Where to go? That is the ultimate travel question, and the first answer you need to start planning your next vacation. After quitting my day job at 35 and spending the last decade visiting all 7 continents and 66 different countries, it turns out I developed some strong travel opinions along the way. Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth provides detailed recommendations, amusing stories and logistical suggestions for the best destinations and adventures our huge, chaotic world has to offer, all of which can be done in two weeks or less. The perfect guide for those looking to hit the most impressive highlights on the planet, or simply an entertaining read for armchair travellers who enjoy jokes about hygiene, beer and uppity camels.
In Praise of “Roam”
“I wholeheartedly disagree with this list. But the font is nice.”
– Leo Tolstoy’s former gardener
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You are staring at your computer, lips pursed in a grim frown, increasingly overwhelmed by the task in front of you. Two weeks of vacation time coming, and no idea where to spend it. You thought the internet, in all its chaotic wisdom, would end this mental struggle with a simple Google search and a few casual mouse-clicks. It turns out, however, that at some point along the way the greatest information resource of all-time actually became a little bit cluttered and confusing. Dozens of point form lists, sure. Hundreds of photo galleries surrounded by ads for travel agencies and wildly discounted hotel rooms, of course. But an in-depth description of the best travel destinations around the world, including trip ideas, detailed information and real anecdotes? Not so easy to find. Which is what inspired me to write this book – a compilation of favourite places and most memorable adventures, clarified into a shortlist for those looking to expand their travel horizons. You have two weeks – where should you go?
Travel is a constant evolution. On March 1st, 2008 we said sayonara to our day jobs (not that we had any gainful night jobs requiring the qualification, but still) and now I find myself reflecting on nearly a decade of travel and transition, of new experiences and old pleasures, and it is fascinating to see how dramatically my travel perspectives and ambitions have changed over that relatively short period of time. Some of the activities that I initially felt could keep me happy for the rest of my days (i.e. leisurely wandering around any of the world’s most incredible historical attractions, or vomiting in the shared bathroom of a cheap guesthouse) now barely elicit the slightest twinge of excitement, and sometimes even cause an involuntary groan or polite little belch, having spent so much time and effort at very similar endeavours for so long. There was a time when the idea of spending several months idly loitering in close proximity to a beautiful, sunny tropical beach sounded like heaven incarnate. Now the very idea of committing any more than a week to that type of oppressive heat, humidity and invasively unavoidable particles of sand fills me with a dread surely more appropriate to heading off to war or checking out the latest big thing in House Techno DJs. Obviously, coming from a place that endures between five and nine months of frigid winter each year, depending on your definition of winter, and is located 1,500 kilometres from the nearest ocean, most of my life I had assumed that hot weather and endless beaches were the ultimate goals of any sane Saskatchewanian. It took a while, but eventually I realized that the beach wasn’t really my thing (he said to a chorus of gasps and mutters of “blasphemy”). That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of a long, curving stretch of white sand or boundless blue waves, it just turns out there are other places I prefer to spend my time. A little bit of altitude, for starters, to knock down those mid-day temperatures and make sleeping with a blanket a viable option. More often than not, it is also easy enough to combine that with some compelling mountain views, then maybe throw in a few nearby hiking trails, and a picturesque lake if we’re lucky, and suddenly we’re getting pretty close to my true ideal.
Of course, I try only to be that picky when I’m making plans for multiple months at a time. When it comes to “mere” travelling, usually the best places only require a week or two of intense exploration. And during those brief intervals it is more about the experience than the details of the surroundings. Because if there is one thing we have learned while spending seven to eight months on the road each year, besides how to find at least a dozen uses for a single safety pin, it is that the more you travel the harder it is to find a place, a culture or an activity that still provides the “shock and awe” factor. The first time we visited a Buddhist temple, for example, with all its contradictory religious solemnity and garish decor, we were completely blown away. The beauty, the intricacy and, oh, so much gold! And that giant Buddha, with his feminine lips and sly smile, well, I couldn’t get those photos taken fast enough. But fast forward fifteen years or so, and somewhere in the range of three to four thousand Buddhist temples later, and so many delightful replicas of saintly old Buddha that I couldn’t begin to count them all, and I think it may be somewhat of an understatement to suggest that the novelty has started to wear off. The same goes for many of the other iconic, unquestionably worthy but fairly common, tourist attractions around the world such as giant Catholic churches, quaint Spanish colonial cities, tiny palm-fringed islands, or quiet mountain hiking trails, just to name a few. While all of these can be captivating and a fully enjoyable way to spend some vacation time, at a certain point you start to crave something truly unique, or utterly bizarre, or incomprehensibly foreign, or maybe just impossibly spectacular, in a way that at least momentarily eliminates that awful inclination common to every prolific traveller – comparing the current experience to something you’ve done, seen or experienced previously. There are a number of things I hate hearing myself say, such as “no, Arsenal couldn’t manage to score a single goal against Hull City” or “it was only a matter of time before that toenail fell off”, but I think the worst has to be “it’s pretty nice, but not as impressive as <insert alternate attraction here>”. I would much prefer to “live in the moment”, appreciate everything for itself, not compare everything to every other similar attraction and, most of all, not to come across as some smug douchebag to the people currently having their mind blown by their very first Hindu cremation ceremony or alarming scorpion attack. Alas, you can tell yourself these things all you want, and by keeping the proper frame of mind you might be able to remain only “mildly complacent” as opposed to “fully jaded”. In either case, however, once you’ve reached this point you are really left with two choices. One – you can take a break from travelling. But since that almost by definition leads to the fact that you are now no longer travelling, and probably just sitting around at home doing nothing, well, don’t you suppose you should get a real job? And that is still not a question I care to answer, at least not with any level of honesty. Which leaves choice number two – adjust your travel methods to avoid this weariness, or “travel fatigue”, that can lay low even those of us with the very shortest of attention spans.
Now, once again, I cannot claim that what works for us is the answer for all other travellers. As is so often the case when it comes to the wandering types, there are as many plausible ideas and approaches as there are slick dolphin-watching boat trips or awesome Thai noodle stands. For us, however, the current solution involves combining two very different techniques. The first is “slow travel”, which means choosing a single city, region or Guatemalan lake (for example) and putting down roots for a few months. There are multiple benefits to this, starting with the highly underrated value of having a kitchen to make your own meals and avoid thrice-daily journeys to seek nourishment, as well as giving you the chance to properly get to know a place, meet people, and more fully immerse yourself in the destination. And if you also happen to have a dazzling view of multiple volcanoes and a beautiful lake from everywhere in your apartment, or share property with one of the nicest sunset bars on the Indian Ocean, or find a girl who will wash your entire wardrobe for less than $3, well, these are just added perks. The main thing, however, is to take a break from the repetition of moving on every few days, packing up, spending most of the day on a bus, boat, plane or train, tracking down a new room in a new place, then feeling the need to maximize your small amount of time there by filling it with sights and activities before it is time to move on again.
The second method we use to combat unproductive boredom is by limiting ourselves as much as possible to just those locations or sights that are, at least in our minds, truly world-class. The kinds of places that you routinely find on Bucket, Best of, and Top 10 lists. Those incredible spots that other travellers can’t stop raving over, about which at one time or another you’ve uttered the words “Someday I absolutely have to see _____________”. Then we make that particular attraction or location the priority and build a trip around it, choosing the ideal season, the perfect amount of time, and our preferred style of visit (i.e. independent or tour, fully planned or utterly spontaneous/clueless). Then, based on the overall length of time we plan to be away, we work in another one, two or, in the case of a recent hectic journey through East Asia, possibly even three or four of these premium attractions. Inevitably this will still end up leading to at least some of that aimless meandering we are generally trying to avoid in order to connect the different highlights and time frames, but the key is that there is always “something big” lurking just around the corner to keep us focused and enthused.
Now, as for where to find these big somethings, people are constantly asking us what our favourite place is. To which I generally respond with several awkward seconds of hmmming and haaaing, as though the question didn’t simply represent harmless small talk but was rather part of a delicate, pivotal and highly nuanced interrogation that, if answered incorrectly, could result in a unimaginable physical torture, or possibly a lengthy discussion regarding the pros and cons of different all-inclusive beach resorts, both of which amount to the same thing in the end. Therefore, after one of the many times I had cautiously offered multiple disclaimers regarding particular interests and timing and physical abilities and love of all things handcrafted before finally murmuring “I’d probably have to say Nepal”, it occurred to me that planning your travel to enjoy the truly best the planet has to offer need not be limited to those with several years to experiment and a highly unproductive opinion regarding gainful employment. In fact, while many of the more universally epic journeys – South America from tip to toe, the Middle East one falafel at a time, Dave’s intensely hallucinogenic tour of Southeast Asia – are only possible for those with large quantities of free time, most of the planet’s true highlights really only require a week or two. And with air travel becoming ever simpler and more affordable (if not necessarily any more eco-friendly), that is the type of time commitment almost anyone can manage should they choose to make it a priority. Whether you are an industrious office manager, a tireless entrepreneur, or even a bored government official, chances are you can find a way to set aside two weeks to treat yourself to one of the very best experiences to be found anywhere on the globe.
Which brings me to why you’re reading this. Either you are a member of my immediate family or it is because you are hoping I will set aside my naturally self-deprecating nature (which is really just a poor attempt to hide deep-seated egomaniacal tendencies, as anyone who has ever read my blog will tell you), and answer that ultimate travel question – “where to go?” Having visited all seven continents and sixty-six different countries, many of them multiple times, I am going to presume for this exercise that I know not only what the best travel experiences are, but also where they can be found, how to best accomplish them, the best time to try, and how many t-shirts with local beer logos you will need to carry. There is no question that I have spent an excessively large chunk of my life waiting in something like a hundred different immigration queues, and all those interminable hours spent shifting from leg to leg, sighing regularly, and morosely watching every other line move faster than the one we chose, feel like they would have been for nothing if I couldn’t at least answer this one simple question. So, to that end, I have attempted to narrow down the vast array of amazing destinations, thrilling adventures and unforgettable tribulations we’ve experienced down to a single, workable bucket list, in no particular order, except that I may have saved the very best for last. With maybe just a little unsolicited “humour” and some relatively random lists thrown in as my little gifts to you. Enjoy, and happy travels!