Update: Gringo Trails blog

It appears that someone wrote a novel that may or may not be loosely based around the story of the Thai beach featured in Gringo Trails, the documentary I discussed in an earlier blog (Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel). The book is titled The Beach, and it’s by Alex Garland.

I also discovered that the book was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Of course, the book came out in 1998 and the movie in 2000. Goes to show how up-to-the-minute I am.

If anyone has read the book or seen the movie, I’d love to know how the fiction reflects the reality. Also, whether either of them are worth searching out.

Knot Spots: Good News for Bug Eaters

Image source: https://allyouneedisbiology.wordpress.com/tag/edible-insects/

Spotted: CFIA Food Safety Testing Bulletin

If your idea of a tasty treat is chowing down on some nice, crunchy grubs, you’re in luck. A recent study by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency testing for Salmonella and E. coli in edible insect products from online retailers and Canadian retailers didn’t find those harmful microorganisms in yummy products such as dried whole insects, insect powder, and insect-containing snacks (e.g., chips, crackers, and cookies).

According to the 2018-10-03 CFIA Food Safety Testing Bulletin, the presence or absence of Salmonella and E. coli “is an indicator of the overall sanitation conditions throughout the food production chain….Salmonella spp. and generic E. coli were not found in any of the samples analysed and therefore it appears that the edible insects have been produced under sanitary conditions.”

Whew! That’s a load off my mind. I mean, unsanitary bugs, eeee, yuck! Who needs ‘em?!

Travellers to Canada can now indulge in local culinary delights such as Nanaimo Bugs, Cricket Poutine, and Cedar-planked Salmon Flies* with no qualms whatsoever.

Note that while the Canadian study does not indicate the safety of eating bugs elsewhere, the bulletin does state: “…most of the popular edible insects around the world have a history of safe use for human consumption.”

Read about the study on the CFIA website.

*Actually, no, I made those up.

The Long and Winding Road

So you like long walks in the countryside, right? How about a really long walk in the countryside? Like, say, 800 km across two countries?

If that sounds like a walk in the park, how about trying it with a stroller and a toddler? Or maybe you’d like to do it with chronic pain in your feet and knees? And don’t forget your heavy backpack.

Walking the Camino: Six ways to Santiago is a documentary about six characters who each find their own reason for a journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And as the subtitle suggests, old or young, woman or man, of whatever nationality, each finds his or her own “way” of surviving the trek.

Whether they are Christian believers, wanderers who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or dilettantes who take up the pilgrim’s staff (or in this modern day, walking poles) on a whim, they all walk under the same rain storms, sleep in the same crowded hostels, suffer with similar blisters, and share the same basic needs at the end of each day: food, rest, shelter, companionship. Reducing life to this simple level for the space of 30 or so days makes them comrades in arms, each of them reluctant to see the pilgrimage come to its close.

One theme that emerges is how all of the walkers end up “shedding” something. Some drop physical belongings that begin to seem extraneous (and weighty). Some leave behind anger or sadness or their own expectations of themselves and others. Some find important things like the generosity of strangers or romantic love. But all seem to end up feeling “lighter.”

I don’t want to give away too much of the stories, because, as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, but you can add into the mix some beautiful footage of the landscapes along the way, enticing enough to make even a creaky body such as myself contemplate the pleasures of such an epic walk.

For a different view of the Camino, check out “10 Reasons Why El Camino Sucks.”

Calidris Reads: U.S. Virgin Islands

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Night of the Silent Drums

The true and gripping tale of
the St John, Virgin Island slave rebellion

 

John Lorenzo Anderson

Read for: U.S. Virgin Islands

3 knots Recommended

 

First sentence: “In the hush before this moonlit tropic dawn not even the gecko stirs.”

Have you ever heard of the slave rebellion that took place in 1733 on the tiny Caribbean island now called St John? Neither had I until I found this nonfiction book. It is not a happy or pleasant story, but it details the horrific place of slavery in the history of this seemingly idyllic island. Probably not what you want to read while relaxing on the beach; maybe tackle it before you go as a bit of background history to the sugar-mill ruins that are scattered around the Virgin Islands.

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

Knot Spots: Bangkok’s Chocolate Buffet

 

Heaven, I’m in Heaven….

Spotted: Sukhothai Hotel, Bangkok

Generally, I’m not much of a foodie. “Fill my tummy and don’t make me sick” is usually all I hope for from travel meals.

Chocolate, however, is another thing altogether. I will go significantly out of my way to track down a new chocolate experience. The chocolate buffet in Bangkok did not disappoint, featuring a variety of tasty non-chocolate savouries as well as a staggering array of chocolate-based cakes, pastries, confections, and drinks. I snapped this photo of the “tasting trolley,” which offers only pure chocolate in its many varieties, from single-source darks to premium whites and every shade in between. A polite gentleman stands in attendance to dish out as many and as much of each as you might desire. Or he will blend your choices into custom-made hot chocolate.

Here’s the tragedy: having stuffed myself shamelessly on the other options, I actually could not try one bite off the trolley. I stared at it with unbridled lust while the nice gentleman stood poised with his spoon, ready to serve, and I couldn’t do it. I knew that if I indulged in “just one little bite,” like the man in the Monty Python sketch I would explode. Not a pretty picture.

On the up side, I now have a very good reason to return to Bangkok someday.

One afternoon in Otavalo, Ecuador

Face painting for charity

One sunny day, we sat in Otavalo’s main square. We saw people wander past, families, couples holding hands, young men in groups, laughing loudly, wearing t-shirts and hoodies, phones in hand. Young women in twos or threes, jeans skin-tight, careful make-up, arms linked. Women in traditional dress carried children slung in shawls on their backs. All the old people were tiny, nearly dwarf sized.

The Ecuadoran Red Cross was raising funds by offering face-painting for donations. We watched the artist spend a good half-hour decorating a little girl’s face while her mother waited patiently nearby. I asked permission to take a photo and the mother smiled and gestured: Go ahead.

An elderly woman in traditional clothing begged for coins. When Mark gave her a couple of dollars, she smiled broadly and launched into a long speech in Quichua that seemed to be a mix of gratitude and blessings heaped on our heads. She had only a few teeth and those were rotten and rooted at wild angles. She shook his hand and shook my hand. Then she reached over, stroked his cheek, and touched the skin on his hand. She began talking to me, saying I don’t know what. She pinched the sleeve of his black jacket and shook her head. It seemed to me that her gestures encompassed his jacket, his face, Heaven, and his skin.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but was she telling us that he should not wear black, that it made him look sad and pale? Of course, he WAS sad and pale. As she spoke and gesticulated, I wanted so much to grab my camera and take photos of her amazing wrinkled face, but it just didn’t seem respectful.

After a few minutes of this one-way conversation, she wandered off, her small figure quickly out of sight in the colourful crowd.

Market sellers

Young senorita in traditional dress

When is a Direct Booking Not a Direct Booking?

Travel is a never-ending process of learning, and so is travel planning.

A few days ago, I was working through bookings for an upcoming trip to Mexico. I had narrowed down my accommodation choices for one particular city and was ready to reserve. My usual policy with bookings now is to avoid third-party sites (e.g., Booking.com, Expedia, etc.) if the prices offered on the hotel or airline site are comparable and if booking directly is reasonably feasible.

My reasoning is that I’d rather deal directly with the business in question, just in case there’s an issue. I’ve had situations with reservations made through a third-party site where the hotel seemed to care less and actually said something to the effect: “Too bad. It’s booked through Expedia, so we can’t do anything about it.” That’s not what I want to hear when there’s a problem. Airlines, too, may shrug their shoulders if there’s a flight change or other muddle—not necessarily your fault—and you booked through a third-party site. I’ve also wondered sometimes if Expedia bookings get dropped to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to assigning rooms or other things left to the discretion of hotel staff, but I have no proof of that.

Finally, I imagine that the third-party sites take a commission for handling bookings, so I’d rather give that money to the hotel or airline and support the business.

In this case, I went to the website of the hotel. After obsessively reading every page of the site (sorry, that’s just what I do), I went to the booking page to reserve. I clicked on the “Book now” button and was flipped into the reservations page. I had planned to book two nights, but as I was filling in the reservation, something occurred to me that made me decide to book three nights instead.

Great. All done. I get my reservation confirmation within minutes.

Then I recall something about a “romantic getaway” package that I saw on the website. Yup, there it is: book three nights and get free wine, flowers, and a discount. But you must book directly. Okay, I’m thinking, that’s worth following up. After all, I just booked the stay moments before, directly through the website, surely they will be gracious about awarding us the perks.

I write to the manager, explain the situation, and ask if they will honour the package deal.

No, he says, that’s only for bookings made directly.

I’m scratching my head: I did book directly. I point that out. He then explains that bookings through the website are not considered direct bookings.

Say what?

He further explains that a booking through the website actually takes you to a form on—you guessed it—Booking.com. So that’s not a direct booking, in their eyes. A direct booking is only if you telephone or email the hotel.

Now, I’m not really worried about getting the package perks, but I am concerned about this odd definition of “direct booking.” Especially since, when I clicked their “Book now” button and I flipped into the reservation page, the page setup and background visually matched the hotel website. There was no indication I was no longer on their website, unless I decoded the enormously long URL in the browser window. How would I even know that I wasn’t booking directly?

Well, lesson learned. I now know that booking directly through a hotel (or other business) website may not actually be a direct booking by their definition. I must needs be more careful in future. Sadly for the businesses involved, this may also mean I’m less inclined to take the trouble to book “directly” through their sites, if I’m just going to end up on Booking.com anyway. Thus, they will lose out on the commission they pay to the booking site.

What are your experiences with booking through third-party sites and/or directly with hotels? Let me know in a comment.

Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel

In 1981, I attended the fourth Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was amazing. It was fun. It was (relatively) small and manageable. Everyone sat close enough to the main stage that we could all see the performers without a telescope. You could buy a snack without spending the entire evening concert standing in food booth lineups. You could actually get to use a PortaPotty before Daylight Savings Time ran out. It was a lovely festival.

Then it got Known. More and more people poured into Jericho Park each year. The daytime stage audiences got to be as big as the main concerts used to be. Finding space to park or sit down, getting food, going to the loo, moving between stages, all became huge efforts. The fences got higher. The crowds outside the fences got bigger. The lovely festival became a hassle. I stopped going.

This sense of being in “at the beginning” and then seeing something valuable and beautiful crushed under the weight of its own success is what fuels Gringo Trails, a 2012 documentary film.

I stumbled across it at the Vancouver Library (I love their documentary collection!) and found it riveting. It contrasts archival footage of popular tourist destinations from the 80s, 90s, etc. against recently shot footage of the same places, while discussing why and how these “hidden” gems became overrun with (mostly) young (mostly) low-budget travellers.

There’s the corner of the Amazon that became a backpacker’s Mecca after the publication of a popular book about a young man’s survival and rescue set in that area. And there’s the tragic tale of how a picture-perfect, pristine beach in Thailand evolved into a massive party site where tens of thousands of drunken, drug-sodden good-timers congregate regularly, leaving heaps of garbage on the shore and permanently displacing the original residents.

The solution to these destination disasters, the film argues, is locally based, “managed” tourism, where residents plan out how they want to control the onslaught of outsiders and receive the financial benefits. For some places, like Bhutan (profiled in the film) and Botswana (not mentioned), this leads to something called “high-value, low-impact” (read: “high-cost, low-volume”) tourism,” a strategy of deliberately keeping prices for travellers high.

In Bhutan, for example, visitors must spend a minimum of $250 per day, according to the film. High prices mean that fewer tourists can afford to come, but those few bring in the same amount of cash as a horde of backpacker types, who typically take pride in having the lowest-cost vacation possible. Smaller numbers of tourists are more easily controlled and their impact will be much less.

“We don’t really allow the backpacker here coming independent,” says the director of the National Museum of Bhutan during an interview for the film. “We get only multi-millionaires, retired professors, Hollywood, [which I take to mean “celebrities”], and those…who can afford to come.”

Keeping out the riff-raff, which is what this amounts to, may work, but raises its own set of moral issues. If only a certain number of people will be allowed to enjoy a beautiful place in order to prevent damage to it, why should it be only the rich who gain this privilege? The wealthy have no monopoly on respecting cultures or the environment; in fact, some would argue that they are more likely to feel “entitled” and act irresponsibly. Why not establish a test of cultural and environmental sensitivity to determine who gets in?

Well, because money is so much easier to weigh—and so much more fun to rake in.

Countries like Bhutan and Botswana want tourist dollars to preserve unique places, and to prop up the local economy. And that’s perfectly reasonable. But then don’t try to pretend you are on some moral high ground when you are really pandering to the world’s wealthy few.

Gringo Trails is a film for anyone who travels. It’s shocking, disturbing, and thought-provoking. In the course of my own years of being a tourist, I have seen deterioration in some of the places I’ve revisited, and I’ve known that my actions 30 years ago almost certainly contributed to that downslide. It’s a sobering realization.

Have you seen places or events that you loved go downhill as they became more popular? I’d love to read your story in a comment.

Knot Spots: Stairway to Heaven

Spotted: German railway station

Gotta love those crafty Germans! They have their priorities right: celebrate the many colours and varieties of Ritter Sport chocolate bars on a stairway trod by tens of thousands daily. How could one climb this stairway to Heaven without coming away with a sinful craving for chocolate? I had to run right out and find my favourite flavour (hazelnut rum raisin). And no, I’m not getting a lucrative endorsement from Ritter Sport. (If someone from the company reads this and wants to offer me one, please do!)

Having the ad painted on stairs in a railway station fits perfectly into the Ritter Sport’s branding as a yummy snack “on the go.” Why not grab one before you’re stuck on the train for an hour? It will make the trip more pleasant!

In researching this in-depth article, I discovered that Ritter was founded in 1912 and has 33 regular varieties of the Sport bar, 5 organic varieties, and a few “limited edition” flavours that come and go.

The brand eschews the usual rectangular chocolate bar shape for a distinctive, solid-feeling square, leading to their motto: “Qualität im Quadrat” (Quality in a Square). They have their own museum, the Sammlung Marli Hoppe-Ritter, described as an “homage to the square,” which consists of nearly 600 square paintings, objects, sculptures and graphic works, all housed in a square, blocky building. Naturally.

Have you smiled at some very clever, nonintrusive advertising that still gets its point across? Share in a comment.