Friday, December 13, 2013

Kakapo 'adoption' a great gift option for Christmas

Close your eyes and try to imagine this:

There are only 150 people left in the world.

I know - it's difficult. But try to picture it. Got it? Now hold it...

Now imagine those people live spread out in a wild environment, without any way to travel other than by walking. And imagine they have great difficulty in "hooking up" in order to mate and eventually produce offspring.

It really challenges the mind to think of humans in those terms, since there are 7 billion of us on the planet.

But that may help you empathize with the plight of the kakapo parrot of New Zealand. There are less than 150 of these parrots remaining on the planet. They are on the brink of extinction.

Kakapo parrot (Photo by Kakapo recovery)
They are flightless. They are the heaviest parrot in the world. They are possibly the oldest living bird still on the planet. But the clock is ticking for this bird.

I first learned about the dire situation this bird is in during a Parrot Lover's Cruise. This is a program put together by the World Parrot Trust and Carol Cipriano, a U.S.-based travel agent, that essentially builds a program around existing cruise ship schedules to allow travellers who opt into the tour to see parrots in the wild and attend seminars about parrot conservation and education on board the ship between ports of call.

Being a parrot lover, I was aware of this bird long before I took the cruise - I just had no idea how close it was to extinction before watching "The Unnatural History of the Kakapo" video about it as part of the tour. 

Now our cruise - which was through the Caribbean - did not take us to New Zealand. However, it did take us to several islands where other parrots also face extinction: Puerto Rico, Dominica and Bonaire. All three of those islands currently have ongoing conservation projects to help save the endemic parrot species from extinction. (Not every island stop on our route featured parrots; but on the islands that did not include a parrot element, we used our time to go paddling or hiking, instead).

Any parrot population found on an island - particularly if it is only on one island - is very susceptible to extinction. One bad hurricane, an epidemic of disease, a sudden loss of species-specific habitat, introduction of a predator not native to the area - or a combination of all of them - can decimate a population concentrated in only one spot.

The reasons for its decline to a mere 18 birds in the 1970s is a result of several pressures on the population. The Kakapo Recovery Project consists of a team of dedicated conservationists working to restore the population to a level where it can thrive and exist without coming so close to extinction.

Kakapo plushies. (Photo by Kakapo Recovery)
Like all conservation projects, they require funds. Since it is the season of giving, if you are looking for a different kind of Christmas gift, one that also helps a good cause, you could "adopt" a kakapo

Now obviously, you don't physically adopt a bird - but your donation goes toward helping the project continue. 

There are different donation levels, and with each one, part of your "gift" includes a plush stuffed kakapo parrot.

Because it is close to Christmas, they will email donors a certificate of adoption so you can present that to a recipient, since at this point, a plushie may not arrive on time for Dec. 25, depending on where you are, in the world.

If you visit the project's website, you can find other ways to help make it a Merry Christmas for kakapos.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dining for Tanzanians: a different kind of 'safari'

Africa ... the word conjures up images of exotic wildlife, vast plains and jungles, deserts and mountains, adventures beyond what we can experience at home.

It can also create images of the continent's various cultures...the music, art and food of the people who live there, who call Africa "home."

While travelling around Africa, one of the things that struck me - in almost every one of the eight countries I've visited - is how happy the people seem to be, there.
The Serengeti plains, Tanzania, Africa

Keep in mind, these are people that have no TVs, iPhones, cars, desktop computers, fancy flush toilets (in fact, running water is a real luxury), electric ovens - none of the things we take for granted, things we count as given commodities in our western lifestyles.

Yet they seem to be happier than many North Americans.

That may make you think of the old adage, ignorance is bliss; yet, these people - many of them smart, young adults - are aware of the world. They have some education, so they are not really ignorant.

And despite not having these material items, despite their awareness, they are not envious - they are, for the most part, very friendly toward foreigners.

Example: while touring in southern Tanzania not far from the Malawi border, our tour group wanted to go back down the road to another set of outdoor shops; myself and Ann were embroiled in a major bartering transaction that Africans love so much. The guide made sure we felt comfortable being left alone in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road (we were, of course) and they took off.

When we'd concluded our deal (both sides feeling they had gotten the "best" of the transaction), a couple of young men asked us if they could buy us a soda pop in the cafe across the street.

That's right - they wanted to treat us. The well-off foreign visitors. They wanted to buy us a drink.

We took them up on it, and they insisted on paying for the colas we drank.

They were incredibly curious, hungry for real knowledge about us, our country, what we did for a living. (When I told the one fellow I was a sports writer, he told me what that was in Swahili: "michezo mwandishi.")
African cart, ready to load up.

A desire for that kind of knowledge really deserves to be fed.

However, even though by our standards, education there is not that expensive, many of them cannot afford to go to school. Many of them do not even have homes, and live on the streets.

Dan Budgell, a UBC biology grad discovered that same fact when he travelled in Tanzania a few years ago. Rather than just give money to street kids, he bought them meals. But he wanted to do more.

He found out how little (in western terms) it costs to send kids to school, there. So with some other friends, he set up a foundation called the Global Peace Network. Among its humanitarian projects: raising money to help street kids get access to information.

They raise money in various ways. One of those ways is through an event that takes place this Wednesday, Dec. 11 at Simba's Grill on Denman Street in Vancouver. From 7 to 9 p.m. that night, GPN is hosting an African dinner at the restaurant that specializes in East African fusion cuisine. I have eaten Simba's food before, and I'm looking forward to eating it once again.

But it's about much more than just this time of the year, when we celebrate and feast and give presents, it's nice to feel that by participating in this type event, we do more than just enjoy a nice meal - we help some youngster in Tanzania get an education, and quite possibly, a better life.

I can't think of any better way to celebrate this festive season than doing something like that.

Africa gave me a whole lot when I was there. It's only right I should give something back.

Kurshid Khan cooking up some African cuisine at Simba's in Vancouver.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Eating well does not exclude eating sustainably

"If we can make the world sick, we can also heal it."

That was the message of hope that Chef Barton Seaver brought to a room full of travel media and industry professionals, Saturday.

Seaver, author, National Geographic Fellow, TED speaker and chef extraordinaire, is passionate about cooking and conservation - and he believes eating well and living sustainably are not mutually exclusive activities.
Smoked trout with greens.
During his presentation of  "Little Fish, Big Flavour," at the joint TMAC-SATW professional development weekend, he admitted humans have done a poor job of working with our planet's resources to feed ourselves. But, if we can be the problem, we can also be the solution.
Barton explained one of the ways we can do that is by eating lower down the food chain. When it comes to eating fish, for example, if we eat that way, we not only impact the environment less, we also eat healthier (toxins accumulate and multiply the higher up the chain we go) - and we also help create an economic system that is more sustainable.

Or as he put it, " If we put our demand in the right place, we create sustainable economic systems."

He pointed out that while the effect might not be felt immediately, it would pay dividends down the road.

In other words, while we can eat fish that are apex predators - tuna, shark, etc. - we should be choosing to eat fish lower down in the food chain - mackerel, sardines, and other species like that - more often, to create both economically and environmentally sustainable systems.

Barton does not just deliver the message - he lives it.

One time, a supplier delivered what was essentially bait - boxes full of flying fish - to his restaurant. Rather than throw it out, Barton created a dish from it that became the talk of the town.

He continues to try to source food that is more sustainable, and creates ways to cook and present that food for discerning consumers.

Smoked mackerel and cream cheese spread.
Barton did more than just talk, at the presentation, too. Working with Fairmont Whistler Chef Richard Samaniego, he created several dishes for the audience that included of anchovy pizza, smoked trout and greens salad and a delicious cream cheese dip made with cheese, spices and herbs and smoked mackerel.

The afternoon was both inspiring and entertaining.

As someone who grew up in a Washington, D.C. neighbourhood that was extremely diverse in terms of its cultural mix, and hence, its food, Barton learned that, "Food is how we understand culture."

After listening to him - and sampling some of his food - I understand a little more about our place on the planet.

And I feel a bit more "cultured," too.

Some words of wisdom from Chef Barton Seaver.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why join a writers' association?

I recently read a blog post written by another travel writer focused on the benefits of membership in a professional travel writing association, the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance.

The writer stressed that through this association,  she obtained much easier access to fam tours, a.k.a. press trips.

Press trips are an important aspect of travel-writing, particularly if you happen to be a freelance writer, and no one is paying you a salary with benefits.

But there are many other benefits of belonging to writing associations - and not just for travel writers.

I guess I should stop here and clarify when I say, "writers associations" I'm talking about professional writers - journalists, copywriters, speech creators, movie script writers - anyone who actually makes a living as a writer. While some novelists are fortunate enough to be able to live off their writing income, most are not.

So I am not including in this group writers' groups that get together over coffee and cake to critique each other's prose and poetry. Anyone can sit in on those; for professional associations, you need to meet some kind of minimal qualification standards to join, just like any profession such as law, medicine, accounting, etc.

If you're a professional writer, it may benefit you to belong to more than one writers association - particularly if it has a different emphasis. They all have different benefits.

I began my professional freelance career by joining the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) in 2000. That followed by membership in the North American Travel Journalists Association, the B.C. Association of Travel Writers and the Travel Media Association of Canada. They have all turned out to be beneficial for me in many different ways.

1. Industry contacts. As previously mentioned, contacts with travel industry people is, of course, a huge benefit of being a travel writer in an association, since without those contacts, it is difficult to obtain hosted trips. But networking can provide much more than knowing who to contact for subsidized travel. These professionals can also help you with story research; with sourcing images for a website or magazine/newspaper; they can put you in touch with others who may be able to help you complete your story. If you develop a good relationship with them, some of them may even be able to help you connect with editors for a story you're working on or interested in telling.

2. Professional development. Every profession requires this, but while many employers provide this for their staff, freelancers, by nature, do not have this option. Pro D sessions at conferences and monthly meetings can really help you stay on top of your game, both from a standpoint of being educated and up-to-date with respect to trends and practices in the writing profession - as well as from a motivational standpoint, encouraging you to continue writing. It can also help you develop different but related means to add income to your career.

Yours Truly (middle), John Masters (left) and John Lee
socialize at a 2013 TMAC event.
3. Writer advocacy. Not every association does this. Most travel writing associations do not; however, many other writing associations do.

Example: Several years ago, I submitted a story with about 60 colour slides (it was pre-digital) to a magazine and was paid on acceptance for the material. More than a year later, the story was still not published and I wanted the slides back to use for other stories/resales. The editor would not return them. 

After much back-and-forth with no success, I finally asked PWAC to contact him and he finally relented and returned my slides. The story never was published, but at least I was paid.

Conversely, PWAC will also advocate on your behalf for work that has been published but not paid for.

4. Increased exposure. PWAC members are included in an online writers database, accessible to anyone in the world. So if an editor in Hong Kong needs a travel story about Vancouver, the editor can search the database by keywords to find a writer to fill the need. This has happened to me on several occasions, netting me good assignments each time.

5. Collateral benefits. These are almost always unforeseen, unexpected bonuses. During a Pro D session at a travel writers conference, a presenter mentioned about a non-travel martial arts publication looking for writers. That same presentation, she also mentioned about some of the trade mags (again, non-travel) she had worked for. That spurred me to contact the martial arts publication, and for the next five years, I wrote for them regularly. Ditto, trade mags: I contacted a company that publishes several trade magazines and again, wrote for them regularly for about three years. (Both gigs ended when the editors left those mags). But I got a lot of work for several years by going to that travel writers conference.
Christine Potter leads discussion during a 2010
BCATW professional development event.

6. Benefits packages. While freelancing for various publications means you will not get the same benefits from a publication that a staff writer does, many professional writing associations offer benefits packages in the form of health insurance, and in some cases, travel insurance plans. It varies from group to group, but it is certainly worth looking into.

7. Professional feedback. Since we work alone so much, it's nice to compare notes. Maybe we don't realize one particular editor is really hard to work with; another likes to see "this" in a story; another is a very good editor to work for. Tips about the best way to pitch certain editors. These are the kinds of things you only find out by word of mouth.

8. Social benefits. Kind of an extension of #5. We work alone; we often never get out of the house. It's nice to get out once a month or so, have a few drinks with your peers, let your hair down and enjoy the camaraderie among people who completely get where you're coming from. You may even develop life-long friendships with some of them.

In summation, I have to point out that an association is only as good as the effort you put into being an active part of it. I do not mean you have to volunteer in some capacity - they are almost all non-profit organizations - although that helps. As with anything else, you need to take an active hand and participate in events, discussions and conferences. Just joining and sitting back will net you next to nothing, other than a line in your email signature. The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it.

Keep on writing!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Go ape in Malaysia

I'll say one thing about Tourism Malaysia.

They sure know how to throw a party.

Earlier in October, they held a press conference to launch their new program, Visit Malaysia 2014

The Honourable Dato Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, Minister of Tourism for Malaysia, stated during the announcements that ecotourism would play a large part of the future tourism promotions in Canada, particularly the viewing of primates like the proboscis monkey (found only on Borneo) and the orangutan.

Young proboscis monkey in Borneo.
As part of the announcement, a new Facebook contest was announced, giving people a chance to win a trip for two to the southeast Asian country.

Then came the really fun stuff…

We were treated to an evening of performances by a troupe of dancers from Malaysia, demonstrating dances from the three main cultural groups in Malaysia: Malay, Chinese and Indian.

We enjoyed some authentic Malaysian satays as appetizers, follow by a more traditional western meal at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Vancouver.

Everybody, dance now!

Following dinner, dancing and some travel agent table trivia games, Tourism Malaysia held several draws for prizes…and Yours Truly did get lucky.

While I did not manage to nab the most-coveted prize - a return flight to Malaysia - I did win a beautifully carved pewter pen well.

Mother orangutan with baby.
I have been to Malaysia myself, and it was one of my more enjoyable trips abroad. I did manage to see orangutans at both the Sepilok and Semenggoh back-to-wild rehabilitation centres, as well as in the wild jungles, along the Kinabatangan River

I also saw the proboscis monkeys, known for their Jimmy Durante-like noses.

The cultural adventures were also amazing, with trips to villages that included an Iban village (former head-hunters) where we saw dancing, danced and ate a traditional meal along the river.

So if you’re thinking of planning a trip abroad, you might want to consider Malaysia. Everything there is very inexpensive compared with Canada (beer for $1, 2-hour massages for $30, etc.)

And they really know how to have fun in-country, as well as out of country.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

WCRA mystery dinners put the 'fun' in fundraising

Inspector Clouseau. William Pinkerton. Sherlock Holmes. Bill Miner.

Two of them are fictional detectives, one from the movies, the other from books. One is a real-life detective. One is a real-life train robber from the Canadian west.

Inspector Clouseau, on the job in April.
So what do they have in common?

Well, if you attend one of the mystery dinner theatres put on by the West Coast Railway Association, you might run into one or more of these characters.

We ran into Mr. Pinkerton (well, an actor playing him) last Saturday during the most recent event hosted by the WCRA at the West Coast Heritage Railway Park in Squamish. And there were rumours that Bill Miner was floating around...but although a look-alike was found on the train, a true sighting never occurred.

This was the second time I'd been to one of these events. The first time was last April, when "Inspector Clouseau" (looking very much like Sherlock Holmes) was running around trying to solve a mystery, on the trail of a mysterious lady who claimed to be looking for her daughter, Isabella.

That play used three volunteer actors; this most recent one, "The Heist," involved five characters: Pinkerton, Constable Fernie of the B.C. Provincial Police, the Diamond Sisters and their friend Leroy.

The format for each event was similar, although there were some minor differences.
In September, two (?) coppers were needed.

Like most mystery dinner theatres, the actors interacted with the audience as much as possible, always staying in character, dropping hints about the crime while entertaining people before, during and after the meal.

The meals both took place in the park's roundhouse, with tables set up in and around restored train engines and cars. There is also a cash bar.

The first time, we had appetizers served while we milled around, prior to the buffet dinner of roast beef, vegetables and salad. While the dinner was similar - and just as tasty - the second time around, there were no appies served.

Dessert was handled differently, too. In April, it was served on the train (that's right - you get to ride an old restored train!) with champagne. Coffee came back in the roundhouse after the mystery was solved and the train returned.

This time, coffee and dessert were served back in the roundhouse after our train ride, and the play continued to unfold, as the saucy Diamond Sisters tried to make off with recovered money - only to be foiled by Pinkerton, Fernie and help from an unexpected source who must have paddled in from somewhere... (I don't want to give it away, in case they want to use the plot again, some day!)

Toot-toot...and it's not the train!

Both evenings were enjoyable, and if you're a train travel buff like I am, you probably will enjoy just seeing the old engines and cars and riding on the train. If you also like mystery dinner theatres, it's almost like a two-for-one deal. There are plenty of shenanigans during the train ride; this time, we were treated to a song and dance routine by the Diamond Sisters. (Like a parrot repeating itself, they could only sing one song - but an enjoyable rendition, it was, and humorously done, too!)

Of course, all the money raised goes toward the park/museum.

Be wary if the Diamond Sisters put the squeeze on you...
One of these days, I'm going to have just visit the facility when nothing is going on, just to see it during daylight.

The site presents a typical railway facility of the mid-20th century.

It provides visitors with the opportunity to tour authentic railway equipment in various stages of restoration. There is a gift shop and cafe on site.

And one of these days, I might even have to look at taking one of their rail tours, which include trips to Haida Gwaii, Barkerville and the Okanagan.

Ready to roll down the tracks.
The details about these trips are on their website.

If you want to hear about their next event so you can be a part of it, check out their website or "like" them on their Facebook page.

Or to make sure you're covered, why not do both? You might even get lucky...

For this most recent event, they ran a contest on Facebook and gave away two free tickets to the evening's event.

Then, it'll just be a matter of saying...All aboard!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Flyover Canada really takes off

IMAX move over, let Flyover take over.

If you are one of those who remember the very first IMAX film way back in 1971, you'll get it. For those who don't, well, let's just say if you missed the PNE, this might make up for some of the rides you didn't get to experience on the midway.

The "hangar"...all set to fly us across Canada
But this experience will be much more memorable, I assure you.

When IMAX first came out, and the movie North of Superior was playing at the Omni-theatre at Ontario Place, there was a buzz about it that it was like "being in a plane" while it was flying down a canyon, or it was like "being in a canoe as you flipped in the rapids."

I'll admit, there was a little bit of that element to it - but it was nothing like the Flyover experience I enjoyed at Canada Place in Vancouver earlier this week.

If you have ever wanted to experience extreme flying - without really flying - this is the place to do it.

The experience lasts about half an hour, spread through three segments.

In the first segment, we stood in darkened room with a more-or-less circular 360 degree movie screen around us, with Surround Sound and a constant collage-barrage of moving images flashing up on the screen.
Getting some pre-flight boarding instructions

After about five to 10 minutes of that, we're ushered into the "pre-boarding" area, we line up and watch a short video about safety and procedures on the "flight" we're soon to embark upon.

Then we file into the "flight room" and we're strapped into seats for "takeoff." The "flight attendant" has you tuck any carry-ons into the storage bin underneath your seat.

It was at this point the smart-ass in me could not resist asking, "When do you come around with drinks and snacks?"

I probably wasn't the first to ask, and probably will not be the last. She just smiled and laughed, saying, "Enjoy the flight."

You really do need to belted in, as the seats literally do lift up in the air. The screen opens up and suddenly you're "flying."

Our "flight crew" ready to serve us.
The seats bank and dive and climb as the camera pans around the vistas, which are from all over Canada, and took a year to film.

You even feel the mist from a cloud as you fly through it, the spray from rapids as you zoom down a river canyon. 

I'm not being poetic or colourful - there is a machine that is actually co-ordinated to spray you at the appropriate times throughout the film.

Up and down the mountains, across the prairies (where you can literally smell the flax seed), down rivers, past the CN Tower, along the seashore, flying above eagles soaring through mountain passes.

Hope I meet the height qualifications!
I felt myself grabbing the seat arms more than once during a steep climb or bank. At one point, the woman sitting next to me said, "Is it okay to scream?" I think she was only being semi-facetious.

All too soon, we're done our ride and the seats settle back into place as we prepare to disembark.

As we exit, I hear a horn blowing from one of the cruise ships docked at the Canada Place terminal, and for just a moment, I think, "I hope I my ship hasn't sailed without me..." before snapping back to reality and realizing I'm in a souvenir shop at the end of a virtual journey, not making an air-to-sea connection.

Before I even get a chance to look at the souvenirs available for purchase, my mind is already thinking:

Where do I get another "boarding pass...?"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

One man's snack is another man's...nightmare?

Say the word, "piranha."

Now what images does that conjure up in your mind?

If you're like a lot of people, you're probably envisioning a swarming frenzy of blood-thirsty, flesh-eating fish that will strip you to the bone in a matter of minutes.

The fact is, not all piranha are like the ones you see chew up the bad guys when they fall into a pool of them during a James Bond movie.

While some species can indeed strip larger animals to the bone, they are not always in "attack" mode.

And sometimes you even get to eat them.

That's right - to quote Judges, "Out of the eater came something to eat." (Sorry, Samson).

I've had piranha. We caught them off the dock at La Selva Jungle Lodge in Ecuador, using a bit of bacon as a bait.

The house of Cuy.
The chef cooked them up for us. They didn't taste bad, although they were a bit bony. You'd have to catch quite a few to really have a feast.

Piranha is just one of the weird or unusual foods I've eaten during the course of my life and travels. (And you're right - there is another list coming up!)

Here is a list of some of the weird foods I've eaten (and some I still refuse to eat) around the world.

1. Piranha (see above.)

2. Cuy. Otherwise known as guinea pig. That's right - those furry little rodents sold in pet stores as pets are considered delicacies in places like Peru and Ecuador. I've had it deep-fried at a place called Mama Clorinda's (think, EFC - Ecuador Fried Cuy), and also served as a "con fit" in a higher-end restaurant in Cuzco, Peru. The former was a bit dry and greasy (the legs and head came to the table, deep-fried in batter; the latter, you couldn't tell what it was, it was so well prepared).

3. Alpaca. Again, this was in Peru (it does seem that Andean cuisine serves up more than its share of odd foods, doesn't it?) I had an alpaca steak at a little roadside cafe in a small town near the larger centre of Aguas Calientes, during a trip with Mountain Lodges of Peru. It was quite good, very rustic and simple, but very tasty, a bit like veal. Again, I tried it prepared slightly differently at a higher end eatery in Cuzco, and it was superb.

4. Ants. Back to Ecuador. Ate a bunch of small ants from the "lemon-ant tree" in the jungle during a five-day kayak trip. Just licked my finger, wiped it down the small tree trunk and popped them into my mouth. They really did taste lemony - but they were not very filling. You'd have eat a LOT to be even close to filled up.

5. Eland. Okay, taking a break from South America. Eland is a deer-like animal found on the plains of Africa. I had it in a restaurant in Zimbabwe called Ramambo's, which specializes in African game (NOT endangered species) that is farmed for the purpose of food. It tasted very much like venison.

6. Warthog. Also in Africa. Very strong flavour, like ham, but much gamier. not my favourite.

7/7a. Guinea fowl. African bird, very tasty, much like chicken. Not as tough as ostrich (which I also tried).

8. Crocodile. I ate this at a restaurant in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Deep-fried in batter, with a texture very much like fish - but it tasted more like chicken than fish.

9. Alligator. When people ask me what alligator tastes like, I say, "It tastes like ... (long pause)...crocodile." Of course, they're expecting me to say "chicken." I've had it in jerky form in Florida and cooked at Vancouver's Ouisi Bistro, a Cajun restaurant on Granville Street. I prefer the cooked version to the jerky.

The green stuff is mushy peas. "Brains" is Welsh beer.
10. Mushy peas. A traditional British side dish usually served alongside fish and chips in pubs around the UK. A friend of mine who had travelled in Wales suggested I try it when I went there, so, of course, I had to do so. The first time, it was awful. I don't know what they did to it, but an entire table of us could not eat more than one or two bites each. A few days later I had a chance to try it in another pub - much better, thank you!

11. Jellyfish. I ate this at a traditional Chinese restaurant in Richmond, B.C.'s Aberdeen Centre during a TMAC banquet. Never again. The taste and the texture were gross. Ugh!

12. Bear, grizzly and black.

13. Lynx/Cougar.

14. Beaver.

15. Deer/moose/elk.

I've lumped the last five together, sort of... Deer, moose and elk is not really odd or unusual if you have grown up or lived in rural areas for any length of time, particularly in the northern part of Canada. As for the bear, cat and beaver samplings: I ate them at the 1998 B.C. Wildlife Federation wild game banquet, held as part of their annual AGM in Fort St. John, B.C. It was actually the last event I covered for the Alaska Highway News before moving to Calgary.

Deer and elk, I like; moose, not so much (although my wife grew up eating it). Bear, wildcat and beaver - I can really live without.

16. Chicha - the good. It is supposed to be the equivalent of a traditional Peruvian beer, made from maize (corn). I had it in nice a restaurant in Quito, Ecuador, so it was not made traditionally (I hope). It was thick and sweet - more like a milk than a beer.


There is plenty of food I have not tried - and probably never will:

1. Balut. A Philippine delicacy, a cooked fertilized egg with a partially developed fetus inside.

2. Durian. A very popular fruit in southeast Asia, it reportedly "smells like hell, tastes like heaven." The first part of that description is why you see signs in hotel lobbies all over SE Asia: "No durian allowed in the room." Someone told me if you can get past by the smell, you'll love it. No thanks.

3. Bird's Nest Soup. The "nest" in real bird's nest soup is made from bird spit. No thanks.

Thai market offering: can't eat it.

4. Eel. Can't wrap my head around it. Sorry.

5. Kim chi. I guess it's supposed to be good...and maybe the stuff they sell in stores and Vancouver-area eateries is not made in the traditional way - but I don't even like sauerkraut, so forget this.

6. Most Mongolian dishes that involve brains, eyes, stuff rotting in the ground, etc. I would not do well at the Temple of Doom.

7. Bugs, slugs or anything else I've seen at traditional Thai markets. Especially if it's still alive.

8. Chicha - the bad. Had the chance to drink this traditionally-made brew in a Huaorani village in Ecuador. "Traditionally" made means the maize is chewed up in people's mouths then spit into a container, allowing the saliva to help it ferment. No, thank you!

So I guess one man's food is another man's reason for ... reaching for a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a packet of gravol.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Night the Fraser River Became Tropical...sort of

Rollin'...Rollin'...Rollin' down the river...

Like the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, that's what we were doing on a Saturday night in July, to celebrate the Divine Ms. K's birthday.

We'd boarded "The Native," a restored paddlewheeler operated by Paddlewheeler Riverboat Tours of Vancouver.

This trip - a dinner and a cruise, with a tropical theme - was actually our third with the company. In 2008, we did a trip up Pitt Lake, their "wilderness cruise" (which at the time, was sponsored by the Nature Trust of B.C.); and in 2009, we rolled down the Fraser River one cold Sunday morning and afternoon, to historic Fort Langley and back.

We enjoyed both our previous trips, and each one was a bit different.

This one - officially labelled the "Sunset Dinner Cruise" continued in that vein.

Standing on the gangplank at the New Westminster Quay, waiting for our tickets to be taken, I noticed three women with leis in front of us - and suitcases!

All aboard!
"Boy, they're really getting into this 'tropical cruise" theme,' I said to Ms. K. "They brought suitcases!"

Turns out, they were actually dancers, from a local Polynesian dance group, there to perform in various costumes, in keeping with the theme. The costumes were in their suitcases.

But first things first. Once we pulled out from the dock, we checked out our table and the menu. The drink menu, that is...we already knew what was on the food menu. The drink menu had some special tropical drinks made up specifically for the cruise. Of course, in the interests of this blog, I had to sample them all...

I started with Blue Hawaiian martini (vodka, curacao and juices); followed it up with a "Tropical" (rum, grenadine and other potables) and topped off the pre-dinner cocktail hour with a coconut-pineapple concoction whose most important ingredient was rum.

The appetizers were good, but some of them were almost gone by the time it was announced that they were ready over the P-A system (we were up top, they were serving on the lower deck). But they must have realized their faux-pas, and we had first crack at the main course.

The appies - while not exactly tropical - were good: shrimp, cold veggies and dip, cheese and crackers, candied salmon. Ditto, the main course: not tropical, but we did not go hungry, with choices ranging from roast beef, roast potatoes, roast veggies, veggie or non-veggie lasagna, and salads.

Dessert was two choices of cake: tiramisu and chocolate.

Before and after dinner, we spent time wandering the decks, spotting some seals on a log boom going upriver, then as we turned around to head back downriver, we were treated to a beautiful B.C. sunset.

Then came the post dinner entertainment: The three ladies from the Kalaya Dancers doing a variety of dances in various costumes.

Nothing says "tropical" like Polynesian dance.

This was actually the second time we'd seen them; we went to their annual show in Port Coquitlam the previous summer.

They did a marvellous job, performing without a real stage and just a boom box for music.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed that tour did not put a bit more thought and detail into the "tropical theme." The music they played was just a canned collection of hits from the 60s-70s-80s. Not exactly tropical. Easy to remedy, too - you can walk into any HMV or even London Drugs and pick up some Hawaiian or Polynesian music CD's.

I guess the food could have been more tropical, too. Not real luau type food, but some tweaks could have made it more "tropical." The drinks were a nice touch, mind you.

Aside from the drinks, the table decor and (maybe) a group of guys who were obviously a stag party for one of their group who was getting married, the most "tropical" part of the evening was the dancers. Now I don't expect the cruise to be so tropical that it would have parrots on board, but a few simple things could be done to make it much better.

Tough to beat a sunset like this.
The other part that was a bit disappointing: when I booked it, I told them it was my wife's birthday, and the girl said they would do something - but they never did. I thought it would be looked after, so I didn't mention it to any of the staff. Should have said something on the ship, but hindsight is 20/20.

Doesn't mean I wouldn't go to any more of their cruises ... just not this one. I'd still do the Pitt Lake cruise again, and some of their others that I have not yet done.

And then there is that wonderful sunset...

The theme idea is good, but the presentation/delivery needs a bit of work to really make this "tropical" cruise more, well, "tropical."

I wonder if they're taking volunteers...?

(Want to see more photos from this event? Visit my Facebook page, Sunset Dinner Cruise.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Niagara Falls: slowly I turned ... and other great waterfall memories

John Muir wrote, "As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing."

There is definitely something magic about waterfalls - although usually if you're close to one, you'll be hard-pressed to hear birds or wind sing over the roar of the falls.

I've been extremely blessed in having seen waterfalls all over the world, some great gigantic falls of world renown, others very small but equally special natural places.

Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 favourite waterfalls, along with the memories and moments associated with each one.

Almost anyone who grew up watching the Three Stooges will remember the lines: "Niagara Falls - slowly I turned...step by step, inch by inch..." (If you don't, just search for it on YouTube).

I've been to Niagara Falls four times, three of those when I was 14 or younger. My first and last trips were the most memorable and meaningful to me, although all four had good memories.

The first one involved my very first road trip; I was seven, and my dad took a week off work so we could go to the falls, then spend a few days across the river in New York state. I still cherish that trip, I can still remember many details about it.

The last trip there I took in 2002, and during the trip, I visited the Niagara Falls Aviary. The falls were there, but they were secondary to my day spent with the free-flying birds.

Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe size.

2. Victoria Falls (Africa)

In visiting these spectacular falls, like Niagara Falls, I saw them from two different countries, as well: Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are spectacular; but what I most remember was the adventure I enjoyed below the falls, whitewater rafting through 20+ rapids on the Zambezi River. Just about drowned in a class 5 whirlpool, but I lived to tell the tale - and a great tale it is, especially when someone captures it on video!

I spent my first summer vacation as an Alberta resident exploring the central Rockies near Rocky Mountain House on horseback, in 1985. These falls presented one of the many scenic vistas during the three-day trip. We did not get really close to them; but watching them from horseback was pretty cool.

4. Cariboo Falls (B.C.)

These falls can only be accessed on foot, and only as a short hike from one of the lakes on the Bowron Lake canoe circuit. This was memorable, as it was the first canoe trip I ever took with Ann Kidston, the first summer we dated, in 1989. We survived and still paddle together today.

5. Grand Falls (New Brunswick).
The largest falls east of Niagara. That pretty much sums it up. If you follow the trail along the one side of the river below the falls, you will see some incredible vistas along the gorge.
Grand Falls, New Brunswick

6. Ragged Falls (Ontario)
Lots of memories associated with these falls, which are right outside Algonquin Park, just a short drive from the west entrance. Years ago on my very first canoe trip that did not involve an older adult supervising, me and a buddy decided to sleep up on top of the falls, under the stars. You are not really supposed to do that, but it was late when we got there, we decided it would be just as easy to sleep there, rather than getting back in the car, driving into the park and trying to find a campsite (that we were only going to use for sleep) in the dark. It was incredible, hearing the falls on either side of the rock we slept on, watching all the stars above. Very special.

7/8. Two different sets of falls in Belize.

Neither of these falls had names - but they are memorable for a couple of reasons. The first one was in the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary. It was our first jungle waterfall. And while we did not see any jaguars, we could hear parrots and other birds squawking while we slogged down the jungle trail to a small waterfall and pool which we all eagerly dove into, to help cool us down.

The second one was bigger, and was in the pine savanna forest of Belize; we had to ride horses to get there. It was also cool and refreshing, after our ride. We also had lunch there, prepared by our Mayan guides.
Plenty of gorgeous waterfalls - like Akaka - in Hawaii.

9. Akaka Falls (Hawaii).
It is in Hawaii. It is gorgeous, the first (of many, I hope) waterfalls I will see there. What more needs to be said?

10. Widgeon Falls (B.C.)
This also involved paddling: we canoed through Widgeon Slough from Grant Narrows on the Pitt River, an hour east of Vancouver. 

We camped overnight at the recreation area campsite, then hiked up to the falls the next morning, then returned home that day. Great trip!

Other honourable mentions: Athabasca Falls (Jasper), an unnamed waterfall in Ecuador, Sheep River Falls in Alberta, Elk Falls near Campbell River, B.C. Alexander Falls, south of Whistler, B.C. and Bijoux Falls along Highway 97 in B.C.