Thursday, May 28, 2015

When death becomes part of a travel tradition

Dad fixes the tent, our first ever camping trip in Ontario.
He passed away while we were both on camping weekends.
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about odd travel traditions. Many of us have them, and we look foward to practising them every time we leave for a trip.

However, there is one rather odd and somewhat sobering travel tradition that seems to pop up in my life with some disturbing frequency.

It seems people in my immediate family often choose to die when I am away on a trip of some kind.

That's not to say every time I travel, somebody close to me passes away. If that really was the case, I might stop travelling. Or at least give it some strong consideration.

I guess it could be seen as just one of those weird quirks that happens because I'm a travel writer, and I'm probably away travelling more than the average person.

However, this disturbing trend developed before I started travel writing seriously.

In 1992, my father passed away while I was on a weekend camping trip, at Bear Mountain, near Dawson Creek, B.C (yes, there is a real place by that name - not "Dawson's Creek' - and it's been around for a long time). It happened on a Saturday night, the night before Father's Day. We didn't have cellphones then, so no one could get in touch with me until I returned home Sunday afternoon.

Close to 10 years later, my father-in-law passed away just as we were heading out to enter Lakeland Provincial Park, Alberta, for a four-day canoe trip. If we had been a few hours earlier heading out, we might not have known for four days.

Then, in 2007, while on a four-day kayak trip in the 10,000 Islands region of Everglades National Park, my mother passed away. Again, no one could reach me until I returned from that trip.

That one was particularly tough. Mom had been ill for quite a while with Myelodysplastic syndrome and had gone into the hospital in Toronto a few weeks before. She never got out.

It was tough for many reasons. An only child, it meant I had no immediate family left - no parents, no siblings - in some ways, I'd never felt more alone, even though I had other family members to help me get through my grief period.

An egret wading in the 10,000 Islands.
I shot this image the morning my mother passed away.
What made it more difficult was the fact I was so far away - and I was only halfway through the trip, as I'd made plans to spend a week in the Florida Keys following the paddling trip with Crystal Seas Kayaking. I had interviews lined up with some parrot sanctuaries and tourist facilities, lodging arranged for, and flights booked. And I had to complete the second half of my journey with a heavy heart.

I know many people would have returned home as soon as they found out. However, the life of a freelance travel writer sometimes demands that you make sacrifices, make choices, that people who are just vacationing, do not have to make.

That's one of the things the average person probably does not consider when they imagine what a travel writer does for a living. Once a schedule of accomodations, meals, and other elements of a trip have been set up with tourism boards, a travel writer has an obligation to fulfill those, particularly when the rooms have been set aside, and usually paid for by the boards - and they won't be getting a refund for them.

Also, if a story has been already promised to a publication, the writer needs to try to meet that committment. Leaving a destination, then trying to return later, rarely works out. While most editors and most tourism boards will understand in the event of a death in the family, they may still hesitate to work with you going forward.

I certainly would never judge or criticize anyone in a situation like this, no matter what their choice. It is their life, their decision.

However, that kind of decision is never easy to make. I struggled, and in the end I chose to stay and try to meet my commitments. I know that's what my mother would have wanted me to do, had she been given the choice, and knowing that, the choice was wee bit easier than it might have been.

It certainly does bring a different feel, a different perspective to a trip, though.

This odd trend happened again, just recently.

Margaret and David, on their wedding day.
On the second day of my recent trip to Mexico the first week of May, I received a text message from an aunt in New Westminster, B.C. My uncle had passed away in a hospice, the victim of colon cancer. I hadn't actually had any contact with him much since 1971. My dad's younger brother, he moved out west suddenly back then, and shunned contact from the family.

When I moved to Vancouver in 2003, I did try to connect with him, actually spoke on the phone once, but he made it clear he really didn't want any contact. I repeatedly sent him Christmas cards with notes about meeting for coffee, but never got a response.

Then just after Easter, I got a call from his wife, Margaret, telling me he'd been hospitalized. I had a chance to finally visit with him then, for an hour or so, and I was grateful for it. A few days later, he was placed in a hospice.

Three days before I left for Mexico, a phone call came, telling me he would do well if he made it to his birthday, May 8.

Off I went to Mexico, and then came the news he had passed away two days before his birthday.

Again, that odd travel tradition had reared its head.

As it turns out, the memorial service is scheduled for the day I leave for Ontario for three weeks, so it's like a double whammy. I won't be able to attend that service.

My memories of David go back to when I was a four-year-old spending most of my days at my Grandmother Geary's house, as both my parents worked. Three memories stand out specifically.

David (who was still living at home then) had a pet bird named Joey, a budgie. So I guess my fascination with birds (like parrots) began at a very early age. That was the first pet of any kind I ever encountered. I used to sit there talking to Joey every day.

Not me - but it could easily be. But I'd be marching.
(Photo via
The second memory that springs to mind involves music.

When I was four, I always used to watch the old black-and-white Popeye cartoons; he was the first "super-hero" I cheered on. In many of the old 'toons, whenever Popeye would eat his spinach and get ready to beat the crap out of Bluto or some other deserving bad guy, the John Philip Sousa march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," would start to play. So I just loved that song.

Turns out David had a copy of it in his collection of marching music. He would play it for me often, and I would march around the room in time to the music, later on adding a toy trumpet to my performance, which became a regular occurrence, at least once or twice a week.

Robin Hood blows his horn.
 (Image from
The third memory includes some physical mementoes.

When David married Margaret (at the age of eight, the first wedding I ever went to, and I remember stuffing myself with sausage rolls at the reception!) and they went on their honeymoon, they brought me back several pennants from their travels in the Williamsburg, Va. area.

They also brought back a cow horn, hollowed out and complete with a mouthpiece to blow on.

It became a go-to prop for when I played Robin Hood, and later a "powder horn" for playing Daniel Boone/Davey Crockett/Hawkeye.

I still have it, and I still have the pennants.

I'll never forget any of those memories. Just like I'll never forget David.

So, what's the point of all this, in a blog that is supposed to be about travel?

It's this: Make sure the people in your life that you care about - family, friends, partners - KNOW that you care about them. Especially, try not to leave to go on any trip on bad terms with the important people in your life. God forbid, but they may not be there when you get back.

Life is a journey, but it's the people we meet along our path during that journey that help to make it so rich and rewarding. When one of them leaves, that journey seems a bit less rich.

While you're pondering that, remember this: You never know when someone you care about will be taken from you.

Playing this one for you, David.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mexican food: much more than just beans & tortillas

Anyone want to share my molcajente?
I love Mexican food.

I think I have always loved Mexican food, ever since I ate a bowl of chilli while watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The first dish I ever learned to cook from scratch - chilli con carne - was one that at least has its roots in Mexico.

(And it's still one of my go-to dishes after 40 years; a favourite to cook, to share - and to eat.)

It does seem at times, that at least part of my life is a constant quest to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant in my home city (currently Vancouver). Not easy in a city that is dominated by Asian cuisine.

I have managed to find a few pretty good ones, and some not so great.

And when I say "Mexican restaurants," I'm NOT talking about Taco Time or Taco Bell - despite claims, fast food places like that do NOT take you "south of the border" or anyone near it, for that matter.

However, after a recent trip to Mexico - my first to that country - I may have to re-think how I define "Mexican cuisine."

Yes, I did enjoy some traditional hearty fare associated with Mexico: fajitas, refried beans, taquitos, that sort of thing.

But even within that class of food, I discovered something new, a breakfast staple served in most Mexican restaurants: chilaquiles.

This dish mainly consists of corn tortillas cut in triangles or totopos, lightly fried and covered with green or red salsa, then simmered until the totopos are soft. It's usually garnished with a form of sour cream, and may or may not include onion rings, avocado slices, and pulled chicken. They're often served with refried beans, eggs, and guacamole. You'll find them in almost any Mexican breakfast buffet.

That aside, for the most part, I enjoyed a very different, in some ways, entirely new level and style of exquisite dishes prepared by Mexican chefs, cuisine you would not normally associate with Mexico.

Part of the reason for that was because of where we were on the Pacific coast - in Puerto Vallarta; that location influences local chefs, who have easy access to a huge variety of fresh seafood available regularly.

It all began the first night at a special opening gala for the event I was attending, the North American Travel Journalists 2015 conference. We dined alfresco, feasting on escargots, lamb shanks, lobster ravioli, Chilean sea bass, and cheese empanadas.

Some fun with food, at the River Cafe.

The trend continued the next night, during a dine-around event. I ended up at an eatery called the River Cafe, where we enjoyed live music and a tasting menu that included smoked salmon crostini, Pacific jumbo shrimp, and Sonora beef tenderloin.

It just kept getting better. The next night, we were wined and dined at La Leche, a very uniquely decorated eatery which consisted of high ceilings, and shelves along all the walls that went up to the ceilings. The shelves contained tins and canisters, all done in white with the restaurant's logo/name emblazoned on them. There, I had the opportunity to try a variety of different dishes in their seven-course line-up. The menu changes nightly, and it's written on a chalkboard.

You really have to be inside La Leche to appreciate it.

About an hour's drive out of Puerto Vallarta lies Canopy River Adventures. We enjoyed our final meal of the conference there, on a covered patio. It was a bit more traditional, with an option for beef, chicken or fish entrees, accompanied by tortillas, guacamole, and roasted peppers.

As you can see by reading the above, the cuisine in this country is incredibly varied.

But wait, there's more...

As part of my stay in Mexico, I spent two days in Riviera Nayarit. Our first day's lunch was in El Brujo (obviously a very popular name for a restaurant in the village of Bucerias, as there were three different eateries going by that name). This one fronted on the beach.

That was quite a unique experience, in many ways.

Never expected to be eating "Asian" while in Mexico.
For one thing, there was a steady stream of peddlers trying to sell us their wares, everything from necklaces to hats, massages to music (we were serenaded by a pair of Mexican troubadours who wouldn't stop until we paid them!), cigars to postcards.

Then there was the Tim Horton's sign on the beach, offering fresh coffee, smoothies, beer and Caesars on the beach, each day. Hmmm....

The food provided me with something different, too. I opted for the "Mixed Molcajete" - a mixture of grilled chicken, shrimp, beef, guacamole, cheese and peppers served in a broth contained in a heated stone dish called a molcajete (as pictured at the top).

That night, it was back to fine dining at the Marival. Again, the food was matched only by the view from the balcony dining room. We were served a variety of dishes in "threes," including a dish of Asian delicacies that included spring rolls, a Mediterranean trio that included a lamb shank, and one with three different types of seafood.

La Palomas sent us home in style. Not only was the ambiance and decor distinctly Mexican, the food was all based on Mexican-derived dishes.

Not sure I'll be able to conquer this dish like Huitzilopochtli.
I enjoyed Aztec tortilla soup (chicken broth, corn chips, cheese, avocado and sour cream), Aztec salad (mushrooms in sage oil and honey with arugula and cottage cheese), and Huitzilopochtli's Conquest (essentially ground tenderloin beef, some fruits and vegetables and a creamy sauce served up in a roasted bell pepper).

All this incredible food made it really hard to go back to Vancouver and the standard Mexican fare prepared by even the best restaurants (or even my own Mexican menus!).

Yep...I've been kicked up to a "new bracket" of Mexican food. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

So now I'm not really sure if I should be thankful for this - or maybe just a little bit ticked off at Puerto Vallarta...

A pair of Mexican troubadours on the beach at Bucerias,
to send you on your way.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Feeling travel bored? Start your own weird travel tradition

"It's become sort of a McCallister family travel tradition ... funnily enough, we never lose our luggage!"
- from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

A whopper and a coke for the road, in Bangkok.
Many families - and for that matter, many individuals - have created and practised their own unique travel traditions over the years.

I'm no different.
Except my personal tradition might be considered a bit weirder than most.

I didn't plan it - it just sort of evolved as a result of being hungry and bored, with time to spare in an airport.

It all began several years ago, at the end of a long press trip to Malaysia.

A group of Canadian travel writers, including Yours Truly, were wrapping a two-week long tour through the country, guests of Tourism Malaysia. We'd spent most of our time on the island of Borneo,  but a few days at the beginning and end of the trip took place in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, which is located on the mainland.

We got to the airport in plenty of time. We were looking at a long flight back to Vancouver via Taipei, Taiwan, flying on Eva Air.

I spent a bit of time wandering around, thinking back over the past fortnight's adventures and looking forward to getting back home to hang out with my parrots - Nikki, Coco, and Einstein - and do a bit of paddling - which I'd not had the chance to do while in Malaysia (although we did make use of motorized canoes to visit an Iban village in the Sarawak area, visiting and enjoying a meal with the former headhunters.)

Before I go any further, I should tell you one thing you may not realize about modern-day airports, is the fact that North American culture has pretty much taken over them, no matter where in the world you go. Want a Starbucks' latte in Lima, Peru? No problem. Craving something from the Colonel in Changi (Singapore)? You got it.

Anyway, we got through security and I had already done more shopping than I wanted to do on this trip, so I was bored. And a bit hungry. And although I love Asian food - especially some of the Malaysian dishes - after two weeks of nothing but that type of food, I was ready for something else.

And there, like an oasis on the desert, rising out of the horizon, appeared a Burger King.

Now, I'm not a huge BK fan; I really don't like the fact they bought Tim Horton's recently. But, it is what it is, and life goes on. Besides, this goes back a few years.

I thought to myself, "It would be kind of cool and bizarre to say I ate at a Burger King in Malaysia. And at least it's not McDonald's..."

So I went in, placed an order, sat down and ate.

It tasted pretty much like the BK food you'd get in Canada. I enjoyed it and didn't give it much thought afterward.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm wandering around the airport in Bangkok, waiting to catch a Cathay Pacific flight back home. And when what to my wandering eyes did appear - but a BK outlet, to my gate, very near.

Of course, I had to go in and have a burger. This time I even snapped a pic and posted it on my Facebook page.

And at that point, it officially became my very own eclectic travel tradition. Forthwith, from hereon in, whenever I exit a foreign land, I vow to eat a meal at a BK outlet before boarding the plane.

I had a chance to add to it recently - but I had to make an adjustment.

When you can't find BK, go for a JR.
If you're a Facebook friend, you may have seen it: I posted a photo of my burger-rings-milkshake lunch at the Puerto Vallarta airport en route from Mexico back to Canada earlier this week.

However, there was no BK there. So I had to make do with a Johnny Rocket's. That's okay - it was still good. Maybe even better than BK (which wouldn't really be that hard). But - the tradition continued.


Do you have an odd travel tradition you follow regularly? I'd love to hear it in the comments below.

It doesn't have to involve food, or be weird (but if it is, GREAT!) or even be very elaborate. Just something you do every time you travel.

If you do NOT have one, why not think one up? It will at least give you something to do or think about it next time you're waiting for a flight home.

I didn't see any ninjas at the KL Airport BK - but then I didn't look very hard. 
And they're tough to spot (that's why they're ninjas.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Put that fear down and enjoy life's ride

You have to be wary of peacocks lurking around the pool...
PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico - I'd like to report that all is well and I've felt no threat to my safety in the four days I've been in Mexico. The only real danger threatening me was a wicked hangover from too much beer, wine and rum punch my first full day here. Oh, and maybe those pesky peacocks that hang around the resort pool, shaking their tails.

It was very interesting the various reactions prompted by the news of gang-related issues the night before I left Vancouver to fly to Mexico for the 2015 North American Travel Journalists Association conference.

A friend of mine posted a CBC link detailing the news about violence on his Facebook feed. Another friend later posted the same link as a comment in one of my posts about heading to Mexico.

All I can say is, "Now hold on there, Baba Louie..."

Let's not get carried away here.

Before getting all worked up and cancelling plans for any trip, you have to stop and assess the situation logically and with a bit of perspective.

The following headlines might certainly make you want to cancel plans to go somewhere:
  • "Children kept indoors after outbreak of drug-linked shootings"
  • "Mounties investigate drive-by shootings"
Pretty scary stuff, eh?

Except those headlines are from recent news stories in Surrey, B.C. CANADA.

No tourists were harmed in the making of this video.

I'm not making those up; they're real headlines. I'm not going to bother posting those links here - but go Google them if you don't believe me.

Does that mean you'll never go to Surrey? Or Vancouver for that matter? What if you live there?

A peck on the cheek is quite continental,
a parrot is this guy's new friend...
As one friend put it, regarding danger in Mexico, "You're more likely to be shot in Surrey these days than in Mexico!"

Granted, we travel writers do live in a bit of a bubble at these kinds of events. But then so do most tourists on vacation.

I've been too busy enjoying myself, eating great food, meeting wonderful people (and even a few new parrot pals!), enjoying sunset cruises and marvelling at swimming with horses on horseback riding trips to worry much. Friday, I'll be sailing off on a pirate ship and (hopeully) doing some kayaking and/or snorkeling.

Now I'm not saying there is no danger in travelling. Common sense has to play a role in any decision. But here's the thing:

LIFE involves danger. Just going to the corner store involves an element of risk.

To dance the dance of life, you have to overcome fear.
So you can sit at home, lock your doors, and "live" a safe life, and someday you'll still die. Maybe a little more comfortably, maybe not.

But you'll die not having really lived.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt stated eloquently, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." So put down your fears, go out and live life.

You're welcome.