North American Contrarian

Telling it like it is… in North America

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Taking on Peru with students

See the below video which I think does justice to our hike on the Quarry trek in Peru.


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Sunset at Uluru and a Bucket List Diatribe

Article 1_Intro Image Uluru

The concept of the bucket list has crept into popular culture right alongside greek yogurt and skinny lattes.  Now you would think that a bucket list would be a highly personal, filled with the individual accomplishments one would like to fulfil before their inevitable journey into the void of nothingness.  But fortunately for those without enough ambition to decide on their own life goals, the list comes made to order, like a combo meal at your favorite fast food joint.

Surprisingly, the list is quite low on things like: “make amends to my parents for the great sacrifice of bringing me into the world.”  Or “reduce my consumption of fossil fuels so that future generations may continue to inhabit the earth at the time when this list is permanently rendered null.”  Or even more general objectives like “try not to be such an asshole”.


The list is focused on personal goals, and the highest rank almost inevitably goes to travel.  Actually, let me take that back.  The bucket list is dominated only by very specific things you are required to see (Egypt’s pyramids or Machhu Picchu) or do (dive the Great Barrier Reef or walk on the great wall of China).

Anything between these visits is largely deemed unimportant.  So, for instance, a generality like “backpack though Asia to come back with a broader perspective on my own culture” is far too vague to make the cut.

Very recently I travelled to one of the sights that features prominently on the list, the great rock at the center of the Australian continent called Uluru.  This 600 million year old, 348 meter tall monolith is impressive largely because the terrain in this region is so completely pancake-flat that the rock dominates the field of view for hundreds of kilometers.   It becomes even more impressive at sunset, when rock emits a vibrant red hue as if thousands of stage lights are hidden in its interior.  With an almost biblical appearance it’s no wonder the indigenous residents of the area revere the rock as sacred.  Finding this thing must have been like travelling through Kansas and discovering the Empire State Building.


No trip to Uluru is complete without a white table cloth

I arrived to the rock’s viewing area at 5:45 pm as the sun was still high but beginning its descent, unloaded with the other 35 people in my group and joined the throngs of other tourists eager to check one more item off of their list.  Apparently (and news to me)  to fully check off sunset at Uluru, the viewer should also do expensive things as the sun descends.  This includes five star dining or at least a glass of Champaign and several tables were set up by tour operators to indulge this req1uirement.   The scene was chaotic as each person jostled to get in front of the other and capture the image that would soon be distributed on social media networks around the world.  In fact, I could already imagine the Facebook caption:

Here is me at another of the world’s great sights.  I am moving through the list in rapid enough succession that when I die my gravestone could very well say: RIP: Kevin managed to cram in at least 3 minutes at every single item on the bucket list. “

As the sun dipped below its apex, I looked over the shoulders of the several tourists in front of me (being short is a curse every baseball game, movie and bucket list sight) and I was truly rapt by the incredible sight.  This was a marvel of nature.  It seemed impossible that a huge chunk of inert material could give off such a vibrant glow.

Glowing ULU

But as quickly as this feeling came, it was gone as I took an elbow to the pelvis by a group member looking for that perfect perspective.  And soon after, the sun fully extinguished and the rock became nothing more than a silhouette.


The Bucket List “money shot”

Soon our bus was loaded, as were dozens of others and the site was deserted.  As we careened out of the parking lot and towards our resort complex it struck me that I had just checked off another of the world’s most impressive natural phenomenon.  But, as with all of my experiences at these sights, there was no epiphany and no transcendent moment that you would think should accompany a visit to a place we “should all see before we die”.

Instead, the majority of my time at this great bucket list site was spent elbowing through the crowd or picking at the antipasto spread.  And in the end the photo I got is way inferior to anything you would see  in so many postcards and travel guides.  But then I suppose that is not the point.  You see, having my head superimposed against Uluru brings me one monument closer to completing the list that on my death bed will give me the satisfaction that my life had meaning.

Or so I am told.


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Deadly Encounter with An Australian Melon

Australia is a country famously full of deadly things.

There are the box jellyfish that float surreptitiously through the ocean in the summer months.  This is the world’s most poisonous life-form and an encounter with one of these guys will leave you in what one unlucky person called “the most agonizing pain you could ever possibly imagine”. There are snakes, spiders, marsupials and insects that can bring your life to a cripplingly painful end.

But, as I found out quite accidentally you should also be worried about melons.  Specifically paddymelon, a close cousin of the watermelon, and something that looks so benign you wouldn’t bat an eye if it appeared in your fridge next to the margarine.

IMG_1119I learnt this on a recent trip in the Northern Territory’s red centre, a place I was exploring on a small group tour.  We were visiting Ormiston Gorge located off the Stuart highway that connects the town of Alice Springs with not much else.  The gorge is one of the region’s most visited icons, a deep fissure that cuts precipitously into the West MacDonnell Ranges.

We arrived on a windy afternoon and our guide Dave, an affable Australian who reminded me of a boyscout leader with his neatly pressed clothes and impressive knowledge of the terrain, explained the options for the day.  These included a short jaunt around the gorge’s base or a longer hike that follows its perimeter and returns via the river bed that cuts through its centre.

In all, we were told, the second option was only lightly strenuous and would take just over an hour. As the great majority of my fellow travellers were what Australians refer to as “grey nomads” only three of 18 of us opted for the longer hike and, along with Dave, we set off along a meandering path that hugged the gorge’s edge.


Ormiston Gorge

The scenery along the trail was spectacular. It featured the deep, pastel red colour typical of the red centre.  But, uniquely, given the river that often flows through its centre, the gorge also features verdant plant life: giant ferns, spindly trees and dense shrubs that gave the scene an almost prehistoric feel.

After 45 minutes, the trail began its steep decent into the bowels of the gorge.  Soon we were just above the river bed, a tranquil scene of slowly moving water that passed over a bed of boulders.  We stopped to admire the view before dropping onto the rivers dry edge to begin our walk back to our starting point.

IMG_1132The going was slow as we negotiated the large rocks, and, after about thirty minutes, Dave stopped to point out a basketball-sized melon connected to a weedy rope.  He
pointed it out nonchalantly, more just to break up the walk than out of any real interest.

Being from a country where it’s rare to stumble on an errant melon, I was intrigued.

“Can you eat it?”

“I suppose so” David answered, intrigued at my sudden fascination.  To indulge my interest he cracked it open to reveal a white flesh.

Thinking back now, it lacked many of the characteristics that one would associate with a tasty melon.  It wasn’t juicy, and didn’t have the floral smell typical to edible fruit.  But the exterior.  The exterior was just like a watermelon, with its soft green and white stripes.

If wild blueberries and raspberries are delicious, I figured, a wild watermelon-y type fruit must be sensational.

I bit deeply into the melon.

My reaction was instant.  The flavour of this thing was something between awesomely bitter horseradish and diesel fuel.  I immediately gagged and spit out what was remaining in my mouth.

“Did you actually just eat that thing” a fellow hiker asked with a strange look of incredulousness that someone would willingly ingest a random gourd off the river floor.

“Totally nasty” I replied, still trying to spit out any residue of the awful flavour as we continued our slow progress.


A (highly poisonous) paddy melon

It took about three minutes until a feeling- one that I haven’t had in over 10 years when I similarly but purposely poisoned myself with magic mushrooms, overcame me.  It was the feeling that the world had, in an instant, slipped away and become distorted into a place that resembled but was distinctly different to the one I had inhabited just seconds ago.

Put simply, I quickly realized that I was tripping out on the random, Aussie outback melon.  And, in contrast to the somewhat expected result of eating mushrooms, this was a decidedly scary feeling.

“Uh oh” I said to the group as the world narrowed and I had the distinct feeling that I would soon pass out.

The next few minutes were blurry.  I remember looks of concern, and suggestions that I should dip my face in the river.  I remember a kaleidoscope of colours and a burning dizziness.  But most of all I recall being terrified that my life would soon be over and how could I be so profoundly stupid.

“Moronic Canadian traveller dies after voluntarily ingesting random legume in Australian outback”. 

As I braced myself for the end, I realized that I would have the energy to continue, even if in an altered state.  As we walked, I tried to maintain a
conversation (about what, I can’t remember), but the reality was that I was intently concentrated on just staying conscious.

I do, however, recall feeling of relief when we arrived at the bus.  I flopped onto my seat, which felt like a warm, comfortable hug.  The rest of the group loaded in, and soon the coach trudged out of the gorge.

It was only later in the day, after I came to the slow conclusion this was not the end of my life, that Dave somewhat reluctantly passed me a laminated page with descriptions of the local fauna.

On the bottom left hand corner was a picture of the melon.  The description explained that it was a Paddy Melon, “found mostly in wetlands, likely originated in Africa and resembles a small watermelon, attached to a weedy stem.”

At the end of the paragraph was a final note that left me with a chill that took me days to shake off.

“This melon is known to kill livestock. DO NOT INGEST“.

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A Homage to Budget Travel From The Lounge

I’m in the lounge at Pearson Airport.  I’m about to embark on a 20 hour paid trip to Australia, business class all the way.  I am extremely privileged.  But this is not a post about the joys of business travel.

In fact, this is the anti-business class blog; this is a homage to a dying type of travel, the kind I did throughout my 20’s and occasionally, but with less and less frequency in my 30’s. 

The type of travel I’m referring to is where you get off a plane with a limited budget (the smaller the better).  You take the local busses because that’s all you can afford and you eat local food because, ditto, this is the cheapest option.The goal here in this type of travel is extremely simple.  it is to exist in another place.  it is simply to exist.  It’s staying in rat infested, bug crawling, 10$ a day hotels.  It’s having awkward conversations with locals and feeling out of the comfort zone.  It’s not really knowing what the point is, but still recognizing that there is one, and that each day you are growing.  It’s not having a timeline

I don’t often use the word “longingly” but I this is how I recall this type of travel.  I crave it in the way people often talk about a dead lover.  I recognize that I don’t have the time or life position to partake in this type of travel and I might never have it again (unless I achieve my goal of doing the tour d’afrique on my 40th). 

To be frank, that type of travel is the reason I got into the travel business, because I truly think that this type of travel is transformational and it truly bothers me that more people have never truly experienced being unhinged, and simply exist in a different place for the simple pleasure of doing so..

My progression in how I travel has followed a progression: starting on a shoestring travel budget, advancing to moderate and now, working with tourism boards, mostly luxury, flying business, and staying in high end hotels.

But let me end by saying that where I am now is more hollow.  This type of travel results in the same rat race typical to North America, where the point is simply to prove that you are important enough, and have enough money to afford these privileges.  In the end, it ultimately contradicts the entire purpose of travel which is to allow a new place to seep into you and be absorbed by its people, smells, and come back slightly changed. 

And, in spite of all the luxuries of the next 20 hours of my life, the way I used to travel is the only type of travel in which I returned richer than before I left,.

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Shark Cage Diving in South Africa: My Brush with Great Whites

You may think that cage diving with Great White sharks is something you would think long and hard about.  But my whirlwind trip of South Africa did not give me much time for consideration.  Having only a week to explore Cape Town and surrounds meant that virtually everything was done on a whim, driven by Trip Advisor reviews and the distance my little Toyota Etios could carry me.

The Scenic Journey To Gansbaai:

The drive from Cape Town was spectacular.  It crossed dizzying passes where I attempted the impossible feat of driving a standard vehicle with my opposite hand, while gawking out the window and simultaneously attempting to get my phone to the camera setting (not recommended).  The land then swooped down into rolling landscapes with rocks strewn about as if it had just showered large boulders.  Further along, I flanked sharp cliffs that, on approach, looked as if they hung precipitously in the way of my car until the singular line of road made a sharp cut through an unseen pass.


The drive from Cape Town to Gansbaai

After a three hour journey I arrived in Gansbaai, a small, sleepy fishing village with little tourist infrastructure to speak of and gave me a feeling I had in my 20s when time was on my side and my only purpose in travel was to spend the night where other tourists weren’t.


The sleepy town of Gansbaai

Cruising Shark Infested Waters:

Nervous tourists sat in a waiting area with a mix of apprehension and excitement.  We picked at the provided breakfast until being loaded on a two-floored ship that looked like a diving vessel and began rumbling out into the sea.  At what seemed a random patch of ocean, the captain, an Afrikaner with a gruff look, cut the engine.  We were now smack in the middle of what he called “the Shark Highway”.

What made me more nervous than the prospect of diving with sharks?  The answer is not doing so, coming all this way, paying 150 dollars and having a no show.  There are times, we were warned on departure, when the sharks simply don’t approach, or they do not do so with the gusto that paying tourists like myself demand from the wild animals that we have paid good money to see in all of their National Geographic glory.

We bobbed up and down in the rolling sea, and waited while our guides lobbed fish heads into the water to entice action from below.  The oil from the bait created a discernible line that slowly travelled down the surface of the water.  This was the trail that, apparently, the sharks would follow to find its origin.  I was skeptical.  For one, I typically have terrible luck with wildlife, and second, it seemed incongruous that, suddenly large animals would simply appear in what seemed a tranquil scene.


Waiting for sharks in the bay of Gansbaai

First Glimpse of a Great White:

Yes, we would soon drop ourselves into iron cages with sharks buzzing by, but the moment the first shark appeared is permanently etched in my memory as the most lasting.  What was once just benign, rolling water became something decidedly different.  The animal that reared up from the water was massive.  It was not so much scary, as impressive, with the girth and size of small submarine.  It moved smoothly, and stealthily through the water.  You might even mistake it for a shadow, until it brushed the side of the boat.  On that first sighting, there was collective gasp that came from everyone on board.


Our first glimpse of a Great White

Lowered into an Iron Cage:

An iron cage is secured to the side of the boat so that it sits with the top two feet above water and the first brave tourists put on their wetsuits and snorkels.  The cage itself looks like the type of enclosure in which you might put a large Pitbull, except that it opens from the top.  Here is what went through my head as the first batch of recruits lowered themselves into the cage:

  1. If the cage comes unsecured from the boat, you would be stuck in a closed box and fall to a horrible drowning death with sharks waiting patiently to crack in for an easy meal.
  2. The bars of the cage seem rather far apart and the sharks have snouts that could seemingly fit inside and tear out a nice morsel of flesh.
  3. The water looks cold.  The sharks are circling close.  This whole venture seems very misguided.


Now there are at least three sharks that are circling the boat.  The guides drop the fish head directly in front of the cage to tease them into coming to ever closer proximity.  One of the sharks lunges.  Suddenly, there is water everywhere, splashing up in a frothy whirlpool.  The guide yanks hard, and the huge animal crashes hard into the cage.  The voyeurs in the cage flinch as it thrashes about with its powerful tail.  The whole boat vibrates with the impact and from the cage comes loud gasps, cries and hollers.  After an impressive fight, the shark loses its grip and slowly descends back out of sight into the murky depths.

My Brush with Circling Sharks:

After several rounds of watching, it was time to suit up.  Lowering into the cage was the hardest part.  But, after entering I was surprisingly calm, likely because I had already watched several groups, but also because the others in the cage did not seem phased (perhaps, like me, they were just pretending to act calm).


Me, suited up and prepared to enter the cage.

While the awesome violence of sharks thrashing about in front of my eyes was impressive, what struck me more from the perspective of the cage was the grace of the animals.  The way they seemingly appeared from nowhere and then languidly moved through the water with the most minimal of effort.  Their stealth in the water reminded me of guided missiles on a predetermined course .  The experience was a lot less scary then I had expected and I exited the cage less out of concern for safety and more because I was getting cold.

Summing Up Shark Cage Diving:

Aside from visiting a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, shark diving was the best wildlife experience of my life.   The proximity to the animals was incredible, as was their sheer power and grace.  And as our boat deposited us back at port, we mused how an activity called shark cage diving, while it would surely impress our friends, was far less dangerous or scary than any of us previously thought.  All were agreed: like so many things in life, stepping out of our comfort zones lead to one of our most rewarding, and unforgettable experiences.

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Ever so Slightly off the Beaten Path

I’m down in Bucerias, Mexico– just outside of Puerto Vallarta, for a week getaway.  It was a cheap trip (flights around 350 after tax) and pretty last minute, booked just three weeks ago.  We choose Bucerias, rather than Puerto Vallarta, for it’s kiting, as it has steady thermal winds that set in around noon and stay strong until the early evening.  In short, this is far from an off the beaten path vacation.  Puerto Vallarta must be one of the most trodden destinations in Mexico.  Yet the 30 minute ride made all the difference.  Here, we are in a quaint village, with cobblestone streets, and taco joints lining the main square.  Locals mix with a trickle of tourists, but it is Spanish that is by far the most dominant language.  The long beach is virtually deserted, and stretches for miles in either direction.  It amazes me that choosing to stay even just ever-so-slightly outside of a tourism hub can have such an impact- though we can see Puerto Vallarta in the distance, this truly feels like a different world.

Our second good move: we traded the all-inclusive for a condo, booked by Airbnb.  This means we can cook, and are not beholden to the all-inclusive gorge-fest.  The condo is magnificent, with huge bay windows overlooking an infinity pool that sits directly in front a wide beach.  It’s private, and blissfully quiet.

The appeal of the all inclusive (if there actually is one) is the convenience.  But the convenience also comes the cost- the obnoxious crowd of glutinous riff-raff, the mediocre food, and crowded beach.  It only takes the slightest bit of effort, and most minimal detour to achieve real holiday bliss.


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I’m a travel blogger- now show me the money!

There is a new ponze scheme that’s going around like a viral YouTube video.  It was introduced to me by a friend who attended a social media conference last weekend.  This premise is this.  Start a blog about your favorite hobby or past-time.  Travel is an especially popular choice because the world is so eager for more aspiring travel writers.  With this under your belt post an article about destinations that you visited.  It’s just a matter of putting fingers to keyboard and hacking away until something coherent arrives on your screen.  Post photos of you in these locations looking serenely at an iconic site.  Now, for those technically inclined, add in a reciprocal link.

Exhibit A: Me with Machu Picchu in the background

This is part of the “social media strategy” that you will need to employ.  The other part involves spamming your friends on Facebook and Twitter to let them know about your newly created blog.  Now sit back, let the sponsorships flow in.  Don’t settle- you should expect to be jetted around the world (first class, of course) and all incurred expenses will be happily borne by your sponsors.  You have created the ultimate alchemy, turning your words into dollars and exotic travel.

Okay, now back to reality.  Maybe I am overly cynical.  Admittedly people genuinely do travel the world and support themselves with a blog.  But here’s what I think the panel forgot to explain.  My guess is that these people have a penchant for their craft.  Had they been born before the internet they would be professional writers, had they been born in the age of film  they would be photographers.  I almost resent the idea that a room full of people at the lecture left thinking they have suddenly discovered the secret to the good life and we are all fully capable of a lucrative career as travel bloggers.  Of course, maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe those who attended the conference just took a first step towards a new career, and I just wasted over an hour publishing something that should’ve demanded a plane fare to warmer climes.