Knot Spots: The dilemma of California’s Salton Sea

Image source: https://polizeros.com/2019/02/01/salton-sea-problematic-in-colorado-river-drought-plan/

Spotted: fishbio.com

The Salton Sea is a strange and disquieting place located in the arid Colorado Desert of southern California. It is a lake, not a sea, and its surface currently lies about 71.9 m (236.0 ft) below sea level. The “sea” was formed in 1905 when engineers mucking around with the Colorado River and irrigation issues made a boo-boo that resulted in the river flowing into the Salton Basin for two years. Since there was no outflow, a large freshwater lake formed.

Lying in the midst of a desert climate with warmth and sunshine much of the year, the Salton Sea, as it came to be known, became a magnet for funseekers. Resort towns popped up along its shores, hitting their heyday in the 1950s.

Over the years, however, as the lake evaporated, turned more and more salty, and became increasingly polluted from agricultural runoff, the resorts faded away.

“Many of the species of fish that lived in the sea have been killed off by the combination of pollutants, salt levels, and algal blooms. Dead fish have been known to wash up in mass quantities on the beaches. The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea.” (Wikipedia)

Yuck.

Today, the area is scattered with the remnants of abandoned settlements. It is the closest thing to an apocalyptic landscape that I’ve ever seen.

Recently, the US House of Representatives passed a bill in support of allotting $30 million “for projects that would address the environmental and health crisis at the Salton Sea.”

The question is, what are they going to do with that money? I wonder if they even have a clue.

It’s a tricky situation. Technically, the lake doesn’t belong there at all. It’s the result of an environmental catastrophe. However, it has now been there for over a hundred years and nature abhors a vacuum, so it has become a vital resource for birds in an otherwise waterless landscape. Amazingly, birds can survive in this bleak habitat; so much so that the Salton Sea is internationally recognized as an  Important Bird Area (IBA). Which is how I came to be there, checking out the burrowing owls and other intriguing species. People also continue to live around the lake.

If the powers that be allow things to continue as they are going—“let nature take its course”—the lake will eventually become so poisonous that nothing will be able to live there. Millions of birds will lose their resting, feeding, and breeding grounds. After that, it will dry up completely, forming a toxic dust bowl that could sicken anything that stills lives in the vicinity, animal or human.

If, on the other hand, they decide to preserve the lake, it would be a massive undertaking. California already has chronic water shortages. Where would the water to save the lake come from? And if they somehow found that water, how would they solve the problem of pollution from agricultural runoff?

What would be the ultimate goal? To recreate the Salton Sea’s glory days, when tourists water skied and swam, and a commercial fishery existed? Or to maintain the area as a nature park, inhospitable to humans, but a haven for wildlife? Do they turn the clock back 10 years? 20? 60?

What should be done for the people who live there? Relocation? Welfare? Publicly funded communities?

How do you “fix” something when you know it’s definitely “wrong,” but you don’t know what “right” is?

There are several documentaries on the Salton Sea but I’ve only seen one of them: Bombay Beach (2011), an experimental style film heavy on the bizarre ambience of the place. 

Panama Hats and Other Misnomers

In the category of Who knew?! I offer this tidbit: Panama hats are not from Panama. The materials used to make them do not come from Panama. They are not made in Panama. They are, in fact, made in Ecuador.

“A Panama hat, also known as an Ecuadorian hat or a toquilla straw hat, is a traditional brimmed straw hat of Ecuadorian origin.” (Wikipedia)

The art of weaving the traditional Ecuadorian toquilla hat is unique and important enough to be included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of the world.

My Fodor’s Panama guidebook reads: “Any such headwear you do find for sale here [in Panama] should be labeled ‘Genuine Panama Hat Made in Ecuador.’” I’m glad that’s clear.

How did the straw hats wind up with a false identity?

“Straw hats woven in Ecuador, like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, were shipped first to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing for their destinations [worldwide], subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale—‘Panama hats’—rather than their place of domestic origin.” (Wikipedia)

In 1906, when celebrity president Teddy Roosevelt made a stopover at the construction site of the Panama Canal, he was photographed wearing one of the hats, cementing its connection—in the buying public’s mind—with the Central American country.

All this must drive Ecuadorians to distraction. (I recall one of our guides ranting about how Ecuador gets no credit for all its accomplishments. “Who do you think of when you think bananas? Costa Rica! But Ecuador is the largest exporter of bananas in the world.* Who do you think of for roses? Holland? Ecuador grows the most and best roses,** but no one knows!” I had never thought of where roses come from, so I couldn’t argue.)

Perhaps it’s time for nations to trademark their names to avoid this kind of confusion.

For example, how often in my travels have I heard people refer to Canadian bacon, which has nothing to do with Canada? In the United States, they mean “a form of back bacon that is cured, smoked and fully cooked, trimmed into cylindrical medallions, and thickly sliced.” (Wikipedia)

Huh? Having been born in Canada and lived my entire life here, I’ve never eaten such a thing.

You could be forgiven for assuming the Australian shepherd dog came from the land down under, but the breed was actually developed on American ranches in the 19th century. No one knows how the Aussie got its name. One theory is that Basque sheep herders from Europe took their dogs to Australia and later, when they moved on to California, again, with faithful dogs in tow, Americans assumed the dogs were an Australian breed.

The devastating 1918 influenza pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide was often called the “Spanish flu,” although it almost certainly did not originate in Spain. Current hypotheses favour the United States, France, or China as the culprit.

So why “Spanish flu”? When the new and deadly influenza strain first appeared in January 1918, it was what would be final year of the First World War. The United States and much of Europe were under censorship, neither side wanting to show signs of weakness, so reports of the flu were suppressed. In Spain, which was neutral in the war, there was no such censorship, so the horrifying reality of the sickness was widely published both locally and internationally, especially after the Spanish king fell ill. Because of this, people outside of Spain thought of it as the “Spanish” flu, while the Spanish themselves sometimes referred to it as the “French flu.”

With Irish stew and Danish pastries, we can at least say the foods did originate in those countries, but what do they mean today? Danish pastries can be the sorriest, soggiest, amalgams of cardboard-like dough and gooey-sweet fruit-flavoured glop found in the bake section of many grocery stores, while Irish stew might be any bland, chewy, mash-up of meat and tubers a restaurant chooses to slap the name on. Can Danes be proud of their pastries now? Can the Irish hold up their heads in the international culinary arena based on the “Irish” stew of today?

I say it is time for a moratorium on inauthentic, inaccurate, nation-based nomenclature. Let the Ecuadorians reclaim the brimmed hats that pair so fashionably with light-coloured and linen suits. Give the Basques back their bob-tailed sheepdogs. Relieve the Spaniards of the burden of one of the deadliest viruses known to humanity. Require restaurants to rename their dish as “a meat and veg stew of indeterminate origin and ingredients” and demand that stores sell “round, fake-fruit pastries” without blaming the Danes.

America, we Canadians give you back your bacon. Please rename it after your local pigs, who richly deserve the credit.

*”Banana Exports by Country” (2018)

**”2018: A challenging year for the cut rose industry” Floral Daily

Books That Found Me

Compulsive reader: n. A person who cannot refrain from reading.

Situation: We pull into a gas station in Mexico to use the restroom. I jog across the tarmac to the ablution block only to pull up short in dismay at the large sandwich board sign displayed outside: Baños cerrados. Even with my tiny bit of Spanish, I get this: Toilets closed.

I slink back to the car and sit with legs crossed while Mark pays for the gas, contemplating the baños with resentment and some anxiety. Who knows how far to the next place of relief?

I see another driver stride purposefully toward the baños door. Any moment now, I think (somewhat smugly), he’ll see the sign and turn back. But no, he simply pushes past it and continues on. Is the door locked to thwart non-signreaders such as this brash fellow? No, it opens easily and he disappears inside. A second man follows the same path.

Clearly, the baños are not closed. Had I simply not read the sign or ignored it, I would have been blissfully employing papel higienico at that very minute.

My compulsive need to read every bit of text I see has often gotten me into similarly inconvenient circumstances.

On the other hand, being ready, willing, and able to read anything can be a blessing when travelling. I used to leave home with three or four novels stashed in my suitcase, irrationally worried that I would run out of things to read on the road. God forbid I should have to endure a moment at the airport or a rainy day confined to the hotel without reading matter.

However, as we stayed less often in big chain hotels where available text is inevitably restricted to the New Testament and the room service menu, I discovered a world of reading possibilities.

Many smaller hotels, inns, and hostels keep a shelf of books under the rule of “Take a book, leave a book.” Often, the selection will include many tempting choices in languages that you cannot even identify, much less decipher. There will also be dog-eared travel guides that predate the Internet and provide essential information for visits to the U.S.S.R., West Germany, or the Ottoman Empire on $5 a day.

But hidden among the flotsam, there will be jewels.

On the shelf of a nature lodge in the jungles of Mexico, I discovered a novel—The Name of the Wind—that I was actually planning to read anyway, as it had been recommended to me by a friend. Curiously, it was clearly brand new, and appeared unread. It was such an odd coincidence that I felt the book was meant for me, that it had somehow found its way to me.

In Ecuador, I browsed an inn’s bookshelf that stretched from floor to ceiling, covering an entire wall. Out of several hundred books, I pulled one called The Year of Pleasures, scanned the back cover and knew instantly this story about a woman trying to find a new life after losing her husband would go straight to my own grieving heart. I almost put it back, not sure I could handle it, but I promised myself I could put it aside it if it took me in the wrong direction. I galloped through it in three days, cried many times, and marvelled at passages that made me ask “How does she know?”

One of the best things about found books is that they challenge and tease you to read things you might never otherwise choose. Sometimes that means you are condemned to the only English-language volume available, which is usually a thriller by the uber-popular hack writer of the day, the one you never read. But other times you may be led to an unexpected place. Like the slim hardcover sporting a photo of a man wearing a dress and purse and the quirky title Kennense Noch Blümchenkaffee? Die Online-Omi erklärt die Welt. With my rudimentary German I puzzled this out to be: Do you still know flower coffee? The online grandmother explains the world. I guessed that the reference to flower coffee hearkened back to the war, when luxuries like coffee were in short supply and inventive Germans turned to making hot beverages from a variety of sources such as flowers. This is one of those almost-forgotten facts that has passed or is passing from common knowledge.

I still don’t know if my guess was accurate, but it intrigued me enough to flip through the pages. The book turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek “dictionary” of outdated terms and concepts that only an “omi” (affectionate term for grandmother) would still be able to explain–with a generous dash of humour and some social commentary. Example (rough translation): “In olden times, we already had ebay. Only it was without computer and it was called the church bazaar.” Reading this in German and then struggling through to a lightbulb moment when I finally got the joke was so much more fun than reading it in English, and a perfect way for me to stretch my foreign vocabulary.

There have been many other books that found me along the road. I must confess, however, that I have occasionally been known to take a book without leaving one, rationalizing such inexcusable behaviour with the thought that the universe seeks equilibrium and if I am caught without a book to leave, then somewhere there must be someone who has reason to leave a book without picking one up.

Even worse, while I usually conscientiously leave the books behind on another traveller’s shelf once I’m done, sometimes a volume begins to possess me and I take it home to hoard, pawing it lasciviously and mumbling My Preciousssssss! This is a bad habit. I need to remind myself that books need freedom to find new readers who will flatter and appreciate them. To paraphrase Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!:

“Books are like manure: They’re no good unless they’re spread around, helping things to grow.”

Calidris Compares: Golf carts

Image source: gmauthority.com

I’m not a golfer, but in two places that I’ve travelled, golf carts were the common transport mode: Ko Olina, Hawaii, and Dolomite Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia. So how did they compare?

 Ko OlinaDolomite
Overview:Cart provided with condo rental at sprawling resort “town” that encompasses several beaches, restaurant, golf course, shopping, etc.Cart as courtesy transport within remote and widely spread safari camp situated along a rocky ridge overlooking flat, arid plains.
Means of propulsion:ElectricGas
Driver:YouThem
Best feature:Allows you to park in “golf cart only” spots at otherwise full parking lots near popular beaches.Gets you from common area of camp to your tent (maybe 600 m) in the dark without being et by a leopard (Dolomite has no fences to keep the wildlife out).
Road hazards:Jealous car drivers and the pool noodle that fell out of the cart in front.Things with big teeth and claws that roar in the night.
Thrill of independence: Oh, yeah! You have to charge up each night, but other than that, the world (or, at least, the resort) is your oyster.None. You must phone to the reception building for a cart to pick you up. Besides, there’s nowhere to go unless you want to joy-ride across the barren plains with lions snapping at your ankles through the open sides of the cart.
Top speed: Slower than you want to go.Faster than you want to go.
Pollution: None, unless you throw litter out while riding in one.Noisy and smelly.
Reliability:Potential to run out of battery power. (Never happened to us.)Frequently break down.*
Fun factor:Roaring down the golf cart lanes at breakneck speed (5 kph?).Clinging to the seats as the driver tears along the bumpy ridge trail at top speed.
Fear factor: Crossing main roads where cars are king.Nearly tumbling out as the cart tilts 35 degrees backward or sideways on steep sections of the trail.

*When we stayed in 2012, the staff continually explained that only one cart was in working order, thus the delays in service. As I read through recent reviews, I was amused to discover that the situation hasn’t changed: there are still issues with the cart service and the staff are still explaining that only one cart is in working order.

Summary: While I’m not sure I’d want to eschew the carts to walk the distances through Dolomite on those uneven, up-and-down paths at night with ravenous carnivores lurking, I do feel there are probably better solutions. In fact, the one thing I really disliked about this camp was the noisy golf carts. From early in the morning, as soon as breakfast is starting to be served, until well into the evening, as the last guests finish their drinks in the bar, the annoying carts roar around. Since everything is built along one path that runs along the ridge, every cart passes by your unit.

Therefore, our Ko Olina cart wins this comparison easily. Now, let’s pack a picnic, throw the towels into the cart, and head to the beach!

Have you visited somewhere that golf carts are the preferred way to get around? Let me know in a comment!

The Soul of a Traveller

Mom’s motorcycle driver’s license, 1951.

My mom was an adventurer.

Growing up, I never thought of her that way. She was just my steady, reliable mother, always taking caring of me and the rest of the family. Standing over the stove, hanging laundry on the clothesline, washing floors and walls (does anyone actually do that anymore???), ironing my father’s hankies (really), pinching pennies, making sure the household ran smoothly. I’m sure she saw that as her role in life and she took it very seriously. She almost never played with us kids, even when Dad sat down with us to play a board game once in a while, she invariably steered clear. I now suspect she was happy to have an hour or two of time when we were all otherwise engaged and she could do something else. On the other hand, we never went hungry, ran out of underwear, or missed a dentist appointment. She saw to that.

In her essay “The Household Zen,” (published in High Tide in Tucson—highly recommended, by the way), Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

“A generation of…women served their nation by being the Army of Moms, and they spent their creative force like the ancient Furies, whipping up cakes and handmade Christmas gifts and afterschool snacks, for a brief time in human history raising the art of homemaking high above the realm of dirt….(T)hey left a lot of us lucky baby boomers with strong teeth and bones and a warm taste of childhood in our mouths.”

As a stay-at-home mom, she was around the house pretty well all day, every day, and between chores, she listened religiously to CKNW’s radio quiz “Are You Listening?” Her favourite topic was geography. She wrote down the answers and kept lists of them taped to the inside of her cupboards for quick access. I’m reminded of Kingsolver’s insightful observation: “If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you’re going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control.”

But aside from being a four-star general in the Army of Moms, my mother also had a daring and intrepid side that I’ve only come to recognize as I grow older.

As a teenager and new wife in the early 1950s, she earned her motorcycle license so that she could share the driving with Dad as they roared around Germany on a shared bike. When the two of them decided there was no future in post-war Europe, she held her two tiny children (my eldest brother and sister) by the hand and watched Dad sail off to the wilds of western Canada. For six months, she held the family together while he found work and then wrote for them to join him. She packed up what she could take, gave away what she couldn’t, and hugged her mother and everyone else she knew goodbye.

On the voyage across the Atlantic, high waves made almost everyone aboard the ship seasick. Mom looked after my brother and sister and a couple of other children whose mother was incapacitated.

She spent her birthday on the ship, and the official ship’s photographer snapped pictures of her and my siblings at the party. Later, he suggested he would give her free prints as a keepsake—if she would welcome him to her cabin when no one else was around. She told him to hand over the prints or she would tell the captain what he was up to. Long before #MeToo, Mom was fighting back against sexual predators.

One of the photos taken at my mother’s birthday party on board the ship to Canada. Mom, my brother, and my sister, sitting at the table.

The ship was blown off course by a storm and instead of docking in Halifax as planned, it put in at a U.S. port. Without U.S. transit papers, the passengers were treated like illegal aliens, kept under guard without food, and finally loaded aboard a train to Canada.

My parents were ultimately reunited in Vancouver, whereupon the family was whisked away to a series of remote camps in the wilderness of British Columbia. Dad worked a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the money was better in places far from city life. In Porteau, the only access was by small boat and Mom would order her groceries and other necessities with a list sent with the boatman. They lived in rough shacks with no conveniences and few other families. There were bears in the backyard and “Indians” around the corner, neither of which my mother had ever seen before coming to Canada. She spoke very little English when she arrived, but made it her lifelong goal to learn the new language and use it correctly. She never spoke German to us kids; we were Canadians and would speak English.

After a few years, and now with four children, my parents moved to a nice neighbourhood in Port Moody where my mother could finally fulfill her destiny as SuperMom. She was the perfect suburban housewife—yet her taste for adventurous experiences didn’t leave her.

Our summer holidays were always spent camping. Mom could have dug in her heels and just refused all the extra work that involved, but she loved the outdoors. She braved rain, bugs, pit toilets, snakes (she was terrified of snakes), and more bears as we wandered campsites across BC. We travelled to Barkerville, Terrace, and the Pacific Rim when this entailed long journeys on pot-holed gravel tracks. Perhaps this is just my childish misremembering, but it seemed that we were always driving along some narrow logging road that hung on the edge of a precipitous cliff dropping far below to a distant river valley.

One summer, we moved to Quebec for a couple of months for Dad’s job. Once again, Mom accepted the challenge of moving us all to a completely unfamiliar place with a foreign language.

When Mom was 41, my father was offered a job overseas in—of all places—Yemen. Yemen? No one had even heard of it and we had little idea what to expect there. His contract would be for a minimum of a year. Mom could stay home, or she could once again travel across the world. She chose to give up comfort and familiarity and expose two of her children (myself and my youngest brother) to The Unknown. She also left her two older children behind in Canada, which I believe was much harder for her, although they were both independent young adults by then.

Our trip to Yemen took us through Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (aka French Somaliland or Djibouti), and Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia). As a child of 12, I was wide-eyed at the world that unfolded before me. Yemen itself provided a huge cultural shock. Donkeys and camels pulled watercarts through the desert, hideously deformed beggar children swarmed the streets, and women were swathed in black burkhas with only their eyes and fingers showing.

We moved into a whitewashed concrete block house in a small village four hours’ drive by Landrover through sand dunes from the closest town. My mother and I were the only “white” women in the village and the only women who went unveiled. (Although only 12, I was considered of marriageable age and should have been wearing a burkha.) There were cockroaches the size of Smart Cars on the floors, geckos of corresponding size on the walls (they eat the roaches), and no potable water. One room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with cases of Sohat bottled water.

In Yemen, 1972. Back row, from left: our driver and friend, Ali, Dad, Ron. Front row: me, Mom.

Suffice to say that my mother could easily have run screaming back home to Port Moody. But she didn’t give up, even after she suffered through a bout of kidney stones and contracted malaria at the same time. This was one tough, determined woman.

Through her life, she was fascinated with the sea and ships, and while others talked about luxury cruises, she always dreamed of hopping a cargo ship. At the age of 50, when her friends were spending vacations in all-inclusive resorts, she and my dad bought backpacks and headed off to Europe.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my life, but I’m not sure I have the courage and spirit of adventure my mother had when she immigrated or when she packed us off to live in the Middle East. She always said all she ever wanted to be was a mother and she continually downplayed her intelligence, pointing out that she never went to high school and referring to herself as “pea brain,” yet, somehow, she managed to be the perfect captain of our family spaceship while still boldly going where few dared to go.

I think that takes a form of genius.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Why, United Airlines, Why?

On our travel nightmare journey from Vancouver to Cancun, our United Airlines flight departure from YVR was delayed by two hours due to wildfire smoke at our stopover, San Francisco.

Let me make it clear, I don’t fault UA for this. The smoke was “an act of God.” The issue is, how did UA handle this emergency?

We made up about an hour en route, but still arrived an hour late at SFO. The flight crew assured us that all flights in/out of SFO were being delayed, so we might still make our connecting UA flight to Cancun. We were told to “check the flights board” to see if our flight had gone, and if it had, we should then talk to a customer service rep.

Of course, our flight had indeed departed (without the 13 of us who were all delayed from that one flight. Hmmm…13…I wonder?) so we went in search of a customer service rep. We found two United Airlines “service” desks, both unstaffed, and tried two UA “service” phones, both dead lines.

We finally approached a UA employee at one of the gate check-ins, who told us where to find an open service booth.

Question 1: Since our connecting flight had long since departed, why wasn’t that info passed to the flight crew to pass to us on the plane so we wouldn’t waste time trying to find our flight on the board? I have seen similar situations where a flight delay caused a number of passengers to miss a connecting flight, and the airline sent a rep to meet the plane, collect the affected passengers and escort them to wherever they needed to go next to resolve their flight issue. Why didn’t UA do that?

Question 2: Since dozens of UA flights were being delayed that evening and thousands of passengers rerouted, why wasn’t every service desk and every service phone in operation?

We finally locate the one open service booth and, naturally, there’s a long line-up, so we settle down to wait. 30 minutes later, we finally get to the head of the line. The harried UA rep asks “Are there only two of you?” We nod. He sends us to another booth down the terminal, where we wait again.

Question 3: Why didn’t the first service booth just have a sign or a rep stationed at the line to direct people immediately to the other booth, so we wouldn’t waste 30 minutes waiting in that line?

At the second booth, we are told that we have been rebooked via Houston on a flight that is boarding NOW. Really? We’re already rebooked, but you couldn’t have told us that back on the plane, an hour ago?

“Run!” says the rep helpfully.

Indeed, as we arrive at the gate, boarding is in its final stages. The surly rep at this gate snaps that the flight is full and we won’t get on. So why did the last rep send us here?

Two minutes later, she recants and we have boarding passes. Hooray! But when we find our seats (in separate rows), it is clear that both our seats were likely originally left empty because they are located next to Really Big People, who are not thrilled to discover that two last-minute passengers are about to take away their extra space.

As I wedge myself apologetically in the center seat of the very last row (read: no seat recline), the man on my other side smiles…and coughs. And coughs. And coughs.

Which leads to the topic of a future blog…”Mexican Health Care for Tourists.”

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.

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.

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.