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”.

Nope.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Five “Musts” For A North American Contrarian

You may think that life as a Contrarian in North America is quite simple.  Let’s face it, there is no shortage of material to choose from and no lack of absurdity to be exposed.  To be a contrarian, you may say, all it takes is a snarky attitude, with a pinch of obstinacy for good measure.  And while these definitely don’t hurt, they are only the start.  Below are five other basic necessities to go from novice to the advanced reaches of contrarianism.

1) A Passport:

imagesIt would be unfair to target this continent before having ventured afield to others.  A true contrarian needs their passport because they understand the value of travel to give a deeper perspective on the place they call home.  Are other continents and places equally absurd?  Of course they are!  I’m sure when a Nigerian guy stays a while in Asia he thinks back to his home and says, damn, that Nigeria is a very odd place. It is only through the act of leaving that a contrarian can make real  judgments about his home.

2) Buckets of Books: images-1

If television is the media of the masses, books are the choice of the intelligent.  How can you truly form an alternative opinion to the mainstream if you consume the same material as everyone else?  Books are the fuel that brings fire to a contrarian arguments.  It is through the slow, methodical study of facts and arguments that the contrarian truly hones their craft.

3) A Bike:

Can a North American Contrarian drive a car?  Of course they can!  This is not an exercise in deprivation and life in North America is built around the great American (though now more likely, Asian) automobile.  The distinction here is that the contrarian is open to other forms of transport and uses them wherever possible.

Two feet are a good start and public transport will do in a pinch.  But for its incredibly efficiency, nothing beats a bike.  Bikes are free to park, fun, fast and very low maintenance.   For those who simply cannot give up their combustible engine, scooters are almost as bike47efficient.  My little Yamaha Vino 125 is in it’s 8th year and purrs around the city on $4 a fill-up .

The point is that a contrarian does not buy the myth that a car is a birthright which defines his identity, but is in fact a machine that results in more debt and poorer health.

nb: an important clarification.  The bike I’m referring is not an “accessory.”  Buying a $2,000 single speed is only slightly less ridiculous than buying an SUV.  A utilitarian, easy to fix bike with lots of gears, purchased on Kijiji is what I am referring to.

4) Less of Everything:

Week_1_Less_is_More-300x300In a world that prizes consumption above all else, this one could be the most important credo for the aspiring contrarian.  The odds here are truly stacked against us.  We are told that to be truly happy we need more of everything: be it bigger portions, automobiles or flat screen TV’s.  More stuff and bigger homes to hold said stuff.

I’m not a minimalist and I am truly in awe of the the many advances we have made in technology.  But when I do make a purchase, it is only after careful consideration.  Will this item truly make my life better?  Is the money spend now worth robbing my future self?  In some cases, the answer is yes.  But time and time again, after some careful thought, I come to a resounding no.

5) A Healthy Dose of Cynicism

Simply put, being a true contrarian requires different way of looking at the world.  It’s not about rejecting everything.  It’s not choosing a side, be it urlright vs. left or vegetarian vs. meat eater.  There is no club to join, or fashion movement to follow.

Instead it’s about approaching the world with a healthy dose of cynicism and making informed decisions based on information and careful consideration.

Above all else, being a contrarian is about waking up and being conscious in a place where so many are content to automatically accept everything presented as the absolute truth.


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Three Attributes of Life In A Facebook World

While far from a “heavy user”, I do check Facebook often. And there is something that I have noticed about the world I inhabit there.  While it ostensibly gives me a window into the lives of my friends all around the world I see only the most curated view.  This is because we connect in a pseudo world, a place quite different from the real one, with its own set of rules and regulations.  Here are some of the attributes of life in a Facebook world.

1) We wake up happy, every day!

Energetic teenagerIn this place we wake up happy, no ecstatic, every day without fail.  You see, we love our Facebook world.  Here we keep occupied with only life’s most incredible pursuits.  One day we board a flight to an exotic local (only business class will do), the next we  sip on cocktails with little umbrella’s, or stand triumphantly in front of the world’s great monuments.  Often, we are so excited about our day’s pursuits that we snap a quick selfie.  We are, naturally, locked in a bright smile.  At other moments, during a night of debauchery, our arms are wrapped exuberantly around friends in what surely includes wild sex, heavy drinking and general mayhem.  We live life to it’s fullest, and each day surpasses the last for the sheer happiness we exude.

2) We Always Know Just What to Say

ikXfBwFWe can be playful, we can be coy, but we always know just what to say.  Whether it’s pointing to a clever Meme (Cue Business Baby with caption: Susan, reschedule my 9 o’clock meeting.  I just shit my pants”), or links to inspiring articles (91 year-old man runs marathon in 3:04) we are never at a loss for words.  We talk with the self assuredness of someone who knows that what we say has great importance for our wide audience of listeners.

3) We Have the Solution to The World’s Greatest Problems

Thereimages are difficult moments in the Facebook world.  We are, after all realists, who understand that there are real issues at stake.  When we saw the movie “The Cove” we lamented the horrendous act of killing dolphins, adding a link to the film and saying “Shameful behaviour: we need to stop this- NOW” with a link to an online petition.  We make lots of these timely statements about the world’s conundrums, and explain how we have the solution at hand.  For instance, after the earthquake in Haiti, we noted that we’d already donated $100 to Red Cross.  We patiently explain that we only use biodegradable products in an effort to ward of climate change.  While we don’t outright say it, we imply that following our lead will improve the lot for us all.