Camping Under the Midnight Sun in Narvik

Midnight Sun

Rain sprayed like bullets the night I found myself camping in an abandoned Nazi bunker, deep in the Arctic Circle.      I had driven 3000 miles up Scandinavia in a station wagon, crossing Denmark, Sweden, and north into Norway.   Everyman’s Right is a Scandinavian law that allows anyone to camp anywhere, so long as it’s not invading someone’s home.   I camped beside highways, in mosquito infested forests, on concrete parking lots – but nothing quite as sinister and spooky as the deep, dark tunnels burrowed into the hills surrounding the port town of Narvik.

Having paid quite a bundle for the visa, I was disappointed to read the sign that I had officially entered Norway.   No checkpoints, no guards, no nothing here in the tundra, where vegetation seldom grows beyond knee height and blue ice forms natural sculptures.  We often had to stop the car to allow reindeer herds to cross the highway.   The reindeer jerky I bought at a gas station did have a reddish tint to it, and I thought guiltily of Rudolph.

Oil rich Norway, once a colony of Denmark, is the wealthiest country in Scandinavia, at one point conducting a study as to how it could distribute its vast cash surplus to its 5-million population without the country’s social structures collapsing.   Subsequently, everything is expensive, and Norwegians are only too happy to enjoy poll position on the podium of a historically competitive region.  It also takes gold in the natural beauty marathon – every corner unpeeling the wrapper of some new eye-popping candy. The dramatic, snowcapped mountains and clear glacier lakes contrast Denmark’s flat, prairie feel and Sweden’s never-ending, pine green forests.      It was June, the height of summer and the only month many of these roads were open.     The first glacial lake was so clean you could drink and swim simultaneously, and I did exactly that.   Twelve seconds later I had swum enough, drunk my fill, and almost frozen to death.      As we made our way south after crossing the border from Sweden, the first town we came to was Narvik, scene of an epic WWII battle between the Nazis and British and Polish troops.   A major iron ore producer, Narvik was strategically important to both sides, and the Nazis quickly fortified its position when it occupied the region early in the war.     The town itself did not offer much, although its war museum created a moving sense of history.   Traveling with Troels, a Danish friend, we picked up supplies (salmon, of course) and drove on narrow roads and narrower bridges looking for somewhere to camp.   That’s when we found the muddy turnoff, overgrown with lush, and followed it towards the fjord.    At the bottom, two paths, one towards a house and another towards the sea.   Twenty feet later, I saw the cannon turrets and the entrance to a bunker.    It was already 8pm with the feel of early morning thanks to the Midnight Sun.  Three months without stars, and you can kiss your moon goodbye.   Of course, Arctic Night deprives the region of sun for four months over winter, so unless you’re a vampire, you don’t look for a tan in northern Scandinavia      We did however have torches, and investigated the labyrinth of tunnels that connected the bunkers.   It was damp, cold and muddy, but surprisingly clean of human occupation, as if it had hid itself from Narvik teenagers all these years.   Rusted barbwire increased the Saving Private Ryan illusion, but it was not until I found a bent spoon with a swastika on the handle that I truly got spooked.  Troels said that bunkers like these were common in Denmark, and suggested we camp here for the night that’s really a day.    We faced a gorgeous fjord, surrounded by steep, icing-frosted mountains, and almost certainly well occupied by the ghosts of 400 Nazis.

Troels could speak Norwegian, which differs from Danish and Swedish and is related more to German.    We went to the house to introduce ourselves to the neighbors, a friendly elderly couple offering tea and biscuits.    Through Troels I learnt that 400 Nazi’s had been based in these bunkers, which ran deeper into the hills than we had realized.   They gave us fresh water and we made dinner over a gas stove in one of the larger bunkers.  I decided to pitch a tent rather than sleep inside.  I have clearly watched way too many X Files.    By one in the morning, it was still mid-afternoon light and I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the irony of a Jew receiving shelter from the rain (and bloodthirsty mosquitoes) beside a Nazi relic.      It stirred up a smorgasbord of emotions.  

It was, ironically, the 21st of June, the longest day of the year.  I drove back into Narvik to visit the war museum, unsuccessfully trying to find more information about our bunker.    Back on the highway, driving south, the scenery continued its spectacle – bigger, sharper mountains roped by deep, turquoise fjords.   Every corner brought another “whoa”, and I stopped taking pictures because they could do no justice.   We drove 170 kilometers that day, every mile a postcard.    The Norwegians are also famous for their tunnels, without which the country would be impassable.   Marvels of engineering, some of these tunnels clocked in at over 5km in length, and by the end of the trip we had passed through over 50 of them, relishing the purity of the darkness it afforded.    Ferries were also commonplace, most of them ferrying 95% of their traffic in these two, short summer months.   Heavy traffic came in the form of camper vans baring English, German and French plates.  The winding, narrow roads kept over-taking strictly in the domain of mostly dead thrill seekers.    We spent our last night in the Arctic Circle in a trailer park, splurging on a wooden cabin that smelt like a Viking’s loincloth.      It had been two weeks since I had seen the night, and I would have completely forgotten what it was like, until I closed my eyes.

Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein

We’re all shocked by Russia’s war with Ukraine, although war would imply two nations going at each other, not one attacking another’s sovereignty while the other – weaker in all respects – desperately fights for survival. Not since Iraq invaded Kuwait has one country tried to increase its land border and resources at the expense of another. Not since World War II. Ukraine is a country of proud people, landscape and culture. Despite Putin’s horrifying ambitions, it is not part of Russia. It is Ukraine. I’m reminded of my time there, exploring modern Kiev, learning of the horrors of Chernobyl, and how Ukraine turned over all its nukes after the Cold War to become a peaceful, independent country. Nuclear weapons are now being armed, risking millions of lives. It’s timely to share this report from deep within the former Soviet nuclear machine: a machine currently being fired up in Russia.

The button looks innocent enough.    In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets, gauges and monitors, it is just one small button on a control panel of many.   24 hours a day, an officer sits harnessed in a chair, monitoring the equipment, and awaiting a phone call.   On orders, he places a key into a slot, and turns clockwise.   Punching in an access code, he takes a breath, and pushes the small white knob.  In just over half an hour, a missile carrying a payload of ten thermonuclear warheads would hit multiple targets in the United States.    In the ensuing carnage, each warhead would vaporize an area of 200 square kilometres, along with every living creature inside it.   Millions of people would die, millions more from the release of deadly radiation.   Life as we know it would cease to exist, as thousands of similar missiles would criss-cross the skies to seek out their targets.  All it takes is one push of this seemingly innocent button, located in a control room 40-metres below the Ukrainian countryside.   My finger draws near.   My hand starts to shake.  

Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia.   Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the country, missile units were surrounded by armed guards and 3000-volt electric fences, and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war.   With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon free zone, and with US support, dismantled its missiles and bases.   Today, just three and half hours drive outside of Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world’s most bone-chilling tourist attractions. 

The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base that has been opened to the public by the armed forces of Ukraine.   Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded, and later dismantled.  Other than several missiles and engines on open display, the location appears innocuous – a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower.  Massive green transport trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister.   Deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos designed to destroy the world.    As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel towards the command silo.  Immediately, the sealed in atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy.  Slightly hunched, I am opening the mechanical and electrical toolbox designed to initiate Armageddon.

Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for over a decade.   If the orders had come down, as they very nearly did, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles, and annihilating entire cities of the enemy.   Moustached and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a pool stick pointer.  He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing.   The Colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would directly have resulted in the slaughter of millions.   Did he get scared?   The severity of the situation is terrifying for anybody, but he tells me he would push the button, he would follow orders, as that is what he was trained to do.  My translator Sergey explains that officers were carefully screened and profiled.  Any sign of moral anguish or doubt would result in an immediate transfer.  

The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only.  Guards were instructed to kill anyone caught within the security zone that surrounds the base.   How does the Colonel feel now that he guides tourists from over 100 countries along the same restricted tunnel?  “It is not a secret anymore,” he says, as we arrive at three more massive thick iron doors protecting the command silo.   Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls, and above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube shaped silo.  The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake, or more likely, missile attacks.  In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, explains the Colonel, mutually assured nuclear annihilation was not so much an “if”, but a “when”. 

We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly towards Level 12.    A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck.   I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank.   Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door.  Bleak as a tomb, this is the living quarters for the two officers on duty.   An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room.   All signs of life are removed.  Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities can only exist here in the imagination.  The boredom of such a post would be interminable, the doom pressing heavy on the shoulders of soldiers.  There is purpose in its design, as if ending the world would be a relief, an escape from such a sterile and soulless environment.    The Colonel makes a point of refusing to sit in one of the officer chairs.  That life, he swallows hard, is behind him.   I take my seat, and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing. 

Have you ever played with an unloaded firearm?   Even though you know there are no bullets, even though you know the chamber is empty, placing the gun to your temple and squeezing the trigger is more than most sane people can handle.   I envision the sickening photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above, demonstrating the horror and devastation of nuclear warfare. My hand shakes.  There are no nuclear missiles in Ukraine, the silos were long ago filled with cement.   Yet I cannot bring myself to do it.  Some buttons are just not meant to be pressed.  

My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot summer sun to warm them.   The Colonel walks me over to a former missile silo, pointing out the protected radar and satellite receiver that allowed the missiles to be launched remotely.  Devices to measure radiation would alert the officers below when it would be safe to emerge as some of the few survivors of an apocalyptic nightmare.  Various missiles are also on display, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built.  Capable of flying through a mushroom cloud, and being controlled from orbit, NATO dubs this modern Russian-made missile “Satan”.  It is pure mechanical evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.  Walking alongside this mother of all bullets, the ink black missile radiates death.   The nickname is apt, but the same could be applied to any nuclear, chemical or biological weapon.  

In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought humanity to the edge of extinction.   Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba were armed and ready to attack US cities, while US counterparts were poised in Turkey, ready to wipe the world’s largest country off the map.   Lesser known, there have been at least four incidents that had the superpowers on nuclear high alert, caused by technical glitches, and averted through the caution of just a few single men. All had officers like Colonel Kamenskov, around the world, poised to push the button. 

Some scholars argue that mutually assured destruction has actually saved the world, that the terrifying consequences of nuclear annihilation is a deterrent strong enough to prevent any large scale conflict in the future.   Either way, the most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist, its officers on duty, waiting for that phone call.  Within minutes, everything humanity has accomplished over millennia will be burned to ash, the atomic fire indiscriminate of our faith, hopes and dreams.  While Russia and the US reduce their nuclear stockpiles, other countries are actively seeking their own membership in the nuclear club. 

Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums in the United States, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Great Britain and North Korea will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this site of a former death zone into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope. 

Postscript: Several months ago, nuclear nations, North Korea excepted, came together with the agreed understanding that nobody could possibly win in a nuclear war. It was seen as a victory for nuclear non-proliferation, perhaps the first step in the further reduction of stockpiles. This week Putin vaguely threatened the entire planet and armed his warheads. What insanity. What selfishness. Perhaps one of his children will remind him that innocent lives are not his to take. That the world needs Russia, but doesn’t need another Hitler. Perhaps he’ll come to his senses. In the meantime, we stand with Ukraine, hold the nation in our thoughts, and continue to cling to hope.

Visit The Little Mermaid

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

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

Top 10 Experiences in Copenhagen

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

Meanwhile, in Canada…

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

The World’s Best Islands

Choosing the world’s best islands is like choosing the best songs of the 20th century.   There are so many hits, and there are so many incredible islands, blessed with fine white powder sand, turquoise water, pin-up palm trees.   Many are unoccupied or scarcely visited, while others, jammed with tourists, hold an unforgettable charm in our memories.  I selected these islands because they’re exquisite, unique, popular, and would do in any Greatest Island Hits compilation.    Post-Covid, it will be interesting to see how these destinations recover, and what other islands will make it onto the list.

Bali, Indonesia

It’s a small island with a big reputation for beauty, atmosphere, beaches, and cultural ceremonies.   Incredibly popular until the tragic terrorist attacks in 2002, Bali has thankfully recovered (2008 saw record numbers of visitors) because its people are optimistic, and you just can’t keep a good island down.   Blessed with terrific weather and a history that goes back 4000 years, the temples and rituals of the islands predominantly Hindu population are intoxicatingly exotic.   Beaches throughout the island, like the long stretch of Sanur located just minutes from the capital of Denpasar, offer a true glimpse of paradise.

Santorini, Greece

Greece presents many images, but none stay so firmly in my mind as the view over the nearby sunken volcanic island from my small, chalky-white hotel.  The most famed and most beautiful of the Greek Islands,  a big sky radiates off blue-domed churches and narrow streets, the smell of olive oil, wine, lavender and mint in the air. With a cheap bottle of good wine, I’d sit on my little deck and watch a perfect sunset every evening, a bouzouki playing in the distance, the wind warm and nourishing.  Crammed into the steep volcanic hills, there are thousands of such decks and tiny, excellent hotels in Santorini, and somehow privacy and romance is perfectly maintained.  Never mind its history, cuisine or beaches.  You come to Santorini for the views, and your heart stays for a lifetime. 


Kauai, Hawaii

Those who love Hawaii will argue for their personal favourites, the less discovered isles, those that might be more dynamic.   Either way you cannot exclude Hawaii on this list, and according the various polls, Kauai beats out Maui, but only just.   Whenever I meet someone from Hawaii, there’s this twang of jealousy.   I grew up watching Magnum PI, and figured everyone must drive a red Ferarri, have hairy chests, and jet around in helicopters.    Not so the case, but the oldest of Hawaii’s islands does have an unparalleled reputation for lifestyle and beauty.  Striking canyons and mountains in the interior, surrounded with soft sandy beaches, the island might not have the bustle of Maui, but even Higgins would approve. 

New Caledonia

The South Pacific is littered with paradise islands.   Palm trees and squeaky white beaches, turquoise water, feasts of seafood – the only real difference between one or the other is where you’ve actually been, and the experience you’ve had.  I spent a week in New Caledonia, which is governed out of Paris as a department of France, and is therefore uniquely French.   Something about coupling freshly baked baguettes and Bordeaux wine (cheap, given the transport costs) with reggae-inspired views and tropical island beauty made me wonder:   If you can live in paradise (where everything works), earn a strong currency pegged to the euro (for freedom to travel), and live a lifestyle pegged to Robinson Crusoe (because we all need 18 hours of sleep a day), isn’t that epitome of island life?


How could I not include the Galapagos Islands, 1000km west of Ecuador, in a list such as this?   The entire chain, straddling the equator, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, heaving with animal and marine life you’ll find nowhere else on the planet.  It’s famously said that animals in the Galapagos have not evolved a natural fear of man, and the approachability of its natural species – from giant tortoises to hammerhead sharks – suggests a world where nature and man are finally in harmony.   Only one of the 14 islands allows is open to human habitation, and the preservation and protection of Darwin’s playground has ensured that anyone who visits, especially children, will leave inspired and profoundly connected to the natural world. 

Easter Island

As islands go, few hold the mystery and fascination of Rapa Nui, an island in the southeast Pacific, once home to a rich and prosperous civilization of the same name.   The monuments of their decline are the massive stone statues (moai) that peer eerily across the barren landscape, a landscape that was once lush and fertile.   As Jared Diamond argues in his excellent book Collapse, if we paid heed to the lessons of Easter Island, we can see how a society disintegrates due to greed, war, superstition, and most importantly, misuse of abundant natural resources.  For those lucky enough to visit the island, a territory of Chile, standing amongst the spooky, eternal moai is not only brazenly exotic, it forces us to think about the very traits that shape our humanity.  


Tropical islands attract the mega-rich, and the mega rich have long been attracted to Bermuda.   St John, St Lucia, Nevis, Anguilla, and other islands in the Caribbean island don’t slack in the wealth department either, but Bermuda’s history, offshore financial havens, and influx of tourism gives it one of the highest gross national incomes in the world. With no taxes, the cost of living here is amongst the highest in the world too.  But they did give us Bermuda shorts!    Home to numerous celebrities, the island offers the pre-requisite stunning pink-sand beaches, fine diving, fine dining, hotels , fishing and golf, with the old school colonial charm in the Town of St George. Is Bermuda better than other islands in the Caribbean?  Probably not, but it certainly aspires to be. 

Vancouver Island / Cape Breton, Canada

With all these tropical islands, it’s telling that our own Vancouver Island and Cape Breton Island repeatedly make it into high-end travel magazines.  Conde Nast Traveler readers have ranked Vancouver Island as the top North American island since 2000, and it’s not because all their readers live in Victoria.   The size, remoteness, pristine tranquility and infrastructure of Canada’s best known islands set them apart, so while there’s always room for white sandy stretches, you’ll be hard pressed to find something as incredible as storm watching on Tofino’s Long Beach. Not to be outdone, Cape Breton topped Travel + Leisure’s Best Island to Visit in the USA/Canada in 2008, drawn to its natural character, wealth of outdoors activities, and unmistakable local colour.


I stood outside the modest stone apartment where Freddie Mercury was born, and Stone Town, like the island itself, had rocked me indeed.   Located off the coast of Tanzania, this large island has a turbulent history, including the world’s shortest war, and being the centre of the spice and slave trade.  Ruled by Sultans from their magnificent House of Wonders, the lush tropical islands offer the modern visitor gorgeous beaches, spices, fruits, and more than a pepper shaker of African chaos.  Stone Town’s narrow streets feel like a movie set, the grime of a sordid yet rich history adding to the adventure. Before hotels and resorts took hold, I was able to camp in the northern powder beach of Nungwi, spending hours in the bath warm Indian Ocean, soaking up its unique spice-infused atmosphere. 

El Nido

Not so much an island as a chain of 45 limestone jewels, El Nido sits at the north of the province of Palawan, the largest island in the island nation known as the Philippines.  This is the region that inspired the movie and book “The Beach” even though both were set in Thailand.   With some of the world’s best diving, crystal water ,and environmentally friendly hotels, El Nido is an affordable paradise.  Best of all, you can sea kayak or get dropped off by traditional boat at your own island for a day.   Your own island?  Surely that’s one that will quickly race to the top of your own list of the World’s Best Islands. 

A big Esrock shout out to  to:  Bora Bora, Langkawi (Malaysia), Borneo, Hvar (Croatia), the Seychelles, Roatan (Honduras), Sicily (Italy), Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef Islands (Australia), Phi Phi (Thailand), and the Maldives!

Travel Books that Take You Places

Robin Esrock's favourite travel books

Until the vaccines win the race against the virus, we’re not going to be travelling like we could.  But we can travel in our imaginations, and certainly through the pages of some of my favourite all-time travel books. Although isn’t every book a “travel book?”   Transporting us to places near and far, across dimensions in time and space?   I confess my library is not nearly the wealth of knowledge it should be, but hopefully this will inspire just the start of your journey into the world of travel literature. 

Travel Books to Make You Laugh

Molvania – A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry
By Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Stitch

Anyone who has ever clutched a Lonely Planet will wet themselves visiting the fictitious eastern European country of Molvania.  This Spinal Tap for guidebooks looks at hotels (“what it lacks in charm it makes up in concrete”), towns (“Vajana is a small city divided into quarters, of which there are three”), food  (“this thick liquor is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, unless you’ve swallowed fabric conditioner”) and activities.   A follow up guidebook,Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring roasts a Southeast Asian country in similar fashion, as does San Sombrero which skewers Latin America .   Hilarious.

Our Dumb World – The Onion Atlas of the Planet Earth / The Daily Show Presents: Earth
Every country in the world gets punished in this gut-busting atlas and compendium that crunches stereotypes with typical Onion and Daily Show wit.  Politically incorrect at its best, we learn and laugh at the world, including the “Countries you thought were in Africa”, Czech Republic (Where People Go to Say They’ve Been), and Canada, which in the Onion Atlas is titled: “For the United States, See Pages 9-22.”  Sharp, ruthless, and essential humour with a global twist.

Travel Books to Understand a New World

A Fine Balance – By Rohinton Mistry
Midnight’s Children – By Salman Rushdie
Shantaram – By Gregory David Roberts

India is such an immense place, bursting with stories and sagas that define the human condition. There is a vast cannon of fantastic Indian literature, but my three favourite books are these above, drowning in characters that tunnel into your mind and heart. All epic in scope, by the time you put down these pages you will have transported your senses into the sub-continent, taste its spice on your tongue, smell the stenches in your nostrils. It’s not always fun, and the novels often take tragic twists that bring tears to the eyes, but the reward is the hope and unlikely beauty that manages to stay alive, on the pages, and in India itself.

Travel Books for the Adventurous

Dark Summit – By Nick Heil,
For everyone who enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (and there’s a lot of you), the true-life drama atop Mount Everest continues in this excellent read, recounting the eventful 2006 season in which more lives were tragically lost. Heil paints a stark mountain that seduces characters from around the world – seeking adventure, but receiving more than they bargained for. As more climbers continue to challenge Everest every year, gripping books like this bring us along for the journey, thankfully removed from the frostbite, avalanches, and dirty mountain politics.

The Beach – By Alex Garland
There’s a reason this book spawned a hit movie with Leonardo di Caprio. An English backpacker (Americanized for the movie) gets swept up in the search for the last untouched paradise island, a backpacker utopia, hidden from the masses. As we follow Richard’s adventure into love and life, things begin to unravel into a Lords-of-the-Flies-like mess, complete with psycho leaders, armed drug runners, hungry sharks and jealous boyfriends. Inspired by the islands in the Philippines, it has the fun edge of a thriller, while tapping into our desire to leave the beaten path, and go wherever the adventure leads us. Alex Garland has moved on and is now an accomplished film director, behind the thought-provoking sci-fi hits Ex Machina, Sunshine and Annihilation.

Full Moon over Noah’s Ark – By Rick Antonson
I live in a neighbourhood that’s inspired by explorers (with names like Cartier, Champlain, Explorers Walk, Compass Point etc). Across the road from me lived Rick Antonson, formerly the CEO of Tourism Vancouver, but these days a very well travelled and accomplished travel writer. Rick’s a fine and affable literary guide to take you on a journey to Timbuktu, Route 66, or in his latest book, Mount Ararat and beyond. Sadly, Rick moved out the neighbourhood a few years ago, but I’ll diligently hold his beer until he returns.


Travel Books to Inspire Knowledge

A Short History of Nearly Everything – By Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most popular and beloved travel writers today, and you can’t really go wrong picking up any of his books. He’s also a terrific linguistics teacher (see his Mother Tongue), and a wonderful science teacher in this all-encompassing love letter to knowledge. Trust a travel writer to make learning about biology, geography, astronomy and other sciences accessible, engaging, and full of quirky characters. This book was a deserved hit years ago, but if you still haven’t read it, it’s well worth doing so.

Magicians of the Gods / The Sign and the Seal – By Graham Hancock
If there’s any one writer I have to credit with making me want to learn about the world, it’s this modern day academic Indiana Jones. A former writer for the Economist, Hancock has always been held in skeptic esteem for his bestselling theories about ancient civilizations (Magicians of the Gods / Fingerprints of the Gods), and the search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant (Sign and the Seal). Reading about his adventures, following his interviews and thorough research, it fired me up to want to visit South America and Ethiopia. Many historians scoff at Hancock’s theories of an “alternative history”, but he has inspired millions to learn more, challenge conventional wisdom, and book tickets to exotic destinations to find out more for ourselves. Myself very much included.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
A monster non-fiction hit, an Israeli professor unpacks the history of humanity with a striking clarity of thought, explaining big history and bigger concepts in a clear, concise and jarringly direct fashion (all the more remarkable since Harari is writing in his second language). If aliens land in the distant future and find this book buried in the ashes of what was once our civilization, it will likely explain everything. His follow up books, Homo Deux and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century are excellent reads too.

The Silk Road – By Peter Frankopan
I read a lot of history, and that’s another post altogether. The Silk Road makes it onto this list because it explains how geo-politics plays the long game, putting our current and brief time on Earth in a bigger context. Trade is being re-organized and powers are waxing and waning. China’s incredibly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is going to re-score the soundtrack of our planet. But it all has its routes on an ancient trade route that led to the birth and explosion of civilization as we know it. A terrific read.

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach
If you’ve yet to come across Mary Roach, you’re in for a treat. Writing first person with a breezy wit and insatiable curiosity (something I can truly appreciate), Mary has tackled some fascinating topics with her various books, including Bonk (sex), Stiff (human cadavers), Grunt (war) and Spook (the afterlife). Packing for Mars unpacks the nuts and bolts reality of space travel, which isn’t nearly as Star Trek as you imagine, and wilder than you’d think. Mary interviews experts and characters, digs deep into space poo and practicalities, and should be required reading for anyone with their head in the stars.


Travel Books to Escape

Jitterbug Perfume / Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas – By Tom Robbins
Put me on a long hot journey into some wild, parched land. Give me some water, a charged iPod, and a beaten Tom Robbins paperback, and you’ve rocked the Esrock.  With his unique approach to language, sharp wit, profound wisdom, and devotion to not taking things too seriously, Robbins is one of my favourite writers. His books usually follow a similar template: a brave (usually sexy) soul heads into the world to discover about life, the universe and anything, with aid from thinly disguised gurus, gods, and in some cases, inanimate objects. Creativity bursts from his pages, the turns of phrase stop you in your literal tracks. Wherever I find myself, reading and re-reading a Robbins novels inspires me to read more, write more, and most importantly, live more.

100 Years of Solitude / Love in the Time of Cholera – By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maybe it’s cliché to throw in these classics of South American magic realism, and if I had space I’d certainly add some Paulo Coelho and more Salman Rushdie. I’d pop in Kerouac’s On the Road for its impact on road trips, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and include some gifted modern travel writers like Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Rolf Potts, Tim Moore, and Colin Angus. Robert Kaplan, Glenn Dixon, Jules Verne, hell, throw in Ernest Hemingway and Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries while we’re there. And where on this list is space for two of my biggest travel writing influences, Hunter S Thompson and PJ O’ Rourke?

Writing any book is no easy task. I salute the efforts of anyone who strives to write about exciting new worlds, and to all those that choose to read their hard-spun efforts.
And since we’re on the topic, I should also suggest my favourite all time, most inspiring, life-changing travel books. I include them here without any bias whatsoever. Maybe a little.

10 Underrated European Cities

Europe can get pretty crowded in summer, especially that Europe.  You know, the Europe that is getting tons of heat because of record-breaking heat waves, and record-breaking tourism.  Crowds jamming into Paris and Dubrovnik and Venice and Barcelona leading to hot-topic debates about overtourism and the impact of people travelling the world, ticking off their bucket lists.   But not all Europe gets overly crowded.  There’s plenty of gems that don’t lie too far off the beaten track.  Places that are a lot less crowded, often a lot cheaper, but just as accessible.  Take a gander with me to these 10 underrated European cities, and you’ll see what I mean.

Image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay

Bergen, Norway

A city located in the south of Norway, Bergen has a thriving arts, music and cultural scene. Hosting one of the world’s first symphony orchestras, various galleries and theatres, it is surrounded by seven mountains and some of Norway’s most breathtaking fjords. The old harbour, Bryggen, is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and its Hanseatic buildings are one of Norway’s most recognizable landmarks. Medieval churches and buildings abound, and with its narrow streets and alleyways the city still has a small-town atmosphere. Students and locals fill the cafes, bars and coffee shops, especially in the summer months.   There are direct flights from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

Image by Pablo Valerio from Pixabay

Cadiz, Spain

This city in southern Spain is one of the oldest in all Europe, with a history stretching back 3000 years. Resting on a peninsular that juts into the Bay of Cadiz, it’s a terrific walking city, with an easygoing atmosphere. The Old Town is located all within blocks of the coastline, and is packed with people and connecting plazas, the most beautiful being the 19th century Plaza de Mina.   Besides old churches, watchtowers and even a Roman theatre, Cadiz also has some gorgeous beaches.   La Playa de la Caleta is amongst the most popular, located in the Old Town between two old castles.   With its prominent boulevard, you might mistake it for the malecon in Havana. In fact, the two cities share much in common, and Cadiz has even doubled for Havana in the movies.

Image by Carina Chen from Pixabay

Galway, Ireland

On the west coast of Ireland is one of the country’s fastest growing city, Galway. With a long history stretching back to medieval times, the city is called Ireland’s Cultural Heart and hosts year-round festivals and celebrations.   Traditional Irish music bursts from taverns and pubs, and nearly 10% of the city speaks the traditional Irish Gaeltacht language. This is one of the reasons it is known as being the most Irish of all cities. With two large universities, student as well as Irish culture spills onto the streets, parks and markets. There are some striking old churches, most notably the Galway Cathedral and Church of St Nicholas, and several old castles, towers and homesteads in the vicinity.

Image by randyjournalism from Pixabay

Cluj Napoca, Romania

The unofficial capital of Transylvania and 4th largest city in Romania, the history of Cluj Napoca dates back to the 2nd century AD. Today, it is a vibrant university and cultural town, centred around the gothic St Michael’s Church built in the 14th century. Cluj, along with Transylvania itself, has historically been caught between Romanian and Hungarian cultures, and both cultures are prevalent.   Besides a strong art and performance scene, Cluj has a rocking nightlife and live music scene, enjoyed by the largest student population in the country. One smoky bar I visited had the kind of art and avant-garde music that reminded me of New York. Don’t miss the short walk up Fortress Hill, for a fantastic view over the city, and a cold beer in one of the outdoor cafes.

Image by 680451 from Pixabay

Tallinn, Estonia

The Baltic capitals don’t get nearly as much attention as they should, especially in the summer.   Latvia’s Riga, Lithuania’s Vilnius and especially Tallinn are the essence of old world European charm.  Tallinn’s old town is exceptionally well preserved, its cobblestone alleys and squares a sharp contrast to the Soviet-era new town (indeed, its ferry terminal to nearby Helsinki looks like a concrete bunker). Besides exploring the arts, crafts, bars and shops in the old town, there’s some interesting museums like the Museum of Occupation, recalling life under Soviet rule, and the rather morbid Museum of Medieval Torture. There’s also an open-air museum, various parks and beaches, and excellent traditional restaurants, particularly around Raekoja plats.

Image by Martin Lazarov from Pixabay

Sofia, Bulgaria

The Bulgarian capital is another city that bears evidence of millennia old history mixed with Communist-era functionality. Most of its iconic attractions can be discovered on foot, radiating out from the central traffic hub towards the inner ring road.   Sofia’s most famous attractions are the St Alexander Nevski Memorial Church, the 11th century Boyana Church and the early Byzantium Church of St Sofia.   Sofianites enjoy their large, forested parklands, the oldest and best known being Tsar Boris’s Garden.   The city also is also close to a fully developed ski resort on Vitosha Mountain, which provides a striking backdrop to the city, and is popular with hikers and mountain bikers in the summer months.

Image by O12 from Pixabay

Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic

Much like the more famous Czech capital Prague, Ceský Krumlov boasts a fairy-tale old town, protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With 300 protected medieval buildings, the town is built around its famous 13th century Ceský Krumlov Castle. The castle complex consists of 40 buildings and palaces, with beautiful gardens, courtyards and a moat. Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture line the streets of the town, which feature museums, galleries and bars serving that famous Czech beer. During summer, take a boat or kayak on the adjacent Vltava River, or if you’re feeling adventurous, head further up river for some white river rafting.

Image by falco from Pixabay

Tbilisi, Georgia

The capital of Georgia is much like the country itself: off-the-beaten-track, fascinating, and exceptionally welcoming. The Old City has been restored and is lined with funky bars and restaurants. Georgian cuisine is something to experience – hot cheese breads, eggplant, meats, herb salads, and plenty of homemade wine to wash it down with.   Overlooking the city is the medieval Narikala Fortress, which has a great view of the city and adjacent Mtkvari River. There’s a number of striking cathedrals and squares, and a metro system to get around. Don’t miss the Abanotubani Sulfur Baths, which date back hundreds of years, and sit beneath picturesque egg-shell domes.

Image by traveldudes from Pixabay

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Little Slovenia is an undiscovered gem in Central Europe, and its capital city of Ljubljana is one of the smallest capital cities on the continent. Ljubljana is quintessentially European – cobblestones, churches, squares, canals, outdoor cafes, parks, bicycle lanes – with a tiny dash of an alternative art scene, and thousands of well dressed students. Parts of the city, pronounced Yoobli-yana, reminded me of St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Budapest.  In summer, outdoor cafés along the Ljubljanica river canal are full, with people crossing over lovely archway bridges. The Old Town is well preserved and a great place to explore local artisans. Check out the Dragon Bridge, and the views from Ljubljana Castle.   It’s easy city to get around. Rent a bike and enjoy the ample bike lanes and parks.

Image by Martin Lazarov from Pixabay

Skopje, North Macedonia

Skopje is the capital and heart of the little known (and newly christened) Republic of North Macedonia. Prized for its strategic location by empires throughout the ages, the city was all but destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1963, and feels like it has never stopped rebuilding. There is still a strong legacy of Communist-style concrete buildings, but also medieval fortresses, bridges and churches. The Stone Bridge, built in the 1400’s, connects the busy Macedonia Square to the Old Bazaar. The Old Town is a blend of East and West, featuring churches, mosques, Turkish baths, and a vibrant market that dates back to the 15h century. There are also various statues and museums dedicated to Mother Theresa, who was born in the city.

Statues and Circus in Riga

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

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

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

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

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

Robin’s famous Gonzo jump in Riga

Visit the New Seven Wonders of the World

In 300 BC, a guy named Herodotus thought it would be just swell to compile a list of the Seven Wonders of the World.   These seven sites were so utterly wonderful that humanity has since gone on to destroy all of them save one, the Pyramids of Giza – only because nobody could figure out what to do with two million 80 ton blocks.

2300 years later, a guy named Bernard Weber thought the list needed an update, and guess what, the domain name was still available.  While Herodotus traded on his historian credentials, Bernard was armed with online marketing savvy and contacts within the tourism industry.  The decision as to what these new wonders would be rested with the mouse-click of the masses, and a quasi-regulated online vote. Swept into hysteria, the world (or rather, those countries who managed to mobilize their digerati) declared our “new” seven wonders at a gala event hosted by Hilary Swank and the guy who played Gandhi.  UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the buck-stops-here for this sort of thing, distanced themselves from the spectacle, stating:  “This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”  Ouch.  Since I’ve somehow managed to drag myself to all the winning wonders, here are short reviews of what to expect.

Chichen Itsa

Chichen Itsa

Not to be confused with Chicken Pizza, which in Mexico, often leads to Montezuma’s Revenge.     The Maya were a clever lot who designed intricate jungle pyramids for calendars, ancient cosmic ball courts, and other sites of magic at this must-see in the Yucatan.   The largest of several pyramids and ruins in the area, I was disappointed to learn that tourists can no longer climb Chichen Itsa’s steps (which severed heads once rolled down) due to an elderly American tourist who slipped and killed herself, subsequently ruining it for the rest of us.   I did however pick up a free wireless signal just outside the mandatory gift shop, which may explain why Chichen Itsa, and not Tikal in Guatemala, gathered enough online votes to be included as a new Wonder of the World.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

There’s little controversy with this one, since there’s really nothing little about a 4000-mile wall that many people mistakenly believe can be seen from space.   Most tourists in Beijing visit a nearby carefully manicured chunk of wall, struggling to take a photo clear of domestic package tours.  I joined a more adventurous lot to drive three hours outside of the city, barely escaping the choking pollution, to a section known as Jinshangling.  From here, it’s a tough yet thoroughly rewarding 7-mile hike to Simatai, crossing 67 watchtowers.   Parts of the wall are immaculate, others crumbling under the weight of history, but rest assured there’s usually an enterprising local selling cold beers at the next watchtower.  Legend has it over one million people died building the wall, with bodies mixed into cement or buried in the wall itself.  Built by a succession of several dynasties, the world’s longest man-made structure is the ultimate symbol of our desire to keep things out, or in.  Mao famously said:  “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.”

Petra’s Treasury

The Treasury in Petra

You saw it in Indiana Jones, and it’s tough to stop whistling Indy’s theme song walking down the magnificent path to this 2000-year old Nabatean ruin.   Jordan’s most popular attraction is actually a tomb, misnamed by treasure hunters, glowing red in the late afternoon sun. It’s the highlight of a vast ancient city with much to explore, like the Urn Tomb, which delivered one of my best flying photos ever.   Decent hotels, fresh humus, the smell of camel – it’s not exactly Indiana Jones’s last crusade, but deservedly takes its place on the list.

Chris the Redeemer

Christ the Redeemer

This 40m cement statue must have been a sour pickle for Bernard to swallow.  On the one hand, it mobilized millions of Brazilians behind a campaign of nationalistic fervour, with telco’s sponsoring free SMS voting, and politicians loudly samba-beating their chests.  On the other, there is no hot-damn way it belongs anywhere near this list.  The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House – more famously distinct modern landmarks are stewing in blasphemy.  Having lost my camera a few days prior, I recall the sparkling view of Rio, the swishing acai shake in my gut, and the niggling doubt that I should have ditched Cocovaro Mountain for Sugarloaf Mountain instead.   As much as I love Brazil, and Rio in particular, putting this statue in the company of ancient feats of mysterious genius is kind of like listing Turkmenistan as a global centre of finance.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum 

Many years ago  I was a skinny 18 year-old McLovin, frenetically touring Europe with some buddies on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, we’re in Luxembourg” tours.   By the time we arrived in Italy, I was stewed in beer, pickled in vodka, and under the complete influence of some older Australian blokes who could drink a horse under the stable.   I remember, vaguely, stealing hotel towels for a toga party, and also getting slightly jealous when smooth Italian boys on Vespas made advances on the too-few girls on our tour.   When we visited the Colosseum, built between 70AD and 80AD and once capable of seating some 50,000 people, I was hungover, drunk, or possibly both.  There was a lot of scaffolding at the time, a curse one should expect when visiting ancient landmarks.   Being 18 years old and stupid, or drunk (possibly both) I didn’t appreciate it so much as one more step before we could return to a bar so I could unsuccessfully pursue girls, of whom the Italian variety interested me greatly.   The Colosseum was used for over 500 years as the venue for gladiator battles, circuses and all manner of public spectacles.  Including teenage tourists incapable of holding their liquor.


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu


The famed Inca Trail really does live up to its hype, especially since you arrive at Machu Picchu early in the morning, before buses of tourists arrive to make your photos look like you’re  in Japan.   It takes four days of hiking at altitude through the majestic Andes before you earn the right to have the Lost City of the Incas all to yourself, but it’s well worth it.  Porters, their legs ripped of steel, carry all the supplies, cook up delicious meals, even pitch your tent. We slowly hiked past old Incan forts and terraces, peaking at Dead Woman’s Pass, where the uphill slog and altitude left me squeezing my lungs for air. My group, aged 18 – 57, displayed inspiring camaraderie, led by two upbeat Peruvian guides, all the while looking forward to that moment, when you cross Sun Gate, and see Machu Picchu lit up in the morning sun.  Few moments are quite like it, even when the buses pull up.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal

It’s a monument to love that sparkles in the sun, and ransoms your imagination.  A marble structure of such physical perfection and detail it could only have been constructed from the heart.  I had one day left in Delhi before flying to Bangkok, so decided to take a quick trip to Agra to see the Taj.   Taking a quick trip anywhere in India is laughably optimistic. It took hours to navigate the scams at Pahar Ganj train station, as touts tried to sell me fake tickets to fake Taj’s.   Finally on the right train, leaving at the wrong time, I arrived in Agra at the mercy of taxi drivers licking their lips like hungry hyenas.   To the Taj, only a few hours to spare, but the line-up stretched half a mile.   “No problem Sir follow me Sir” and a kid leads me to an empty side entrance for a decent tip.   Then I have to pay the special tourist price of $25, equivalent to three days food and accommodation.  Then the security guard confiscates the tiny calculator in my daypack, for no reason neither he nor I can discern.   Finally I get in, through the gate, just in time to watch the sun light up the Taj Mahal like a neon sign in an Indian restaurant. I take several dozen photos, from every angle possible. It’s already been a long day, so I kiss this monument to love goodbye and hit the train station, where a young girl pees on the floor next to me and armed soldiers become my BFF’s. One day visiting the Taj Mahal symbolized my entire month in India, a wonder unto itself.

Giza, Cairo

Actually, since the Pyramids were part of the last list, Bernard figured they were exempted from this list.   Well, there are two ways to anger an Egyptian, and one of them is to deny the lasting legacy of its pyramids (the other results in generational blood feuds, so I’ll keep that under wraps).  After bitter protests, Bernard decided the Pyramids would be   “Honorary Candidates,” an undisputed 8th wonder, and removed them from the vote anyway.  This tells you all you need to know about the scientific legitimacy of this poll.


Where is Cambodia’s Angkor, by far the most amazing ancient city I have ever seen? Ephesus, Stonehenge, Easter Island, or the empty crevice inside Paris Hilton’s head?    Travel is personal, for one man’s Taj Mahal is another woman’s symbol of oppression.    In the end, the New Seven Wonders promotion was a harmless marketing exercise, so long as we appreciate the amazing work organizations like UNESCO do to restore and preserve our greatest achievements. If the original Seven Wonders tell us anything, it’s easier to build historical monuments to mankind, than preserve them.   



The Drinking Club with a Running Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live on the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World’s Bucket List Casinos

Let’s face it, casinos have passed their Golden Age. There was a time when tuxedos and cocktails and dressing up for entertainment carried a lot more glitz and glam than the modern, corporate, and slick operations in place today, carefully designed to part both high and low rollers from their cash. Between the pokies and slots, flashy lights, loud noises, mazes of machines, and game tables prowled by pros looking for easy marks, it’s no wonder online gaming has become so popular. Still, there are some casinos that transcend their purpose and become destinations, full of history and opulence, and still popular on many a bucket list.

Here is our Global Bucket List of some of the greatest casino destinations from around the world.

Casino de Monte-Carlo

Casino de Monte-Carlo is the sort of casino you assume only exists in novels and films. It is almost like a palace in both its beauty and size. One of the older functioning casinos in the world, it is one of the true highlights of Monte-Carlo, which happens to be a city full of opulent gems. It’s a rather exclusive environment when you get down to the actual games, and it’s one of not too many casinos in the world where you’re still expected to dress like a movie star – but it’s worth the trouble of visiting if only to wander around the gaming floors.

Marina Bay Sands

If you’re looking for a casino that will simply take your breath away when you look at it – and which is every bit as fun as it looks – there’s the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It’s getting some great publicity lately as one of the top sights in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t been used as a major film set before. While it’s a massive casino and hotel with all kinds of attractions, its signature is the rooftop bar, which features an infinity pool overlooking the entire city.

The Bellagio

We’d still give Casino de Monte-Carlo the award for the world’s most classic casino, but the Bellagio is certainly on the list, and is one of the most famous establishments on the planet to boot. Famous for decades and further immortalized in 2001’s Ocean’s 11 remake, it’s everything people love about a more vintage version of Vegas. It’s not one of the newer casinos in town, but it’s still known for luxurious accommodations and one of the best poker rooms anywhere. Plus, the fountains in front of the hotel are a legend unto themselves.

Casino de Montréal

Canada doesn’t get quite as much attention for its casinos as some places around the world, and even in America it may be better known for its online activity. Americans cross the border to take advantage of online games and different bookmaker sites that allow for sports betting.  Canada has some great in-person casinos, and Casino de Montréal tops the list. It’s a gigantic casino complex with several floors’ worth of gaming, and a place that would be right at home in a casino Mecca like Las Vegas or Macau.

Casino Baden-Baden

Baden-Baden, Germany was once known as the summer residence of Europe, in large part because this very casino was only open during the summer months, and would attract visitors from around the continent. It’s almost a little bit like Casino de Monte-Carlo in its old-world charms and extravagance, though it’s slightly more understated from the outside. If you’re interested in the history of casinos, it should most certainly make your bucket list.

Venetian Macau

Truthfully you could just about take your pick of casinos in Macau, because as mentioned regarding Casino de Montréal, Macau has joined Las Vegas as the world’s other true casino Mecca. There are several extravagant resorts in the area, many of them sister venues to Las Vegas establishments. But the Venetian Macau is probably the most incredible of them – an absolutely sprawling casino complex that, like the Venetian in Vegas, imitates the city of Venice.

Atlantis Paradise Island

Some find Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas to be a little bit too gimmicky, but there’s something to be said for a casino that doubles as a fun filled resort. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, such that in addition to having all the gaming options you could possibly hope for, it prides itself on a massive beachside waterpark. Sure it’s very clearly a tourist trap, but Atlantis is also pure fun, and it’s arguably the most impressive casino you can find on a tropical island.

The Best Cities to Explore by Bicycle

There’s no better way to explore a city than by bicycle. You get to see more, smell more, hear more and feel more than any other mode of transport, discovering hidden gems all along the way. But all cities are not created equal when it comes to bike discovery. Hills, traffic, pollution and other challenges are best suited for feet, cars, buses and trams. With a warm sun in the sky, here’s our pick of the best cities to hit the pedals.

1. Amsterdam

In a city with 780,000 residents and over 600,000 bicycles, you know the riding is good, especially in the 17th century city centre, where the narrow lanes and canals don’t really suit cars anyway. Amsterdam has over 400km of bike trails, making it easy and safe to get around, with ample bike racks to secure your bike. This is important to note since there are more bikes stolen per year than bikes in the city – maybe they should just make them all communal! There are plenty of bike rental companies about for visitors, located at hubs by Dam Square, Liedseplein and the Central Station. For about 8 euro a day, you can explore the city, or pedal into the countryside to explore old windmills and farms. Best of all, the city is located just two metres above sea level, so it’s flat all the way.

2. Portland

With over 100km of bike paths, 48km of low-traffic bike boulevards and 283kms of bike lanes, it’s no wonder Portland touts itself as the bike capital of the United States. It holds the country’s highest bike commuter rate, about 10%, and is renowned for its citywide bike programs. Visit the Saturday Market or popular Farmer’s Market for a pitstop of artisan cheese, or pedal up to the Powell Butte Nature Park for a panoramic view of the city. Portland is also known as the City of Bridges, many of which have safe bike lanes. As for the weather, cyclists can rest easy with covered bike parking, like the ones found outside the Hawthorne Boulevard Shopping District.

3. Copenhagen

One summer in Copenhagen, I learned how to ride a bike while drinking beer. Not behaviour to be encouraged, but in a city with 350km of bike paths, and 20km of safely designated bike lanes, I could at least count on avoiding cars. About 40% of the city cycle every day, along bike lanes with their own signal systems, and privileges like going down one-way streets. Copenhagen launched the world’s first communal bike-share program, which has since spread to various cities around the globe, so much so that copenhagenization is a term used in urban planning. Bicycles are the fastest and easiest way to explore the relatively flat city, taking in sights like the Tivoli, the Danish Royal Palaces, and the colourful Nyhavn canal.

4. Berlin

Berlin has a vibrant bike culture. 7 out of 10 residents own a bike , accessing over 800km of bike paths including designated lanes, off-road routes and shared pedestrian/bike sidewalks. What’s more, there are also Fahrradstrassen, roads restricted to bikes and vehicles that travel under 30 km/hr. The public bike program is handy for tourists and locals, who can use their cellphones to unlock the public bikes. Bike rentals are available around the city. Make sure to get a map to explore the various neighbourhoods around the city, or follow the popular Berlin Wall Trail along the old Cold War relic. Like most of the best bike cities, Berlin has no steep hills.

5. Bogota

Every Sunday, visitors to the Colombian capital of Bogota will find major thoroughfares devoid of cars. Welcome Ciclovia, a local tradition that allows cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians to roam about the city in safety. The weekly event has proved so popular it has since spread to other cities in South America. Cyclists come together across socio-economic divides in an eco- transportation utopia, a far cry from the city’s unfortunate reputation for crime. While popular tourist spots like Plaza de Bolivar, Palacio de Nariño, and La Catedral are located in hilly Candelaria, Ciclovia is still a great opportunity to experience the heart of the city.

6. Vancouver

Vancouver continues to expand its bicycle lane program, with several new arteries opening up under its current mayor (who famously bikes to City Hall). The city boasts 300km of on and off-road bike routes. If you’re visiting, head down to Denman Street where you can pick up a rental at Cycle BC or Spokes Rentals. From there, you’re just seconds away from the city’s star bicycle attraction, the 22km long Seawall. Flat, paved, and with stunning views of the city and local mountains, you can follow the Seawall around Stanley Park, or continue towards Granville Island, where a handy bike ferry can shepherd you across the inlet.

7. Vienna

Ah, Vienna! Austria’s capital city is large and spread out, but the UNESCO World Heritage historical centre is easy to explore by bike, with most attractions accessible within a half hour. There are ample bicycle lanes and paths, although a map will certainly help you navigate some of the city’s notoriously odd bike paths. Hardcore cyclists often arrive via a bicycle route that follows the Danube from Germany, through Austria and onto Hungary. Fortunately, the rest of us can hire City Bikes (there are over 100 stations in the city) and explore the Sightseeing Bicycle Path Ringstrasse around the old city, where we can enjoy views of the Opera, Burgtheatre and Parliament.

8. Soweto

The largest township in South Africa offers some remarkable guided bicycle tours. While neighbouring Johannesburg has a reputation for violent crime, visitors to Soweto (population 1.7 million) are surprised to find a friendly and safe atmosphere. Soweto Bicycle Tours range from two hours to full days, and take you to historical sites all over the township. Visit the former, humble brick home of Nelson Mandela, the site of the Soweto uprisings, a workers hostel, and even an authentic shebeen, where you can grab a traditional beer and talk to the locals.

9. Helsinki

Exploring a city by bike often reveals far more of a city than by foot or car, but there’s another advantage as well. It’s cheap, which comes in handy when touring a notoriously expensive city like Helsinki. The city has 1100 km of bike routes that are popular with residents as well as visitors. If you get tired, it’s reassuring that transporting your bike on the local trains and metro carry no additional fees. There are 27 Home District routes designed to help you explore key historical, cultural and archaeological areas of interest. Unfortunately, Helsinki recently suspended its City Bike program, but head to Greenbike on Bulevardi, or Ecobike next to the Finnair Stadium, for reasonably priced rentals.

10. Montreal

My first night in Montreal ended up in a karaoke bar. It was a warm night, so at 1am in the morning, a local friend decided to make good on her promise to show me Old Montreal. We borrowed bikes and hit the 15km-long paved bike lane on the Lachine Canal. We continued onto the empty streets of Old Montreal, discovering its secrets around each corner. The cobblestone on Saint-Paul, the neon-blue floodlights of the Notre Dame Basilica, the blue Quebec flag flying over Parisian-style art galleries, cafes and bars. The streets were all but deserted, but the air was tingling with culture. Montreal felt like Salome dropping her veils, just for me. Fortunately you no longer need a local friend to provide the bikes. Montreal has Bixi, a successful public bike program, where you can rent one of 5000 bikes at over 400 stations around the city with the swipe of a credit card.

10. Chiang Mai

I had a blast exploring Chiang Mai with the help of a city bike program called Mobike. Easy to use with an app connecting to the bike via bluetooth (and tracking your rides to record your calorie-burn and carbon-saving), Mobikes are inexpensive, convenient, and a great way to explore the Old City’s amazing temples. There are two types of bikes, and you definitely want to pick out the orange ones with the larger basket. It’s a very smooth ride and comfortable in the saddle. Although they have an automatic night light, the silver ones are much lighter and unstable to ride. With its flat roads and many alleys, Chiang Mai is definitely a city made for biking around.