but they won't budge. Buddy licks my face and whines. I row with rhythm until I'm upwind of the island; then, I set the oars up and let the wind blow me back onto it. 

I walk the anchor up onto the shore and return to the boat to release the dogs. They jump and bark and chase each other with a stinking fish head. We dodge away from them to avoid their slimy slobber.

“Mom, look! ” Aaron holds up an unhatched Canada goose egg. It's covered in a fine spray of green algae from rolling around in the water long past hatching time.

“The wind's changed, ” Chris says. “ It's going to be harder rowing back.” I look past him to the way we've come. I can just see the dock and the fishermen's silhouettes in the distance. I feel the beginning of panic, but I push it away with my reassuring “ I-can-do-it” feminist mantra.

When we get into our vessels for the trip back, I'm smarter. I tie Buddy to the back of the boat. I tie Sniffy to the front. At first, the waves aren't too bad. We make good time. Then we round a small point and the wind hits. It's worse than before. I'm pulling with all of my might, but the location of the people on the beach indicates I'm barely moving. Aaron and Chris easily pass me. I strain against the water. Dip and groan, dip and groan. Then I hear a crack in my right oar. I don't stop rowing. I can't.

Three more pulls, and my oar breaks clean off, sounding like a gunshot. I flip backwards into the bottom of the boat, my foot straight up in the air. I push up from the wet bottom and struggle back onto the seat. My boat has been pressed much closer to an outcrop and a fisherman who is watching. I hold up my broken oar for Chris to see. Then I realize if I get blown past the point where the fisherman is standing, I'll be pushed out across the lake.

I throw the broken oar to the bottom of the boat, wrestle the good oar out of the lock and scramble to the bow. I drive it into the water on the right, and then stab it into the water on the left, canoe style. My efforts aren't moving the boat forward, so I lean out to the left and pull the oar in toward me. Every second, I'm blown further out. The boat scrapes past a log sticking out of the water, and I make my decision.

I drop the oar and slip out over the front of the boat into the water. I sink. But when I come up, I have the bowline, and I'm swimming for that log. It's straight ahead of me. Two strokes and it's moving to my right as I blow left. I kick harder, letting the line out until I can clutch the slimy wood. It sinks under my grip, and I'm pulled away, water filling my nose. I kick again, harder, and this time I grasp it. I can hear Chris yelling against the wind.

Our Crafts © Cheryl R Cowtan

I pull the boat towards me, twisting the line around my right arm. God, it's heavy. The waves are slapping my ears and my runners feel like lead on my feet, but I have to keep going. I try to push the boat ahead, release the log and swim, hoping my feet will touch the bottom. I pass the boat and sink-swim until the line tightens and the boat starts dragging me back out.

My feet connect with a submerged tree. I push at it, forcing my body toward shore. The taut line pulls me under. I come up, seeing the fisherman poised ready to jump in, the edges of his Tilly hat flapping in the gusts. I imagine his judgment and it eggs me on. My feet touch the stones. I stand and they roll, and I fall. But I'm back up, spitting water and pulling on the rope. The dogs are whining and watching me, their paws and faces hanging over the edge of the boat. Finally, I make it to the dry rocky shore and wrap the line around driftwood.

I can barely swallow—much less talk—as I gasp for air and wave at Chris. The emergency over, we both realize our nine-year-old is out of sight around the bend in his kayak. I yell, “ Where's Aaron? ” but Chris has already started paddling off to get our son. Water runs off of my clothes to pool around my soaked sneakers. The dogs growl. I turn to see the fisherman coming along the shore. Darn! A rescue. I walk to meet him and keep him away from the dogs.

“Hi, ” I call, a little embarrassed.

“Are you okay? ” His face is concerned under the Tilly.

“Oh, yeah. My oar broke. My husband will be coming back to help me. ” I'm nonchalant, as if I do this every day.

“You're sure you're okay? ” he asks, again. I blow a drip of water off my nose and say, “ Yes, thanks. I'll just wait here. ”

I smile reassuringly, but inside I'm tempted to play the damsel in distress, to let this man take over. It's a temptation I've resisted all of my life. The fisherman goes back to his point.

In the 80s, at Loch Arran Resort, we had 20 boats for rent, and I spent almost as much time on the water as I did on land. And that's how I knew what to do, even if I should have known better. As I settle my wet shorts on the leather truck seat, I feel just a little liberated. The reminder of who I used to be has been exhilarating.

I offer Aaron a high five for a job well done. He slaps my hand with enthusiasm. Then I turn to Chris, as he starts up the truck.

“I'm not cooking, tonight, ” I declare.

“Okay, ” he says, easily. “ We'll have burgers. ”





Blessed with a childhood full of nature and adventure, Cheryl Cowtan is always ready for a challenge. She and her husband enjoy living in the greenest part of Ontario with their two children and a menagerie of critters that fly, crawl, swim and run. They camp, hike, bike and travel and when not doing that, Cheryl loves to write. Her poetry and articles have been published in a number of online and print magazines and journals. Currently, Cheryl has two speculative fiction novels in the submission process and many short stories in the works. Connect with her at http://www.cherylcowtan.com.





Carry on Ko Samui (or The Talented Mr. Friendly)

John M. Edwards

Charlie Sands Paints a Picture of John M. Edwards and Friends © John M. Edwards
 

At first I didn't know what to make of the pint-sized friendly philosophe with a gentlemanly manner and sunny smile who seemed so eager to meet me, his right hand confidently cupping a stack of business cards.

“Where are you from?” he gurgled pleasantly in token Thai-accented English, smiling like the Geico Gecko.

I was used to strangers making small talk whenever I was sprawled out on my backpack, cutting butts, waiting for ships to take me to the islands. But sometimes friendships come with business attached.

“You know, travel a lot.” I went into aloof mode.

“I think from your accent that you are English.”

“No, actually North American.”

“Yes, a very nice country…”

Funny he'd say that, when he'd obviously never been there. There was an embarrassing silence, then the stranger continued.

“I have a very nice hostelry where I'm sure you'll be pleased to stay when you get to...”

I pretended to be interested. “How much does it cost?”

“Very, very cheaps!” He seemed sincere, even smiled, as if he had an important secret to keep that only could be talked about in a pleasant but low voice.

“Actually I'm going to Ko Samui,” I explained.

“After Ko Samui, you should come visit my hostelry on Ko Tao.” He peeled a business card from a stack; “MISTER FRIENDLY'S VACATION BUNGALOWS” it read (or something like that).

“Mr. Friendly?!” I reiterated. “That's incredible! Is that your real name?!” I said with a mixture of alarm and amusement.

“Yes, it is. My name is Mr. Friendly.” He paused. “Now I must go to visit with the other tourists to see if they want to stay at my hostelry.”

“It was a pleasure meeting you, er, Mr. Friendly!”

“Likewise. Now I must go.”

The ship docked. The tortoise-like backpackers struggled on board under the weight of their packsacks as best they could. Again, this was the reason I traveled so much. Nothing beats being on an old unseaworthy-looking clunker cutting the waves, sun in your face, wind in your hair, sailing toward paradise islands with blinding white beaches and five-dollar huts.

Charlie Sands Sketches John M. Edwards and his Sidekick “Alfred” © John M. Edwards

Of course, The other seasoned travelers looked blasé, world-weary, old hand, their manner suggesting this was maybe their fifth trip out to the Gulf of Thailand islands: Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngang, and Ko Tao. I wanted to go further afield, though, to an undiscovered Ko “To Come,” a genuinely deserted island free of bullish backpackers.

We all find it “convenient” to be a little leery of our fellow countrymen and travelers. These were dodgy British drifters and German perpetual students, wearing “Tintin in Tibet” T-shirts, loose-fitting Thai string pants, flip-flops, and local girlfriends. Or Ameri-Canadian eager beavers with eyes like full-moon parties, dreaming of finding the right island (and the right guy) to TEFL and Import-Export.

No matter how many “SPECIAL” jungle curries (with magic mushrooms) they scarfed, how many Singha beers they sucked, how many gastrointestinal disorders and ear infections they survived, or how many travel wallets they had had nicked (by fellow travelers, of course), they kept on coming back to Thailand, wild to experience the life of Leo in the film version of Alex Garland's novel The Beach.

Halfway out to the islands, I noticed something a little “off.” One of the crew was running around like a maniac with life preservers, a mayonnaise grimace on his face that spoke of untold disasters in the future. I noticed some of the other passengers also doing a “What-What?”.

Edwards Dreams Away © John M. Edwards

The charmed atmosphere turned chilling. I scanned the other passengers' faces for some inside scoop of the troubles to come, feeling as stoic and removed as a couch potato with a blaster, reacting to newscasts on distant corners of the planet – a tsunami, an earthquake, a hurricane. Then all at once it hit: the ship was going down, with me in it!

A quick gander downstairs confirmed my fears. The crewmen were furiously filling buckets from a sinking ship, running upstairs pell-mell, and dumping them over the railing. Exactly five orange life vests were thrown on deck – for over twenty-five passengers.

That's when the jokes began, combined with that awful seasick feeling in the stomach that resembled a Stuxnet Worm moving around in cyberspace. I thought I'd be brave, casually pull one of the life preservers towards me gently with my foot. “Any Olympic swimmers here?” I thought without saying anything out loud.

All of us deadbeat goners sat on deck in a funk. To wait. Some of us were crying. Yes, the boat was obviously going down, very quickly. What could be more humiliating than perfunctorily drowning while on holiday? At least it was a little romantic: Didn't Shelley and Byron (Robert, not Lord) perish in the waves?

At Mr. Friendly's Hostelry © John M. Edwards

After about fifteen minutes (or less), I heard some of the crewmen cheering. I looked up and saw a rescue ship steaming towards us, blowing its horn. It pulled alongside. We tossed our backpacks on. Then a couple of boards were put up over the railings so we could crawl ship to ship. One ponytailed girl, who looked as if she'd be happier in the Hamptons, refused to go, had to be carried. I crawled over the boards like a beetle creeping up the chopsticks of a Chinese god.

Safely aboard the rescue ship, we staggered down into the hold to recover from our fear, a sea of backpackers sprawled out on the floor, in fetal position. Bartleby the Scriveners. The groaning grew louder as I milked the mild shock out of my system. When I went on deck later, I was surprised to see that we were towing the other ship. Now that we were safe, how did I feel?

Eventually I did visit Ko Tao. I did locate Mr. Friendly's hostelry. Mr. Friendly was surprised to see me: meaning, he didn't remember me. A few of the guests (probably dole bludgers on shoestring budgets) seemed a bit miffed that the restaurant meals were more expensive than the five-dollar lodgings. They loudly voiced their opinion on this matter between sips of overpriced Singha beer. Mr. Friendly, standing right there, looked a little embarrassed, but obviously didn't care. I could tell that Mr. Friendly was not only friendly, but was a shrewd businessman.





John M. Edwards is a freelance writer who has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). His work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Escape, Grand Tour, Islands, Condé Nast Traveler, Endless Vacation, International Living, Trips, Big World, Coffee Journal, Literal Latté, Artdirect, ForeWord, Go Nomad, BootsnAll, Hack Writers, Stellar, Glimpse, Verge, Richmond Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He has received ten NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, a (trips) New Millenium Poetry Award, a Road Junky Hell Trips Award, a Bradt Independent on Sunday Award, and three Solas Awards (sponsored by Travelers' Tales). He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming Rotten Vacations. He lives in New York City. He turned down a job as bassist for STP (The Stone Temple Pilots) way back when before they were big, plus he helped write "PLUSH" (the opening chords), voted The Best Song of the 20th Century by Rolling Stone Magazine.





Evacuated

Jody Hanson

A Long Way Down © Jody Hanson
 

I ignored the tear that ran down my cheek and did a backhand for the mucous that dripped onto my upper lip. “Mierda,” I muttered aloud, since I seemed to have the smoke-filled stairwell to myself. No voices, no footsteps. “I should have soaked a rag in water before I left.” Then I figured I could pee on my singlet if worse came to worst, which was reassuring.

So there I was, groping my way down from the 22nd floor and counting stair-by-stair. The smoke was cut-it-with-a-knife thick and cloyed at the back of my throat. “How long does it take to drift into unconsciousness from smoke inhalation?” I wondered. The apartment I'd rented was in a commercial area of Buenos Aires that resembled Wall Street: abuzz with people during the day, quiet as a tomb after dark. It was the middle of the afternoon, but the silence in the stairwell hung right next to the smoke.

My day started off as an ordinary Saturday. I pottered around, studied some Spanish and then cleaned the apartment later than usual. The air outside started to get thick, so I went out on the ledge – you really can't call it a balcony – to check what was going on. My Spanish-speaking neighbours were out in full force. The people in the building opposite were on the roof, pointing and talking in loud voices.

Black smoke belched around the corner below us. People were saying that it was close. I retreated back inside and closed the patio doors. Suddenly the glass in the window next to me smashed. The thud of a sledgehammer shattered the stairwell windows and chunks of glass fell 22 stories, guaranteed to be shards when they landed. Was there also a fire next door? What was happening?

Next came a banging at the door. Through the smoke-filled dim I made out the shape of an oxygen-tanked fireman mumbling through his mask that I had to leave the building. Or at least I think that was what he said.

What to do? What to do? Was my apartment in the line of fire? I doubted it as the walls are concrete and it was unlikely to spread. But what do I know about fires in apartment buildings? Absolutely nothing.

Without a second thought I grabbed my travel handbag from the closet, loaded my laptops, camera, passport pouch, wallet and sunglasses. Expect the best; cover off for the worst. If the sledgehammer- and hose-wielding hoards descended on my apartment, everything I absolutely needed in the world would be safe. Fortunately, there have been electricity outages lately so I knew exactly where my flashlight was. In less than two minutes I was out the door and feeling my way along the hall. The beam from the flashlight helped me find the stairwell.

One-foot-in-front-of-the-other. Don't panic; keep calm; don't stop. The flashlight couldn't cut through the smoke so I turned it off. What were the signs of smoke inhalation and how long did it take to fall into a coma? I flashed back to something I'd once read about witch-burning in Salem, where the fortunate ones got some smoke-generating green wood rather than the high-combustion flames. Keep going, count the stairs, one floor at a time.

Then suddenly I reached the 11th floor where the fire was and the smoke cleared. The stairs were drenched with water and I could hear voices. I picked my way over the hoses and the firemen kept yelling, “Pase, pase.” I made my way to the street and joined the other evacuees.

The medics treated some people for shock. The crowd kept growing. The television cameras arrived. A young woman with tears streaming down her cheeks stopped in front of me and dug in her handbag. I thought she wanted a tissue, so I handed her a couple. She set down her toddler and did another lunge to retrieve her mobile. A medic came along and she started to scream and wave her arms. Perhaps it was her apartment that was on fire?

When I tired of neck-craning to watch the building — to stand and watch smoke really isn't that exciting a way to pass the time— I sauntered across the street. At a nearby resto-bar, I perched at the window, and ordered a beer. It cut through the phlegm in my throat. I was sweaty from cleaning and had no doubt I smelled like a cremated specimen from a BBQ gone bad. But nobody cared, least of all me. From this perfect vantage point I people-watched the people watching the fire. A few of them brought out lawn chairs.

Two hours later the crew started to pack up their gear. A woman from the restaurant asked one of them how long it would be until we could return. Two hours, maybe more. I'd just ordered a second beer when we got the all clear. I paid the bill and left as I had a sense of urgency to get “home.”

The elevators weren't working. Trudging up 22 flights with a heavy bag was a puffing experience. There was broken glass on every flight of stairs. Ah ha, it had been the rescue people breaking it so there would be an oxygen supply. So the escape hadn't been life threatening after all. But knowing that after the fact didn't make it any less scary at the time.

My first-ever fire evacuation from an apartment building. My last evacuation was because of a bush fire on an isolated reserve in northern Canada. But that is a story for another telling. I chalked up this experience to yet another adventure that adds to the rich tapestry of living overseas alone. Should it happen again I'll remember to wet a towel before I kick into evacuation mode.





Jody Hanson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel junkie currently living in Buenos Aires. She has visited 98 countries, lived in eight and holds passports for three.





Surviving the Subway to Sorrento

Dylan Wagman

An Amalfi View © Dylan Wagman
 

We took the early train out of Venice headed south. As we slowly glided along the water-flanked tracks, I looked back to see the borders of the Venetian houses, slowly shrinking and sinking. We had already had enough of Venice's repetitive picturesque avenues and the same aggressive merchants who shot light-up toys into the breezy sea air to lazily helicopter to the ground. I suppose we felt confined after three days on stuffy islands packed with families posing on staircases.

On my previous trip to Europe, a friend I met in Barcelona, Anthony, who had hopped around with me for a couple weeks, told me about Positano, the Italian city he was born in that balanced along the edge of a Mediterranean cliff. The name of the exotic town stained my brain. Positano. I liked the way it made my tongue tap the back of my teeth. When my girlfriend Dani and I decided to return to Europe, I suggested we make it a stop. The pictures on Google Images made it seem like you could tip the entire town over with a swift breath, and when we saw them we decided that we would go.

When we took our train seats, we slept as easily as possible, which on an Italian train is never easy. After passing through Rome, which from the train station looks nothing like the majestic ruins in the heart of the city, we embarked on our final stretch to Naples. From there we would take the only train to Sorrento, an entry point to the Amalfi Coast, where tucked away somewhere was Positano. Sheila and Mike, two Australian travellers we met, were also headed to Sorrento.

“So do you guys know that you are headed to lemon country?” Sheila quizzed us.

“ Lemon country?” I responded, trying to picture how lemons could grow on the side of a cliff.

“Yup, the Amalfi coast has the best lemons in the world.”

“ I love lemons. But we heard that Naples is kind of sketchy, though. Have you heard the same thing?” Dani asked Sheila, hoping this description was wrong.

“ Yeah, we had some friends who were supposed to stay there for a couple of nights, and after one day they had to get out.”

In my head I told myself that it couldn't be so bad and that it was good we were travelling in the morning.

“ They said that you have to be really careful in the subway from Naples to Sorrento. That there are tons of Gypsies who watch for tourists,“ Mike added.

I wondered if the word “ Gypsy” was considered politically incorrect or not, but our travel mates didn't mind using it, so I didn't say anything.

“ We will be extra careful with our stuff, Dylan,“ Dani said to me.

Looking out the window at the plain, green fields of Italy, I was reminded a lot of Canada, and I thought that all countries probably look like this somewhere.

By the time we were slowing into Napoli Centrale, we were both nervous about what was to come and had already stashed our passports and cash under our shirts. We said goodbye to Mike and Sheila quickly and, saddled with our backpacks, shuffled along the platform.

The first floor of the train station was surprisingly clean and modern, or at least much more modern than I had expected. I relaxed as much as I could with my heavy bag sagging on my back. Our directions informed us to take two escalators down and hop on the subway to Sorrento, which would be the last stop.

After the first escalator, there were fewer people and the lights flickered sporadically. After the second escalator, we entered a station that led to the underworld where all the rumours we had heard were soon confirmed.

A Hidden Cove © Dylan Wagman

It smelled of rotted food scraps that had been baked in the Naples heat. On the stairway to the platform, a Romany woman lay on her side with a baby, loosely wrapped in a piece of cloth, dangling from her stomach. They were both covered in a film of dirt, and I couldn't understand why the baby wasn't sobbing. When we passed her she did not say a word, but only twitched her foot. At that moment I felt a chill fall down my spine.

We stood side by side, Dani facing north and me facing south. I had not taken my hand off of my stomach for the past twenty minutes and it grew tired from pressing on the money belt hidden beneath my shirt. I could tell that Dani was not happy to be in this setting, and although I was no happier, I stayed optimistic, trying not to attract unwanted attention. In seconds, two Romanies flanked us.

The first was an old man whose lower lip was three times the size his upper one. His arms were bent close to his body so that they were all forearm, jutting awkwardly out of his torso. He shoved a brown baseball cap – once white when, ages ago, it was new – filled with coins into our faces.            

“I'm sorry. We don't have any money,“ I said. But he continued to shake it towards me.            

“ Sorry.“ I tried to look away so he would get the point. “ Sorry.“  

After two minutes, which to us felt like hours, a young woman walked briskly towards us, mumbling an unfamiliar language. We said the same thing to her that we had said to the man. Luckily the subway train arrived before anyone else could approach us.

The subway experience was not much better than our experience on the platform. We sat with our bags on our backs as a probably unnecessary precaution, which only left us about an inch of seat to push ourselves up against. This subway was not like the ones in Berlin or London or Toronto; it was much more rundown and precarious.

Subways always make loud noises, but it wasn't the volume of the noises this subway made that alarmed me most; it was the noises themselves. The train sounded like at any second the few screws and bolts that kept it upright could pop out, leaving a few sheets of metal shooting down the rusted tracks. When the train screeched to a stop, its spray-painted doors and windows shook wildly.

The graffiti-decorated towns we stopped in were depressing piles of gravel and masses of corroded, unfinished infrastructure; they were filled with people wearing tired faces. At one of the first few stops, a remarkable family entered the subway and sat a couple of rows down from us. They got comfortable quick, as if the train car was their living room.

The father must have weighed at least 260 pounds and probably had never in his life travelled further than Naples. He wore a white tank top with the front of the shirt pulled back over his head, so that his entire sweating belly was exposed. And though the mother looked as if she could have been her husband's sister, she carried the cutest baby, who bore no signs of her parents' demeanor.

The son was an untidy six-year-old with torn pants buckled around his knees. He had a dumbfounded look on his face, which was accentuated by his buck-toothed grin. He was unaware of any form of social conduct and moseyed up close enough to everyone on the train for them to feel his sour, hot breath.

We didn't know whether we should laugh or intervene, though, when the son and father began to swing the baby back and forth by her arm and leg. Somehow she was in no pain, although they tugged on her unformed sockets without care. When they got off the train I was both relieved and a bit disappointed, because I knew their second act would have been incredible.

The yellow-coloured, steel coffin of a train rocked back and forth. One second we were in complete darkness, and the next instant the subway shot out into the light on a miniscule bridge no wider than the tracks it held. Underneath it was a nearly hundred-foot drop, and I decided then that if the train came off the tracks – which at every moment seemed more and more likely – that this location wouldn't be the worst place to die. After all, the coastal mountains in the distance were beautiful, and the grassy cliffs below us, appearing to be suspended in mid air, were magnificent.

After about an hour and a half we finally pulled into Sorrento and managed to exhale as the train came to a safe stop. We made our way out of the station in a small crowd, and when I stepped into the Sorrento air, I smelled lemons.





Dylan Wagman is an avid reader and writer of prose and poetry. He is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing HBA. When not at home creating, he is either travelling in a far off continent, or he is tripping through the Algonquin wilds.





Stuck with Air Canada:
62 Hours from BOG to YXE

By Jody Hanson

If you are on the Air Canada flight to Toronto, come with me. Tim Bridges, a passenger, took it upon himself to go through the airport and muster the passengers of the cancelled flight 963 from Bogota to Toronto.  

The benign chaos reminded me of living in Nigeria. The first indication of a flight being delayed or cancelled was the airline staff quietly going into hiding, as nobody wanted to cop the flack. But this was Colombia and if it hadn't been for Tim taking charge, people may well have been stuck in the airport overnight, afraid to leave in case the flight was finally called. The frustration was that there were no Air Canada representatives to be found, no announcements and no attempt to locate the stranded.  

To backtrack, when I left the hotel at 10:30 a.m. there was no message from Orbitz – an online booking site that sends messages – of a delay. When I checked in at the airport half an hour later, however, an agent at Air Canada announced that the 14:00 flight had been postponed until 17:30 and handed me a lunch voucher. I wished she hadn't.

The Presto restaurant is best described as disgusting, and about the only thing on offer is hamburgers. I was hungry, so I ate one. Bad decision. Almost as soon as the somewhat-off grease hit my stomach it made an upward rebound. And when food tastes the same coming up as it does going down you know it is truly revolting. It wasn't that there was a shortage of restaurants at the airport; the issue was that Air Canada opted for the most el cheapo one available.    

When I got to the Star Alliance lounge and checked my email I found six messages from Orbitz, each stating that the flight had been further postponed. The final projection was for 22:13, a mere eight hour and 13 minute delay. Still contact of any kind from representatives of Air Canada.  

I used Skype and talked with Linda at the Air Canada help desk in Toronto. She informed me that the airline was awaiting inbound equipment. Neither of us could figure out what that meant. I inquired about the flight at the lounge desk and the staff replied there was no word from Air Canada and they weren't answering their phone. Eventually I went to the desk with the "flight cancelled" message on the laptop screen. Shortly after, Oscar – finally an Air Canada representative who was helpful – appeared and we were taken to the Holiday Inn at about 20:00, six hours after the flight should have left.  

Nothing makes people bond faster than a common unpleasant experience. Rumours about what had happened abounded. The leading contender was that the flight had left for Bogota, but a passenger had gone ballistic so the plane had returned to Toronto. The runner-up was that it was mechanical problems, and trailing in third place was that there had been a storm. The mute representatives from Air Canada would not offer an explanation. Did they know or does Air Canada management regard reasons for delays as corporate secrets?     

Landed with a couple of hundred – or so it seemed – unexpected guests, the staff at the Holiday Inn were overwhelmed and kicked into a go-slow mode. After procuring a room and having a fast shower to wash away the grime of the airport, there was only one sane and reasonable thing to do: Go to the bar and drink Scotch.  

Our flight was rescheduled for the following afternoon at 14:00, 24-hours after we were to have departed. The line-up was ridiculous and the check-in speed next door to dead stop. The bumped passengers and the ones booked on the flight for the day milled around. Boarding cards were replaced and we eventually ended up in the waiting area, hoping the plane would actually leave.  

And we all had a story. Danielle Gutstein reported that the night before she had been told to wait here for food vouchers for dinner. Then the representative from Air Canada disappeared and didn't return for three hours. And when she was spotted – given away by her uniform – she made a studious attempt to avoid the passengers clamoring for her attention. Another passenger and her fiancé had come in from Lima to catch a connecting flight and never wanted to stop in Colombia, as they had heard it was too dangerous. They ended up with an extra passport stamp they hadn't counted on.  

The scheduled-for 14:00 plane didn't leave Bogota until 15:10. Even though my math skills are questionable, it didn't take rocket science to figure out that with an hour and a half to make my connection to Saskatoon, it wasn't going to happen. Consequently, I had to spend a night in Toronto. And totally reprehensible was the Air Canada selected hotel didn't even have a bar for some soothing Scotch.  

The Air Canada representative in Toronto booked me on the 16:10 flight to Saskatoon. The next morning I checked online and discovered I could have been on the 11:00 or the 13:00. However, by the time I got through to a representative – it took 27 minutes – it was dodgy to make the 11:00. And I would be wait-listed on the 13:00 with no guarantee I wouldn't get to spend an additional three fun-filled hours at the Lester B. International. Pass and opt for a late check-out.  

When I finally emerged from the plane in Saskatoon I'd chalked up 62 hours from the time I'd arrived at the airport in Bogota. It was difficult, but I managed to restrain myself and not kiss the ground like John Paul II.  

About the only good thing I have to say about the trip is that at least my bags arrived, although both of them were damaged. As an aside, I've quit counting the number of times Air Canada has lost my luggage.  

Given my consistently annoying experiences with the airline, the obvious solution is to avoid Air Canada. Alas, when you live overseas, book your tickets online and have to get to central Canada to visit your ageing parents it isn't much of a travel option as the train takes too long.  

So let's just hope that passengers like Tim Bridges continue to do Air Canada's job. 

Jody Hanson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel junkie currently living in Buenos Aires. She has visited 98 countries, lived in eight and holds passports for three.





Reality Dawns:
A Bamboozling Travel Blunder

By Gary Pearson

United We Stand © Gary Pearson

I sat rigid, still and upright aboard a behemoth 747 United Airlines jetliner which had just landed at Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport. Awaiting a chance to flee the beast's innards, I nonchalantly turned on my iPhone. Messages filtered through with fury, the phone rumbling like a city besieged by aftershocks.  

“I think you took my passport mate,”one of the text messages read. “In fact, I know you did.”

Profusely sweating, I peeled my moistened carcass from the worn seat to gain access to my carry-on luggage, which rested securely in the overhead bin. Believing it was a blunder too bizarre to commit, I frantically reached into the navy blue Swiss Army bag for any clue to the missing passport's whereabouts.  

Two days beforehand – factoring in time zones – I awoke from a comatose state at the break of dawn, still having to pack for the prospective journey back to Brisbane, Australia. After six luxurious days in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where I saw my brother blissfully wed, a cruel collision with reality loomed. Fragile and hung over, I wondered how I would conquer the Mount Everest of journeys. Chucking clothes indiscriminately into my barren suitcase, I inadvertently – to his bemusement – disturbed my roommate. Steve Cavanagh stirred slowly, like a black bear rustled from hibernation.

“Enjoy your flights mate,”said a chuckling Cavanagh, his tone fraught with sarcasm. “I leave a day after you and get home before you.”

His sentiment reinforced my disenchantment. I was off to the airport to embark on an excruciatingly elongated voyage, encompassing pit stops in Charlotte, North Carolina and Los Angeles prior to the penultimate flight, a painstaking 14-hour transpacific journey to Sydney, Australia. Once in the Harbour City, a snappy one-hour flight to Brisbane remained.

Sleep deprived, I struggled to keep my eyes ajar as I arrived well before my first of four flights was scheduled to depart. Like a transient living it rough, I sprawled out on the cold tiled floor and slipped seamlessly out of consciousness.  Sangster International Airport's public address system interrupted my deep sleep.

“US Airways flight 1228 destined for Charlotte, North Carolina is delayed for one hour and 30 minutes. Sorry for the delay and any inconvenience it may cause.”

Oh well, I thought, reckoning I had ample time upon arriving in North Carolina to catch the Los Angeles connection. I floated back into dreamland. Wiping the rheum – eye gunk – from my sore, bloodshot eyes after spending hours in what seemed like an unending drug-induced coma, I boarded the jetliner. The flight landed in North Carolina “without incident,”two words travellers never outgrow. Tailwinds slashed 30 minutes off the commute, which I considered insignificant at the time. As the plane inched closer to the gate I overheard fellow passengers conversing, all of whom were concerned with their connecting flights.

We entered the terminal building like a herd of sheep. Droves of disconcerted travellers, all awaiting interrogation from a customs agent, stood in a winding queue you'd more likely see at Disneyland. Ambivalence soon morphed into uneasiness. Our feet shuffled forward inch by inch, as if bounded by shackles. Finally I understood the need for concern. Was one hour enough to navigate through customs? I had serious doubts.  

“We cannot expedite the process in any way,”pronounced the stoic, robotic customs agent whom I pleaded with. “Other people are going to miss their connections as well.”

I was unable to move, unable to express my displeasure. The diagnosis was grim. Was I condemned to make camp in an airport full of unhappy, anxious, impolite, and even more worryingly, zombie-like people?  Directly to my left – and about 20 minutes better off in line – stood four belligerent women. They jived, pranced about and spread their festive spirit like an airborne contagion. Visibly unkempt, they appeared to be on the last leg of an epic binge, further exasperating my antipathy. Whooping and hollering like a bunch of drunken teens, the unruly lot drew death stares from hundreds of onlookers too preoccupied to voice their discontent. I, too, had bigger fish to fry.

About to break free from the confines of this abhorrent airport, I flung myself towards the customs agent – whom I would have approached with caution under any other circumstance  – with disregard. Like a tweaked drug addict I propelled my passport to the agent, whose conduct was akin to that of a prison guard, someone unlikely tolerant of petulance or disorder.

“Is something wrong?”Agent John probed in his North Carolinian drawn-out drawl.

With a constricted throat, tremulous voice and twitching eyes, my mannerisms accentuated the fact I was on the verge of full-blown panic. Having ascertained my poker face is among the world's worst, John repeated his question, this time more derisively.

“Is something wrong?”he bellowed.

Haphazardly I explained the dilemma with which I was confronted. It was 4:22 p.m. and the flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to depart at 4:35 p.m., leaving 13 minutes to clear security and collect my bag before having to recheck it minutes later,.  

“Well relax,”John replied. “You'll never make that flight, so forget about it.”

His words struck a chord. I had to make the flight or jeopardize missing the Sydney connection. As the plane tickets were purchased from airlines independent of one another, a swift $1,500 would be forever lost. Knowing no good would come from panicking, I kept calm – even after hearing John speak of further delays due to a ”computer blip,” an event the man next in line failed to grasp. He was discernibly irate, shifting nervously back and forth like a pendulum perpetually swaying.

“I'm going to miss my flight,”the perturbed person pronounced.

“You're not the only one,”I murmured.

After being starkly scolded by John, the individual decompressed, visibly concealing his fury. Attempt after attempt to jumpstart the flat-lining computer faltered, until John, with one last calculated touch, miraculously made the device respond. It was as if his index finger brought the system back from the dead, like a defibrillator reviving a cardiac-arrest patient. I snatched my passport from his unyielding grip and took off like a jetliner on speed. Nine measly minutes before US Airways Flight 1437 was set to vacate the gate.

Somebody must have removed my massive antiquated suitcase from the conveyor belt, as it stood upright awaiting collection. Without breaking stride, I rolled the 23-kilogram beast 20 metres on its ragged, weathered wheels to the next baggage drop. Clambering up a flight of stairs, I arrived at the security checkpoint. Yet another line blocked the path. Surely this was the final nail in the coffin. I begged one security agent to let me skip the line. Unsympathetic to my plight, she brushed the request aside. Her eyes were dark and cold, seemingly devoid of empathy. I scanned the terrain, looking for any alternative. Through a maze of people, I spotted a short, rotund security agent. Compassion personified, he immediately identified with my quandary.

“Come on then,”he blurted out, his level of urgency matching my own.

I stripped off my shoes and belt and made it through security with two minutes to spare. Barefoot, I sprinted like a lunatic who'd recently escaped from a nearby insane asylum. Where was Gate 30? It had to be close. And then I saw it. The gate was within reach. Forebodingly, the departure board above the gate had changed. A flight to Indianapolis, Indiana flashed in bright, crimson lights. A representative at the gate piped up.

“You have 30 seconds to board this flight or it is pulling away from the gate,”he said.

I couldn't believe it. For once, the slow-moving, pedantic pace at which planes depart worked in my favour. Gasping for air, I boarded the jetliner and breathed a boisterous sigh of relief, one that could be heard over the roaring Rolls-Royce engines.

The plane, its wheels screeching on impact with the tarmac, touched down four hours and a bag of M&M's later. Los Angeles International Airport – LAX for those unfamiliar with airport acronyms – is an airport whose temporary inhabitants resemble a horde of rats you'd find deep below the London Underground. It is overcrowded, overwhelming and offers no reprieve. It is reminiscent of most major hubs – a necessary evil you can't wait to be rid of.

Waiting to collect my bag, I took solace in the last-on-first-off rule. My suitcase would surely appear from the abyss as one of the frontrunners, like a gold-medal hopeful rounding the final bend. A plethora of luggage, however, rounded the conveyor belt in quick succession with no coffin-like, grey Atlantic suitcase in sight. The waiting crowd dwindled as relieved travellers left with bags in hand. I stood solemnly waiting. The conveyor belt had stopped spewing bags. While I managed to catch the flight to LA with a last-ditch sprint, my laggard luggage was not afforded the same preferential fate. After a US Airways baggage claim attendant begrudgingly guaranteed my lost bag would be delivered a day after I arrived in Brisbane, I jumped aboard a bus transferring passengers from the domestic to international terminal.

I lost my balance and, as the bus streaked away, fortuitously landed ass first on a vacant seat. A noticeably distraught woman – in her mid-20s – sat across from me. Tears poured uncontrollably from her swollen eyes, like a bursting nimbus during an Indian monsoon. Maybe she had recently parted ways from her soul mate; maybe she missed her mom with whom she was profoundly connected; maybe, like me, she had endured a journey too taxing to ignore. I pondered further the reason for her distress in flight as the Boeing 747 ascended over the vast, luminous Los Angeles skyline. Other than my having to fight for every centimetre of real estate, the lengthy and uncomfortable flight glided smoothly over the Pacific Ocean.

“Welcome to Sydney,”said the energetic flight attendant, unaffected by the 14-hour, 12,000-kilometre voyage. I had come – barring a few unavoidable incidents – through the ordeal intact. How quickly circumstances can change.

Phone incessantly abuzz, I dug through my carry-on bag and retrieved what I thought to be a package containing travel insurance. I ripped open the Velcro strap and found a Canadian passport belonging to Cavanagh staring me in the face. Reality, like Sydney's serene, sundrenched day, had dawned. I had inadvertently nabbed his passport.

Stranded in Paradise © Gary Pearson

Numerous attempts to contact the 30-year-old restaurant manager failed. My world, now defined by a medley of emotions – embarrassment, horror, anger and shock – was in disarray. That paled in comparison to what my friend of 15 years had to endure. Cavanaugh, prohibited from boarding his flight to Calgary, was stranded in Jamaica. Running around incognito – as his checkout date had since expired – Cavanagh lived like a stowaway, making camp at the Iberostar Rose Hall Beach Resort with my cousin, aunt and uncle.

“I had to wear a disguise,”said Cavanagh during our first telephone conversation after he'd been prohibited from leaving the Caribbean island. He had avoided hotel staff for days by sneaking around the resort on tiptoes like a cat burglar. “I felt like a criminal on the run.”

At least he saw the humour in the comedy of my egregious error. Six days later – and after many meetings at the Canadian Embassy in Montego Bay – Cavanagh was issued emergency travel documents and permitted to board a flight back to the Great White North. A manager at the Vintage Steakhouse in Calgary, Cavanagh was unable to fulfill innumerable duties while stranded in the land of rum and reggae. Sounding like a chapter from a fiction novel, his truthful version of events fell on deaf ears.  

“My general manager sacked me, mate,”he yelled down the phone. “They didn't believe me. I've lost my job.”

I suppose the tale does sound farfetched. It was almost as difficult a sell as sand to a nomad of the Sahara, and Cavanagh was forced to provide indisputable proof of his recent predicament. Upon doing so, he was rightfully reinstated to his former position. Minus the sunk cost of a replacement flight, he emerged from the monumental debacle relatively unscathed, with a prolonged Caribbean holiday, a rosy-red face and yet another tale to tell.

I arrived in Brisbane a broken man, but I took consolation in the fact that I was 12,500 kilometres from anyone who knew the details of my bamboozling blunder. Time away and space apart, I hope, has an effect akin to the mind erasers' flashing red light in the blockbuster hit Men in Black.

Now, if it's not too much to ask please stare into the flashing red light.

Gary Pearson has freelanced on behalf of the Canadian Press, the Edmonton Journal and Blaze Magazine, the official magazine of the Calgary Flames – a National Hockey League team. Recently he contributed to the Prince Albert Daily Herald as a sports reporter, and prior to that, completed his internship as a member of the City and Region team at the Calgary Herald, the city's most read daily newspaper.

All images © Gary Pearson. You can follow Gary Pearson on Twitter @newagejourno.





Biking Badly

By Kenneth Fagan

Pacific Spirit Park  © the travel itchPacific Spirit Park, Cheek Down © the travel itch

Have you ever laughed at that typical idiot trundling down a hillside, arse to the sun and face to the thistles, trailing a runaway bicycle?

Well I have – many times. I always believed myself to be too clever to do anything as dumb as falling off my bike. But we all know that courage and stupidity can quite often mean the same thing if hazardous situations are put into the hands of somebody as seeming invincible as myself.

It was early October in 2010 when I finally got my comeuppance. I always liked biking, especially on forest trails and anything that was bumpy and a bit dangerous. I ventured out with a friend to Pacific Spirit Regional Park, a 763-hectare enchanted forest with over 50km of cycle, walking and horse trails, situated at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. It's a favoured spot of mine due to it being relatively tourist free in comparison with hectic Stanley Park in the city's densely populated West End. I was decked out in the usual gear: shorts, t-shirt, helmet and a cheap bike that wasn't really meant for anything other than taking you to the shop to buy a newspaper (despite it being a mountain bike). The last stretch in the forest was a steep downhill, with gradual stepping down (assuming for safety) until it met back with the road.

Me being me, I was having a whale of a time bunny hopping over each wooden step like an over-excited terrier. I had left my friend back in a grove of Douglas firs somewhere, cycling sensibly. I didn't get very far though; my need for speed quite literally ended with a slap and a bang.

I hopped over a step and it all went wrong from there, as I fishtailed from left to right and back again until I regained a small bit of control. It wasn't long though before I was out of control again.

Pacific Spirit Makeover  © the travel itchPacific Spirit Makeover © Kenneth Fagan

“This is going to be fucking nasty.” Those were the last few words I said to myself as my bike took on a mind of its own. I remember the instant when it all came to a halt: a tree root protruding from the ground stopped me in my tracks. I was thrown over the handlebars and my face was grated like cheese on the gravelly ground beneath me, while the bike landing on top of me made sure the job was done properly.

“I'm after breaking my fucking tooth!” Those were my first words after my fight with the dirt. I looked like I had been beaten up by a bunch of heavies at a seedy strip club somewhere. I didn't realize the extent of the damage until a good Samaritan took me to the hospital where I got ten stitches on my face and had all the gravel removed from my four bloody limbs. I almost could have grown some herbs in the earth that was taken from my left arm.

After a week of self-pity, painkillers, and a limpy leg, I was ready to return to the bad-ass world of normality. It took me almost a year to get back on a bike again. Now more than ever do I know the fine line between bravery and stupidity.

Kenneth Fagan, a transplant from the Emerald Isle to Canada's Pacific jewel Vancouver, sees his new home as both an adventure and a challenge. With his typical sardonic Irish wit, he shares his stories on West Coast Canadian culture.





Journey to Java

By Gavin Fisher

Mr. Fisher
Mr. Fisher © Gavin Fisher

The bus slowly came to a halt and, opening my sleepy eyes, I saw the bus driver standing over me and telling me in broken English that this was my stop. We were somewhere in the middle of Eastern Java, Indonesia, and it was 4 a.m. I clambered off the bus, still half-asleep, and grabbed my backpack from the cargo bay beneath the bus. When I got my wits about me, I saw that I had not been dropped off at the bus station. As the bus screeched away I realized I was on some seeming random street in the middle of a town named Probolinggo. Oh boy.

How did I get there? After a week and a half on the island of Bali – soaking up the sun and learning to surf – I decided to go westward to Java to learn more about Indonesian culture. I bought a bus ticket in Denpasar which would take me to Java; my passage included the cost of the ferry between Bali and its neighbour to the west. I arranged to be dropped off at a town near Mount Bromo, a famed volcano within Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park in East Java.

I organized my luggage, got onto the bus, and settled down to do some reading to pass the time. It was early evening, and I knew it was going to be a long night ahead. As soon as the bus's engine roared to life and the bus pulled onto the road, a booming sound began. I looked up at the speakers above my head, and then to the front of the bus where a screen was playing Indonesian pop music videos with heavy dance beats. For some reason the bass was turned up way higher than the treble, so what resulted was a constant thump!thump!thump! sound. I make it a rule to always carry earplugs with me wherever I go, but no matter how far I jammed them into my ears I still couldn't block out the booming bass. In a short time the sun set, and since there were no reading lights I had to put an end to my reading – which hadn't been very successful anyway with the overpowering music in the background.

Nevertheless, I was excited. Every island in the Indonesian archipelago is unique, and I felt like I was traveling to an entirely new country. As a student of religious studies I had enjoyed visiting the Balinese Hindu temples during my first week and a half in the region, and now I was excited to explore the Islamic side of Indonesia. I also planned to visit Borobudur, one of the largest ancient Buddhist monuments in the world.

Somewhere down the road my daydreams dissipated with the realization that the bus was not moving. We were at a standstill. I looked out the window, and since there was a bend in the road, I could see that traffic up ahead was also stopped. There must have been an accident. I had no idea how long the wait was going to be. I couldn't read, I couldn't sleep. I was at the complete mercy of the booming Indonesian pop music.

There was nothing to do but sit and wait, with the bus idling and the Indonesian music resounding throughout the bus. I paid closer attention to the music videos and realized that what I was actually hearing was Indonesian pop songs that had been remixed with dance beats, hence the continuous booming noise in my ears. The artists' original music videos had also been spliced with scenes of girls dancing in clubs.

The Indo-pop Blasting Bus copyright Gavin Fisher
The Indo-pop Blasting Bus © Gavin Fisher

After what felt like hours, the bus lurched forward and we began moving again. Shortly afterward I saw the cause of our delay: a truck had overturned and its contents had spilled all over the road. We passed the scene of the accident and traffic rolled along smoothly again. However, the chance of getting any sleep was nonexistent. Every time the DVD ended – leaving a few precious moments of silence – it would start up again. The constant booming and dazzling images of provocative women dancing in front of my eyes made sleep impossible. A thin haze of tobacco smoke passed my face. Where was that coming from? I looked around and saw that a young man sitting across the aisle from me was smoking.

After some time we reached the ferry terminal on the western side of Bali and boarded the ferry. The rest of the passengers and I clambered off the bus and were greeted by hawkers trying to sell coffee, hot chocolate and instant noodles. I found a seat on the ferry, and then went back and bought some noodles. It didn't take long to cover the distance between Bali and Java, and then it was back to the bus.

Bali turned into Java and Thursday became Friday while I was still on the Indo-pop blasting, second-hand smoke-filled bus. At around one o'clock in the morning the bus came to a stop somewhere on the side of the road. An announcement was made in Indonesian, and most of the people got off the bus. I didn't know what to do, because I thought it was too early to have arrived at my destination. However, when I stayed behind, the driver made some eating motions with his hands. So I followed everyone else getting off the bus and saw that we were stopped in front of a restaurant.

The bus driver's assistant shoved a ticket into my hands and, following the rest of the line through the dark restaurant into the back, I realized that my ticket gave me entry into a buffet. I grabbed some rice and chicken, but since it was the middle of the night I wasn't really in the mood for dinner.  As I sat down I noticed that a television was playing Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. As I ate my food – in some remote transit restaurant in the middle of the night in Eastern Java – I watched as Indy confronted a group of Nazis to claim back the Ark of the Covenant. The experience felt surreal.

Edge of Mount Bromo Crater  © Gavin Fisher

Edge of Mount Bromo Crater © Gavin Fisher

Once we began moving again – and my stomach was filled a bit – I finally nodded off to sleep. It was then, at four o'clock in the morning, that the driver woke me and tossed me out into the middle of Probolinggo. My brain was still trying to wake and reach full capacity so that I could figure out my next move when a man suddenly came running up and asked me to come with him. I could think of no better idea, so I followed him down a side street until we reached a small room that said “Tourist Agency” above. As he opened up and switched on the lights, I realized that the bus driver had strategically dropped me off near a tourist office. After some discussion the man arranged for a van to take me up the mountain to Cemoro Lawang, the small village near Mount Bromo, and after finding a place to stay, I finally, finally passed out and got some much-needed sleep.

When I woke in the afternoon I went across the Sea of Sand, the vast plain that is home to Mount Bromo, and climbed the side of the legendary volcano. As I sat, gazing into the sulfuric crater, I reflected on my surreal bus trip of that morning and previous night. I realized, as uncomfortable as my trip was, I wouldn't wish that it had been any different.

After graduating with a degree in English Literature and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, Gavin was tired of book learning and was ready to experience more of the world. He found a job teaching in a children's camp in Taiwan and spent the summer travelling around Taiwan and Indonesia.

When not teaching, Gavin frequently writes on the topics such as religion, culture and social issues for Converge, a Canadian lifestyle magazine. More of Gavin's work can be read on his website at gavinfisher.ca.





On the Way to Alnif

By Jody Hanson

On the Way to Alnif
Alnif Street Scene © Jody Hanson

The directions Aziz, my Berber friend, gave me were easy enough: “Take the train to Marrakech, then catch the luxury bus or a grand taxi to Quarzazat. Once you get there, take another bus or taxi to Tinghir, about another three hours. When you arrive phone me. I'll meet you and take you to Alnif.” Being invited to a Berber wedding in Alnif – an isolated village in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco – was an invitation anthropologists would kill for. All the couples in the village get married at the same time – there were 29 brides last year – and it was a three-day event I didn't want to miss. Aziz and his fiancé Khadijah had married in the ceremony last year. (Their baby was only three days old and yet to be named Tifaout.) Getting to Alnif, as it turned out, proved to be an adventure in itself.

My plan was to arrive in Marrakech and get a ticket to Quarzazat on the luxurious bus that left at 6:30 in the morning. Then I would be free to spend the evening exploring the souks and soaking up the ambience of this imperial city. But the last ticket had been sold an hour before I arrived, so the only way to get to Quarzazat, the first port of call, was by grand taxi. Thirty-year-old-plus, white Mercedes Benzes, decades out of production and now yellow with age, comprise the grand (French for “big”) taxi fleet. Their tires don't have much tread anymore and the chrome bumpers generally hang at suspicious angles, while the upholstery – what is left of it – is ragged and stained from the numerous passengers the weary vehicles have ferried over the years.  

On the Way to Alnif
Desert Scene © Jody Hanson

When the grand taxi had the required six passengers, everyone piled in. The last passenger, however, wandered off to buy some grapes at a stall, and then proceeded to visit another to have them washed. The people in the taxi glared at him and the driver honked. I opened the door and stepped out. I'd claimed the window seat in the back – the best in the grand taxi – and wasn't about to let the grape guy elbow in on the territory I'd staked. All passengers accounted for, we pulled out of the taxi park and headed for the highway. The driver seemed competent, so that was a good sign. I glanced around the taxi hoping none of the other passengers had recently annoyed Allah, because it is His will when you are going to die, and I really didn't want to go down with the culprit.  

On the far side of the back seat there was a guy in his 40s. He was dark haired and rather non-descript, except for the white patches around his mouth. He looked as though he may have been scalded with water when he was young. Or perhaps they were birthmarks. Next to him sat a muscular teenager who looked as though he might be a student, someone who played sports. The 20s-something grape guy squashed in next to me was podgy, double-chinned, and had an extra roll of fat around his belly. He wiggled slightly. Nothing blatant enough to be offensive, but still obvious enough to let me know that rubbing up against a foreign woman was about the most exciting thing he'd done all month – perhaps all year. But such is the personal space of grand taxis. Not wanting to engage in conversation, I shifted and decidedly stared out the window, feigning fascination with the scenery. The green landscape around Marrakech became terracotta coloured, sandy and more mountainous as we progressed. Soon we were high enough that there were mountain peaks everywhere I looked. Before me lay a dry, dusty, desolate desert.

The road climbed sharply as it snaked up the mountain. The steeper the drops on either side, the tighter I clung to the handle above the window to steady myself. As I peered over the edges of the hairpin curves, the drops became more pronounced. And when we reached a point in the road where they plummeted, almost vertically hundreds of metres, I blanched visibly – especially when I saw a gap in the flimsy tin fence where a vehicle had gone over. The only redeeming feature of the fall would have been instant death.

On the Way to Alnif
Grand Taxis © Jody Hanson

The driver's eyes never veered from the road, nor did his hands ever stray from the steering wheel. Taxi drivers in Morocco are notorious for smoking marijuana, the logic being that nobody in their right mind would drive the mountainous roads in an old car in questionable mechanical condition if they were straight. Even when he was following a slow-moving truck into a curve he didn't try to pass, as three vehicles in such a narrow space would mean at least one had to go over. And it was a long way down.

As the summit came in sight, my grip on the handle over the door relaxed slightly, and I wiggled my jaw to unclench my teeth. But my relaxed muscles tensed again when we reached the top, as we were confronted with yet another set of switchback mountain roads to navigate. “It is a damn good thing I didn't know what I was getting into, or I wouldn't have slept for a week,” I muttered to myself. I closed my eyes, but they didn't stay that way for long.

When the road finally leveled out – after nearly five hours of sheer terror that felt like five days – and the grand taxi started speeding across paved roads, my panic evaporated. Finally, it pulled to a stop in the grand taxi park in Ouarzazat. I stepped out, flexed my muscles, and tried to regain my sense of balance.

“Thank you,” I told the driver in my schoolgirl French, as I gave him some dirham and a Canadian flag pin. “You are a good driver. ” He smiled and got back behind the steering wheel.

Jody Hanson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel junkie currently living in Buenos Aires. She has visited 98 countries, lived in eight and holds passports for three.





Monsoon in Bhutan:
A Kingdom for a Pinch of Salt

By Tony Robinson-Smith

BhutanNature Unleeched © Simon Reip

"Bee sting or a... What is potom in English? Hornet?" says the nurse. She looks closely at my hand. My fingers are sausages, my knuckles invisible under a glove of flesh. The swelling has now reached my elbow.

"Not snake or scorpion?" She laughs at my ignorance. "If snake, you be dead by now! And don't scratch those leech bites."

We must be a sight to behold, plastered from head to foot in mud, arms grazed and bloody, legs dotted with purple blotches. And we've only been in the bush two days.

***

Fed up with being stuck indoors, my wife and I decided to leave the guesthouse and head up the nearest mountain. It was late September. Monsoon season in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was supposed to be over.

It was hard-going from the start, the path all mud and mashed leaves, so steep in places it was three steps up, one slide down. First we had to negotiate waterlogged paddy fields then dense forest, sweeping aside weeping lianas and low-hanging branches. Rain lashed our backs, cloud rolled over us. The bushes were home to leeches, black rubber bands that slipped through our fingers when we tried to pick them off. If we hadn't been so hasty to leave, we would've thought to bring salt.

BhutanMisty Mountains of Bhutan © Nadya Ladouceur

After a night camping in a clearing, we stumbled on Taga: four bamboo huts,

ten people, two black dogs, and a dripping yak wearing a leech like a monocle. They didn't have any salt in the village, but soaked to the skin and socked to the knees in mud, we appreciated the tea.

"Oga deley?" inquired grandpa, arms folded and shaking his head in disbelief. Where you heading? He had crinkled eyes, a baggy throat, and a blue pebble hanging from one ear on a bit of string. We sat on packed dirt round a smouldering fire with a blackened billycan bubbling over it.

"Korbi den cha," my wife said after a moment's thought. Just wandering.

Ten minutes out of Taga and the rain began in earnest, a savage downpour that stopped us in our tracks. When it let up, we found the path so pitted with puddles we had to abandon it and thrash a way for ourselves through the bush with a stick. Something sheltering under a leaf or parked in a barky crevice objected. My allergic reaction started my heart racing, made my breathing ragged. We made a b-line for the motor road a thousand feet below, beating back the jungle, skidding and tumbling down greasy precipices, snatching for branches and swinging from them like monkeys.

***

The nurse gives me two anti-inflammatory tablets. I feel achy, itchy, woozy, tired, but happy. Next time, we'll take salt with us. Antihistamine might be a smart idea too.

Tony Robinson-Smith has written travel stories for the Globe & Mail, Perceptive Travel, and Tashi Delek, Druk Air's in-flight magazine. Back in 6 Years, his travel book about circling the planet without using aircraft, demonstrates how refusing to fly can land you in plenty of trouble.

Top image is © by Nadya Ladouceur. Simon Reip's images can be enjoyed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/reipy/.

A Different Strain of Travel Fever

By Annette Greene

dengue fever

I would advise anyone living in or travelling to a tropical region to find out if dengue fever is prevalent there. If it is, the only precautions one can take to avoid getting infected are to apply a strong mosquito repellant and to wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. I no longer live in the tropics, but if I go back for a visit, I certainly will be cautious because I do not want to be the first of Dr. Liu's patients to get dengue a second time.

I was having a hard time concentrating at the school in downtown Singapore where I was working as an English as a Second Language teacher. As I closed my eyes and put my head back against the chair, I asked myself, "What is wrong with me?" The next day I found myself in Dr. Liu's office.                

"I think you probably have dengue fever," he said, matter-of-factly.                

My eyes opened a little wider and my jaw dropped. I'd heard about this mosquito-borne virus when I first moved to Singapore but never imagined that I would be one of its victims. With this diagnosis, I stayed home from work and slept — sometimes up to 16 hours/day. Each day I returned to the clinic for a blood test to check my platelet count: Dengue fever causes your blood platelet count to go down and you can be at risk of hemorrhaging if the count gets too low. Over the course of a few days my count dropped, stabilized, and then started to increase.

Within a week, I felt fully recovered and then found out more about the virus. Dengue fever is more dangerous for children, older people, and people who have serious health problems. Healthy adults can usually recover from the virus within a week. As there is no vaccine against dengue fever, the only method of prevention is to avoid getting bitten by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, a species known to bite during daytime hours. Having one of the four strains of dengue does not give you immunity against the other strains. It might be more dangerous to get infected with dengue a second time, as it could develop into the more serious dengue hemorrhagic fever. When I asked Dr. Liu about the dangers of getting dengue again, he brushed me off.

"I've never had a patient get dengue twice." This did not set my mind at rest.

A few weeks later I started losing my hair. A dermatologist reassured me that this was temporary, caused by the stress my body had been under as it struggled with the disease. He told me that I wouldn't lose it all and that what I did lose would grow back. I found this reassuring and he was right. Another post-dengue symptom was the peeling of skin on the bottoms of both of my feet. This felt strange and went on for a number of weeks, leaving me with very smooth, pink soles, reminiscent of babies' feet.                

Within a year or two of coming down with dengue fever, other people I knew also contracted the virus. In Singapore, my husband and a colleague were stricken, as was a friend living in Jakarta, Indonesia. All of them recovered within a short time. The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) gives this information on dengue fever: "With more than one-third of the world's population living in areas at risk for transmission, dengue infection is a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics and subtropics. As many as 100 million people are infected yearly…When infected, early recognition and prompt supportive treatment can substantially lower the risk of developing severe disease."                

I was excited to read this past summer about new research out of Australia which suggests that scientists may have found a way to eliminate this virus by injecting the Aedes aegypti mosquito with a bacterial parasite that prevents the transmission of dengue.   Where did I come in contact with the mosquito that infected me? Was it at a nearby beach or perhaps even in my own backyard? I will never know; however, the important thing is that it only took one insect and one bite to give me dengue fever, an experience I hope to never have again. 

   

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C.She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication.

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In the drink without a paddle

By Catherine Taylor

Nannie walked to our dinner table, casually sat down and introduced himself as the best guide in all of Thailand. Suddenly feeling safe from the aggressive tour guides that lined the streets of Chang Mai, my friend Laurie and I were lulled into conversation with him and became impressed by his knowledge of local lore. By evening we had made arrangements to join him on a three-night tour of the Golden Triangle, an area known as much for its lush landscape as for its notorious opium dealers.

The next morning, Nannie and his assistant lead us and eight other foreign tourists along a narrow jungle path through emerald-coloured fields filled with sounds and smells that thrilled our senses. After a long slog through a damp forest, we gratefully settled into our first camp — a village populated with hungry dogs and semi-naked children hiding in the evening shadows. Both swooped in to feast on the leftovers of our dinner.

The village chief was a rough-looking drug trader and many of the villagers, we were told, were addicted to opium. Our camp choice, it seemed, was no coincidence. We discovered that the reason our guide chose this village was to indulge two of our group's desire for an opium experience. Unintimidated by our surroundings, we delighted at the brilliant canopy of stars, and feeling weary after a long trek, we gratefully accepted an offer by a courteous villager to usher us to our beds — a dry floor in a large central hut where, in their heightened state, our companions entertained us.

Despite heavy rain the next day, we travelled by river on bamboo rafts. Securing our daypacks to our vessel's only upright post, Laurie, Nannie and I pushed off from shore by planting our stilt-like poles into the muddy river bottom. This portion of the trip felt like a Huck Finn adventure as we eagerly plied our way through a verdant jungle gorge. The rain lasted all day, making the current faster and the river harder to navigate. Whenever one of the companion rafts fell behind, we would brake to wait by holding on to branches of a submerged tree along the river's edge.

Several hours into our journey, our raft lurched toward a huge rock. Our poles were ineffective in the swift water, and we couldn't maneuver around it. Nannie yelled for us to hold on as we broadsided the rock and were dumped into the river. Laurie and I swam hard for shore. Trees whipped at us as we grasped for a hold. With a wiry branch in one hand and my friend's hand in the other, I struggled against the current to pull her toward me. The river's power, however, was too strong, and it savagely tore her from my grasp. I watched helplessly as she floated away.

I waded waist deep along the river's edge, yelling for help and clawing my way toward shore. Panic set in as I held onto tree branches and, hand-over-hand, made my way down river. I frantically pushed through bushes to get to the water's edge in an attempt to reach my guide. When I reached him, I was relieved to learn my companion was safe.

I was unable to find a place from which to climb onto land, so I continued inching along underwater ledges and beneath bushes. Amid the chaos of sensations, I felt a painful stab on my arm. I looked down to see a fleet of fire ants crawling over me. I plunged into the water, completely submersing myself, and slapped at them as they bit.

Despite all the confusion, the members of our group managed to congregate on the riverbank. We were in a state of terror, as there appeared to be no respite from the approaching night and razor-sharp rain. A large rock on shore was the best campsite we could find, and we huddled together wet, cold and hungry to rest until dawn.

Conditions improved by next morning. The water had receded two feet during the long night, and the torrential rain had become a light drizzle. We were soon able walk along the river's muddy shore, skirting the jungle's thick foliage and planting our feet carefully from fear of stepping on a snake. After a few hours hiking, we heard someone calling. Through the tangled flora we spied a man with his barking dog. Rescue had arrived. Our saviour had heard via the jungle telegraph that we were lost on the river, and he had spent hours searching for us. He handed us bottled water and cookies and asked if anyone had been bitten, stung or had leeches. A final moment of horror ran through our group as we dropped our pants and shorts to hunt for signs of the blood-sucking creatures.