I’ve been back for 37 days, and I wish there was more to say. I’ve got a lot on my mind but none of it is about the trip, it’s all about looking forward and that doesn’t seem like part of it, you know? The trip has faded way into the background, and my enthusiasm for the blog has faded with it. These days “Write blog post” has fallen way down on my list of priorities to somewhere after “Clip toenails” and before “Surf the web for Franklin Mint commemorative figurines of FIFA 2010 World Cup stars”. It’s just not on my radar screen.
Luckily I started these lists ages ago, and recently found new interest in fleshing them out. Everyone always asks about my favourite this or that, so here are a few thoughts on that subject. Ask me again in a few months and it would probably all be different.
(Note: the items in each list are presented in chronological order, rather than trying to rank them. And there are lots of links so you can dive back into old posts to read about stuff on the lists. Maybe this will ease the blog separation anxiety some of you were complaining about.)
Favourite Big Cities:
- London, England – It’s familiar – Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace – even if you’ve never been there, it’s like you know it already. It’s just foreign enough to be interesting, but still accessible. No weird alphabet, no strange national costume, no deep-fried bugs, just that business of driving on the wrong side of the road and the charming habit of using the word “whilst” without a trace of irony. It’s also got the British Museum, double-decker buses, Roman ruins, West End shows and a proper transit system. And so much has happened there you can turn almost any corner and be confronted with a random bit of history that in Canada would occasion at least an Interpretive Centre and a small gift shop, but in London barely rates a small blue plaque. It’s big enough that you could spend your whole life there and never discover all its secrets. Of all the cities I visited, it’s the one I’d most like to try living in.
- Paris, France – It’s big too, and has the same amount and depth of history as London. And it’s cosmopolitan (way more than I am), and has great food, and I can (sort of) speak the language, which makes it much more comfortable. Also, the French have something like four hundred kinds of cheese, which alone would give Paris a place on this list. I could almost live there too, but I just don’t have the wardrobe for it.
- Venice, Italy – Venice was just perfect. It was the first place I went that turned out to be exactly like I thought it would be. Quiet, but also bustling and vibrant, and built on a totally human scale – no concrete high rises, no strip malls, no cars, no smog, no parking lots. Just people living in a postcard, eating great food, and taking bus boats or taxi boats or (if they’ve had a particularly bad day) ambulance boats. You should go before it sinks completely.
- Hong Kong – Again, it’s big enough to have everything: museums, great restaurants, galleries, theatres, shopping. It’s exotically Asian, but still has a lot of Englishness, which makes it very easy to get around and quite comfortable. And it’s got a great metro and those clever Octopus cards.
- Tokyo, Japan – Another huge metropolis, with all the amenities you could want, and some you didn’t even know existed (adjustable front- and rear-spraying buttocks cleansing, anyone?). Tokyo loses points for its bizarrely complicated metro system, but gains by being another of those properly exotic Asian cities that’s also safe, clean and easy to negotiate. And the sushi. Ahhh, the sushi.
Favourite Small-ish Cities, towns, etc..
- York, England – It’s got great medieval walls, and the city inside them is preserved really well. It’s got York Minster, my second favourite cathedral, and those tipsy Tudor style buildings and tiny covered alleys charmingly called “snickleways”, and a zillion pubs. Plus you can run a five kilometer route that takes you around the whole circuit of the walls.
The tipsy buildings of York
- Oban, Scotland – Tiny, charming, and they make nice whisky there. I also saw the latest Harry Potter movie in Oban, so it holds a special place in my heart. And I met Tommy and Deborah there, who really made my day, and Stevie, perhaps the funniest bus driver in Scotland.
- Christiania, Copenhagen, Denmark – Any residents would bristle at me including Christiania in a list of “towns” since they consider it the Free State of Christiania. The gates have a sign on them as you’re leaving that says “Now entering the European Union”. All that aside, I just really liked the vibe there. It’s not just about Pusher Street and the chance to smoke up on any number of mind-altering substances. I liked wandering through the residential areas and seeing the houses, some of which seemed to have been made out of scraps but turned into something really interesting and inviting-looking. There were also long, leafy paths that were great for running.
- Bruges, Belgium – If you’re looking for chocolate, beer or french fries, look no further. And really, what else does anyone need to look for?
- Granada, Spain – It’s got Alhambra, which is excellent sight, and a cool Arab quarter full of typically twisty streets. The food was great and there is still at least one bar in Granada serving free tapas with every drink.
- Luang Prabang, Laos – It was the first place I went in Southeast Asia that looked like I wanted it to look. Perhaps because it’s a major tourist destination it was much cleaner and tidier than most of the rest of SEA. It was cheap (not Thailand cheap, but still cheap), and full of photogenic young monks in saffron robes. The night market was fun and extensive, and the fruit shakes were great. Just stock up on ziploc bags if you’re going to be there at New Year’s.
Least Favourite Destinations:
- Bushmills, Northern Ireland. Yes, it has the famous distillery, and the Giant’s Causeway, but the town itself has… nothing. Two nights and I was ready to walk out if necessary.
- Drogheda, Ireland. When the main attraction in your town is a shrunken head, perhaps it’s time to consider relocating.
- Naples, Italy. I’m sorry, but it’s a pit. The main square outside the train station – Piazza Garibaldi – is a veritable festival of idling buses, haphazardly parked cars, and overflowing dumpsters. If Naples has a good side, it is very well hidden. At least the pizza was good.
- Nairobi, Kenya. It had lovely giraffes, though they were, technically, out of town. It also had a scam I almost fell for and the dodgiest cab ride of my life. Any place where everyone warns you not to go be out after dark is not a place I need to revisit.
- Huay Xai, Laos. I spent three days in Huay Xai with a head cold, awaiting the next departure of the Gibbon Experience. It could have been the booby prize on a particularly vindictive Japanese game show.
A Few (but certainly not all) Favourite Experiences:
- Walking out of the train station in Venice, Italy, and being confronted with the Grand Canal for the first time. I couldn’t believe it’s actually like that. It was like every image in my head of Venice. Magic.
- Going for a hamam at the oldest bath Turkish bath in Istanbul. I don’t think I’ve ever been that clean. And it was made that much better by being there with friends, and having those same friends to go for dinner and beer with after.
- Whitewater rafting at the source of the Nile River in Uganda. I signed up on a whim, and had a really excellent day. Again, because of the people. The only downside was a sunburn on the top of my legs that could probably have been seen from space.
- Swimming to the edge of Victoria Falls on Livingstone Island, Zambia. When people ask about favourite moments, this is always the first one I pull out. It was one of those days when your face starts to hurt from smiling so much.
- Cruising the Ganges River, India. I was nervous about this, but it turned out to be two of the most relaxing days I had all year. The boats were tiny but comfortable, and at regular intervals the kitchen boat would cruise up and give us fresh, hot chai, or some amazing meal. There was nothing to do but snooze, read, blog, chat, and watch India go by.
A Few (but again, not all) Favourite Sights:
- Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. It’s just the most museum-y museum I’ve seen. Not all shiny and modern and full of interactive whatnots. Small enough to see it all, and eclectic enough to please just about anyone with a brain. And the architecture is all Victorian and full of vaulted ceilings and balconies and long hallways and stuff. It was great.
- Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Sagrada Familia restored my soul after the whole Barcelona Wallet Abandonment Debacle. It was just what I needed.
- Wild animals on the Serengeti, Tanzania. The best part was seeing them all in their natural habitat, which meant they were all mixed up together: giraffes and gazelles and wildebeest and warthogs all just hanging out, doing their thing. It was soooo not a zoo.
- The Ancient City of Petra, Jordan. Petra was one of the places I had in my sights when the whole idea of the trip was still just a vague notion. Walking through the Siq and coming out to see the Treasury building for the first time was another of those unforgettable moments.
- Preah Kahn, Ancient City of Angkor, Cambodia. Of all the sites at Angkor it was certainly my favourite, far exceeding the famous, crowded and (in my humble opinion) over-sold Angkor Wat. It was mostly deserted, eminently explorable, and very Indiana Jones.
Hashes Fondly Remembered:
- Setting a trail in front of Buckingham Palace, London HHH. I’d only been in town for a week, but an odd set of circumstances ended with me pushing through the crowds of gawking tourists with a chunk of chalk in my hand a mission. It was brilliant.
- The Bog Hash, Dublin HHH. What a great gang, and what a riotously fun run. It was also the first and only time I ever hashed through thigh-deep peat-stained bog water.
- Full Moon Pub Crawl, Copenhagen HHH. I can’t remember how many pubs we went to, which I think is a sign of an excellent evening.
- Hashing the Great Wall of China, Beijing HHH. Definitely a highlight. I can’t believe I almost skipped this whole experience because I was tired and didn’t feel like making the effort. Yes, it was cold, but I hashed the freakin’ GREAT WALL OF CHINA. ‘Nuf said.
- The Dead Brain Cell HHH, Tokyo. I’m not sure if you even heard about this one, but it ended with champagne, and yes, a few dead brain cells.
- Every meal with Freddie, Sesimbra, Portugal. Seafood, seafood and more seafood, along with gallons of red, white, rosé and port to go with, and side order of excellent company.
- First taste of real Italian pizza, Padua, Italy. A randomly chosen restaurant in between the hotel and the train station. A well-earned hunger. And a pizza menu with enough choices to be boggling. The cover charge for the breadsticks was cheeky, but the pizza was perfect.
- Walnut Ravioli, Siena, Italy. It wasn’t stuffed with walnut, it was served with a sort of creamy walnut sauce. Amazing. Everything at that restaurant was amazing, even the “splee sauce”. I never learned what it was, but it was nice spread on bread.
- The Green Papaya Restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam. It was like being on the Food Network. Everything was drizzled or artisinal or heirloom. Beef carpaccio, seafood gallete, and a frozen yogurt to die for. Three full courses and two large beers, and the whole bill was only about $45.
- Conveyor belt sushi, Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan. I just kept going back. I know it wasn’t the freshest or highest quality sushi by a wide margin, but I loved having the chance to try anything that looked interesting without first having to pick it off an incomprehensible menu or bust out the Japanese phrasebook.
Top Five Weird Foods:
Conveyor belt sushi, the video
- Sheet o' meat, Macau. It was really tasty: juicy, sweet and salty, sticky, meaty. And damn, it would have been great with beer.
- Chicken heart kebabs, Laos. I would have gone back for seconds if I hadn’t been so full of dried squid and other Lao delicacies.
- Eggs-on-a-stick, Thailand. They were EGGS. On a STICK. And they’d been scrambled inside the shell. And did I mention they were EGGS ON A STICK?
- Chocolate covered bacon, USA. Sheer genius.
- Deep fried Twinkies, USA. Again, inspired. It elevates the Twinkie (which, let’s face it, could use a lot of help) into something… more. I’m not saying it’s on par with a sticky toffee pudding or a Paris macaron, but it’s light years ahead of a naked Twinkie.
Bottom Five Weird Foods:
- Pig ears, Spain. Deep fried cartilage, thinly disguised with gallons of olive oil and a bit of spice. Too fingernaily for my tastes.
- Mopane Worms, Zambia. A bit like liver, a bit like dirt. A lot like I didn’t want to eat any more.
- Durian, Hong Kong. It doesn’t taste as bad as it smells, but that would be impossible.
- Chow Guai Vegetable Jelly, Thailand. Black, death-flavoured jello.
- Salak fruit, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The texture was nice enough, but the flavour was like buying a banana, throwing away the fruit, and eating the peel.
Five Things I never expected to do:
- Camp on a beach in Scotland. Thank you Edinburgh Hash House Harriers (in general) and Nigel and Margaret (in particular).
- Surf in Northern Ireland. Of all the places to try surfing… Northern Ireland? Also unexpected: spraining my thumb while attempting to surf in Northern Ireland. (Well I don’t know for sure it was sprained because I never had it checked out by a medical professional, but I was certainly left-handed for a while.)
- Sleep off a hangover in a park in Vladimir, Russia. I have not had a sip of vodka since then. No sir, not me.
- Almost fall for a street scam in Nairobi, Kenya. I’m glad Laurie’s spidey-senses were tingling on that day, because I was oblivious.
- Jump off a cliff, twice, in Livingstone, Zambia. Once was apparently not enough to convince me that I really, really don’t like freefall.
And those are my thoughts for now. I can’t promise when (or even if) there will be another post, but keep checking back every week or so. You never know.