Magic, Mystery and Music: Bella Venezia!

The first time I visited Venice, I went with my mum and dad. I was seven. We walked around San Marco Square and visited Murano to watch the glassblowers. My parents shipped a gorgeous set of red cut glass glasses and decanters to our home. My mum still uses them.

The last time was 24 years ago when I went with my girlfriend, Max. We stayed in a funky little hotel overlooking a small canal, visited open air markets and ate gelato (among other things).

Coming back again this week, I was nervous I might damage some of those precious memories and that Venice might not live up to my expectations.

I was wrong.

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Andalusiahhhhhhhhhhh

The smell of fresh laundry wafts through the narrow labyrinth of paths in Casares, a mountainside pueblo in Andalusia where we’ve parked and headed out to explore on foot.

These magical villages call to visitors with a quaint, rustic allure. The architecture is simply stunning; white structures huddling conspiratorially on the edges of cliffs, clinging to the mountainside as an eagle does to its aerie. The valley falls away below, a precipitous drop that must have posed risky challenges to the adventurous people who built this village.

Far above, ruins of a castle lord over the mass of white below. Enormous vultures lazily circle even further overhead, carefully watching for evidence of a meal as we make our way along the town’s narrow streets barely wide enough for three of us to walk side by side. Earlier, we drove this route, pulling the side mirrors close to our car so we could traverse what at first seemed impassable.

Casares lies nestled against the mountaintop in this photo taken from the castle ruins above.

Casares lies nestled against the mountaintop in this photo taken from the castle ruins above.

Turning the corner, the smell of freshly baked bread invites us into a basement paneria offering racks of sturdy Andalusian bread, mountains of honey-drenched cookies and slices of torta, all ready to go. We stare, salivate, and move on. Our quest is for something else.

Back in the car, it’s on to the next narrow, winding road. We approach another tiny mountainside village with white buildings that cling to one another, seemingly defying gravity and the elements. Ahead, the highway plunges to the village entrance, offering a stunning vista that takes your breath away from the contrasting beauty and sheer enormity of the land that spills away as far as you can see.
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A warm return to Phnom Penh that feels like home

How odd that Phnom Penh should feel so much like home. And yet, how perfect.

This place of bizarre contrasts both beautiful and horrible, with its smiling, struggling people and endless flatlands of rice paddies, dust and sun-baked vistas, welcomed us back to its bosom like a mother embracing her baby after a period of separation. It’s been a year, but it feels like we never left.

Our friend Tony, tuk tuk driver extraordinaire and "little brother," who nearly mauled us when he realized his airport pickup was us.

Our friend Tony, tuk tuk driver extraordinaire and “little brother,” who nearly mauled us when he realized his airport pickup was us.

Awakening to the sounds of birds singing, a familiar warble unlike the call of any birds I’ve heard elsewhere, I began the day with a smile on my face. It’s one of the unique sounds of the city that resonate within my soul and touch my heart with a familiar, comfortable yearning. The quiet side streets echo with the calls of lonely vendors selling coconuts, bread and rice noodle soup, while the city’s major arteries pulsate with endless streams of motorbikes, tuk tuks, cyclist, cars, buses and the brilliantly polished chariots of the rich and powerful: expensive SUVs emblazoned with Range Rover, Lexus and Cadillac.

BMWs are showing up more frequently since we left; a dealership opened last year near the airport, penetrating a market of wealthy Cambodians ever poised to strut about with the latest in material goods. Opulence speaks a special dialect here, and those fortunate enough to possess its vocabulary scream it all day and night without restraint or shame. Last week, the son of a Cambodian tycoon crashed his $200,000 Mercedes Benz coupe into a parked SUV while speeding through the Wat Phnom section of the city in the morning’s wee hours. His family, alerted to the accident, scurried to the scene and dispatched the unfortunate SUV’s owner and onlookers with enough cash to seal their mouths and put the matter permanently to rest.

We had been warned that the city has changed in a year. That traffic is worse, that the unrestricted construction had changed the skyline, and that the obscene Aon mall had corrupted the landscape and had begun to choke small businesses throughout the city.

Baloney.
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In the fast lane at 60

You’d think six decades of trampling this earth would teach a soul a thing or two, wouldn’t you?

Life has a way of leading you on, with its tractor beam pulling you forward as you stumble over the peaks and valleys, leaving some impressions along the way. Like running through a briar patch, it’s impossible to come out the other side unscathed. And as I sit in the living room of our stunning bed and breakfast in Lima, Peru, with the sounds of mourning doves, hens and peacocks filling the early morning air, I can’t help but be reflective.

Today I turn 60, or, as some of my kind-hearted friends have suggested, 20, with 40 years of experience.

My buddy Chuck once called me “the world’s oldest adolescent.” There’s an insult in that assessment, as I am certain he intended, but it also suggests a measure of wide-eyed enthusiasm about the wonders of the world and what’s coming next. I am guilty as charged, and I accept the challenge.  I may be older, but I am also wiser, made all the more so by the gifts bestowed upon me by those I care about: my daughters, family and friends, colleagues present and former, and by my indefatigably positive, beautiful (in every imaginable way) and generous wife, Gabi.

Being an odd combination of incurable romantic and chafing curmudgeon, I’m struck by some of my evolving realities brought on by all these years:

The first sip of coffee in the morning is much more gratifying than the first sip of beer on a hot day. I travel with a jar of instant coffee to ensure that each day starts properly, and I have developed considerable skills to find hot water at 6 a.m. in some of the world’s trickiest places.

Mornings, once my time to rehearse my command of the day, to plot, plan, organize and strategize the business of life and, well, business, is now my time of peace, calm and reflection. Often, I write, as I am now, an outpouring of thoughts, ideas and emotions in a linear exchange from brain to fingers. Thank God I took typing classes in high school. Thanks, mom, for pushing me into it.
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Peru’s Sacred Valley: Go for a day, stay for a week. We did

The woman in the enormous white stovepipe hat wedged herself between me and the three men in the back seat of the collectivo bound for Urubamba, angling her considerable hips and shoulders to gain purchase on the well-worn cloth seat.

Her entry into the crowded van brought the headcount to 17 – pretty standard for the 30-minute run these inexpensive transport vehicles make from town to town throughout Peru’s Sacred Valley. Later on, I saw a collectivo packed with kids and their parents, the top loaded with wares for the market, and more than 22 people poured out when the vehicle rolled to a stop.

Our group was nearly all locals. Elderly people in down parkas, working men in rough jackets, children in colorful traditional garb and a scattering of older women sporting aprons and tall hats completed the roster for our run from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba. Oh, and two slightly bemused gringos who sat in fascination as the van blasted along, its interior redolent of acrid smoke, cooked food and body odor.

The view down the barrel of Sacred Valley from the Incan terraces of Pisac.

The view down the barrel of Sacred Valley from the Incan terraces of Pisac.

It’s a bit rough, not terribly comfortable, and at two nuevo sol each (about 75 cents) absurdly inexpensive.

Which would explain why people use the collectivos to get to school, to work, to market, to visit family and friends, bypassing the hopelessly expensive option to own a car. Another option is to flag down one of the many super modified tuk tuks – they look like crosses between mini-long haul trucks and race cars – to spirit their way around town for $2 or less. Then there are the commercial buses; antiquated, fume-belching monsters that lurch from town to town, often comingling animalia with homo sapiens.
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The magic of Machu Picchu (and how we travelled there in style)

The day was already perfect by 9:30 in the morning. At that point, we’d already had a glass of champagne, watched Peruvian entertainers perform colourful dances on the platform and been seated in an elegant berth at a linen-clad table for two, decorated with a fresh red rose, sparkling wine glasses and a leather-bound brunch menu.

As our train pulled out from the station, the landscape slowly changed from lush fields dotted with sheep, donkeys and goats to the jagged purple mountains of the Andes. A slight mist hung over the tracks as we stood in the rear observation car, sipped a cappuccino and listened to a Peruvian band play songs from the Beatles and Clapton, intermingled with international melodies designed to appeal to the multicultural passengers.

Thursday morning aboard the Hiram Bingham express. IMG_7520

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skip and I had decided to splurge on this unique experience as it sounded like an incredible way to experience a trip to Machu Picchu. We were right.

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The Amazon jungle: More eyes than leaves

The meter-long caiman stared at us from its hiding place among the tangle of roots that stretched into the shore of Lago Cuyabeno, its orange eyes reflected in the beams of our flashlights. As we coasted closer in our canoe, with a single flick of its tail it dove beneath the boat and made for safer waters.

Pausing to measure the distance, the Squirrel Monkey squatted and then launched its tiny body into the air, floating in the sultry Amazon heat as it fell 15 feet or so and landed expertly on a tree branch on the other side of the river.

Rising to the surface, the pink river dolphin exhaled through its blowhole, arched its silvery back and then plunged into the murky waters to resume feeding.

It’s just another day in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where life shimmers, glows, flies, swims, crawls and slithers all around you in a constant ballet of nature’s dance. The sights, sounds and colors conspire to create an overwhelming sense that everything everywhere around you is either hunting, eating, breeding, or sleeping – or in quest of one of the above.

Rough and ready - unshaven and sweaty on the river with captain Hector at the helm.

Rough and ready – unshaven and sweaty on the river with captain Hector at the helm.

For the best experience, enter this place with eyes wide open, camera and binoculars in hand, and with a cautious step. A qualified, experienced guide is also an essential, for there are things here that harm or kill the careless or unaware.
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Slowly does it in the Galapagos

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It looked like a small coconut bobbing on the surface of the emerald green sea. “Look! There’s one!” Skip exclaimed excitedly from the seat behind me in the kayak. I peered across the bay into the brilliant sunshine. About 15 … Continue reading

Galapagos: Where people come last

“Grandpa, what is it like in the Galapagos Islands?” my grandson Lasky will ask me, in a conversation I expect we will have some years from now. He’s still less than a month old, but already I am looking forward to talks like these.

“It is like nowhere else, my boy. It is pure wind, wave, sun and sand. It is nature at its finest – where the universe has brought all of the elements together in perfect harmony.

“It is where humans have found the wisdom to preserve nature so we can enjoy it in its most natural state. But it is place where people come last.”

“But what does that mean, Grandpa? What does that look like? Sound like? Smell like?”

“It is the soft whisper of a pelican’s wings as it soars over your head so close you can see the dense thatch of feathers upon its breast. It is the neat “V” of a flock of Boobies on its way to hunt for a school of fish that soon will become breakfast, their brilliant blue feet neatly tucked into their pure white breast feathers.

“It is the spellbinding sight of Boobies diving by the hundreds into schools of fish that flee from their expert fishing talents, their bodies knifing into the water from on high, one after another and another, only to bob to the surface seconds later with breakfast in their beaks.

“It is the sound of wind through palm fronds, a soft rustle that sounds a bit like rain. It is the gentle “whoosh” of soft, white sand between your toes as you walk along the miles of beach. It is the endless pounding of surf upon shore that creates a gentle, unending roar you can hear wherever you go on the island.

“It is nature so confident in itself that animals do not fear humans, so they come close and linger. So you get to see sides of nature you can’t see anywhere else.

“It is the brilliant red patches on a male marine iguana’s black body; nature’s painting of a dinosaur to make it more attractive to a potential mate so it can continue its centuries-long life in the Galapagos. It is the dents, scratches and breaks on a giant tortoise’s shell as big as a bath tub that show the effects of a life in the wild.
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In awe of nature at the edge of an inferno

I’m standing on the edge of the Sierra Negra volcano on Isla Isabela in the Galapagos Islands, feeling as small and insignificant as I’ve ever felt.

With its crater of 10 kilometers across, the sheer power, potential and enormity of this beast – one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, left me silenced in awe of nature’s absolute authority. At an estimated 535,000 years old, it is one of the mothers of the Galapagos Islands, a quirky conflicting source of both birth and destruction.

On the lava fields.

On the lava fields.

The highlight of the volcano is the caldera – which is the massive circular indentation left by the collapse of the earth caused by the volcanic eruption.

To put this beast into perspective, the circumference of the caldera’s ridge is 30 kilometers. That’s over 19 miles, the better part of a marathon, if one were to be so foolish as to attempt to run or walk around the thing. Our guide, Javier, has never done it, but he said a couple of his friends make the trek over the course of a very full day.To put this beast into perspective, the circumference of the caldera’s ridge is 30 kilometers. That’s over 19 miles, the better part of a marathon, if one were to be so foolish as to attempt to run or walk around the thing.

A panorama of Sierra Negra's caldera.

A panorama of Sierra Negra’s caldera.

Our guide, Javier, has never done it, but he said a couple of his friends make the trek over the course of a very full day.We embarked on a five-hour trek from the base of the volcano along its southern ridge, to the edge of the caldera to the north, and down its east side to Volcane Chico – so named due to its role as one of the offsprings of Sierra Negra. We continued through the rugged lava fields left from the massive lava floes from Sierra Negra’s last eruption in October of 2005, laboring over small rises and craggy valleys along the mountainside and back.

It’s only a vertical climb of several hundred meters to the volcano’s caldera and a mere 8,000 total meters of hiking (roughly five miles), but it felt like a lot more.
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