Etosha National Park

Rush hour at Okaukuejo

A few months ago, I wrote about National Geographic and how it has influenced me over the years. I vividly remember seeing the NG special Etosha: Place of dry water back in 1980 and being enthralled by the scenes of wildlife congregating around the waterholes.

When we planned our second trip to Africa in 2012, I was drawn to the idea of spending time exploring Etosha National Park. My research indicated Namibia was a relatively safe and accessible country where we could drive around on our own—as long as we carried two spare tires and glass insurance. The Namibian roads are notorious for destroying tires and windshields. We flew into the capital of Windhoek, picked up a rental car, and motored north to the park’s eastern gate, Von Lindequist.

So the deal in Etosha, as in many African parks, is that you can self-drive the roads without a guide between daybreak and sunset. You cannot go off the roads, but you can stop anywhere it’s safe to do so in order to watch wildlife or take photos. Outside of the secure fenced camps and very occasional rest areas, you CANNOT—and this is the cardinal rule of independent safaris—you cannot get out of your car under any circumstances. You want to stretch your legs? Tough. You need to, um, relieve yourself? Better practice holding it in. Because if you’re caught outside your car, it’s immediate expulsion from the park and a hefty fine. Or you could be et by a lion. Your choice. Oh, and make sure you’re back at camp by sunset or it’s also a fine.

Rules notwithstanding, self-driving is an exciting and rewarding way to tour Etosha. It’s such a vast area (over 22,000 km2) that even with 200,000 annual visitors, you’re still going to have lots of space to yourself on any given day. Compare that with Yellowstone’s 9,000 km2 and 4 million visitors per year.

We spent six nights in the park, three of them in the wonderful Okaukuejo Camp. Often rated as the best waterhole viewing in all of Africa, Okaukuejo looks like nothing much if you arrive when the animals aren’t there. It’s just a big puddle with rocky banks, surrounded by a lot of dry, barren land. You wonder why you paid upwards of $300 per night to stay in a chalet overlooking the waterhole.

But that’s before the parade begins.

First, it might be a bevy of dainty springbok, nervously stepping between the stones before surrounding the water and drinking. Then, a mixed herd of zebra and wildebeest, larger and heavier in body, wade straight into the pool and plunge their faces in. From a distance, you can see an organized line of oryx with their sweeping sabre-like horns approaching single file. A rhino or two might join the crowd. Majestic giraffes spread improbably long legs wide apart so their heads will reach the water. An eagle swoops down to a landing and dips and lifts her beak until she has her fill. It’s busy but calm—until the elephants barge in. Nobody argues with the ellies; most accept that their time at the waterhole is done and move off along the commuter routes, faint game tracks sketched in the hard ground. The great grey beasts own the place as long as they choose to drink, blow, play, roll, and muck up the water.

When they finally wander away, it’s the dark of night. You’ve been watching all this from the balcony of your chalet and now realize that $300 was well spent. Then a lion roars somewhere nearby and you think what it would feel like to hear that sound if you were not safe in a chalet, but camping somewhere out in the open. The whole pride—several lionesses and a number of sub-adult cubs—emerge from their hiding place and pad to the bank, standing side by side to lap in synchronicity. A hyena skulks on the fringes, wary of the big cats. Finally, a large owl glides in without a sound.

This is Okaukuejo. But Okaukuejo is only the first among many waterholes in Etosha. Your days run something like this: wake early, grab some food for the road, be in your car and ready at the camp gate when it opens at dawn. Putter down the gravel and dirt roads at a walking speed, searching, scanning the bushes, grasses, trees, skies as you go. Rainbow-coloured birds like the lilac-breasted roller and the European bee-eater could be perched on any twig and wildlife roams freely through the open country, but in the dry season, you can simply park beside any waterhole and wait for the animals to come to you.

When the heat of the day makes sitting in a car unbearable, you head back to camp for some lunch and a siesta, or, at least some shade time.

Later in the afternoon, you hit the roads again for the last couple of hours before sunset (circa 6:00 or 6:30 pm). As the sun nears the horizon and you turn the car back towards camp, intending to make the evening curfew with time to spare, you will inevitably come across some amazing sight—like giraffes in a courtship dance, or a huge martial eagle perched on a fresh kill—that you simply must stop for, such that you end up squeaking through the closing gate a few minutes after the deadline.

Apres dinner, you can stroll down to the floodlit waterhole to watch the nightly show begin one more time—from behind the safety of a large fence.

To most North Americans, Etosha seems like a remote and difficult place. “Namibia? Where is that? And why are you going there? Oh, to visit a dry salt pan. Of course….” For me, however,  it was even more wondrous than the pictures I’d carried in my mind for over thirty years.

Watch my short video of Okaukuejo waterhole here.

Have you finally visited a place you dreamed about for years? Did it live up to your imagination or disappoint? Let me know in a comment.

Lilac-breasted roller

Okaukuejo waterhole

Sharing the water

That water looks mighty tempting. Now, how do I get my mouth down there?

Springbok rumble

 

 

 

Here Comes the Showboat!

As we roll into the beginning of summer, I’m once again reminded of how splendid is my own little corner of the world and how happy I am when I get a chance to spend part of the summer around here. This doesn’t mean I don’t travel, but sometimes I enjoy being a tourist in my own town with all its festivals, free events, and fascinating nooks.

The Kitsilano Showboat is a perfect example. Even though I was born near Vancouver, for many years, I had no idea where Kitsilano is. Growing up in the burbs of Port Moody, Kits was just not a place my family visited. I was in my 40s before I heard about the Showboat. They ran an ad looking for roving musicians who would stroll the nearby beaches and perform for the crowds there, with the idea of luring patrons to check out the free stage at the Showboat. The shameless exhibitionist in me jumped at the chance to go where buskers and other musicians are normally forbidden. Evenings that summer found my partner and I gussied up in 1890s costume, playing to the scantily clad throngs in thongs arrayed on the sand. Afterwards, we would head back to the Showboat to catch the show.

It’s s a classic Vancouver experience: park your keester on one of the amphitheatre’s tiered benches, look down to where the Mexican Dance Ensemble or the South Surrey Concert Band is playing its heart out for you, and then gaze past: first to the epic aquamarine dimensions of the Kitsilano Pool, which lies just behind the Showboat, next, to the waters of English Bay beyond that, criss-crossed by the white triangles of sailing dinghies and the wet-suited figures of stand-up paddleboarders, still farther to the skyline of West Vancouver, and finally to the stunning backdrop of the Coast Mountains. A little to the right of this world-class vista, rest your eyes on the white sand of Kitsilano Beach set against the skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver. Now add in a perfect summer-blue sky and some silver gulls soaring on the breeze, and you have a scene to inspire E.J. Hughes.

Discovering the Showboat was like finding out I had a long-lost great-auntie living in a Kitsilano heritage home. This auntie is a former vaudeville star, fabulously eccentric but always entertaining. You can visit her any night of the week, as long as it’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday. You never know whether she’s going to show up for dinner as a hula dancer, a kilted lassie, a saloon gal, or a cowgirl. She might come out playing a tuba or bring a troupe of tiny tots on stage to wave little Canadian flags. Even though she’s pushing 82, she’s still a spry old showgirl flaunting a bright new coat of turquoise paint each year.

Founded in 1935—back in the days when the average person was much more accustomed to entertaining themselves, their families, and their neighbours with homespun talent—the Showboat relies on volunteer performers to put on a show. From the kiddies of the Hi-Kicks Dance School to wanna-be rock gods, everyone gives it their best effort, and although the talents are not always professional-level, they are never boring.

There’s a concession nearby for snacks and drinks, or, for more up-scale nosh before or after the show, drop in at the beachside Boathouse Restaurant just around the corner. Best option of all might be a packed picnic dinner on a beach blanket among the driftwood of Kits Beach.

When the performance ends, meander along the promenade and enjoy the sunset.

Hamming it up on Kits Beach with my partner a few years back.

“See the Show Boat,
Will you go?
Let me take you to the show!”
Show Boat (the musical, 1927)

 

If you grew up in Vancouver, do you have any memories of the Kitsilano Showboat? Or do you remember a similar local talent outlet from your own home town? Let me know in a comment.

 

The Joy of Junk Mail

When I was a strange, reading-obsessed child, I would comb magazines from the library, looking for those tiny ads that promised to mail me something for free. “Ten Tips for Training Your Advanced Reining Horse.” “The Colorful Stamps of Gabon.” “Hinterland Who’s Who: The Beaver.”

All this information available for just the cost of a stamp! Who could resist? What did it matter if I hardly knew what a reining horse was, much less owned or trained a horse of any description? The material would arrive in the mail addressed to ME—very exciting for a seven-year-old. I would devour every word and carefully file the item away in my drawer.

As an adult, the appeal paled. After all, I got so much junk mail every day. Why in the world would I ask for more? For a while, you had to write away to be taken off mailing lists. (I suspect that such requests were actually received as carte blanche to treble the amount of junk sent. “Here’s a live one, Joe. Mark that address for extra deliveries.”)

Nowadays, everything is on the Web. The most obscure information available at the click of a mouse. It’s great for instant facts. But it can be too easy to go directly to the info you want. Sometimes you do require straight-up cold, hard data. But sometimes you want to drift, to sample. You want to dream.

After my father died suddenly, my mother was left a widow at 51. She was lost. My father had been the centre of her life, her children were grown. She was financially comfortable but did not know what to do with herself. One day, on impulse, she walked into a travel agency and picked up a pile of brochures. She and I pored over those brochures together. We talked about the places she could go. I remember she became quite enamoured with the idea of taking a round-the-world cruise. We talked about it for a while. And then she let the notion drop. I think it was the idea that she could do this if she wanted that helped her move forward. Instead of feeling that her life was over, she started to see that she had choices, and some of them might even be fun choices.

I recently found myself clicking on a Facebook ad for a region I have never visited. It was the promise of “Birdwatcher’s Paradise” that pulled me in. Once I was on the website—a nicely constructed one, I may add—I browsed a bit, mildly interested. Beyond the birds, it was the usual “we’ve got wineries, we’ve got charming accommodations, we’ve got golf, etc.” But what drew my attention like a magnet was that little button: “For maps, tour suggestions, and a 64-page vacation guide, click here.” Filling in my name and address took me straight back to the excitement of my reining horse days.

Yes, I know that somewhere in cyberspace, personal information collection software is gleefully adding me to its database. But I don’t care. When that thick envelope arrives in my community mailbox slot, I will hurry home, snuggle into a comfy chair, tear the envelope open, and browse the old-fashioned way. I will unfold the maps, flip through the glossy-paged booklet, and peruse the “special offers.” I will read through the suggested itineraries and trace their routes on the maps. I may turn down corners of pages that interest me or circle text that I want to remember.

The experience of being taken on a carefully planned journey through information, as you hold a booklet in your hands, cannot be replicated by a website. The travel booklet presents information in a crafted sequence. I understand that the sequence is all focused on getting me to commit emotionally before thinking about practicalities like cost. But knowing that, I can still sit back and enjoy the ride. Do your best, I think happily. Sell me, if you can. This could be my next vacation, so go ahead and tell me why it should be.

Because I’m a travel junkie, even when I’m on a trip, I scan the horizon for free travel literature. Staying in a birding lodge, for example, often yields thick, slick, bird tour promos filled with stunning photos. On our meanderings around Cape Breton last year, I happened across a 66-page book advertising the upcoming Celtic Colours Festival. Although we were too early to visit the festival that year, I carried the book home and found it a treasure trove of information and inspiration for a potential future visit. (I’m hoping to visit that festival next year.)

Just so you know, downloadable brochures don’t cut the same mustard. They can be useful, but are just second-class citizens in the travel world. Clicking through an e-book is not the same as turning tangible pages. You may be saving trees by reading an electronic version, but just think of all the viruses and malware that a download could be carrying. At least when I open my paper copy, I don’t suddenly get the sniffles or find that my hands are off-line until I pay a ransom to some hacker.

No, as long as there’s snail mail, I’ll keep looking forward to my free travel literature. Anyone for a cup of tea and a copy of The Visitor’s Guide to Amish Country?

Am I dating myself terribly by clinging to my hard-copy travel brochures? Given a choice, do you prefer downloadable info and websites, or something you can hold in your hands? Let me know your opinion in a comment.

 

 

Calidris Reads: Costa Rica

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).

Costa Rica:
A traveler’s literary companion

Edited by Barbara Ras

First sentence from one of the stories: “Pressed against the run-down schoolhouse, the chumico tree bears a miraculous fruit for the poor child who can’t afford marbles.”

I really wanted to like these stories, but I found I just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps because much of the work is translated. Maybe I’m just a shallow and unsophisticated reader and this represents serious modern literary fiction. I would finish one piece with relief and think “Maybe the next one will be more appealing” but it wasn’t. I didn’t find that the stories gave me the sense of place that I’m looking for when I choose a book to travel with.

2 knots (Not recommended)

 

The Jewel Hunter

Chris Gooddie

Opening: “Blood pounded in my ears. My heart rate was up in the stratosphere. I crouched on a disused hunting trail in a remote forest in southwest Sumatra.”

We all read it. We all loved it. But we’re birders. It’s a quirky, humorous true tale of how the author gave up a lucrative job to spend a year criss-crossing the globe in a quest to see every species of pitta. Pittas are reclusive, sometimes rare, birds that lurk deep in forests, so his success was by no means assured. Along the way, he comments on food, people, places, and adventures he encounters, as well as sharing the lists he creates. Birders tend to be list-makers, and Gooddie is no exception, for example, the following mantra:

  1. Animals are the best things in the world.
  2. Birds are the best animals.
  3. Pittas are the best birds.
  4. Gurney’s Pitta is the best pitta.

If this strikes you as even remotely funny, this book might be for you. (We found it hilarious.)

Note: Although we read this book during our Costa Rica trip, there are, in point of fact, no pittas in CR (nor in North/Central/South America as a whole; they are mainly Asian and Australasian birds, with a couple of species in Africa). However, we were very caught up in birding on that trip, so this fanatical birder’s story seemed appropo to our state of mind.

If you’re a birder, I’d rate it 5 knots (Must-read); if not, I’d say maybe 3 (Recommended).

Knot Spots: May 24, 2017

While chowing down in my favourite Granville Island nook–the windowed sitting area behind the Blue Parrot Café–I was idly perusing the moored beauties before me when the name in the scrolly font on this sailboat came into focus. Needless to say, I was delighted and had to run down to snap a record for posterity.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

Awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

There’s just something about giant pumpkins.

You may rhapsodize about your royal-size rutabagas, you may hail the humungous Hubbard squash, or commend the colossal cabbage. All are worthy, but all bow before the immenseness of the Great Orange One.

Nova Scotia’s Hants County is a hotbed of oversize vegetable growing, thanks to a man named Howard Dill, who developed the Atlantic Giant variety of pumpkin back in the 1980s. Today, his namesake farm sells wanna-be growers enough seed annually to sprout around 2.4 million pumpkin plants.

Let us be clear. These are not the pumpkins you see in your grocery store at Halloween, the ones you carve and set out as Jack-o-lanterns. They’re not even the same ones your angelic child chooses as “the biggest pumpkin in the field” and poses beside for the family Facebook snappie.

These pumpkins are really, really big. To put this in perspective, I point out that Windsor, Nova Scotia, hosts an annual pumpkin regatta, in which jolly yachties hollow out examples of said squash, sit in them, and race along an 800-metre watery course. And those are the babies, the ones not big enough to compete at weigh-offs. The world record pumpkin last year tipped the scales at nearly 1,200 kilos.

Last September, I found myself in Nova Scotia, right on the border of Giant Pumpkin Country, just at the time when the big ‘uns were being harvested and trucked into local weigh-offs. There was no question of resisting the siren call of the splendid squash, despite the strange look the BnB proprietor gave me when I asked for help finding the off-the-beaten-track event.

I drove through endless orchards of picture-perfect Annapolis Valley apples before finally spotting the farm market that was hosting the event. As I puttered through to the overflow parking in an adjacent field, I had a great view of the line-up of titans waiting to be judged, each reclining regally on its own pallet board. The pumpkins ranged in colour from chalky white through greenish-yellow to deep orange. They brought to mind a ring of rotund sultans at ease after a particularly palatial repast, their bodies bulging out in unique, sometimes grotesque, forms.

I joined the crowd of giant-vegetable fanciers in dungarees, plaid jackets, and baseball hats. Forty or fifty people stood around patiently, chatting and commenting on each entry as it was weighed. There was good-natured ribbing of some of the growers, obviously well-known figures in the area. Hot dogs and hot chocolate took the nip out of the autumn air. Someone was filming the entire contest, which took a couple of hours to complete. A reporter from a farming magazine was on hand to take notes and photos. There was no hurry. It had the comfortable feel of a local event where hard-working folks took a well-deserved day off to connect with neighbors and display the fruits of their labors.

As the assistants worked a sling under and around the next competitor so it could be lifted by a frontloader, the crowd would begin guessing its weight. Due to the eccentric shapes and varying densities, this was no easy task; a pumpkin that appeared larger might actually turn out to be lighter in weight. This uncertainty merely compounded the tense atmosphere of cut-throat competition.

Before an entry was lowered onto the scale, a judge checked it underneath and occasionally used a whisk broom to clean the bottom, I suppose in case the extra half gram of dirt was the deciding factor in this battle of the heavyweights.

Each grower—young and old, man or woman—was encouraged to pose for a photo beside their entry as it rested on the scales with the weight clearly showing in the background. I imagined a farmhouse wall covered with these snapshots stretching back years, perhaps with an occasional ribbon tacked alongside.

Top prize that day went to a 1202-lb behemoth; not exactly world-record class, but certainly the biggest darn vegetable I’d ever seen. As they loaded the Great Pumpkin onto its owner’s truck for the triumphal journey home, I toasted it with my hot chocolate and wished it and its mates all the best. The winners would move up to compete in the county fair and perhaps to even greater glory at the provincial level. The losers might still contribute to someone’s closely guarded pumpkin breeding scheme.

I carried back from Hants County my own sample single-seed packet of Atlantic Giant. Someday, I may find the perfect spot—the most sincere pumpkin patch—to nurture that seed. It may look just like any other pumpkin seed, but I know it has the potential to bring forth a champion.

What have you discovered by exploring rural backroads on your travels? Share your story in a comment.

 

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 2

In steps 1 through 6, I talked about buying a map, doing research, and creating a travel calendar.

7/ Start to personalize your Great Big Map. At different times, I’ve used these three methods:

  • Take your GBM and put sticky dots on places and events which interest you. If you want to be really obsessive (I’ve done this once), use one specific color sticky dot for events, another color for natural attractions, and another for historical sites; OR
  • Mount your GBM on a corkboard and stick pins into places of interest; OR
  • Photocopy your GBM and draw directly on the photocopy with dots marking your events.

It’s fun to post your GBM in a prominent place at home where you can stare at it often and imagine yourself journeying in the places you’ve marked.

8/ At this point, I’m going back and forth between my research materials (websites and travel books), my calendar, and my GBM. This phase could last for weeks or months. From my Internet research, I bookmark sites for hotels, events, and stores and put them all into a special favourites folder.

Each box on your calendar might initially have multiple items: a couple of hotels, some activities available on that day, a store that looks interesting. Eventually, however, you will need to eliminate some options. This can be tough, but think of yourself as a kid in a candy store: choosing just one treat is hard, but whatever you pick, it will likely be sweet.

Don’t forget to note any driving (or other transport) times. For example, if I’m driving from Quito to Mindo, I would write on that date: Dr 1.5 hr to Mindo. That way, I can quickly see how much time I have to build into the day’s schedule for transit between locations and I can plan the rest of the day’s activities around that. Nowadays, it’s easy to get driving times instantly: just Google “driving distance Point A to Point B.”

9/ As you fill in your GBM, with luck you will start to see some clusters of dots. These are the areas you should focus on in your itinerary planning. Ideally, you can stay in one place for several days and do day trips in the vicinity.

If there are dots all alone and far from any others, you are going to have to decide whether that one thing is worth travelling to. If not, you’ll have to shelve that item for this trip.

Also, you need to start considering how far apart your clusters are. Can you drive between or will you need to fly? How much is that going to cost you, in time or money? Should you narrow down the geographical scope of your trip? E.g., You might start by thinking you would like to visit “Spain,” quickly realize that seeing the whole country is far too ambitious for a two-week trip, and eventually settle on a more realistic focus of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.

As you develop your itinerary, keep in mind that you can fly out of a city other than your arrival point if this works better for you. I learned recently that flights aren’t necessarily more expensive if you do this (although you will almost certainly pay a bit more for your rental car), so be sure to investigate options.

10/ Okay, you have a map, a calendar, and a tentative itinerary—and you’ve had quite enough of all this research. Time to start booking.

Whether to book accommodations first or flights first is a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Most flights are non-refundable, so you don’t want to have to cancel them because the lodge you’ve set your heart on has no availability for the week you’ve chosen, but they do have an opening the following week. On the other hand, there’s not much point in getting your accommodations lined up only to discover that the flight you need is sold out. I usually try to check availability for the important accommodations just before I book flights.

Although you might be tempted to book your accommodations in order, starting with day 1 etc., it’s probably wiser to first reserve the ones that are most important to you or most likely to be full up. That way, if Pepe’s Perfect Jungle Lodge is unavailable on your first choice of dates, you can be a bit flexible with your itinerary. If you’ve already booked a bunch of other lodgings, you might find it impossible to fit Pepe in. You don’t want to miss out on Pepe’s!

If you’re having trouble booking parts of the itinerary, don’t be afraid to try shuffling the pieces around or even running the schedule backwards, if that might help.

This is how a typical itinerary looks before I start booking.

Aus calendar

11/ As you book each item on your calendar, mark it green. That way you can see at a glance which items still need to be booked and which are fixed.

Some of the information I like to note on my calendar once something is booked:

  • Name of hotel or event
  • City
  • Reservation #
  • Name on booking (yours or your companion’s)

As you get closer to your departure date, you might want to flag unbooked items on your calendar with red to remind yourself that action is still needed.

12/ In addition to the calendar (because not everything will fit in those little boxes), keep notes on each destination: activities, museums, theatres, markets, restaurants, tours, and shops that you may or may not have time for.

Once your entire calendar is glowing with green, you can relax and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all your labor.

Oh, yeah, there’s still the packing to do…but that’s another list.

Am I crazy for doing all this? How do you plan your trips? Or do you plan at all? Let me know in a comment.

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 1

Are you one of those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travelers? The kind who books a flight, throws a few things into a carry-on bag, and takes off? If so, this is not the blog for you. I admit to being a careful—many would even say “obsessive”—travel planner. I have every night booked long before I leave home and I usually have a general idea of what I’ll be doing each day. Having plotted out many trips over the years, I find this works for me. I find decision-making one of the most stressful parts of travel, so I like to have the bulk of that out of the way so I can relax and enjoy the actual trip.

I have friends who like nothing better than to hop from one bed and breakfast to another, never knowing where they will lay their heads that evening. To me, that would be a nightmare; I would spend far too much of my precious vacation time worrying about finding a place to sleep.

Yes, there are disadvantages to my method: I can’t decide on the spur of the moment to stay another night somewhere or tear off across the country when I hear there’s a great festival happening “up north.” I try to mitigate those disadvantages with detailed research that allows me to make good choices in advance. Besides, I tell myself, I can always return in the future if a particular spot warrants a longer visit or I miss an event.

The process I use for planning is the same whether it’s a long or short trip, but I find that the longer the trip, the more difficult the logistics, so the itinerary becomes even more crucial.

1/ Get the biggest map of your destination that you can find. There are map stores or travel specialty stores in most large cities, or you can buy online.

2/ Research as much general information as you can about the destination. What is the climate like at different times of the year? Are there times you need to avoid e.g., hurricane season, hot season, local school holidays? When is high season, low season, shoulder season? Will you need to take health precautions? What are the different areas of the country? Which city(ies) are you likely to arrive in and depart from? How much will the major flights cost? What is the standard of accommodations in city and country? How far apart are the accommodations in the country? What are the roads like? How difficult will it be to travel if you don’t speak the local language? Will you need to fly between areas or will you drive? Are there trains, buses, ferries? Are there safety issues e.g., carjacking, kidnapping, conflict zones?

I’m still old-fashioned enough to do most of this research via travel guidebooks, but I also consult online trip reports, blogs, Tripadvisor, and forums like Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s site) for specific and timely information.

3/ In simple list form, note the dates of any specific events you would like to experience, such as festivals, holidays, natural events (e.g., animal or bird migrations, flowers blooming, trees in fall colors). Based on the time of year you can or want to visit, which events might you be able to attend?

Note the names, general locations, and points of interest of specific towns or areas. For example, you might write:

Mindo (1.5 hr west of Quito) – excellent birding, zipline, Sunday market, Milpe Lodge

4/ Start to build a calendar. I use a table in Microsoft Word with seven columns (one for each day of the week) and as many rows as I need for the weeks I’ll be travelling. I fill in tentative dates for each box. Here’s what it looks like (far left column is Sundays).

Sometimes, I’ll have two of these tables at first with alternative sets of dates. This lets me build a couple of itinerary options based around specific flight dates, for example (April 18 and May 16 vs May 3 and May 31) or travel season (high season vs shoulder season).

5/ Transfer over to your calendar those event dates and the points of interest from #3 above. If an event stretches over several days, include it on each calendar day that it runs. You may only want to attend one day, but at this stage, you don’t necessary know which day that will be. Also include where you’ll need to be for each item.

6/ Research flights for best routes and cheapest options. Now that you’ve got a general idea of when and where you want to be, you can start looking at flights. Unless you’re bound to a very strict timeline, always check several departure dates and return dates, as prices can vary quite significantly depending on which day of the week you fly. You can also research airport options. For example, most people fly in and out of Costa Rica through San Jose. We found that arriving at and departing from Liberia worked better for our itinerary and gave us better routing. As it turned out, the smaller airport was a real breeze and we were more than happy with our choice.

More next week on finalizing your plans.

Is this all waaaaay too fussy for you? Do you think spontaneity is the essence of travel pleasure? Tell me your opinion in a comment.

 

 

 

Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.

Calidris Reads: Bangkok

 

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 novels and nonfiction 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).

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

Janet Brown

First sentence: “I have spent most of my life searching for a home.”

A series of essays by an ex-pat on Thai (mostly Bangkok) food, language, culture, aging, relationships, home, and exploration, with a dash of Cambodia thrown in for good measure. The writing is excellent, the analysis and self-examination, astute.

The title is in reference to the tonality of the Thai language, where a slight mistake in the tone you use can make the difference between “water buffalo” and an unmentionable part of the anatomy.

Reading this before my trip, I was struck by some of her observations and looked forward to seeing for myself if they held true.

  • “It’s such a filthy place that I’ve scraped dirt from my skin while sitting in an apartment fifteen minutes after having taken a shower, and I’ve had to pick my way down neighborhood thoroughfares to avoid stepping in dog shit.”

Yes and no: the air pollution is palpable and visible at sunset as a thick haze over the city. However, I didn’t find the streets particularly filthy. Of course, you always have to watch where you step, but that’s true in my home town, too. In some neighbourhoods, there are actually people who spend their days sweeping the sidewalks with palm brooms, so things are kept pretty tidy.

  • “The air tastes like a cigarette and frequently smells far worse.”

Let’s just say the air is noticeable, whether tinged with the pong of sewage and garbage or perfumed by blossoming trees.

  • “It is unusual to see a Thai girl who isn’t beautiful, and it is rare to see a woman over forty who is.”

Not true at all. I saw lots of both.

  • “Western toilets abound in Bangkok, although the stalls all too often come without a supply of toilet paper.”

Yup. However, you have to remember that toilet paper is not part of Thai culture; they traditionally use water to cleanse. You may find a toilet that has no toilet paper but does have the ubiquitous spray hose. Besides, the number one rule of travel is “Always carry TP on your person.”

  • “On the Skytrain, it is possible to explore the city without getting lost….It’s convenient, it’s clean, it’s scam-free, and it keeps culture shock at bay.”

I am pleased to report that this is basically true. We criss-crossed the city on the Skytrain and the only issue we faced was trying to figure out the correct platform.  In one case, a young man noticed our hesitation and took the trouble to speak to us and give us directions to our platform. As we followed his directions, we found that he had mistakenly told us to go right instead of left, but we figured it out. A few moments later, while we waited for the train, he came running up to us: he had realized his mistake and tracked us down to make sure we hadn’t gone astray. Now, that’s a kind and thoughtful stranger.

4 knots (Recommended)

What do you read when you travel? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.